February 25th, 2011 - Anu Kumar
A month after we came to Singapore a friend visited. It was a typically warm February, the kind Singapore always has, my friend said. He had lived all over the world, and was now nostalgic for home food. ‘Potatoes in poppyseed paste,’ I said, serving up something I had seen my mother make one too many times. A bit improvised, I added, for I had been unable to check for exactness with my mother. My call to her had gone unanswered before I realized where my parents were; it was afternoon, and it was possible they were out somewhere. I lived now in a different country, separated from them by borders containing other countries, and by time too.
I told my friend about Mustafa, where one could get all kinds of things that reminded you of ‘home.’ I spoke about my walks along the East Coast Park road; how I walked my daughter to school in her stroller. I did not tell him of my other rituals. That I called my parents now at set times of the week; of the new reference points in my conversations with them. We talked of the weather, the groceries I bought from the wet market close home, and the domestic routine as well. No longer were things random, as unthought as before.
I remembered the surprise on my parents’ faces every time I’d visited unexpectedly. The last time I did so before I left my country of origin for good, I understood the import of it all. That I could no longer drop in on a whim, drive or hail a cab, forty-five minutes to where they lived. I understood then their sadness when I told them of our leaving India. I remembered their smiles as they accompanied me down that last time in the old rumbly elevator. I did not realize how much these small memories would come to matter.
Every visit back to India now became an exercise, carefully planned. Tickets were booked weeks in advance, schedules outlined in detail as well. My parents told me of how things had changed, how prepared one had to be. Delhi was a city that changed quickly, sometimes in a planned way, and then chaotically as well. One winter a year later, my parents told me about the protests that had broken out after the brutal rape of a young woman.
My mother and I had an argument then , about safety. I reveled where I lived now, with its surveillance induced safety; a security that entailed a necessary compromise with one’s privacy. My mother took issue with my easy scorn of things back home. She called it the arrogance of the ‘newly foreign’; one of many new hyphenations I’d acquire over the years I spent outside my country of origin.
I learnt to grapple with entirely new emotions. Like the contrition that overcame me at the end of every argument. I’d count down to the days when I’d meet my parents again. But I wasn’t prepared for the way my heart quietly broke when I saw them that first return ‘home’. They looked suddenly diminished, bent, even shrunken. They had aged in a year, and with every visit, they appeared to age more. My conversations with them were now fast and desperate, and more fragmented, for I wanted to hold onto their stories, to make their memories mine in the little time I had before we took the plane back. ‘Please grow old less slowly. Please stay the same,’ I always found myself whispering.
I left with such divided emotions. My smile never slipped, I fiercely held back tears, and felt a treacherous relief to return to a life more regulated, less chaotic. The more countries I moved to, the farther I went, these divisions only multiplied. I was an amalgam of many selves, acquiring more hyphenated identities along the way.
But there came the grief I could not disguise nor evade. My sibling called one morning to tell me our father was no more. As we mourned him, and wept for him together, I was conscious of the voice at the back of my mind: was my grief less than theirs? Was it lacking in depth simply because I had not seen my parent as frequently?
But I have memories of them, unblemished by time. And as I navigate different worlds, it becomes more and more clear to me that the dilemmas and choices my parents faced, as they lived their lives, were almost akin to mine. Our many divided selves live within us; how we handle these divisions help us in turn navigate this divided world.
Anu Kumar’s new book, A Sense of Time and Other Stories, is now available from Weavers’ Press, California. She hopes you’ll consider making a donation to Savethechildren.org and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.