Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Half a Home (Part 1 & 2)

Half a Home

Part 1

There are few things sadder than an arrival, after such a long journey, with no one to receive you. Rishi stood alone amidst the crowd outside Indira Gandhi Airport. Taxis came forth and people slowly, in practical fashion, filed into them. Other people met family, kissed children, smiles everywhere.

But for Rishi there was no family nor the pomp or celebration of years past, when he would arrive with his mother and father, to everyone’s embraces; the airport terminal turned carnival; flower garlands and laughter; hugs and tears of joy.

Return was a cherished event coupled with the visceral impact of the Indian heat. And the colors: As if a switch had been turned on to the kaleidoscope, merry go around and roller coaster – all at once. Though now, disheveled and with nobody around he knew, Rishi felt the ache only nostalgia gives. His stubbled face held an empty expression, looking for solace in some strangers face, though everyone unaccompanied waited for their taxi with distracted unease, looking at their cellphones. Airports can make you feel so, alone.

At the luggage carousel, he felt his spirit turn; he hadn’t expected such intense sadness. He had a feeling nobody would show. His mother said she had informed the family though something about the way she said it made him think twice.

Now outside, he still looked around. Perhaps someone had come? Maybe it was a mistake? Of course, a natural mistake, with the time difference and all.

Back home, in his parent’s Queens apartment, the time difference used to be ingrained through the two clocks upon the mantle; one Indian the other New York time. He could never look at one without looking at the other, even outside the house; he would always know exactly what time it was in India.

The clocks were a constant reference point for Rishi's father, who would work overtime in the 70s to make one 5 minute phone call a week, to hear distant voices that haunted his memories and dreams.

Rishi's father was a man’s man; rarely shed a tear, generally unexpressive. But those phone calls were what he lived for. The rest of the time was just in anticipation of that moment or in planning a return visit. Gifts constantly collected, life was suspended till that very moment of return - in the airport terminal- when life truly bloomed, transforming Rishi’s father; from a man who read the New York Times in brusque silence; watched Peter Jennings in a trance, into someone who had purpose again; India, family.

Whenever things got tough, his father planned a trip; it slowly became the solution to all problems. And it worked. Upon returning, for months, his father would have renewed energy to pay bills and go to work, only to slow down again, get into a rut and plan another trip. India, India. Repeat ad infinitum. Not a bad life.

New York was purgatory, a grand waiting game, for that moment of return. His father enjoyed New York; it mesmerized with its energy, opportunity and edge. But something about being in- between, in the greatest city on Earth (he sincerely believed this) made him feel more alive to everything. In, but not of it - nowhere and everywhere at the same time. Debilitating for some, exhilarating for others.

His father had come over on scholarship, to study at NYU for his masters in Math, and stayed on to work and gain citizenship, the typical immigrant story of its time. But he was never at ease in this new dreamland, even though nobody waxed more poetic about it; about the subway; the 5th avenue library; the jazz clubs in the village; the New York Times, even.

And then Rishi was born, unexpectedly, or so his father said, after they started frequenting Atlantic City, leaving his sister with family friends. His father gambled while his mother walked the boardwalk, and “that’s where you were conceived, Lucky 7”, referencing Rishi’s year of birth; 1977.

Given his father’s eccentricities, he wasn’t sure if this was some joke or not. His parents did obsess over Atlantic City; it was almost always where they wanted to go whenever a long weekend came. But he never really saw his parents touch, so it heartened him to think of time when they did. Whether or not it was true, the very idea of them together made him happy. His mother in a sari by the Jersey shore, holding his father’s hand, as they looked over at the sunset. Care free, gambling, eating together. Probably not true, but hey, who knew?

He asked his mother about it once and she just laughed. But then she laughed whenever his father did anything crazy because if he wasn’t doing anything crazy he got depressed. He closed the lights in the living room, put a blanket over his head and never spoke to anyone for days. And then he’d watch old Benny Hill episodes on VHS and this one dance video of Sridevi, over and over. We all have our unique ways of coping with our frustrations and losses. But these episodes were intermittent and if they got really bad, there was always India if something didn’t pique his interest first.

Like how one day, after school, his father gave him a cutting of a restaurant review from the New York Times. It was written in that floral style only the Times gets away with. “Read this article, look at how divine they make it sounds.” Divine, his father had taken to improving his vocabulary during Rishi’s SAT preparation but had retained his loose pronunciation and grammar.

“We must go there, we must eat there, right now right now!” He got into the car, revved the engine and blasting the horn to make Rishi hurry. Rishi would feel a mad rush of energy and joy in those spontaneous moments. His father thrived on unpredictability. “Surprises, good surprises, are a precious thing. Our lives generally have bad surprises but good surprises make up for the bad ones.”

His father was different than the other Indians, less “practical” and too showy, with tastes a bit too refined for a new immigrant. Though he earned no more than his colleagues, he spent more, and feared less. Looking at old pictures of his father you immediately noticed the well-dressed handsome man amidst a sea of tackiness and anxiety. The corduroy blazer, the disco shirts and gold chains, it’s as if his father belonged on the Amalfi coast with movie stars instead of ugly modernist Queens with a bunch of square engineers as neighbors, colleagues and friends. All Indian, all so uncool.

Rishi always wondered what it was that made his father different than the rest, and with age, and some life experience, realized it was because his father was already quite well to do before coming to America. He was the main breadwinner for his joint family and as a result the go-to man for all problems. Money, prestige, respect, and already married to Rishi’s mother; he had it all. Only to leave it behind for a dream - or was it ambition?

“I wanted to study and come see what all the fuss was about,” he said to him looking at him through the rearview mirror. Rishi in the backseat, his mother up front organizing the tapes in the glove compartment, “Why doesn’t anyone put the tapes back in the right covers?” This was a pet peeve of hers, though nobody ever listened.

His father usually opened up driving, on those trips to Atlantic City, with the New Jersey Turnpike spiced by Bollywood soundtracks. It was as if the road ahead and the movement made him relax and look Rishi directly in the eye, albeit through the rear view mirror.

It was on these trips that he learned that his father rented not a room, but a dirty mattress on Roosevelt Ave, for 8 hours a day. He worked nights at a candy store, and took over the mattress from someone else, on his return, from a person about to do exactly what he just did; a low paying shift if not in a candy store, in a gas station or restaurant.

His father could have gone back to India, and everything would have been fine. He wasn’t from a small village, or supporting a family, or any of that sacrificial stuff that paralyzes or motivates many an immigrant. It was curiosity and adventure that drove him. The same spirit of adventure that was bringing Rishi back, to India.

Being of Indian origin allowed him to feel connected to something more authentic than his drab American life. He saw in his Indian family a love and spontaneity few had in America. The absence of absurd consumer comforts made them stronger, healthier and more alert to the visceral aspects of life. Or, so he thought, in his romantic escapism.

We all want to be somewhere else, and that far off place helps us make sense of what home means to us. For Rishi, his dismay with America was always a result of having India to compare it to. It became a deeper fissure, an unwashed wound, that as he got older, held him back from ever being comfortable with who he was; where he was.

Rishi’s father understood all this. He knew that excesses and absurdities of the West could only be curbed and tempered by the East. That is why he wanted Rishi to fall in love, with India - but as an American. “India needs a De Tocqueville” he would absurdly say. Rishi didn’t expect such highbrow political philosophy from his father. That’s what the New York Times did to him. It made him memorize trite phrases that surprisingly worked within the context of what he was talking about. “America is the greatest son, trust me. The opportunities, dignity and possibilities. The endless possibilities of being. You don’t know how lucky you are, you have choices, and options, that I never fathomed or thought about. The problems in America are a result of bad choices. Eating too much, drugs, sex, over-spending, but at least people have the choices and the second chances to make it right. In India there are no second chances. People are condemned to their fate, and lament and whither away wondering what could have been, if only, if only...”

These diatribes were a common fixture in Rishi’s upbringing, often colored by his father’s constant unease for those he left behind. Not guilt, just plain and simple longing. If family defines a man’s life, little else can substitute it. If his father every knew love, or was ever pressed to describe it; it would be this one desire; to return to touch again his land and people.

Rishi knew this meant more to him, than being with himself and his mother. In this regard they were similar to families of artists, rocks stars or politicians, all of whom work for something bigger than themselves, only in Rishi’s father’s case, what filled that god-shaped hole was a huge, poor country, on the other side of the world, filled with smiling, adoring, pandering family. Family.

Part 2

The sky slowly turned a deep electric blue. It was 4am and a loud hush had fallen over the airport crowd. In the past, at the same hour, Rishi remembered more hubbub or perhaps it was the perspective of being older that made things feel different.

In the commotion of an earlier return someone touched his feet, a gesture of respect for elders on the sub-continent. He was fifteen and his younger cousin nephew of seven the culprit. The smudge marks left on his brand new Reebok shoes perturbed him.

Now it was different: Nobody paid attention to his presence, not even the coolies. He was alone, older and trying to solve his problems like his father used to, with a trip to India. It had been five years since he’d been back. The last trip had been short, two weeks, and a teary eyed blur, to submerge his father’s ashes in the holy river.

He hadn’t had the inclination to return after; it didn’t feel the same without his father. Time passed and he got caught up in his university studies, while his mother worked ever harder to run the household alone. Yes, those were tough times. Life without his father had become mundane, mechanical, about survival. He forgot about India. It only occurred to him when he started faltering and was unable to cope with the profound malaise over-taking him.

It was during medical school and by all measures everything was going well. A beautiful girlfriend and on path to becoming a doctor; the dedication to success he harbored was paying fruit. Rishi focused ever harder after his father’s death, if only because the challenge and the difficulty of his situation motivated him. He was always like this, even as a child. He looked for difficultly; disdained comfort. He never questioned what the task meant or what it led to, he just wanted to succeed and in turn, make his father proud.

He worked to see his father’s face light up in doing complex algebra problems at 7. Or when he was considered too short for the basketball team, he became a 3-point specialist; shooting baskets from afar, deep into the night he would practice. “Make your weakness your strength”, his father would say often.

Success was no longer enough. With his father gone, nothing made sense. For the first time he had to examine what he was doing; what things meant, where he was in the world. It tormented him, to have the responsibility of his decisions and life weigh on him, when in the past all he had to do was be successful and not question or think, just make his father happy.

Rishi did not understand how he got to where he was. Nothing appealed to him. People looked at his life in envy; awed by his accomplishments, though they seemed meaningless to him now. Something wasn’t right, and he couldn’t figure it out.

I know what you may be thinking, dear reader, that our protagonist is “depressed”, in need of counseling and coddling. Or perhaps this is the normal process of mourning and one can easily explain away his existential crisis through psychology and biology. Rishi was aware of all this and actively rebelled against such explanations.

He was aware his crisis was related to his father’s death, but he felt its solution – his rising up and overcoming – was paramount in honoring his father’s memory. He didn’t know how he would over-come; he just knew he had to. Besides, with his father gone, he felt that somehow he was carrying the burden of what his father always felt – that state of unease, the longing, the searching for ecstasy through the senses, travel, something new, always trying to fill that endless void. It’s what made him love his father, and now he knew he had to as gracefully and recklessly follow suit.

A feeling of restlessness eventually started to take a hold of him. At first he couldn’t sleep, then he would disappear for days, riding the subway endlessly to every last stop on every subway line in the city, to feel the limits.

“Last stop, last stop, this is the last stop. Everybody off.”

Rishi would get off, walk around and talk to random people and ride back, looking off into the horizon, constantly in a daze.

The New York City subway comforted him, with its swaying rhythms and familiar sounds. Like the ringing bell before the doors closed. And then watching all those people: Couples kissing, old people reading, children transfixed by the moving skyline in the distance. As a child, he always insisted on taking rides on the trains even on weekends, and his fascination never ceased. It’s where he did his best thinking.

One day he saw a little boy with his bicycle and father. The bike had training wheels, was cumbersome to look at and the boy was quiet as the father sat next to him with a gentle smile. “Today, today is the day, we are going to take these off and don’t worry I’ll hold you, but you got to believe in yourself.” The little boy had a faraway look in his eyes, his attention focused inward.

Rishi discreetly followed father and son, as they got off somewhere in Brooklyn. It was a clear and sunny autumn morning. He was supposed to be in class, but took to riding the subway more often. In the nearby park the father removed the training wheels as his son got on. “I am going to hold you, don’t worry.” And he did, up to a point, he ran along holding his son as he pedaled.

The rays of the sun slanted as they beamed in through the leaves falling from the trees. Effervescence took hold of the scene and, as if in slow motion, slowly, the father let go and for a brief moment, his son moved alone. Balancing, only to fall shortly after. His father still smiled, walked slowly over and gave him a hug, and picked him up in his arms. The boy tried hard not to cry. “One more time.” His father said “one more time.” Rishi welled up watching this.

Rishi never cried easily, and this bothered him. The only thing that made him cry without fail were Italian films from the neo –realist period. He discovered this by chance in a film class in university. Bicycle Thief. It moved him so much that he had to run out of the cinema, uncontrollable sobs.

Neo-realism was a break from fantasy, poignantly raw; it tugged on the soul harder than the melodrama produced by Hollywood up to that point in time. And now Rishi was feeling things in real life. He was now in the film, rather than outside, as a spectator.

This was part of a revelation that came to him after a bong hit, watching Easy Rider, with his best friend after the summer he graduated from NYU. They came up with their own philosophy of film, of how reality is siphoned into three categories and our lives are basically spent shifting between these realms. The first one is as spectator, the other as actor, and the third and final is as director/producer. None is better than the other, but we all find ourselves in one of these realms, all the time. And the trick is to move in and out fluidly, and not get stuck in any one realm.

And now he had shifted. He was in, and was feeling the part he was playing, stronger than ever. And the scene with the father with his son and the bicycle is what did it. He thought to himself while watching father and son:

“What more can one want out of existence but those precious moments, the rites of passage and moments of kindness in the face of failure? “

But now Rishi was alone, and had no one to pick him up. He didn’t have his father, and an ache deep inside him awoke for the first time watching this scene, on a sunny morning in Brooklyn. Something about this newfound pain didn’t scare him, he felt intuitively that it was better to feel and be aware of it than run from it, or pretend it didn’t exist.

The idea of going to India came to him later. It was during a during a histology lecture, looking through slides, identifying mitochondria. The exam preparation required that he review numerous slides, which to the laymen look like various abstract shapes. Somehow, he could have sworn, he saw the images speak to him. It was late at night, perhaps he was sleep deprived. He saw an image of India, and the goddess Durga. Rishi never believed in these “signs” and never thought about god or mysticism. But then nobody really does until they are in trouble.

The message was clear: He had to go back to India, get in touch with his roots. Leave this terrible place behind.

He dropped out. He was going to go to India like his father used to. If he had his father, and his father had India, and if he no longer had his father, then he had to go to the source of that goodness – India. Circuitous logic, yes, but desperate times call for such measures. He went in search for that renewable force that always gave his father life, fulfillment, and energy.

Now, he was back and he could have been anywhere, but he wasn’t just anywhere. He was in the land of his ancestors and Gods, he thought melodramatically. He looked around at all the empty tired faces. Some of them had people to receive them, but they were small muted receptions. Proper, middle class, as if someone was watching and everyone had to behave them selves.

“I am from here, I am from here,” he repeated to himself, in his mind. But he didn’t believe it; feeling no connection to the people around him. He absent- mindedly took his prepaid taxi receipt and made his way to the curb. A car came; the driver without saying hello took his bags and loaded them in the trunk. Rishi, about to get in the back, hesitated. He went around to the front to sit next to the driver.

He lit up a cigarette. Dawn’s light and the smoke gave him a glamorous glow. His brow furrowed in deep thought, he sighed and looked over at the driver, at his blood shot eyes, probably awoken while in a deep dream and now he drove along mechanically, as if sleep walking; driving. The cool pre-dawn air and that smell, that earthy smell, hit him with exhilaration. Some things never change.

Rishi told the driver in Hindi how beautiful the morning was. The driver smiled, and instantly, as if by magic, his entire tired face grew awake and lucid, more attractive and less hostile than it had been before. “Yes sahib, it is,” he said, looking back at Rishi kindly. Rishi felt better, a steady smile took over him, and he looked ahead with greater clarity.

Slowly, he started remembering where he was. As they made their way into South Delhi, familiarity and old memories came rushing in though his heart began to sink, as they got closer to his family house. His mother had informed his uncle of his arrival, but he also knew that his uncle was never the same after his father’s death, expecting Rishi’s father to finally bequeath his half of the family house.

It was a constant source of anguish and tension in the family. His uncle could not understand why his father would want to keep half his house in India. “You live in America, you are rich and well to do why do you need two houses?” But Rishi’s father never budged, a good-hearted person though he was, and nobody more generous in the family, he wasn’t naive. He understood how India worked; with no property he had no status, a nobody, only a guest to be coddled and fed on vacations, but forgotten about once gone. Keeping his part of the house allowed him to come and go as he pleased and maintain control and importance within his family. It had nothing to do with money.

Now this half a house, half a one-time home, was a point of contention. What made matters worse was that this house was not just anywhere; it was in a posh South Delhi colony. Estimates of what the house was worth varied, but even conservative estimates made it rival Manhattan property values.

The house was no mansion: A one floor, four-room house that had sheltered at one time the entire joint family; four families in total, one per room. Doors always open, children everywhere, cooking constant, as kitchens were communal, amongst all his aunties or “mummys”. There was always action, and noise, it was only during power cuts that everyone quieted down, gathered in one room, and over candlelight told stories.

The candle would flicker and the through the shadows and his elder’s words, Rishi would feel the history of his collective past come alive. The partition, Pakistan, his grandfather and grandmother who he never met but could feel, through those stories, into the night. It was in such moments that Rishi felt connected to something bigger than himself, some grand past, a feeling of belonging.

This was India in the 1980s. When there was one brand of car, 2 state owned TV channels, no commercials, and the stagnation that comes from being a closed economy. Joint families, living together, was cultural as much as it was an economic necessity. The economic reforms of 1991 changed all this. And with each trip as a child, Rishi saw greater wealth and materialism take shape. First came cable TV, and then McDonalds, followed by the usual slew of multi-national brands. And then he noticed the confidence and independence that a booming economy provided his middle class family mixed with an indifference towards himself, his parents, and America.

Slowly, and surely, the nuclear family became the norm, and people saw each other less and less frequently. Crassly, he interpreted it as the inevitable triumph of the material over the spirit. The domination of Western over Eastern culture. Simplistic assessment, yes. But then it is hard to be objective when your analysis is colored by nostalgia, identity, post-colonialism and - most importantly – the heartbreak that comes from the acknowledgement that nothing lasts forever. Not youth, nor love.

As a child, his old toys and clothes were constantly sent to his cousins in India. One of the first things done when they arrived was to open up the suitcases around a crowd of family, as they awed and oohed over used Sony Walkmans and Levi jeans. Now he just got word that one of his cousins took a holiday to Paris. Paris! He had never even been to Paris.

And now, as the taxi pulled up to his old house, all he felt was isolation. His side of the house empty and locked up, the other side decrepit and unkempt. He rang the doorbell. No answer. He rang it again, while the driver waited. Finally, his Cousin’s wife came to the door, and forced a smile at him. She had been informed she said, and was waiting. Her face was not only older it was if the scowl she now wore was permanently etched on her face. Especially made worse by her trying to hide it by forcing a smile. But her face betrayed her. She opened his side of the house for him, and said, in the most formal of manners, that if he needed anything, to eat, anything, to come over their side, and that they would talk in the morning when everyone was awake.

Rishi paid the driver, who brought in his things. The living room was dusty, and the house was in need of a good cleaning. It was awkward to be all alone on his side of the house. He wanted to wake and hug and laugh with his cousins and uncle, like times past. But something held him back, an invisible, unspoken, mutually acknowledged barrier.

He went to sleep almost immediately from the exhaustion of the journey, but also to escape this new sense of heartbreak. Before drifting off to sleep, he remembered his mother, back in New York, working at the office. She was probably at this very moment returning home, alone as well. She had told him to forget about India. That it had changed. She was here a year back, and fought bitterly to preserve the house, though all feeling of love was gone. She was treated poorly, and harassed by Rishi’s uncle. Rishi couldn’t believe it could be true though his mother insisted things had changed. It slowly was becoming apparent what was happening. Nobody at the airport, a scowl instead of a genuine smile, their side of the house locked up; abandoned.

Rishi fell into a deep sleep. A sleep so deep, a dreamless sleep, the kind that makes you forget where you are. He awoke to the sound of birds singing, and a hot afternoon sun caressing his handsomely worn face. He had heard somewhere that the face you have at 30 is the face you carry with you the rest of your days. How honest and true the face of a person is. He recalled his sister in law, it was clear that bitterness and anxiety had ruined her face. She was not happy to see him. To be unwelcome in ones own home, motherland, by ones own blood. What did it mean? How he yearned for warmth again. An India without family love, what was the point and why had he come?

He arose, and walked onto the veranda. The trees were just as green he remembered them. In front lay the colony park, clean and pristine, much cleaner than before. A sign said “No cricket playing”.

His sister was married in this park, about 20 years ago. His father’s funeral ceremony also took place there. Throughout his youth all he remembered were weddings and funerals, and when it was empty, it was over-run with children. Now, servants lay about languidly, everybody was somewhere else, there was a silence that perturbed him. Pristine mansions left empty, servants watching soap operas all day and enjoying leisure. This was new.

Weddings and funerals were now also prohibited in public spaces. The chaos with the noise disturbed people and brought down property values. People wanted to be relax and live in peace in the little time they had free.

“Change is a part of life” he thought. But could India still be a savior for him as it had been for his father? And if it wasn’t, how was he to deal with his own frustrations and failures?