Desi Roots, Global Wings – a monthly column focused on the Indian immigrant experience.
In December of each year, my family sits around a glass jar for our annual appraisal ritual. The ordinary jar purchased from Ikea and previously used for storing mango pickle, contains notes and index cards, quickly scribbled and dropped in by each member of the family at various times during the year. It holds the trivial details of our individual lives and serves as a short term repository of our collective memory, before they are transformed into our annual family newsletter.
The four of us sit cross-legged on the carpet and take turns to pick out one short hand-written message each. We read it aloud and hand it to the person who has written it. Every message captures an event, accomplishment or significant moment, typically documented soon after it happens, and narrated in a format that represents the different personalities of each family member.
Messages come in various formats and lengths. From a cryptic “No more Hindi exams” (younger daughter) to tweet-sized “Yayy, landed my first paying internship, can’t wait to spend it” (elder daughter) to longer ruminations – “went on weekly treks, played squash twice a week, and swam everyday for 16 weeks”(husband). Mine read like tiny letters to myself, annotated with a date, sometimes a listicle, and always a signature.
It’s a fun way to close the year, reminiscing about small things we had forgotten about because memory suffers from the recency effect and life has a way of expanding the once-in-a-lifetime kind of moments while obliterating ordinary ones.
In years past, our newsletters have captured memorable moments like skydiving in New Zealand, watching an unforgettable sunset from a beautiful hotel in Santorini and spending a night in a tent in the Serengeti. Individually and collectively, we have challenged ourselves with yoga teacher training at an ashram (elder daughter), climbing Mount Kilimanjaro (husband), launching a book (me) and obtaining scuba-diving certification (everyone but me).
The husband glues together these disparate, often sparse notes with his wacky sense of humor, adds a few choice photographs and sends it to our large group of extended family and relatives. We receive heart-warming feedback from our readers, usually mentioning our fabulous travels and overachieving tendencies. The exact reason why we dreaded gathering this year for an annual ritual that we all used to look forward to.
How could we put together an interesting writeup for a year that has ‘pandemic’ as the word of the year?
Our jar, not surprisingly, was almost empty. A few notes from the first two months reminded me of the successful launch of my book in Hyderabad back in January. And the pleasure of watching ‘Little Women’ in the movie theatre with my daughters. There hadn’t been much to report for the rest of the year. Travels to Bhutan and Europe had been cancelled. Plans for a party to mark the elder daughter’s college graduation had been put on indefinite hold. Diwali gatherings had not materialized. We hadn’t seen family members for months. In fact, even familiar faces had become hard to recognize while hidden behind masks.
We had not only missed splashy outings but also the simple joy of sitting across with a group of friends. We had witnessed job loss, deferred dreams and positive Covid cases within our inner family circle. We had conveyed condolences to friends whose loss had been compounded by their inability to say goodbye in person. Thanks to unsatisfactory work-life balance I missed a highly anticipated live-streamed wedding that I had hoped to attend in person.
The list of all the things wrong with the year was long. Finding something to celebrate was going to be tough. But treasure lies exactly where you least expect to find it.
At the bottom of the jar, we found four little gems that we had forgotten about. In response to an NPR post back in May, I had convinced my family to participate in a group project – to create a “quaranzine” – a record of pandemic life. It was suggested as an activity to engage little kids by asking them to respond to certain prompts with words and pictures.
My teenage daughter and her older sister rolled their eyes but good naturedly brought paper, pens and color pencils. Each of us created a mini-diary capturing our version of the life we were living. We didn’t share our creations with each other then, so when we pulled the booklets out months later, they looked like little time capsules.
Our responses to the prompts like “what was the hardest thing about pandemic life”, “what had changed the most”, “what was most surprisingly delightful” were unique to our stage in life. I tried using fewer words but failed in comparison to my younger daughter whose one-word responses accompanied by cute cartoons spoke volumes.
Despite our best hopes, the end of 2020, had not brought an end to the Covid-19 ordeal. Our lives are still curtailed. Although we had no great outer achievement to share, we had all grown. By adopting new exercise routines, demonstrating interest in new hobbies and even embracing existing technologies such as audiobooks, each of us had progressed. We couldn’t host large parties, but we had made small contributions to our neighborhood. Like in previous years, we found that we were not the same people we were at the beginning of 2020.
Our newsletter project taught me the true value of tradition. The simple act of gathering for a common purpose gave us exactly what we needed during these trying times, faith that even though we may not know what the year ahead will bring, we will grow, individually and together, as a family, and as a community.
Ranjani Rao is a scientist by training, writer by avocation, originally from Mumbai, a former resident of USA, and now lives in Singapore with her family. She is presently working on a memoir. She is co-founder of Story Artisan Press and her books are available on Amazon. She loves connecting with readers at her website and at Medium | Twitter | Facebook | Instagram