(My daughter Ramya wrote this piece in 2007, when she was in High School)
“There are places you can leave that will never truly leave you.”
I cannot remember who spoke these words, yet as I peer out the tiny window -at the house, the city, and the country I am rising above and leaving behind, they reverberate in my head. For the sweltering past month, I have made my paternal grandparents’ house in Hyderabad, India my home. Now, with henna tattoos on my hands and a schoolbag stuffed with homemade Indian sweets on my back, I am flying to my other home, halfway around the world in Pennsylvania.
This summer, my first summer visiting India as an adolescent, I saw my grandparents’ house as more than just my home base during whirlwind thrice-a-decade visits to India. On one level, with wide-eyed curiosity, I was mesmerized by the simple beauty and ingenuity of the house. Yet on a deeper level, I saw the house as a window into my family history and my cultural heritage. In the dank crevices of the kitchen, in the rare breeze rustling garments on the clothesline, even in the daunting old-fashioned bathroom, I saw clues to a foreign lifestyle and a history that is comfortingly my family’s own.
Nayanamma and Thatha, my paternal grandparents, had been the first in our direct family line to move from rural India to the city for education and employment, and by constructing this house in 1965, they had planted their roots firmly in a newly-independent, progressive India. In the 70’s and 80’s, relatives visiting from the villages used to stay for weeks and marvel at the rapid modernization that engulfed the city but left the villages untouched. In this house, my father had hastily done homework after afternoons spent playing cricket on the streets, studied computer engineering without a computer, clenched his fists in nervous anticipation through his engagement ceremony, and packed for a new life in America. Here, Nayanamma had juggled the responsibilities of a career and a family when it was groundbreaking for a woman to do so. And here, a seventy year old man who had grown up without electricity could phone his mother in her native village, e-mail his son in the States, and watch DVDs of his grandchildren’s first words. For my Nayanamma and Thatha, the house was a symbol of all they had accomplished in life, while for Nana, my father, it was a launching pad to a new continent of opportunities, opportunities which he in turn passed on to me and my sister.
While the house is significant, it is by no means extravagant. Its most memorable part, the back garden area, consists of a small cement bench surrounded by a wide array of vegetable plants and exotic trees. The area around the house is small and flows together, with the back and front doors of the house open to let in the non-existent wind and allow my free, restless movement. There is a constant smell of too many flowers mixing in the still air, and even though it isn’t like the overpriced perfumes in tiny glass bottles at the American department stores, I like it. Nayanamma sits on the bench, extracting pomegranate seeds from the magnificent fruit. She places the juicy kernels into a small metal bowl, a collection of rubies that accents her scarlet-bordered sari perfectly. Thatha sits beside her, cutting okra in his white banian shirt and lungi, a wrapped Indian cloth. Working outside whenever possible and in no obvious rush, Nayanamma and Thatha exemplify the pleasant pace of life in India.
A clothesline crisscrosses the right side of the small space. Draped on it is a fusion of garments: the trusty pair of blue jeans that had carried me from my doorstep in America through thirty-two hours of safety demonstrations and mealtimes and naptimes to this precious place; the one-meter-by-eight-meter turquoise cloth which takes form on my mother’s too-busy-to-exercise body and transforms it into its perfectly proportioned self; the faded lungis Thatha wraps around his waist while at home, alongside the Western pants he pulls on when going out to take care of business; the golden-yellow salwar my sister bought, which seems to reflect the blinding brilliance of the sun that bakes it.
The rear edge of the property is defined by a concrete wall that rises a few feet above our heads. Jagged pieces of brown glass are stuck into the cement on the compound wall, like the rotting teeth of a beast, to ward off thieves and trespassers. Dainty pink flowers creep boldly between the shards. Beyond the wall are high-rise apartments where the new and growing middle-class hang their saris outside their windows like flags and shout greetings up to their neighbors. At least five times a day, Thatha tells us how vast and empty the area behind their house used to be when they first moved to the city.
The left and right sides of the property are demarcated by the same concrete walls, but beyond these walls are houses similar to our own- small and built decades ago. The space between the house and this dividing wall is no more than three feet, so one could literally stand there and watch his neighbor’s TV or hear the scratches and gurgles of his neighbor brushing his teeth. As children, Nana and his friends used to climb over these compound walls to get to each other’s houses rather than enduring the more tedious process of walking in and out of front gates. All of these children have since grown up and moved out, leaving behind elderly neighbors who stand at these walls and gossip about whose daughter ranked highest on the college entrance exam or whose son was still unmarried. The thick walls between neighbors in India do not hinder communication in the slightest, while the invisible ones in the United States make neighbors strangers.
On the front step leading up to the house lay a heap of shoes. Black Old Navy flip-flops tossed beside worn, brown chappals underneath fancy Indian sandals greeted visitors to the house and hinted at who was inside. These piles of shoes are a comforting site to Indians everywhere and a sign of the sanctity of the home, according to Indian tradition. Arriving at this doorstep, not at the Rajiv Gandhi International Airport, always signified the commencement of a whirlwind vacation in India, the three weeks in which we were supposed to cram a lifetime of memories with some of our closest friends and relatives. The house served as our home base during our stays; from there, we set off on shopping excursions through the chaotic streets of Hyderabad, entertained guests who pinched our cheeks and asked if we got together on weekends with their sons and daughters in places like Seattle and Dallas, and ate unhealthy quantities of deep-fried delicacies. I had also stood on this doorstep so many times, surrounded by suitcases filled with a lifetime supply of homemade sweets and spices, saying tearful goodbyes and wondering when I would see my family again.
To the left of the paved area in front of the house is parked Thatha’s car, a small tan Maruti Suzuki which all three of his children constantly beg him to stop driving. Between darting around other vehicles, halting suddenly for pedestrians and cows, shooing away beggars whose outstretched hands seem to spontaneously appear in the windows whenever one is stalled in traffic, and honking constantly for no reason whatsoever, driving in India is a challenge that rivals the most intense car-racing video games. Yet Thatha continues to brush off his children’s concerns and honk and swerve his way through the streets of Hyderabad everyday, saying that Master will protect him. His car plays the catchy tune of “Saare Jahaan Se Accha,” a patriotic Indian song, each time he reverses, much to the delight of me and my sister and the annoyance of everyone else.
To the right of the house a narrow set of stairs leads to the flat rooftop, where I help the servant girl each week with the novel task of wringing out laundry and pinning it up to dry, despite protests from Nayanamma and Thatha.
Each room in the house flows seamlessly into the other, divided only by a diaphanous cloth that hangs in the doorway. In the family room, a long couch and a short couch run along two sides of the room, facing a small TV set in the opposite corner. Nayanamma sits here every Saturday morning and watches a program called Sakhi, in which beautiful ladies with mellifluous voices relay news stories, interview celebrities, and teach women how to cook novel delicacies. From Sakhi, Nayanamma learned how to make Spanish rice, French toast, Chinese noodles, and all kinds of wrapped and rolled versions of traditional Indian dishes.
When the house was first constructed, the only toilet of the house was little more than a hole in the ground. Only in the 1990s did Nayanamma and Thatha install a Western-style toilet, solely for the sake of their NRI (non-residential Indian) grandchildren. This toilet is small, flimsy, and pink, yet we are grateful for its presence. Each time we visit India, we bring several rolls of Charmin from the United States and use them frugally to ensure that they last the entire vacation. The sink, rather than being located in the bathroom, is in a wall cavity by the dining table. Because Indians traditionally eat with their hands, this is commonplace in India to facilitate frequent hand washing.
I loved peering through the front gate, observing children pass on bicycles and men on scooters. Boys with thin, dry, scratchy legs with feet in worn, brown sandals and girls wearing 1970s-style bell-bottoms with flowing peasant tops. Dogs, always emaciated and stray, trotting up and down the streets. On the roadside just a few feet to the front and left of the house was a dhobi, or ironing-man, who worked from a small shack-stand constructed from scraps of metal and cardboard. Women wearing vibrant saris rode by on bicycles, dropping off baskets of freshly cleaned saris. He ironed them with the most cumbersome-looking iron I’ve ever seen. It was a metal box filled with burning coals with a large handle on top, and with it, he meticulously ironed sari after sari late into the night, later than I could have possibly remained outside in that oppressive heat.
Now I’m on my way to a home with high ceilings, granite countertops, a washing machine and a dryer, four Western-style toilets, a spacious backyard with a wooden deck, and two Honda Accords parked in the garage. It has only been a few hours, but I already miss the comforts of my Indian home, my familial home.