In the summer, we travelled with my father to the music festivals where he worked, or to the shore when he was touring abroad with bands. But winter holidays belonged to India. My mother tried to visit every year, and when she could, she took us, her children, back to the house where she grew up in Bombay, now Mumbai, the house where my grandparents still live.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Trips to India began long before we boarded a plane. They began as promises: The promise my American father made when he married my mother and she knew she would never go home again; the promises we made every time we took leave of our grandparents; the promises with which we signed our letters in careful round script and which we saw reflected in thin blue aerogrammes from Bandra; the last lines trailing up the margins in spindly prayers for our return.
One trip began before the last was finished; the days just before we flew back to the US were clouded by our departure, by the months or years before we would see my mother’s family again. My grandfather began to marvel ruefully at how quickly we grew and how changed we would be the next time he saw us.
Usually, he watched us playing from a short distance but, on our last day, he caught us in fierce hugs. At the airport, my grandmother kissed the top of my head without releasing my mother’s hand. By the time I was 10, their distress became part of my own and I wished we could promise more than to come back soon; I wished we could promise never to leave, never to change.
In the years when we were going to India, the whole calendar seemed to tip in that direction. We knew months in advance, sliding through seasons until my father retrieved the battered suitcases from the top shelves of closets and my mother began to fill them. I remember the care with which my mother packed, the strong sense that every available space must be used.
We were trafficking in whatever was rare and precious or difficult for our family to find, from our own school pictures to electronics, from the sort of nightgown my grandmother favoured to the peanut butter we American children liked to eat, even on our chapattis. Once, I carried a banjo, its case already covered in stickers, so that my uncle, an accomplished guitarist, could try playing a new instrument.
When my father used to go on the road with musicians for long tours, my mother brought my sister and me, little more than babies, to India on her own. But, the year I was 10, we all travelled together. My parents must have dreaded the flights, but I loved them, savouring the days ahead. My sister and I had small bags of our own, packed with books and toys for the flight. I remember opening my brand new Hello Kitty travel diary, imagining all the words that would fill its pages.
If my mother hadn’t prompted me, I don’t know if I would ever have ventured a first sentence, if any beginning would have seemed worthy of the trip I knew we were taking. My five-year-old brother played endlessly with a matchbox car, driving it along the contours of his seat and up my arm until I shook it off like a bug. I was filled with the importance of my own mission: to record everything we did, everything we saw.
That diary is lost, but I imagine its pages are full of stilted descriptions, the product of my mother’s cajoling. The school to which I would return, the report I would have to give to my class, the assignment my teacher set me—to fill the diary with my impressions—all seemed remote, an impossible task once we landed.
India, even our narrow glimpse of it, proved too big for me. I could not capture all its colours and sounds, could not name the fruit I liked to eat or the trees we passed under each day, wandering in gardens and parks. I could not explain what it was like to emerge from the plane as though from a rocket ship, as if we’d blasted to another planet and not just across our own. The air, damp and heavy on our shoulders, suddenly smelling of smoke. Our hair crackling on our shoulders, our stiff limbs aching, while we waited to have our passports stamped.
Then Mum, looking young and happy, leaning down to us, encircling our shoulders: “Look up, up there! Can you see?” We saw our grandmother high above us, in front of all the crowds on a viewing deck that hung over the baggage area, her palm pressed to the plastic window as though she could not wait another moment to touch us.
The viewing deck is gone now, and my grandmother no longer fit enough to meet us at the airport. The gardens where we played are mostly gone, too. Nearly all of the houses on my grandparents’ road, St Cyril Road in Bandra, have been knocked down to make way for flat buildings, with car parks in the compounds. But, even without the diary, I remember in exuberant, astonishing detail the terrain of our childhood visits. The feel of cool tile floors beneath our feet, the towering ceilings with peeling paint, the mosquito nets tented over our beds at night. The three stray cats which lingered near the landing, where we fed them despite my grandmother’s good-natured protests. The badminton net my grandfather set up for us in the garden and the crisp white-feathered shuttlecocks he gave us, coaching us as we played. The banana man, bent beneath his load like an old gnarled tree, calling up to my grandmother’s window and letting us choose our own fat bunch. The fruit trees planted when my mother was young and the coconut trees that Gopi, a young man from Kerala, climbed with his leather strap.
We took shelter beneath the tiled veranda roof when coconuts came raining down. On trips into the city, we jolted on the back seats of taxis, waiting for a glimpse of the university clock tower where my grandfather worked. I felt we had been transported into the bedtime stories our mother told us about her own girlhood.
As we grew older, it became more difficult to arrange extended breaks from school. My mother established a yearly pattern of visiting in January, but we could no longer always accompany her. Our lives had begun to develop shapes of their own, embedding us at home. But, in college, I began to visit on my own and I’ve gone back ever since, as often as I can. Trips to India have become a promise I make to myself, a promise to see the way a place I love has changed, and to keep its present as firmly in mind as its past.
Nalini Jones, author of What You Call Winter, a collection of short stories, grew up in Ohio, and in Connecticut, where she is now based.
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