As I lie on my pillow staring at the ceiling fan of my bedroom in Northern California, I close my eyes and escape the room. I leave the house, the neighborhood, the country. I’m transported to the bedroom of my childhood home in Hyderabad. Suddenly, the pillow that cradles my head is not as soft as my Californian pillow. It smells of coconut oil. And Amtrutanjan.
The memory of my home is stamped on my senses. When I go on these memory trips, I usually linger in each room of the house. But today, I’m more interested in exploring my neighborhood, a gated community where I lived for the first nineteen years of my life.
Like a cartographer, I map out the homes of my neighbors that are arranged in a circular fashion around a huge empty space where children play, a gigantic neem tree, and an old fashioned well with a thick rope attached to a pulley and a bucket. I examine the verandas where families come out to have their evening tea and biscuits and wave at each other. I am puzzled by how their windows and doors open into places they are not supposed to open. What if these windows and doors could speak? They would fight and quibble over territory and privacy.
I don’t think my neighborhood was built with any particular plan in mind. It’s a haphazard arrangement of people and walls and roofs and stairs. Zero privacy. I can hear the title song of the TV serial, Ramayana, blaring from the television of my neighbor who is also our family tailor. I hear the spluttering of rai in hot oil in the kitchen of the family that lives below us. The oil hisses like an angry snake, and I know what comes next in this formula: jeera, the dancing curry leaves, and the obnoxiously pungent red chillies. Subdued, the oil settles down.
I walk over to the house of my Bengali neighbors. Our families are so close that I find black and white pictures of my sister and me alongside their family pictures on the walls of their bedroom. When I cannot recall more details of their home, I dig deeper into my mind. I press my palms against my eyes. You can do it. Think, think, think! The family of three lives on the first floor of a one-story building, and so do we. A set of open-air stairs connect the two adjacent buildings like a bridge. It is strange that the Bengalis’ kitchen is disjointed from the rest of their house and is part of our building. Our kitchens share a common door like Siamese twins…almost.
I pause my reminiscing and return to my present, pandemic-infested world. Why do I wallow in my memories? What’s so wrong and right about this exercise that I entertain every time I feel homesick or happy?
I flex my memory muscles because these reflections make up the un-severed umbilical cord that binds me to my homeland. Memories are all I have to keep me connected to my native country. If I let go, I will bleed and die. And somehow, though retrospection is not a slave to distance, it seems as if it is. Physically, I’m thousands of miles away from my homeland. My memories too seem distant. The longer I live in America, the sooner I feel my recollections of India flit away. I have to hold on to them. I can’t let them go.
Maybe this is one of those demons that haunts immigrants, at least the sensitive and foolishly romantic ones like me, who live halfway across the world from their native countries. We try our best, in our minds, not to detach ourselves from our past, our origins. From the places and faces that made us and formed our identities. We need those souvenirs to feel grounded and good.
I wonder sometimes what would happen if I developed dementia in my old age. I’m sure no one wants to suffer from memory loss. But what will amnesia do to me, an immigrant?
Will I forget bouncing up and down through the uneven streets of my four-hundred-year old city on the hard seats of autorickshaws that smell of petrol? Will I forget how the cheap plastic that cover posters of Sridevi, Salman Khan and Sanjay Dutt on the sides of the autos feel like against my sweaty arm? Will I forget tapping the driver’s shoulder, “O Bhaiyya, dheere chalo!”
My memories matter because they are an anchor, an escape into fantasy that is not fiction.
I close my eyes again and take myself to my private Memoryland. I’m laughing and joking in my pyjamas with my sister in our room. I haggle over the price of Kolhapuri shoes with a vendor at Hyderabad’s annual Numaish. I bribe my college chowkidar with a twenty-rupee note so he can let my friends and me ‘bunk’ classes and go to the theater.
Alexa’s alarm zaps me back into the present. I get off my bed, fix my face, and head out to my car to pick up my son from school. The canopied street is silent, as always. As I wave at my neighbor, I try to recall her name. I drive past the perfectly manicured front lawns of my neighborhood before hitting the busy street.
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