Read Time: Approximately a 14 Minute Read
New Delhi, India:
I started telling my life story to my father over spicy tomato soup in New Delhi. In betweens sips, little-girl gulps and tears, I zig-zagged through pieces of the last 23 years. I had traveled from Washington, DC to Delhi to find my father. I wanted to talk about him. But I had to talk about me to find out about him.
We sat in a busy restaurant in Connaught Place (CP) – one of the largest financial and commercial centers in Delhi and the location of my father’s favorite coffee shop which he’d been frequenting since the 50’s – and moved from spicy tomato soup to crunchy papadums while we continued the conversation. The crunch was the kind you hear in your head, in the inside of your ears. A librarian from Oklahoma reading a romance novel dined to my right and, to my left, a South Indian family with small children who were picky eaters.
Later that week in March evening heat we settled in a maroon booth at Nathu’s Bakery, surrounded by concrete blue walls and neon lights casting a shadow of the whirring fan. And, since eating together bridges estrangement, there were vegetarian coleslaw’esque sandwiches with abundant mayonnaise, lukewarm weak chamomile tea, and British-style biscuits that we dunked into the weak tea.
I remembered bits of my childhood – most if it is a dark, lonely blank. I remember emotions but not particulars, like feeling when you’re under anesthesia you can still feel pressure but not sensation. The closest I can describe it is an acute awareness of something but no idea what that something is. As a child, under the anesthesia of trauma, I remembered the pressure but had no sensation.
Tired of trying to fill in years that my father was so desperate to hear, I finally admitted my dark memory to him. I told him: either I don’t want to or I can’t remember. In a rare moment of physical affection, he placed his brown palm over the back of my hand and said: “I’ll help you remember. We’ll figure it out together.”
He didn’t know where we were for half of 1987 – my mother left Texas with my sister and myself and didn’t tell him that she was leaving, let alone where she was going. I was of no help to him – for as much as I know 1987 may never have even happened.
We ask for a second order of weak chamomile tea (sorry dad, can’t do any more chai) and reach agreement that my mother did leave Texas, with my sister and I in tow, in 1987 and without telling my father.
“She took us to India.”
The words came out of my mouth so quickly I looked around to make sure I had just spoken. I pull out my digital camera. On my memory card (a large one I am complacent about organizing and deleting) was a documented picture of my signature dated September 1987.
“Dad, I at least know where we were in September 1987.”
My father buys me a chocolate truffle cake, the only pastry in India that doesn’t taste like rose water to me. I’m comforted by this gesture of my father buying sweets for his daughter – it was a little nibble of an intimate father/daughter moment I so much craved.
“Why do you have a picture of your signature,” he asks, slightly amused.
I felt like Dennis the Menace and Nancy Drew at that moment. Having had always loved postmodern theory and literature (shout-out to Paul Auster!), I was diving head-on into this true postmodern mysterious tale of location, identity, personality, confusion. A story within a story within a story.
I explain to him how, two years prior in 2007, my sister and I had visited Haridawar -one of the most sacred pilgrimage sites in India – to bring my mother’s ashes to the holy Ganga River. Haridawar attracts millions of pilgrims, tourists and peace seekers. It’s located on the bank of the Ganga River and means the Gate to God. It’s where you go to honor all stages of life. Modern life has only reached bits of Haridawar- the banks are filthy, people shaving and bathing at every corner, shops overflowing with glittering prayer pieces. A slippery sludge of mud and water coats the floor. It is a place that could very easily be stuck in a never-ending loop of 1955.
On the banks, in the middle of the shops and prayer stands, stands a statue of one of India’s freedom fighters. In front of that is the home of a family of priests who have performed all rituals for my mother’s family for generations. The elderly priest we met at this home remembered my sister and myself from when we visited as children. He also remembered how, 20 years ago when I visited, I loved to sleep on the roof but would complain about the bedbugs from the straw beds. I don’t remember much about those days but to me Haridawar was about summer holidays, marigolds and roses, the electric buzz of Ganga’s waters at night-time, and summer monsoon rains.
After performing the final rites for our mother we went to locate the family scroll which recorded every visit by members of the family. Rolls and rolls of old-school style scrolls were piled high on creaky wooden shelves and filled with dated signatures by all guests. It was summer, it was damp, we were sitting on a hard-surface couch in a dirty home that still had elephant-ear toilets. Though it wasn’t a Jhumpa Lahiri novel of exotic India, mysticism and Indian accents with an educated British slant, this priest did have an extraordinarily magical power to flip through time as he flipped through the scrolls.
The priest found the scroll belonging to my mother’s family – the Dhingra’s – and traced back to a 1913 signature of my great-grandfather who had signed in an old Urdu script. In 1913, the British were still in India and Pakistan hadn’t been created. I was fascinated by this history and started to take photos of every signature.
My vivid imagination in fast forward, I flipped through the history of this family as he flipped through the scrolls. British Raj, build-up to the bloody 1947 partition, losing all, refugees in India, a depressed grandfather, rage, humility, migrating to Germany, migrating to the U.S., seeking economic relief…..and boom, the priest stops at 1987, at my mother’s signature.
Seeing her handwriting after having just scattered her ashes in the Ganga River brought my mother flooding back. I took many photos of her handwriting, desperate to preserve her. Next, I took photos of my signature, right next to hers, from when I was ten years old. Geeta Raj. September 1987.
Back at Nathu’s, in 2009, I eek out this story for my father. “Dad, see, I can prove it. We were in India in September 1987.”
I click back and forth on my camera, showing him all the signatures, dates and explaining the preservation of a life I never knew. My father held the camera to his face, the pain of lost time written into the curves of his cheeks, and sucked deeply on his cigarette.
There are snapshots about my father stored in my mind. How he used to tell me not to go in the rain because “you’re so sweet you might melt.” How he encouraged my love to read but would caution not to use a word “unless you know its meaning.” How he always told me I was a talented writer.
It never occurred to me, until after I shared my childhood stories, that he may actually love me. I now know, after point-blank asking, that he does. That I am linked to him by the intensity in which he missed my sister and me in those 20+ years.
Does he love me because I am biologically his daughter? Or for the person I have become, for my choices, my preferences? For how I kept writing my whole life, like he told me, and for all the times I still blush at the idea of melting when I’m caught in the rain.
When my father says he loves me, what kind of love has it got to do with?
I was and still continue to be esurient to know my father, his history, to fill the equations, the space. To experience more moments when I observe so much of myself in my father. How he’s a bohemian. How he talks to every random stranger at every curve of every step he takes and how I have done the same my whole life. How he loves photography and how I do. In our case, it’s certainly nature, not nurture.
After we determined where I was in September 1987, it then became my father’s turn to share his journey through refugee camps in 1950’s post-partition India, working through university, earning 5 degrees and leaving India for a different life, Afghanistan, Japan, coming to America. It was his turn to color in the gaps of who my father is, of what he believes, of what he supports.
I’m hiccupping because I’m crying with such velocity; I’m proud and surged with intrigue by his stories. “Dad, did you know that I also moved to Washington, DC and then to Kabul? I had no idea you lived in any of those places.”
I ask him to tell me a story about when I was born.
As he smiles at the memory of me as a slippery, water-logged toddler, I know he’s smiling at my courage for jumping off the highest diving board as a 2-year old and for all the plunges I’ve taken in life since.
That’s the kind of love it’s got to do with.