She'd told him I was the Indian girl. The Indian girl. Somehow neither description rang completely true to me, in terms of how I felt inside, but thing was I'd never really consciously thought of myself as American, either. Of course I did the Pledge, too, along with everyone else for years of mornings, but like everyone else I wasn't really thinking about the words. I mean, I definitely wanted liberty, like Gwyn had with the car keys and no curfew, and justice for all would be great, especially in high school where people were definitely not created equal (proof: cheerleaders). But I didn't know if that had so much to do with the stars and stripes; it seemed to have more to do with the jeans and teams.
So not quite Indian, and not quite American. Usually I felt more Alien (however legal, as my Jersey birth certificate will attest to). The only times I retreated to one or the other description were when my peers didn't understand me (then I figured it was because I was too Indian) or when my family didn't get it (clearly because I was too American). And in India. Sometimes I was too Indian in America, yes, but in India, I was definitely not Indian enough.
India. I had few memories of the place, but the ones I had were clear: Bathing in a bucket as a little girl. The unnerving richness of buffalo milk drunk from a pewter cup. My Dadaji pouring his tea into the saucer so it would cool faster, sipping from the edge of the thin dish, never spilling a drop. A whole host of kitchen gods (looking so at home in the undishwashered cement-floored room). Meera Maassi crouching on the floor to sift the stones from rice. Cows in the middle of the vegetable market, sparrows nesting on their backs. Hibiscus so brilliant they looked like they'd caught fire. Children with red hair living in tires. A perpetual squint against sun and dust. The most delicious orange soda I'd ever drunk - the cap-split hiss, and then the bubbling jetstream down a parched throat.
But mainly all my memories of India were memories of Dadaji. When he died the whole country seemed to come unhitched, floated off my mental map of the world and fell off the edge, to mean nothing anymore, just a gaping hole fast filling with water. And at the same time the place I had known grew fixed in my imagination, rooted in memory. When my grandfather saw me that last time, he looked at me like he couldn't quite believe his eyes. He called me by my mother's name, Shilpa, and then when my mother stepped in behind me and it all fell into place, the weight of all those years in between visits was visible in his slumped shoulders. To me he looked the same, wearing a familiar maroon plaid shirt low over a white lungi that I realized later had been my father's.
In fact all sorts of items that mysteriously disappeared from our New Jersey home seemed to pop up all over the little flat where once was jungle where Dadaji lived with Meera Maassi and Dilip Kaka and my cousins. It had been a fuller household at one time: Dadaji had lit the flame to the pyre for his wife, who I barely remembered. Then he had to do the same for his son, Sharad, the Mama uncle who I also remembered faintly in physical detail, though lushly in atmosphere: an ashy dusk, the page-turn of wings, half-whistle half-hum. Dadaji made it through all these things still standing, until he slipped on his chhappals coming home from the garden with frangipani for the morning pooja, falling hard, his hip crushed against the petals; how a tiny thing could still create a big hurt. My cousins were a little older than me: Sangita, the quiet one, sporting soda-bottle glasses from very early on; her eyes receded behind the thick lenses to rain-filled crater depths, and the rest of her pretty much vanished behind Kavita. Kavita-the one who was buried in the books at NYU now, making up premed credits in an intensive summer program-used to be pretty boisterous: a chair-tipper, a tree-climber, her whooping laugh shaking the branches as she monkey-jumped about. The two were always dressed in clothes I'd forgotten I had, or that I'd been searching frustratedly for through all the closets of the house.
Meera Maassi called these dresses frocks, which sounded like an expletive the way it spat forth from her thin mouth-and which I preferred to the actual expletive it resembled because the F-word still didn't come naturally to me. She put the word to vipid use when she chided me, in my Osh Kosh B'Goshes, for not being properly attired, which I found ironic since her own daughters were in my duds-the dress with the mega-radiied purple polka dots, the blue-jean skirt with the rainbow patterns on the back pockets, stiff pink and white taffeta numbers that looked like the result of some wacky union between a ballerina's tutu and a first communion dress, the cumulus of fabric floating around my cousins' rail-thin bodies.
I was the American cousin, the princess, the plumped-up one: Kavita never got tired of pinching my cheeks, which I hated; they both giggled even when I'd said nothing funny and hovered around me, serving me first from the pots of fluffy rice and the silver thalis; they were always hungry to hear stories about America. Had I ever been on an escalator? Did girls talk to boys at my school? (Wide eyes when I said yes.) Was it true the stores stayed lit all night and supermarkets had aisles of just one thing and doors that slid open miraculously before you? Had I ever met a cowboy? (Kavita began to call me her cowgirl cousin when I told her I'd once ridden a horse). They marveled at how much I ate, how quickly I spoke. At night, they gathered with homemade pista kulfi and the rest of the household to watch reruns of I Love Lucy on the tiny television (which also looked vaguely familiar to me), laughing uproariously and slapping their knees at things I found cheesy at best. They sang "I Want to Live in America" from West Side Story-well, just that one line, over and over, but with surprisingly authentic Spanish accents. They begged me to teach them new songs. Dadaji could sit for hours listening to me, too, but I didn't feel like such a circus freak around him, though-or maybe because- he didn't understand a word of English. And me and Marathi-well, I didn't know enough to get me to the other side of the room; sure, when I was a baby those few months in India I'd spoken it in bits and pieces with him. But not since America, where I must have checked any memory of the language at customs. This was Dadaji's constant sore point with my parents: Aaray ram, krishna, and anyone else who cared to listen, how could they have been so cruel as to cut off their own flesh and blood from each other through this ultimate act of linguistic negligence?
-This America you speak of is like a dream, he told me one time, Kavita casually lotused in the corner and translating for me. --I am too old to travel. And it breaks my heart I cannot picture your life there. Make it real to me, rani.