A Passage to America: Three Decades Later My Mother Lets Go of Antipodal Achings
- We are so used to weighing our joys against our disappointments that we forget the agency we have in letting go.
This evening feels perfect because it is neither new nor old, neither disorienting nor dull. It is the evening many of us know all too well and cherish fondly perhaps. The night back home in America after that long, long trip to India. Somehow, I can’t picture the first night in India when going back from America the same way. In India, it’s always that first morning there after the long journey that feels splendid, like the first day in existence, again and again. Back in America though, it’s the night that comforts, the night that reassures, that this is home too, this life, this world, so far from there, so hard to let go, many “N+1 years” (of postponing planned permanent returns to India) afterward.
Of course, this night feels even more special because this is the night we are back after the first time we have traveled in two and half years. For most of the pandemic, I wondered when I would travel anywhere again, let alone all the way to India. And with elders, that always posed an even more profound question – which of our loved ones would we ever get to see again by the time we ever returned?
In the summer of 2020, two uncles, in their 80s and 90s. In early 2021, an even more massive loss, unexpected and weighing heavily on us throughout that year. More uncles, aunts. Ceremonies conducted online and on the phone’s audio. Time making us know who’s in charge of things, again and again, as we made do with our hi-tech copes.
In the summer of 2022, I finally made my move and booked our seats, but then uncertainty yet again – a bizarre diplomatic row between Qatar and some other countries with India made me rethink my travel plans. As I canceled and shelled out the penalties simply because a lie had traveled across the world yet again before the truth could get its act together, I wondered whether the “times” were really better now. After all, the problem of these last few years wasn’t just the virus. Everything was a political drama now, and one based on lies, hate, violence. Why should I pay into all this? Could we not continue to exist somewhere far away, quietly?
Was it really necessary to go? Would it happen?
But now, with relief, I can say that these past few weeks did happen. We did go and come. We saw all who are still there and honor all who are no longer there in the manner we once took for granted.
In one home, a cupboard full of a wonderful mother’s saris stood, a silent wall of remembrance, and yet, presence, of her love for a daughter who missed her.
In one home, the presence of a small cardboard shrine made by a 95-year-old great-grandmother for her husband’s photo.
In one home, only the two old half-broken brick pillars holding the gates remained from the past. The last of the elders were gone, the children lived in far corners of the world, so the old family house was now turned over to developers who had already demolished the old building and replaced it with the skeleton of a new apartment complex.
I saw my old childhood home too, sold by my parents almost a decade ago. Now it’s replaced by a big shiny glass building which is proudly advertising the impending arrival of, well, a new Starbucks café.
I have come to the conclusion during this trip that there is really nothing left to fight, or perhaps fight for, too.
I think this world is so vast and inexorable in its ways that all our lives are only a journey in coming to terms with our conceits about how much we can really do in our time.
But this acceptance is not defeat. It is in the end happy in ways we can never predict.
My life in America began exactly 30 years ago, nearly ten of them in graduate school. I felt the worst of guilt and uncertainty at that time. I wasn’t sure I would make it, because I had already flunked out of college before. On top of it, my mother made me feel I was selfish to have left India. But my father insisted I make something of myself here. He stood by my future in ways that marked generosity, love, and practical accommodation to social and generational change in ways I couldn’t really understand perhaps.
Then, as I settled into an academic life here, I began to straddle both sides of the antipodal existence happily. Three months every summer between semesters seemed like a great way to restore my ties to my homeland while keeping my work going here. But in time, that too strained. For me, India was a past I was trying to preserve. For my family there, it was a reality that had to be dealt with as life demanded.
My father passed away in 2014. Years passed. Rifts healed. Then, this time, after the pilgrimage of ancestors and elders had ended, on my last evening in India, I called my mother from the airport just before boarding.
What she said was profound.
My same mother who once felt I was being selfish for going away to America said our visit was like a two-year dose of Vitamin B12, her exact words. She has not traveled in years, but she remembered all the difficulties of long flights and sympathized with me. But in the end, she said that one visit, those happy few evenings spent together this summer, had given her the same strength as a two-year dose of vitamins, of “aanandamu.”
This has to be my greatest learning in years. We are so used to weighing our joys against our disappointments that we forget the agency we have in letting go. I think my mother in her heart has let go of whatever she felt about children going to foreign countries all these years. She is happy we came, and we are happy too.
Vamsee Juluri is a Professor of Media Studies at the University of San Francisco. His latest book is “The Firekeepers of Jwalapuram,” part 2 of a trilogy titled “The Kishkindha Chronicles,” … “because the world was a better place when the monkeys ran the world.”