In early December, as we pulled up to my ancestral village, the gaon called Baranghati where my father was born and his father before him, I noticed a man balancing two bales of paddy on a long stick teetering on his bare back. He was barefoot and struggling. I looked at his face.
“That’s my uncle,” I told my daughter. She nodded, more interested in the ducks and cows scattered every which way.
I sat with him later and out came the story I hear each time I visit. The village remained the same as in the 1940s, when my grandfather left to set up a business elsewhere, the same as in the 1970s, when my father left for the US, the same through the 1990s as India’s urban centres joined the global economy and all accompanying comforts.
His tone was short and matter-of-fact: bad schools, bad roads, no health care, no adequate political representation. A small herd of us—my three cousins, my daughter, our driver—would take short jaunts in and out of various distant relatives’ homes and hear the same.
As I sit here in New York City typing this column, which will be my last for Mint, Baranghati and the place where a part of my roots ultimately untangle feels a world away from the US that is sleek, slick, shiny, packaged, crunchy, home. With each visit, it becomes less clear why I am there and what I can do. My female cousins have mostly been married off, the “lucky” ones to cities across Assam; the young male cousins mostly operate small stalls elsewhere selling SIM cards and cassettes and toffees. Few farm, leaving greying men like my uncle—really the son of my grandfather’s cousin—to handle the hard labour.
I somehow cling to the image of he who forms a part of me and my history, one whom I might not otherwise give a second glance if encountered on the streets of Delhi or even Guwahati. We have little in common, little to say, and yet I fear the day when my offspring and theirs will no longer feel connected to a place like this, or even to each other.
And that, I suppose, is the answer.
Readers might recall I began this column on 3 February 2007 puzzled about how everywhere I went, Indians asked me, “Why did you come back?”
For almost two years now, I’ve pondered and offered various explanations in this space, including the need to follow opportunity eastward, to the country that birthed my parents but never seemed big enough for their ambitions.
In the process, I’ve delved into not just the two Indias, but the countless Indias that perplexed me, yet ultimately define me: The young cousins who work as engineers and managers in Chennai, Hyderabad, Mumbai; the in-laws in gated communities of Gurgaon and Noida; a large close-knit patchwork across Guwahati; and those more removed relatives in the village. For the last few weeks, I felt compelled to be among the latter in Assam, distanced from the first-class and five-stars that had unintentionally been the backdrop to so much of our India stay in New Delhi. It was hard for me to explain to anyone just why we were going and why for so long. Sure, we planned to volunteer, to attend a few family weddings, but just what was it we were after?
The answers unveiled themselves mostly through my daughter: when she took her clothes off and jumped into a stream during a family picnic, frolicking with the children of my cousins and laughing in the way we used to; when she performed a Bihu dance on Christmas eve with another set of cousins and they laughed and traded inside jokes; when she joined that uncle with a stick and led the cows in rounds over the paddy heaped in his mud courtyard.
We non-resident Indians spend lifetimes hanging on yet criticizing, looking back yet teaching our children to “be Indian” through Bharatnatyam, religion classes and memorizing the national anthem. But having gone through several stages of definition and creation of said identity, that won’t be enough.
And so, when my daughter sobbed as we left India last week (why can’t we take the maid with us? I don’t want to leave my cousins or my dog. When will we come back?), in her raw, young reaction, I finally had an answer to why we had come that is far more becoming and honest than “because the economy’s booming”. I sympathized with her, having felt the same way numerous times as I departed India, chastising my parents for leaving in the first place.
But after two years in India, I know now why they did, discoveries I often wrote about here.
Through my daughter, though, I learnt something perhaps much more important—the reason India continues to lure. Despite her tears, my emotions ran far more joyous as we bid farewell.
Home is a place you can always come back to, after all.
This is the final instalment of S. Mitra Kalita’s column in Mint. Your comments are welcome at email@example.com