In “Amreeka,” where my parents came to study, where they raked the yellow-orange leaves outside the temple on the afternoon before their own wedding, I am not Indian enough. I cannot speak Hindi, Telugu, or Tamil. And in India, every unrolled r that bellyflops off my tongue only makes people cock their heads and stare even more intently than they already are, x-raying me with their eyes, observing me with a mixture of humor, pity, and disgust. So where does that leave me? On standardized tests, I check ‘Other’ for ethnicity. I flounder between the two countries like a bird without a landing place, struggling to keep afloat in some uncharted area of the Atlantic Ocean.
And here I am, back after five years, in a place where I want to belong fully but where I don’t. After an auto rickshaw ride that fills my mouth with dust, we are there. The air smells of sweat, spice, and sugar. I see my cousin Siri first, her slender figure draped in a red salwaar kameez. She looks just as she did five years ago, the first time I met her. Then, other bodies emerge from the house, their faces slowly resolving into familiarity.
“Remember me?” she smiles.
“Of course,” I say, in clumsy English.
“Ah, it is so good to have you all here,” she shakes her head the Indian way, nodding no but meaning yes. She drapes an arm around me. It is a holiday, Ganesh Chaturthi, and we are wearing our most auspicious outfits – richly embroidered churidar in bright colors, decorative bindis, gold jewelry, and colored bangles. My great-aunt, her two sons and their wives, and four grandchildren live in this three-floor house. Most of the rooms are grey and bare except for beds and books. We crowd into one room, fan whirring unsteadily above, and the others make small talk.
Siri and her mother bring us tea and snacks: orange, oily jalebi, sweet yellow laddoos that melt in the mouth, sugary barfi with a thin layer of real silver on top, spongy gulab jamun soaked in syrupy rosewater. Some of the men even chew paan, the rolled-up leaf with spices in it that vendors prepare on the streets, which turns your teeth black and is not meant to be eaten, only chewed.
“Siri,” calls my other, younger cousin in a shrill voice, “Rajiv’s here!”
So this must be the other other cousin, the pre-med one. He is tall and wears glasses.
With a light in her eyes, Siri rushes to the door in a heartbeat and hugs her younger brother. When she pulls away, she is hurriedly wiping tears from her eyes. They keep falling, and she skids sideways into the kitchen, past Rajiv, who is still standing in the doorway.
The elders sit like rocks in the plastic chairs. Their mouths settle into sharp, straight lines. The tang of the paan disappears from the air like a stinging slap.
My little brother turns to me as if I could enlighten him. I look at my mom.
“She eloped,” my mom explains in my ear, “They haven’t seen each other for years. She came home just to see us. But she still lives in the same city. She has no right to cry.”
Siri? My obedient, gentle cousin with the perfectly well-oiled plait? She is so skinny that I am afraid she will break at the slightest touch. Her bangles are always about to slip off her bony wrists. I have never even heard her speak above a whisper. And she eloped?
I peer into my still full cup of tea, searching for some muddied semblance of my reflection. She came home just to see us. She had not seen her brother in five years, though. What could that mean?
Now Siri brings more tea. Her hands shake and the burning drops slip over the edges of the cups and spatter the grey floor. My great-aunt nudges Siri toward the door with unwavering hawk eyes. “Why don’t you all go outside?” translates my mom for me.
“Come,” says Siri, “We will visit Ganeshji.” A slight, shivery drizzle of cloth-like water mars the powdered roads as my feet stir up little puffs of dust, muffling the tinkling bells on my anklets. Siri pulls her dupatta up onto her head and drapes one end loosely over her shoulder. The long scarf rests there gently, like a prayer. By the side of the road, a white buffalo lows contentedly, the rounded copper ring in its nose swinging reassuringly back and forth. We pass the houses that have roofs of corrugated tin and half beds with soiled, patterned quilts. My cousin smiles. She is not afraid. An old Hindi hit, “Ruk Jaana Nahin,” by Kishore Kumar, blares from a roadside radio. The music is just beginning. So this is belonging.
We reach one of the giant roadside shrines just as the sun begins its warm dip below the horizon. As if on cue, the jasmine blossoms cease their nervous daytime twining and open; the fragrance of a thousand flowers suffuses the sweet vespertine air. Colored lights shimmer on, clinging fiercely to the air around them. I hear the buzz of electricity as they come alive. Incense curls into every pocket of the atmosphere. The glow goes on and on and on, fire in all hues melding with the undulating bronze figures on their golden pedestals on the side of the shrine. I cup the slanting, spangled light in my hand. The patterns shift with the slightest movement.
Temple bells clang steadily as we pass through the archway to a small silver shrine within the larger one. A lamp flickers there, feebly illuminating the bowl of tirtham, or sacred water, perched on the last step before the altar. I press my palms together and let the crackling prayers that are being chanted wash through me. We prostrate to the looming idol of Ganesha before us.
When I stand up, I look at her. I notice for the first time her clear eyes, so similar to those of my great-aunt, and the adamant curves of her cheeks.
“See, cousin,” she swings me around and points with outstretched arm, our backs to the glittering statue of the god. A cloud of white materializes in front of me. When the disorientation fades, I see a huddle of pigeons, all pure-white. They bob their heads absurdly as they strut about on the ground, clumsy and uncoordinated.
“Pij-yons,” she says, “So beautiful, na?”
I nod. A bell sends them scattering and they fly upward and on. In this new medium, they take on an immediate grace, hampered by those uneasy legs no longer, with only wings to carry them through the ether. Wings so bright they light up the sky.
“See how fastly they fly,” she whispers.
As they whirl above the city lights like dervishes, her arm points steadily, her finger guessing their destination until the pigeons have shrunk to the size of stars.
In her eyes, there is the flutter of wings. In her eyes, there is the hint of birdsong.
Vishnupriya Manavasi Krishnan graduated this spring from Holton Arms High School in Potomac.