I’ve been thinking about my father a lot lately, wondering how my life would have been. Maybe cause my half-sister is turning 21 this year, and I can’t help but notice the unintended differences in upbringing. I am grateful for what I have been offered, no doubt, and yet, when one has always been placed in a position of compromise, it becomes hard not to think back to one’s childhood and wonder, “what if?”
My little one just turned 8. As I had written in the last post, she reminds me of how I was when I was 8 and stopped being when I was 9. I write this essay in memory of my father, Kumar Raja.
I remember the day that it all started unraveling. I can close my eyes and recall it, inch by inch, slide by slide, etched into my memory like the faces on Mt. Rushmore. It was January 27th 1982. I was eight years old. My cousins and I had just gotten back from school. I couldn’t help but notice that my cousins were unusually quiet on the way back.
I stayed with my aunt – my father’s sister – and attended a catholic school along with her three daughters, which inevitably required that I move in with them when I was barely three, the starting age of kindergarten in India. I was the youngest of them all, my cousins being four, seven and nine years older than me. I was their baby sister. I was 8 yrs old.
After we trek home from the city bus stop, which was our method of transportation to school, a good half-mile away from our house, we haul ourselves up the zillion stairs. I was little, and the stairs looked like there were a zillion of them. I was Jack climbing the beanstalk ready to go into the giant’s castle. There was always so much excitement in my little mind, and it kept me entertained. Being the chubbiest of all my cousins, I was a straggler, always out of breath by the time I got to the top and my gigantic book-bag didn’t make it any easier.
I finally made it to our bedroom to change out of my uniform, and I realized that my cousins hadn’t changed yet. (They usually left their clothes in little circles on the floor). “Its’ just not fair that they get away with it” I thought to myself, “and I have to follow all the rules.” I hurriedly shuffled into my regular clothes; I definitely didn’t want to miss out on the fun. Whatever they were all up to, I wanted to be a part of it.
I ran into the living room, as fast as my chubby legs could carry me, only to find it empty. As I stood there in the middle of the room, bewildered that they would all leave me, I heard whispers coming from the master-bedroom. The door to the bedroom was closed. “Ah-ha, that’s where they are!” I said to myself as I tiptoed to the door. I could hear them speaking in hushed tones.
I tried to listen to the conversation, my little ear plastered to the door, but all I heard was garbled nonsense. My aunt was talking, a monologue by all means, and I could not understand a single word of what she was saying. A whole lot of help that was! Soon, the entire thing started taking an eerie tone – the hush-hush noises, the solemn look on my cousins’ faces on the way back from school, the disappearing act –I didn’t like it one bit. Adding to the eeriness of it all, I was a wimp* -scared of noises, shadows, insects, curtains, empty chairs waiting around a table … you name it, I was scared of it. I humbly attribute my paranoia to my all powerful imagination, complete with graphics and sound effects.
(*Note to reader – I had originally used the word ‘wus’ following my British-English upbringing, but was compelled to replace it with ‘wimp’ after I realized that the 21st century American English has transformed ‘wus’ into an acronym - Wild Unprotected Sex – Urbandictionary.com)
I hesitated outside the door for a few minutes, uncertain of whether I should barge in, or give them their space. It felt weird hovering outside the door, and moreover I was starting to get really spooked, so I decided to go in. I slowly opened the door, and akin to an ostrich, put my head in first, hoping to scope out the room. I must have a big head, because my aunt saw me, and said, “Ssshhhh!” Silence fell, and I grinned, not knowing what else to do. Slowly, I brought my neck, shoulders, trunk and legs into the room, and stood still, while everyone just stared at me. “Pack your bag Lavanya. We are leaving for Manikonda tonight” my aunt said in a tone that sounded almost alien. Not harsh, just alien. That was not what I was expecting, not that I was complaining. As a matter of fact, I was ecstatic.
I had to two reasons for being ecstatic. One, I loved to go to Manikonda. Two, I was about to skip my quarterly exams. Woohoooo! I didn’t even bother to ask why we were going there. I mean, c’mon, it had to be important if we were being allowed to skip taking tests, and who in their right mind would object to that? So, I didn’t.
We packed. I could barely contain my excitement. I was all feathers and butterflies, and a noisy little cricket. My cousins on the other hand looked like they saw a ghost. The heaviness in the atmosphere was palpable. I really didn’t mind, since I had not seen the ghost and I wasn’t going to ask about it either. All that mattered to me was that we were going to Manikonda.
My paternal grandparents owned a mansion in Manikonda, a small village located in the state of Andhra Pradesh, India. Most summers my cousins, all ten of them, aunts and uncles would get together at that house, so I only have fond memories of it. It’s a house fit for royalty. Come to think of it, we were royalty – the house came with servants, cooks, cleaners, maids, playground, animals, large gardens, land, a great big wall surrounding it and not a care in the world. My favorite part of the house was the gigantic balcony on the second floor, similar to a large bonus room in a million dollar house. The balcony was flanked by huge arches on all three sides providing a lovely view of the village, the streets and the people strolling by. Right smack in the middle of the balcony was a massive wooden swing that hung from the ceiling with thick braids of chunky metal. We would all pile up on the swing, kick our feet, soar into the air, and match the rhythm of the swing with a melodious chorus.
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down
Ye-eah we wept, when we remembered zion.
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down
Ye-eah we wept, when we remembered zion.
That’s how I got introduced to Boney M., right alongside my nursery rhymes. It was beautiful. So, it was no wonder that I was ecstatic about going there. It was like summer in the middle of a school year; every little girl’s dream.
The journey was long. Maybe it felt like that since the road we had to drive on was made of holes rather than tar. The engineers seemed to have gotten it all backward, and we had to put up for their ineptitude. As we inched closer to our destination, I could barely sit in my seat. And just like that we took a turn that steered us away from our intended destination. “What’s happening? Where are we going? Why are we turning this way?” My questions were endless. My aunt informed me that we were going to the house of another aunt, who apparently lived nearby. “But why? Why aren’t we going to our house? What’s going on?” I was confused, irritated, and impatient. My aunt mumbled something about freshening up and then heading over, which I thought was plain weird. Adults, I tell ya, they absolutely make no sense. Since there was no point in making a fuss, I acquiesced. We were there at that foreign location for over an hour, and I was on pins and needles. Finally, it was time to go.
Our house was close enough that we could walk. It must have rained the day before because the ground was muddy with pools of water. Since this was a village, the back roads were just dirt roads, and the rain made them worse. Someone had placed stepping stones across the muddy path, so as to ease the walk.
(Sitting here as I write these lines, I see a crisp picture of a little girl in a yellow dress and short bobbed hair, eyes glowing with joy as she maneuvered herself on the stepping stones that zigzagged along the watery path. I see her having so much fun as she jumped from stone to stone, hands stretched out on either side to provide balance. A small smile played on her lips as she jumped up from one stone, was in midair for a millisecond, and landed on another. That moment of pure joy is etched in my brain since it stands forever as a sharp contrast to what was to ensue.)
We finally arrived at the house, albeit at the back door, which opened into the large open courtyard surrounding the house. My aunt opened the door and we all stumbled in, single file. I still had a big smile plastered on my face when I looked up and saw that the courtyard was littered with people. There were so many of them, and if I didn’t know better, I would have thought that I was at a fair, minus the Ferris wheel, cotton candy and all the fun stuff. Packed, was an understatement to describe the mass of people standing around. As expected in the Indian tradition, they were all men, since people segregated by gender. The women, if there were any, should be inside the house.
By the time I collected myself and looked around, my aunt and cousins had disappeared. There they go again, with the whole disappearing act! I made my way effortlessly through the crowd as they parted, in step with my stride, just like the sea parted for Moses. The only difference was that I was no Moses. I walked through the back door of the house, and entered yet another courtyard, only to find it packed with women, just as I had predicted. Given that the courtyard inside the house was much smaller than the one outside, the women were all standing relatively close to each other, similar to a night club, but without the music or disco lights.
There I was, barely three feet off the ground, surrounded by women towering over me. Luckily, I didn’t get trampled over as I made my way to a clearing with a built in ledge. I climbed over the ledge, giving me the advantage of height and looked around hoping to recognize someone. As soon as I stood there, a ripple effect started to take place. The whole crowd stopped talking as they slowly turned their heads towards me. A million eyes were staring right into me. I have to admit, that got a tad bit uncomfortable. Through the corner of my eye, I saw an aunt that I recognized. I ran to her relieved that I was not in a parallel dimension where everything looked the same, except the people.
My aunt bent down towards me and said in a voice that was barely above a whisper, “Your mom is here.”
WOAH!!!! NOW they tell me??? Not quite sure if I heard it right I say, “Mommy’s here? MY MOM IS HERE?”
My aunt nods and I continue,“What is she doing here? Where is she?” My aunt doesn’t answer me but points me towards the house, directing me to go inside; and I take off!
I was elated to find out that my mother was there. I hadn’t seen her in a few months, and I couldn’t wait to hug her. I made my way through the throngs of women, meandering and maneuvering myself from one room to the next, asking “Where’s my mommy? Have you seen my mommy? Where’s my mommy?” The ladies kept directing me this way and that trying to lead me to my mother, whereupon I ended up in a bedroom with a strange lady sitting quietly on the edge of the bed.
The lady on the edge of the bed seemed so solemn in her stance that I could have sworn she was the high priestess of a sacrificial club! Nope, definitely not my mother. I hesitantly walked up to the lady, not quite wanting to be her sacrificial lamb, and whispered “Do you know where my mommy is?” She pointed to a door leading out into the open veranda at the front of the house. “She’s outside?” I think to myself. “What in the world is she doing outside?” Completely out of options I walk towards the door. I open it gently and step outside.
Here’s a snapshot of what I saw. The verandah is rectangular in shape, quite long, with five stairs to the right of it, tapering to a covered ground-level porch, packed with men with no room to spare. The left side of the verandah had a long wall with a door leading into the living room of the house. The verandah itself was filled with women. Most of the women sat on the floor towards the north end, farthest away from where I stood. They sat huddled in groups leaning against each other. A few others sat quietly, backs against the wall with tears streaming down their faces. Others sat in the middle, hunched over, letting out gentle sobs. And then I saw my mom.
My mother sat towards the south end of the verandah, closer to where I was standing with a dazed far-away look on her face. She was listless, expressionless, and motionless. Her skin, pale and bloodless stood in stark contrast to the black hair braided down her back. An aunt sat beside her, holding her up like she was a rag doll. Beside my aunt, even closer to where I stood, sat my great-grandmother; she had a river flowing from her eyes making the front of her sari all wet. My great-grandmother, Boboamma as I called her, was beating her chest, wailing, crying and spewing words strung together like a garland of twine, incoherent yet audible. In front of the trio, on the ground draped in a white sheet lay a body. Only the face was visible, eyes closed and nostrils plugged in with cotton. A soft glow emanated from the lamps that were lit in a semi-circle, their flames dancing quietly around my dead father.
I love you daddy. May you rest in peace.