In 2010, I remember taking a car up to the Ganges River with my father, brother, and relatives, to scatter the ashes of my uncle. There is a fence that separates the main street from the steps and the river bank. All around this fence, I recall, was a procession of terracotta idols — the same kinds you would find on sale around Gariahat Road.
On my own shelf, there are terracotta idols — Durga, Ganesh, and Saraswati. I don’t pray to them in any regimented fashion; I don’t lay out water and almonds as I should. They’re curiosities — I like what they stand for — strength, wealth, and love. They also bridge me back to a land that seems to become more foreign no matter how many visits I end up making. It’s a land that exists in recovered moments.
Another moment I remember from that same ceremony — watching as there was another funeral rite happening next to ours. A man was buzzing off a little girl’s hair. She was bawling and bawling. Then he sent her off to the river and she laughed as she descended the steps into the Ganges. It’s a river that holds more than the cremated remnants of loved ones — it stews in waste and litter. She splashed, she laughed. It was anyone’s guess if the man was her father or her uncle — and whether she was supposed to be mourning a late mother or another family member.
I cringed, seeing her dive into the Ganges.
* * *
There was another time long ago that my family and I were in a taxi in the dead of summer with the windows rolled down. It was a time before air conditioners in cars became commonplace — I had been carrying a copy of Banana Yoshimoto’s N.P., which had a pristine, white cover when I received it as a gift only a week earlier. Traffic near the Howrah Bridge was at a standstill and with the windows rolled down, it meant that the thick Kolkata smog could circulate in and out like serpents. As I turned the pages, I noticed that the smog had stained the book. In the course of an afternoon, the ivory white cover had yellowed.
In another time in the mid-1990s, before the advent of on-demand movies and widespread option of cable television across India, and after someone lost the remote control at my grandmother’s flat, my brother and I crawled up to the television and held onto the TUNE button, so the channels could fade in and out. We then came across The Little Mermaid playing on a channel. It was in Hindi. Neither of us spoke or understood a single word of Hindi — but we saw the film so many times and it was too much of a drag to find anything else to watch.
This was still when I felt that I was very much someone who would be at home in India — that I could be both Indian and American. I had been going back to Kolkata every three or four years since being born — and with each successive trip, I watched as I understood less and less of my motherland. I understood less and less of my motherland. It’s a two-way street: I become more and more molded by my homeland and less malleable to the ways of my motherland.
A fuzzier memory: In the early 1990s, an aunt was getting married. A curfew across all of Kolkata meant that anyone on the streets after sundown could be arrested or shot — and it was prompted by recent Hindu-Muslim riots across the city and the state of West Bengal. Several days’ worth of wedding events had to be consolidated at the last minute into events at my grandmother’s flat. Fifty, maybe sixty family members and friends had crammed into that tiny space.
I don’t remember whether it was the actual wedding itself, which could no longer be held at the expected venue because of the curfew, or if it was one of the many events that preceded it, but I do remember it going late into the night. On another evening, the day’s event had concluded and it was nighttime — and with the curfew, no one could head home. So, beds were pushed together to accommodate as many guests sleeping over as possible–with many camping out in makeshift sleeping bags on the terrace.
There is another night where I also remember cramming into a car with two uncles and four of my cousins — we were all piled up in the backseat — because we had to run an errand in the middle of the curfew. We didn’t get pulled over; we didn’t get attacked.
I still don’t recall what the point of the drive was or why there were so many of us piled into that car. I do remember we were able to get from my grandmother’s flat to our intended destination back to my grandmother’s flat, all in one piece.
The newspaper’s headline the next morning read: “Cur-PHEW!”
III. An In-Between Land
Many of my memories are steeped in the identity of being a hyphenate, too. There is an unfortunate messiness that comes with being a hyphenate. As a hyphenate, you’re frequently too Indian for America and too American for India.
When my mother and I visit any of the shops across Gariahat Road — one of the major roads running through one of the largest cities of the world — the shopkeepers not only pick up on the fact that I’m American — they look at my teeth and see dentistry, There is an unfortunate messiness that comes with being a hyphenate. they look at my clothes and how I wear them, they hear the American accent coating my stilted Bengali pronunciations — but they look at my mom and see someone who used to be Indian but has since adapated to American culture. Perhaps it is the kind of resentment that comes with losing one of your own to the opposite team.
Whatever it is, it invariably puts a cap on our ability haggle down prices — and we’re forced to ask a cousin or another aunt to come along, because they can keep up with vendors at a pace that we simply cannot.
It gets messier when other relatives needle my personal life.
“When are you getting married?”
For me, the question tends to go a step further. I have relatives who know that most of my friends are women — the question tends to be, “Why can’t you just marry one of your girlfriends?” The idea of me shuffling through my girlfriends like some kind of slick lothario is horrifying.
“When are you getting married?
Even after I was out, I felt comfortable enough to go back to India every few years, but with each visit, I felt the rift between my values and those of my motherland grow larger and larger. Gender was and still remains a very rigid binary — where family members didn’t understand that men and women can be friends outside of a romantic context.
“When are you getting married?”
The truth — that I prefer the company of men — would’ve been just so exhausting to explain. It also would’ve been an unfair demand on me — if straight relatives aren’t expected to “out” themselves, then asking me to do so is to expect me to open up a very private part of my life to people who have no business exploring it.
“When are you getting married?”
I imagined the disappointment, the confusion, the shock, the whispers — the fall-out, even if I had decided to divulge my preference to men when prodded, would’ve been too cumbersome to wade through. Why exhaust myself — and my own family — all because relatives are insensitive to the concept of privacy?
“I’m married to my career!” I might say, channeling Carrie Bradshaw-inspired whimsy.