Places – 1

I like listening to Ranipur and Kumaitha stories whenever I am sitting in a living room of the 17th floor of my parent’s apartment building in Ottawa, watching the sun set at the Rideau River, the skies the color of mystic topaz.  In my mind, I occupy some sort of a moving point within the imaginary lines of the scalene triangle marked out by these three points on the globe: Ranipur, Kumaitha and Ottawa.  Or perhaps the boundaries of my existence don’t map out a triangle at all; There would be too many points left out in a shape as restrictive as a triangle.  What of Honolulu, Patna, Sabour, Delhi, Columbia, Washington DC, Baltimore, Hackettstown and New York? Perhaps it’s more of an amorphous and amoebic shape that our footprints have traced.

People are always curious about my antecedents.  They want to know where I am from.  I still haven’t figured out a short answer to this question.  What could the short answer be? My parents still don’t have any trouble saying they are from India and my daughter could just say New Jersey and be done with it.

I don’t have the luxury of a short answer in a country where attention spans are short and most questions are rhetorical; demanding a non-answer or no answer at all, and the question is asked in the first place because the person doing the asking is stocking some shelves in his or her brain and wants to be able to find a special shelf for me.  The answer I give could put me on a shelf for which I don’t particularly care. 

When I have the luxury of a leisurely answer I tell them I was born in Hawaii (at the US-Canada border the officers sometimes want to know how that came to be), grew up in New Delhi, did some more growing up in Maryland and DC and then ended up in New Jersey.  An answer that could be a head-scratcher for those shelf-stockers.  In the end I probably get stashed on a shelf reserved for miscellany or exotics.  Of course there are always those who walk up to me and want to know, “habla Espanol?” and still others who ask if I am from Ethiopia or Somalia – maybe something about the longish nose, the eyes the curly hair, the dark complexion, who knows?

I can’t name any one place as a starting point for me.  Even though, as a child I used to view the slides and photographs from Hawaii as often as I could, I was entranced by the colors on the island, the blues, the greens, the exquisite colors of the saris my mom wore, saris that were still fresh from her trousseau.  She never gave the impression of being in an alien environment there, she always looked gorgeous and at home, even with her two long plaits of thick hair; a hairstyle not seen in 1960s Hawaii.  They were so young and in such a perfect place.  I recall with vivid clarity a picture of my mom standing next to a hibiscus plant, the colors were so rich, so tempting, I used to feel I could sink deep into the picture if I stared long enough and hard enough.

As the show went on a little baby made an appearance in the frames projected on the walls and that baby born in the month of June, the month of the pearl, on an island that is often referred to as the pearl of the Pacific, was enveloped in all the love and care her two very young parents showered on her.

Every time I saw these slides I felt special.  When school was dreadful, when friends were hard to come by, when teachers frightened me and any spectacular academic achievement seemed impossible in an intensely competitive world, I could lose myself in pictures of Hawaii and convince myself that my life would be exciting and different, because the starting point of my narrative was unusual…in my mind.  The shimmering Pacific of my dreams always soothed and comforted me and kept me from lapsing into the dread of ordinariness.

So they reminisce now, towering high above the streets of Ottawa.  They launch Google Earth on their computers once a day and trace the rural roads that lead right up to their ancestral homes in Ranipur and Kumaitha.

Dad peers at the aerial view of Ranipur, a small village near the city of Bettiah, in the middle of the erstwhile Bettiah Raj, where he took his very first steps.  His dad, a freedom fighter, a Gandhian, born at the tail end of the 19th century, couldn’t see beyond the vision of an India free of the British.  That was the only thing on his mind.  He was beaten by the British, jailed by them for passive resistance and satyagraha and each instance made his resolve stronger.  But there were some moments of reflection when he gazed upon his son playing in the courtyard and dad remembers my Baba asking him,”What will you do when you grow up? Will you be a rickshaw puller?” Maybe he knew India would be free and independent soon enough but he couldn’t envision a bright future for his son within independent India.

Mom traces the roads that led up to the village where she grew up, a village called Kumaitha.  I always thought Kumaitha was a funny sounding name, but she mentioned it came about when Kumbhkarana, on his quest to vanquish Rama and company, sat there for some rest and relaxation, “Kumbh baitha” (Kumbh sat here) became Kumaitha.  I recall the maternal side of the my family being constantly ribbed and ridiculed by my dad about their propensity for long siestas, a la Kumbhkarana.

My mom’s grandfather and my own grandfather were contemporaries and friends.  Both of them fighting the British in the Gandhian way, both passionate about the cause, they rode the crest of this passion all the way, until they breathed their last.  Their dedication, their work, their sacrifices bore fruit.

I hear these stories and make attempts to juxtapose the trajectory of my own life against the stories of these ancestors and it makes me question the heft of “nature” in the “nature vs nurture” debate.  Do I possess these genes of passion, of conviction? Or did nurture overwhelm nature completely, vanquishing it, making me a privileged and complacent person, lackadaisical about so many things and taking so much for granted?

I live in a world where I don’t have to imagine my daughter pulling a rickshaw.  But she is also a child of privilege, how many things would she take for granted?

Dad and mom talk about a large chunk of their pre-Independence childhood spent playing in the dirt.  Dad was in the Gandhian system of basic schooling.  He tells me about Basic School and how all they did was weave thread from cotton, dig the earth using a shovel, plant things.  There wasn’t much emphasis on anything academic.  The focus appeared to be the development of efficient agrarian skills.  He never wore anything but khadi growing up.  My grandfather passed away when he was twelve and I hear stories about the rest of his childhood where all the basic needs of food, shelter, clothing were essentially being covered by the wave of goodwill that was my grandfather’s legacy.  I hear about him trudging several miles, the first of every month, to collect the money for his school expenses from someone who wanted to see him get a good education.  He didn’t enter the world of academics until a much later age and had no English until 8th grade.

It is always amazing and fascinating to me that he ended up in Hawaii on a grant from the East West Center of the University of Hawaii for a doctoral program in plant physiology, given his entirely rural background; by some benevolent quirk of fate the rickshaw pulling prophecy was dodged and dismissed.

This fascination of mine will endure for me as it does for my parents.  There must have been so many days of despondence, of not knowing what life had in store for them, of wondering, of frustration until things literally turned on a dime (or 25 paisa coin) for my dad and someone encouraged him to fill up an application that would have him winging his way more than half way across the world.  The 25 paisa application that he reluctantly filled out at the urging of a professor at his college.

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