SARITA SARVATE, Jun 10, 2008
Amy Tan once said that the moment her feet touch China, she becomes Chinese.
When I go to India, I become Indian.
On my first morning back, I walk out of my childhood home to encounter familiar landmarks. Here is the high school courtyard under the eves of which I once hid from a monsoon storm, only to realize that I would soon drown. Here is the Gajanan General Store where I bought my first sanitary pad, its owner eerily seeming a time-traveler who has returned a la Einstein, looking exactly the same, until I realize that he is perhaps the son of the owner I knew back then.
Here is the drycleaner I fought with after he faded my favorite silk sari.
Here is the large house on Cement Road, where a young man with a tall, muscular body once lived. I never knew his ethnicity, but walking past this house in summer twilight, I would ogle at the front yard set up with rows of beds covered in sparkling white sheets and crisp mosquito nets—we all used to sleep outdoors in the summertime then; air-conditioning did not exist. Inhaling the fragrance of jasmine arching over his gate, I would indulge in erotic fantasies in which I lay beside him under his mosquito net, gazing at the stars.
Here is the house where I had gone selling tickets for a school benefit, only to be attacked by a dog. I cannot help bursting out laughing at the sign on the gate declaring, “Beware of Dog!”
I peer down a gully to locate my friend Shama’s house, at the gate of which I once spent hours saying goodbye. The spot is now occupied by a multi story commercial complex, and I am suddenly disoriented; is it this lane or the next?
I turn toward the market where I once bought pomegranates for my ailing father, and later watched him eat them even as my mouth watered.
There are fruit here, that, globalization notwithstanding, no one in California has even heard of; like chikku and jambhul and ber. Upon my return to the United States, my friends inquire about their tastes, but all I can describe are their physical attributes.
When I return from the market to my childhood home, that familiar sensation of suffocation grips me again. I feel trapped in my old room; the distant world I once dreamt of as a child seems as far away as it did back then. Did I ever leave home and travel the seven seas? Did I reside in an alien land for 32 years without any support from my family? Did I ever sojourn in exotic places like Hawaii and New Zealand? Did I raft in the Truckee River with my young children and hike above the Nevada Falls in scorching heat? Did I camp in pouring rain in New Zealand and watch sunrise over Milford Sound?
I try to recall Michael Moore’s name but can’t. I try to describe his latest movie to my brother but can’t remember the title “Sicko,” either. If I stayed here long enough, would I forget that I have raised two children in California? I can’t remember why I like The New Yorker; I can’t recall the title of the latest essay I read or the last audio novel I liked.
I am not suffering from amnesia; it is just that our recollections are spatially related, I think. The first space we inhabit, the first town or village or city we live in, leaves such a deep mark upon our psyche that everything else in the world becomes secondary. Coming back to that location can obliterate all other memories, as if we have returned to the womb to begin life anew.
Thus I emerge from the shadows of the back wall of the Sangha Building, now known as the world Headquarters of the infamous Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangha, the Hindu fundamentalist organization, and into the dusty afternoon sunlight of its maidan, to play Chor Sipahi, Cops and Robbers, to the rhythm of men in khaki shorts singing Sanskrit prayers.
Thus I curve the road around the stadium in my cousin’s car, to march to the drums of the Republic Day parade, wearing a Tinopal-white frock.
Suddenly, I cannot remember the name of the senator from Iowa. I am grateful I can still say Iowa.
So I wonder, when these last landmarks have disappeared, will I be floating in space? Will there be no anchor for my memories, no geographical markers for my existence?
An immigrant has to inhabit two places at once: the place she comes from and the place she lives in, forever, in a sort of an incurable schizophrenia. Is that why I chose to adapt completely to America? Is that why I assimilated and westernized, so that these powerful memories would not haunt me and debilitate me forever?
And yet what price I have paid for that choice. For, my spatial dislocation is so intense after years of absence from my native land that I am fearful of losing my grip on my other world, as if my two lives cannot be contained in the small sphere of my cognition.
Would I have been better off if I had visited home more often?
No matter what choices I would have made, one thing I am certain of. The landmarks of my childhood are fast disappearing, being replaced by progress. The quaint residential neighborhood I grew up in, with tiny bungalows sporting poetic names like Drizzle Music and Dusk Cottage, is long gone, replaced by commercially-zoned multi-use structures for medical clinics, shops, offices, and flats.
For success here is measured in such conventional things: the amount of money you have; the kind of flat you live in; the sort of children you raise.
I wonder if, by the standards of Nagpur, I am a total failure.
And suddenly, even though it has only been four days, I can’t wait to get on a plane and return to my other home.
But the next morning, I hear a song in the garden. Venturing out, I spot a bird the size of a finch eating a guava in the tree; it has a black crown and yellow, red underbelly.
“What is it,” I ask, wondering why I never noticed it before.
It is the Bulbul, my mother tells me, a bird after which so many girls are named. She describes the Bharadwaj bird and the Sarus Crane and the Kokil and the Maina. I never knew that my mother is better than me at identifying birds. I, too, go bird watching in California, I tell her.
It is the Bulbul that finally links my two worlds. Memories of a far away continent rush in, full of yellow headed black birds and pileated woodpeckers, avocets and wigeons, lesser yellow legs and sandpipers, blue birds and warblers, curlews and red tailed hawks.
The Bulbul’s song in the garden blends in with lyrics from another world: And the seasons they go round and round / And the painted ponies go up and down / We’re captive on the carousel of time / We can’t return, we can only look behind / From where we came / And go round and round and round / In the circle game .