Tuesday, July 11, 2006

I wonder if you can pick up my accent on the phone

Braving the ever unavoidable tension that develops between us on the phone, I called my parents this morning. My mother's uncle and his family live in Khar in Mumbai. Though I knew that most of my family in Mumbai are elderly these days, and rarely take the trains, I still wanted to make sure. I wanted to make sure more for my mother's sake than my own. I've only met my mother's uncle three or four times. But he means a lot to my mother, because of her complicated history.

When my mother, the oldest of five children, was five years old, her young and stylish foi was leaving Ahmedabad to visit Mumbai. My mother eagerly tagged along, equally excited to be accompanying her favorite foi and to be visiting the big city. When they arrived, they stayed with my mother's kaka, the eldest living member of the family. Kaka had only one child, a son, but was the most affluent member of my mother's family. While my grandfather was working at the bank and making just enough money to make ends meet for his family, Kaka was running a small business and living more comfortably.

There she was, just a child of five, taken by her foi's youthful exuberance and by the pretty bungalow in which Kaka lived. She could not have known that her affection for the place was leading to an irreversible decision. Kaka called my grandfather during her visit and suggested that she stay in Mumbai. My grandfather, never one to disrespect codes of conduct, could not take issue with his older brother's edict. And so it was that my mother wound up raised in Mumbai by her uncle and aunt.

My mother only talked about her childhood to insist that things had not been easy for her living in Mumbai. Kaka was well off, but also disciplined. He did not believe in spending money to display one's opulence. So my mother would insist that she had lived austerely as a child. She seemed to think that, if she could only convince everyone she had not been spoiled in Mumbai, all the distance that had developed between her and the rest of her family would be bridged.

But it never was. All my masis and mamas emigrated to the US because my mother sponsored them. But still, my mother was one unit, and they, all four of them together, were a separate unit apart. It was not anyone's fault. I would not even say they loved each other any less. But the easy interactions, the intimacy that comes from having played and fought together as children, those could never be retrieved.

India, for me, has largely become a place of the past. Most of my close family no longer lives in India, and those who remain are elderly. During the cruise, my grandfather and I quarreled at midnight about his inclination to move back to his country after over 25 years of living here. He wants to be close to his remaining brothers and sisters, to spend his last days in the place of his youth. But there are so few people that would actually be able to look after him there that my logical side rails against the idea. My grandmother, who is now 80 herself, is in no shape to be keeping house in India in the style that my grandfather has in mind (i.e. without any paid help). When my grandfather and I reached a critical impasse, when my clunky Gujarati frustrated me such that all I could do was shake my head, he looked at me steadily and said in English, "You need to become less attached."

But of course, the young do not grow less attached, they become more attached. And my foolish grandfather, in his ever-presence in every major moment in every one of my cousin's lives, in his attempts to reverse the coldness that he showed his children with warmth for all of his grandchildren, has only succeeded in making us believe that we will all go on like this indefinitely- fighting and complaining, but always together.

Then something like the news today occurs and everything snaps into sharp focus: life never stands still and does not wait for you to realize it is precious before snatching it away. And even if we should become less attached, we do not. Instead, we reach out, hoping to embrace those far away and maybe even gone, drawing them close to our heart for an all-too-brief moment. So, I knew my mom's arms would be outstretched towards Mumbai this morning. Luckily, this time, she heard the crackle and the fuzz of Kaka's 90-year old voice on the line, assuring her he was okay. But I know others were not as lucky.

No comments: