“Aachcha, chalo,” Pappu said as he dusted off the back seat of his rickshaw with the gamcha he kept around his neck to protect his mouth from flies as he napped. It was dusty in Varanasi in the months before the monsoon. The dust rose like curls of smoke and clung to my skin. The gulley where Pappu sat was of cobbled brick, three blocks away from the house I lived in during my study. I was staying in one of the rooms in the house of Kamta Yadav, a police-wallah, overlooking the river Ganga.
I had spent a year abroad in Varanasi, known locally as Benaras, learning folk singing and Hindi language. At twenty-three I had my grandfather’s frame and my mother’s curls. Most people read me as belonging to Delhi or Kolkata—recognizable as Indian but with a marked difference. Perhaps it was my affect—queer, having grown up Guyanese in Florida, only learning Hindi from the age of fifteen. I stuffed an invisible gamcha into my mouth to keep my secrets inside. If I revealed too much about my origins I would have been shunned.
“Chalis. I will take forty rupees. Where are you going by train, bhaiya?” He called me this even though I was the younger one.
“Barabanki.” I said hesitating. Was I saying this with an accent?
“Oh-ho! You are going home!”
“Well, I am going to look and see if I can find a home.”
“I’m sure you will, this is our way: you will always be home in Barabanki.”
“Well, It’s been one hundred twenty years since my grandfather left.” I used the word grandfather for great-great-grandfather because I felt embarrassed saying the Bhojpuri word. My pronunciation of Bhojpuri was laughable, though it made people happy in Benaras when I would use it. It’s my family language. My grandparents all spoke Guyanese Bhojpuri, a language pieced together of North Indian languages and vocabularies that swirl about a Bhojpuri grammar. I was able to speak to Pappu in Hindi, sometimes slipping in a Bhojpuri word or phrase.
I carried my grandfather’s—my Nana’s—autobiography with me. In 1885 his father left Kolkata aboard the SS Bern for Lusignan. In his early twenties he placed his hand on the Indian dirt and touched his heart before he boarded the ship, indentured by the British East India Company to work the Guyanese sugar plantations. He had come from the village Rudowali Zillah, Barabanki, Patgana in the then United Provinces—firmly in Ramayana belt. He stayed in Guyana and was allotted a land parcel, displacing indigenous people in Guyana. In this new space his children changed with the land. Their language standardized into Caribbean Hindi and then Guyanese Creole. Like our language, my family’s caste identities transformed into a sleeping memory: unimportant and distant—a difference I would soon discover.
We passed goats and houses built on piles of brick, each marked with the name Ram, cows wandering unwatched, black buffalo driven by cowherds. There were butchers with skinned goats (eyes still in, hanging from hooks in the window), sleeping dogs with severely damaged spines, old men streaking the streets in their streams of expectorated beetle nut, the walls in their piss, boys riding two and three at a time on motorbikes. Finally we reached Cantt Railway Station.
I went to the section break between railcars to light a Capstan cigarette. We are not really allowed to smoke on the trains but the police usually turned a blind eye if you offered them a cigarette too. Fields and fields of mustard in bloom raced by me. A whir of green and yellow flowers. I wondered what it would be like if Bollywood film stars actually danced in these desi fields of mustard instead of in the flowered fields of Switzerland.
I went back to sit on my berth. An old man, most likely in his late sixties, looked at me curiously and asked how far I was going.
“Rudowali, you?” I replied.
“You’re not from here, are you? You must be from Delhi? Mumbai?”
I had been told by my Hindi teachers to tell people that I am from the city as a way to excuse my lack of Bhojpuri and as a way to have my difference recognized. The hope was that I would get the same treatment as an Indian in university.
“Well, uncle, my family hasn’t been here for a very long time. It’s been over a century.”
“Oh you mean NRI.”
Non-Resident Indian. I balk at the label. What did this even mean in my case? The India that I am from is not the India with the monstrous political borders that shut people out, rather it’s colonial India—a British invention. In the Caribbean, Indian actually just means people from East India. It’s enough of a marker. We don’t need to specify where exactly our families are from although I do make the distinction that my mother’s mother’s family was from Madras—now Chennai.
My friend Anandi from Queens, New York hates the title NRI. She feels like it keeps us out of Indian history, or rather it doesn’t cover our histories. We were slaves and had India erased from under our feet. Learning Hindi was even a feat given the fact that it was not spoken, ever, by any of my ancestors. Bhojpuri and Tamil, were the rural language of backdam, of road-end, of the Hindus and Muslims and Christians from India.
“Yes,” I answered. “We are NRIs that live now in Florida.” It was simply easier to lie about some things than try to explain complications. It’s strategic and simple. I looked out of the bars from the three-tiered sleeper car. Outside villages and fields whirred past. Eastern Uttar Pradesh smelled like salt, toil, mustard, and incense from prayers. Somewhere a temple bell rang. Somewhere adhan breaks out across the dawn.
“Good. We are almost to Allahabad. You will have to get off there and take another train to Barabanki,” said the questioning passenger. He looked at the other men in the train car and said, “Desi mughi videsi chaal.” Eastern Uttar Pradesh smeared its mustard and green in the background. Indian chicken, foreign gait. It was true. Even I laughed. I may have looked the same as everyone else in the train car but there was something about my gait, about my affect that betrayed my upbringing.
“Shukriya, thank you, uncle. I have never been there.”
“May Vishnu bless you on your travels, beta.”
I wondered if the men in the rain car were thinking that I was just returning to my “real” home in the village after being in the city—making me into more than an NRI and into a “real” Indian without qualification.
I got off the train in Allahabad and waited to transfer to a train that went locally to Barabanki. Three women in niqab passed by me on the platform, followed by a seven year old in a topi hanging onto a red and green kite. I squatted down to wait for the next train and it arrived within the hour. There was only one class to travel—general. The windows were open, barred with horizontal stainless steel rods to keep people from falling out. This train was orderly unlike the previous one. It was sparsely populated. I could smell the man next to me: sandalwood and cumin. No one hung from the roof or the opened doors as the popular American myth goes. No one was interested in me, my Western jeans, my strange way of speaking or my curious North and South Indian traits: round face, broad shoulders and dark color.
At Barabanki I got off of the train and headed toward the closest paan stand that I could find. I had developed the habit of chewing beetle nut and had become familiar with asking.
“Ek tho do, bhaiya, give me one.” He folded the beetle nut into a paan leaf sprinkled with tobacco, black and brown goo, fennel, and elemental lime. I took the triangle and put it in my mouth. The supari was hard. It was like chewing someone else’s teeth. Benaras had spoiled me with its soft beetle nut.
“Is there any place to stay here,” I asked. “Like any hotel or anything like that around?” It was getting late and I was in a place where I knew no one and next to nothing. This place did not exist in guidebooks.
“Sorry, no hotels around,” he replied, “but there is an ashram just there that you will most likely be able to sleep at tonight.” He pointed down the street. “Take the left by the tree and walk until you see the building on the right. They will be starting aarti in just a bit so you will be able to hear the evening prayers as well.” As I walked down the street, my body knew where it was going. I started to hear the bells chime. Hands clapped out rhythm. Om jai jagdish hari. Victory to the god of the Universe. I took off my shoes and rang the temple bell as I entered. Everyone stood facing the shrine. It was night and sandalwood incense prayed its perfume.
After the prayers had been offered everyone sat together and began talking: old and young men together. I wondered about where the women were. This was a male space. One old man with missing teeth turned to me, “Where are you from?” he asked.
“I’m from here.” My Hindi shook on my tongue.
“I mean where in India are you from?’ He must have thought I was an idiot.
“Uncle I mean I am actually from here—this very place.”
Wide-eyed, he pointed down to the ground and said, “Aap hiyan ke hain?” He was so surprised that he had to repeat this phrase several times. Then he asked, “What’s your caste?”
This next question stung. He was asking about where I am from in the scheme of things. What are my stories? Which of the seers do I descend from? In Guyana there was a relative break down of caste identity. Brahmins, Shudras, and Untouchables all did the same work and lived in the same houses called logies. Caste was something that was different, less damning than the kind of caste practices still thriving in South Asia. The truth is that my father’s father was a Gwalbans Ahir, a cowherd like Krishna and we descended from King Yayati’s son Yadu; my mother is a Brahmin, the priestly caste. But according to legend my father’s ancestors was stripped of their titles and became Shudras. There is not much of an accounting of the women’s castes past my grandmothers’.
If anyone here were to find out the truth of my caste identity I would be shunned. In fact, according to the Laws of Manu, if a Shudra man should marry a Brahmin woman their offspring would be a special kind of Untouchable called Chandala. Aji used to call us that when we frustrated her. You a real Chandaal, she would say.
It was explained to me like this: since we had a Brahmin’s “high blood” we were still able to do some inauspicious religious work despite the status of Untouchability. I am able to perform the funerary rights. According to the Vedas, I am a body-burning Untouchable by caste though I had lived a life of relative privilege in the United States. If I admitted this openly I would not be allowed inside of the ashram. I would not have any access to my ancestral home. I would be shunned and considered dead. What would it matter to my distant relatives living here? They’d never met me, so their days would be the same. Of course in Guyana I could claim to be an Ahir, following my father’s caste. But I do so knowing that it’s a lie, a lie that everyone in my family overlooks.
“I am a Brahmin. I descend from someone from this Zillah that was taken to South America in the year of 1885. His name was Sant Ram Mahraj and he lived in Patgana,” I lied through my paan stains. I was no Brahmin. Mahraj—not Maharaja that most people in the United States assume they hear. Mahraj is a title given to a Brahmin as a sign of respect.
All of the uncles looked at me and then at one another, stunned. They were silent for a good five minutes. Not really. Maybe they were silent for about thirty seconds, but it felt as though they had turned to bronze like the statue of Krishna in the background. He was, despite my being an Untouchable, my ancestor and relative on my father’s side. Maybe it was my good luck or karma that led me to his temple in time for prayers.
The uncle with missing teeth was the first to respond. “Aachcha?” He scrambled to his feet and went into a back room. Three minutes later he emerged with a scrap of paper with something written on it in Awadhi and placed it in my hands. “Don’t open this as yet,” he said. “Take this note and get on the train to Patranga—it’s only like a twenty-minute ride into the village. When you get off the train walk to the end of the only road in the area. You will see a sari shop on your left. Go inside and give the shopkeeper this letter.” His eyes sparkled with secrets.
This was all so mysterious. The pujari spoke up, “Beta, welcome, you can stay here tonight. There is some extra room available in the back. There are two boys about your age who are here from their villages learning the Vedas so you can sleep with them.”
I took my gym bag by the handles, shoved the paper scrap into my pocket and followed the pujari into the dark room where I shed my clothes and climbed onto a cot I shared with a man named Govinda. In our whispering at night he told me that he lived far from his village and that he left his wife pregnant three months prior. He liked my mother’s name Anjani, and promised to name his daughter after my mother so that his daughter too would be inspired by my ancestors’ great adventure across the sea.
I closed my eyes and imagined the stars that they must have seen when they crossed the ocean. Those nights must have been dark and the stars so colorful. I entered into dream.
I dreamed. My Aji, my grandmother, told me a story.
Bahut pahile ke baat hai. Ego raja rahal. Long ago there was a king who lived with his queen and his four sons. Now this king was named Yayati and was very greedy and lustful. He fell in love with a Brahmin woman, the handmaid of his queen because her father was a very powerful sage and had earned many boons from the Lord Shiva by practicing austerities. Yayati-raja wanted to live forever.
As a dowry for wedding his daughter, the king asked for immortality. The Brahmin agreed but since the king’s selfish actions vexed the sage he punished Yayati by turning him into an old man, doomed to hobble the earth for the rest of time.
Yayati begged his wife to find a way out of this fate. The second queen discovered that if Yayati was able to find someone willing to gift the king his or her own youth, that the curse would be lifted. A day passed and no one came forward. And another day passed. The king’s despair burst like a dam and inundated the land in the flood.
The king asked his eldest son if he would be willing to give away his life for his father. “Beta, dekh. Ham buddhe ho gaili. Hamke tohar jawani chahi. Deba na? Son, look. I have become old and I need your youth. Will you give yours to me?”
The eldest son, Yadu, refused and said, “Ham toke deb kaisan? How can I give this to you?”
Yadu refused and a storm raged in Yayati’s heart.
“Yahan se hat, nimakharamwa! You are no longer my son, have no claim to this kingdom. I strip you of your name and caste.” And with this Yadu departed the kingdom to live in the forest.
I woke up before dawn and took the first train to Patranga. Govinda led me to the platform and insisted that I ride it until I saw the sign—that if I had questions to ask the older men. He also insisted that I ask for clarification when I didn’t understand the Awadhi so I wouldn’t get lost. The problem was that the village that I was supposed to go to was called Patgana in my Nana’s, my maternal grandfather’s, autobiography. He wrote a book called Lil Lil Dutty Build Dam that was self-published. In it he chronicled his rise to prominence in Georgetown, Guyana as a politico and as a pundit. A pundit is a learned man, someone who knows religious texts. My Nana had studied Tulsidas’ Shriramcharitmanas all of his life and would give mini sermons from it.
It’s from this autobiography that I learned the name of the village that his father came from. It was called Patgana in 1885. In 2004 there was no Patgana on any map. None of the villages in Rudowali Zillah was called this—in fact the closest village name was called Patranga—the name the uncle had written down for me. I thought this an excusable mistake given our distance from this part of the world. The uncle in the ashram seemed to know something so I thought that I would follow his directions and leave being skeptical as an offering to Krishna.
I got off of the train and headed for the only street that I could see. It was dusty and uncrowded by bicycles, motorbikes, rickshaws, and people. The more I walked the more doubt flowered in my stomach. Wild flowers with large fleshy petals that turn into wings—not wings like butterflies, but wings liked flying foxes—that thrash about, webbed and black.
The sari shop stood at the end of the row of shops its doors gaping open like a mouth. Inside two men sat on the cushioned floor drinking chai and waiting for their first customers of the day. Outside they had already splashed water to calm the dust, and to keep it outside.
“Welcome, come in, come in. What can I do for you? Are you looking for a sari for your wife, or your mother?”
Wife. Another frequently asked question. Are you married bhai-sahib? My no is always cause for concern. I usually replied something like I’ll marry after my studies are finished. It makes good Desi sense. Better get my affairs in order before I get married and have children. But this was another lie that I had habituated into a queer truth. I would never marry a woman.
“Actually, you know, bhaiya, I’m not looking for a sari. I’ve come to speak with you.” My voice quivered. “I was told to give this letter to you.” I handed him the note scrawled on the paper scrap. I didn’t know what to expect. Maybe the floor would melt, or my arms would fall off. Maybe he would grow wings and a vulture’s beak and tear the flesh from my ribs. Maybe he would laugh. Maybe he would send me away, telling me to get the fuck out of this place.
He took the paper from me and uncurled its long strip. He read it a couple of times and then showed it to the other man sitting on the cushion. He was taller, leaner, had broad shoulders and a face that made my knees weak. He leapt to his feet. I could see tears running down his cheeks. He threw himself onto me for a tight embrace.
“You’ve come back!” he exclaimed. I had never been there before. I assume he meant me—his family?
“I –er…are you my bhaiya?” I asked him if indeed he was my older brother or kinsman.
“No. I’m Nishant—I am your neighbor. My house in the village is the house right next to your ancestral home.”
I was dumbfounded. I felt a singing in my ears and as if the flying fox had indeed flapped out of my throat as I gave a deep laugh. I laughed from the anguish of traveling. I laughed from the deepest pit of the unknown that sprung up inside as darkness I feared would swallow me whole. I laughed until tears crawled their itch down my face and neck. I had come home.
He quickly mounted his motorbike and motioned for me to sit behind him and to hold onto his waist. If we were related the connection wasn’t that close. I took joy in him riding in front and my holding him from behind. We wound the dusty avenue until we came upon a lane fringed with trees. He slowed his bike down so that all the people passing could see. They were carrying baskets, earthen pots, bags filled with sabzi, school books, puppies.
A group of about five boys and girls trailed us asking, “Bhaiya, who is this?” to which he replied, “Mera parosi, my neighbor has returned from abroad!” All of the children giggled at his outcry. I reached into my bag and withdrew a Dairy Milk chocolate bar. I knew this would come in handy. We rounded a corner and there was a large courtyard behind a kuaa, a well connected to this village temple to Durga.
“Before I take you to your home, you must come and eat with me. My mother will be so happy to see you,” said Nishant. We parked the bike at the side of the brick and stone house. The floor was cool and of polished linoleum, beautiful by any standards. Nishant called out, “Ma. Come. Look who has come into our house.” An old woman with her white hair tied back in a bun emerged in a tan and white sari.
“Who has come, beta?” she asked.
“It’s our neighbor. He has come back from Guiana.”
“It can’t be.” She approached and came up close and looked me head to toe. I folded my hands.
“Sada Pranam,” I said as I reached down to touch her feet. She caught my hands on the way down and smiled.
“You must never touch the feet of someone’s whose caste is lower than yours,” she said. “We are Kshatriyas, warrior and princely. You are Brahmin.” I looked down at my feet embarrassed by my faux pas. If she only knew. She laughed and commanded her daughter-in-law to bring in three plastic chairs for us to sit in. In she walked her face completely covered in her pink sari. She placed the chairs in a triangle and went back to scrubbing the corridor floor on her hands and knees. I was shocked to see how this woman, my bhouji, worked while we all sat and talked.
“We are like the devas,” aunty broke the silence. “Two Kshatriyas and one Brahmin. How far have you come, beta?”
“I am now living in Florida, America, but I have been in Varanasi for the last year studying folk singing.”
“What about your wife?” Again this question. I wanted to stop hiding. I wanted to tell them that I was queer. Queer sexually, queer religiously, queer by caste, and queer countried. I wanted to scream but I had to play the conservative game of the RSS party to learn anything about where I come from. I had to pretend to be a high casted straight man.
“After I am done studying then I will marry.” The pundit said that I should wait until later.
“That makes good sense,” chirped Nishant, looking over his shoulder at his wife. “Shilpa, bring the food. Can’t you see that Rajiv is hungry?”
Aunty too chimed in. “Ohe bahu, bring the food. Rajiv has come from so far away and you have not even offered him water. Come.” Shilpa approached, head and face still obscured by her sari and offered me a glass of water. I hesitated and glanced from Nishant to his mother. Nishant looked at me, “Don’t worry, it’s filtered.”
Unlike most anxieties, this one was well worth the worry. I had recently been diagnosed as having three intestinal parasites from drinking contaminated water. The worms Ascaris lumbricoides and giardia coiled about my intestines—hungry to be fed. The pain was crippling. Being bedridden every two weeks for at least three days was common. I felt like my insides were being stabbed and I would shit and vomit at the same time—sometimes unable to even stand up to make it to the squat toilets.
Shilpa brought out the stainless steel thalis with katoris of daal and fresh rotis. Before Nishant took a bite he circled his thali with his water three times and poured a little out. Then he took a piece of roti and scooped some of the vegetables in it and muttered the bhojan mantra. I only caught the piece that I know:
Together, may we be protected;
Let us join together to benefit humanity;
our learning be of joy.
Let us never be possessed by hate.
With that blessing we ate Shilpa’s sweat.
The time had come for Nishant to take me to the village in Patranga. We had eaten and digested. It was now well into the afternoon and I was anxious about continuing this journey. Again he tapped the back part of his motorcycle but this time he gave me a wink. I mounted and we sped from the side of his bungalow, around the kuaa, passed the temple to Durga, around the bend that led to the paddy fields. We kicked up dirt as we gained speed darting large stones in the road. Faces of people walking by raised their eyebrows in surprise. Brave dogs, excited by the commotion raced behind trying to keep up with the bike. Without a helmet, tears streamed from my eyes. My heart leapt as we sped through the rice growing heavy on their stalks. I was finally going home, to the place I always refer to when explaining where I was “from.” I thought my body is made of this earth; my blood of this very water.
Above us the sky clouded. The azure dotted by cloud cover. The nimbus were purple, swollen with rain. I was full too. From all directions women sang kajri songs, songs pleading for their lovers to return to them, to save them from wasting away in anguish during the monsoons.
saiya gaile bides
bole lautbe saawan mein
dardwa na jagao
Rain begins to fall,
my love is gone abroad,
said he’d return come Saawan.
do not wake this pain.
Aji used to sing these same kind of songs. I wondered how many monsoons has it been since my family has returned to this balm, this cradle of song and peacock calls. Come Saawan, the koyal begins her call. How those left behind must have called out for those who left. And when they didn’t return how they must have smashed their empty clay vessels on the floor.
Did these very fields, flooded with rain, collect her songs and nourish the rice in her anguish?
We reached the village in Patranga. The walls of the house were low, made of dried mud and straw. The roof was thatched.
Nishant called out into the house. “Gita-Bhabhi! Aa jao, Come see who has returned.” He grabbed for my shoulder and pushed me in front of him. A woman came out in a pink chholi-ghagara.
“Eh Nishant,” she greeted him without a smile. “Who has come?” Her eyes narrowed as they looked me up and down. She tightened her eyebrows and tilted her head.
“This is your son, come home after all of these years,” Nishant beamed in Awadhi. “His name is Rajiv.” Gita-bhabhi looked me over again. The lines in her face looked like some strange language. I looked to see if her eyes were like mine. Her skin was fairer than I imagined it would be from living in this house and working outside—which I assumed she might. Her eyes betrayed nothing. We stood watching each other: I for any trace of myself; she for any tell of what our relationship was.
Nishant continued in Awadhi, “….American to see if you….from a long time ago with the British to Guiana….Brahmin….” Gita-bhabhi grunted in understanding every time Nishant asked Samjhe? Get it? I was disappointed that this Awadhi that they were speaking was too deep, too different from what I would be able to follow. As far as I knew my grandparents all spoke Bhojpuri, so this was an alarming twist to my story.
Nishant looked at me. “I am going to go back to my shop, you stay here and Ashok-bhaiya is coming back just now,” he snapped his bike into gear off of its kickstand. Ashok-bhaiya was Gita-bhabhi’s husband. He was able to speak English, Hindi, Awadhi, and Bhojpuri. He was coming home from work to speak with me.
He drove off in a cloud of dust; Gita-Bhabhi and I stared at each other wide-eyed. She motioned, “Come inside. Have some water…must…exhausted,” she spoke through her veil. We walked into the mud house into the outdoor courtyard. It was a large square with a well pump in the middle. There were trees with wispy leaves in the center, a pile of stainless steel dishes piled up by the pipes, and a clothesline from one side to the other. Along the perimeter of the courtyard were rooms, four altogether that opened out to this central hub of activity. The roof hung over the sides and provided shade in front of each room. The ground was cool. We sat down in the shade, I on a cot and she on the ground. Gita-bhabhi placed the glass in my hand and raised her palm and gestured for me to wait.
A man about my own age ran into the courtyard. He wore a lungi and a Polo shirt. Sweat dripped from his forehead. He looked at Gita-bhabhi, “Eh Ma, is it true? Has he come back?” he asked looking around until our eyes met. He ran up to me. I stood up. He threw his arms around my neck and kissed both of my cheeks. We introduced ourselves. No wife. Him neither. His name was Prashant and he had rushed back from a chai stand where he was hanging out with his friends.
“Do you know how we are related, Prashant?” I asked.
“We have to wait for papa to come to tell us exactly how we are connected.” His Hindi was like liquid. He sat next to me on the cot looking at my face and curling his lips into a smile. His facial hair had just started coming in and he kept a moustache—typical of young men in their early twenties. He placed his hand on my knee. I didn’t know exactly how to feel—my heart lurched as he continued to look at me. His mother watched us and smiled.
“You have another brother,” she said to her son. I didn’t ask how long we’d have to wait for Ashok-bhaiya to return from wherever he was. I wanted to sit in the shade of this home and to hear the wind against the thatched roof. The sound of footsteps and laughter. This mud, this courtyard must have seen and heard so many songs. There was a knock at the door. Prashant rose to answer it.
“Yadav-sahib, you’ve come. Did you bring the wire?” Prashant’s friend had been asked to work out some issues he was having with his CD player. I was struck by the name Yadav. It was the name that came from Yadu—my mythological ancestor. An Ahir like my father.
Gita-bhabhi didn’t let him in. “He’s an Ahir?” I asked Prashant. To which Prashant answered, “Neech hai voh, He’s a low caste—he can’t come inside.” His Hindi stung. Neech. It could also mean lowlife or scum. If they knew just who I was exactly that would make me even lower. Gita-bhabhi didn’t let the Yadav into the house. I doubt if I would even be allowed in the village. I had come so far to be here. I had lied. Any gain was ill-begotten. I was a mixed-caste bastard.
Into the village house walked a middle-aged man dressed in slacks and a dress shirt. His appearance was neat, his clothes looked well colored unlike the clothes that hung from the line. He rushed up to me; “I’ve come quickly from work because I heard that you had come.” His English was flawless. “When did you arrive?”
I looked at my watch. It had been about an hour. “I just came, only,” I replied approximating Indian English. I looked at my feet and picked at the skin on my thumb.
“Welcome!” he rushed to embrace me. I reached down to touch his feet—I was home, after all. He let me touch his foot and then my heart. It was a gesture of putting someone above myself. It was my submitting to his accounting of a familial history.
Ashok-bhaiya grabbed my shoulder, squeezed it and motioned for me to sit. We sat on the cot. Gita-Bhabhi and Prashant looked on at us. Prashant’s teeth were straight and white. Gita’s nose ring looked like a little flower adorning her face in gold. The earth of the courtyard was gold. The sun sneaking through the paddy fields and into this mehefil, this gathering, was gold.
His name was Ashok. He worked as a teacher in a school in Patranga, teaching English and math. “So you’ve come here to learn about your family, no?” he asked, wiping his glasses.
“Yes. I am living in Varanasi for the year.”
“Ahh—Varanasi is a very good place. Your mother-father know you have come here?” he asked crossing his legs and leaning in.
“Well—” I stammered. I didn’t tell my mother and father that I was going to search North Indian villages to find our kin.
“This is your nanihall, the place of your mother’s father. I am so glad that you have returned. We have waited a long time to hear from you.”
I was shocked that they even knew anything about me; that we existed in the United States.
He continued, “Your nana came here in the 1940s, yes? He bought a house in Allahabad and lived there with his family.”
This was true. My Nana had indeed returned to live in Allahabad in the late 1940s—or was it the early 1950s? He sold all of his things in Guyana and moved his then nine children to India. My Mausi has stories where monkeys stole the roti from their rooftops when they were in the kitchen. My mother was not born in India and actually, the family joke is that she was conceived on the kalapani, on the boat on the way back. My Nana decided that life was too complicated in India and that he missed the comforts of Guyana: mainly, I believe, speaking English and Creole.
It was also difficult for his children to live in Guyana and then move back to India the place where we are “from.” In Guyana we were never really allowed to become Guyanese without the marker “East Indian” that pointed to a supposed origin. But my grandfather was second generation: the first to be born in Guyana—what did he really know of living in India? According to my mother, my Nani told my Nana to blame her, to say that they moved back to Georgetown because she was not able to get along in India. So he sold all of his things again and moved back. I didn’t know that he had made meaningful connection in his village.
“He was a pundit, a learned man who studied the Ramayana and knew Bhojpuri, Awadhi, Sanskrit, and English,” he continued. Yes, I thought. This is definitely my Nana’s story! “He also played the sitar and was an excellent musician.”
I paused. These words echoed and stung. Actually, my Nana never played any instrument. Maybe he played the hand cymbals, the majira, during puja, but he definitely didn’t play the sitar. This wasn’t in any family stories. I replied, “Actually he didn’t play the sitar.”
Ashok-bhaiya furrowed his eyebrows. “Yes he did. He gave great concerts in Allahabad and Varanasi.”
My stomach sank. I had just eaten a stone. What did he mean? This is no longer my story. Up until this point every thing had checked out—the stories aligned themselves to create harmony. Now this dissonance. I had come all this way—no, I thought, there is a mistake. I chimed up, “Are you sure?”
“Yes, your Nana moved here from Georgetown. Hang on, I have a picture of him I will show you.” He got up and disappeared into the bedroom’s shadows. When he emerged moments later he clutched a picture that faded into sepia tones. He placed it in my hands. I looked at the image and then at my face reflected in the glass. The picture was a man sitting cross-legged holding onto a sitar. He wore a pagri, a turban. This was not my Nana. He didn’t have neither my Nana’s dashing face with his chiseled jaw and almond eyes, nor his broad shoulders. What a waste. I had come so far, and for what?
“This is not my Nana,” I choked. Tears began to could my eyes. I couldn’t see nor could I think. Now what? Whose house was I in?
“Yes it is,” Ashok-bhaiya insisted. “We are your family. Your mother is from Georgetown, so was your Nana from here. This is your home.”
I looked around. This meant that there was someone else whose family had crossed the kalapani, enslaved by a contract of indentured servitude from the same Zillah that my Per-Nana had come. They lived in Georgetown. “Do you keep in touch with them today?” I asked.
He looked at my shaking hands. “Yes, let me show you.” He returned to his bedroom. This time the darkness from inside threatened to swallow me. He came back with an envelope with a name written on the front with an address. The name was Hema Mahraj. I didn’t know anyone by this name. I hung my head.
“This is not my rishtedaar—not anyone I am related to or know.” My voice trailed off.
“Yes it is. We are your family,” Ashok-bhaiya insisted looking at me and curling his lips in a smile. “You should come and spend some time with us. Maybe even work the fields that you belong to. We have a rice crop to harvest. How long are you in Varanasi for?”
“I am here for at least another two months.”
“Come back and spend at least two months with us. We will do your janeo, your sacred thread, and you can begin learning the Vedas—I know someone who can teach you.” He looked over at Prashant. “Prashant would love it too to have a brother in the home.”
I looked at Prashant and then at Gita-bhabhi. Their eyes reflected sunlight. I could see my silhouette in Prashant’s eyes.
“Yes,” I replied. “I will come back soon, but probably not for another year and a half. I have to return and finish my studies before I can afford to come back this far.”
“That’s a good idea,” Ashok-bhaiya said. His face looked nothing like my Mamus’. “ That makes excellent sense. You will stay at least for a couple nights, now, though,” He insisted.
“Well, I have to catch the last train to Barabanki this afternoon at 5 so I can be back in Varanasi before it’s too late. I have to be back to school tomorrow. It’s Monday and I am writing my thesis.” The truth was I could have stayed a couple of days if I wanted to. My professors would have understood.
Prashant looked at me with wide eyes. Ashok-bhaiya looked at him and then at me. “Actually there’s a bus that goes directly from here to Allahabad that you can catch. It’s better than taking the train because if one arrives late into the station you will miss your connection. Better to take less of a risk.” He was being helpful. I couldn’t tell if he was hurt that I wasn’t going to stay at least one night. I promised I would return, though. “Prashant will take you on his bike.”
We passed another hour talking about my mother and father. He sent gifts with me: a silk dupatta for my mother and a cotton gamcha for my father.
I touched Ashok-bhaiya’s feet and said Namaste to Gita-bhabhi. She asked me to bring gold from America when I returned. I climbed onto the back of Prashant’s motorcycle and held onto his waist. We zipped passed acres and acres of rice fields where women worked with their mothers and daughters, draped in colorful cloth. I could hear a woman’s voice clearly as we stopped at an intersection. She was singing a kajri song that begged her lover not to leave. I wondered about my great grandfather. Had anyone begged him not to leave? Did he meet this man, whose descendants I had just met, from Patranga in the shipyard at Kolkata or did he ever meet him in Guyana. Surely they must have known of each other, coming from the same fields. Somewhere in all of this green was once a village called Patgana that I was from. Somewhere in time it slept, its women sang songs that welcomed men back from afar. Its courtyards witnessed the greatest of joys.
When the bus came I boarded. I gave Prashant a hug. I would never see him again. He begged me to come back. He didn’t even really know who I was. Would he have begged me if he knew that I was a neech, lower than the Yadav who wasn’t allowed in his house? I turned to look at him. Prashant fell to my feet and touched them. From the bus window I watched him slowly disappear as we moved along, the bus creaking rhythm as it bounced over potholes and stones.
Rajiv Mohabir received the 2014 Intro Prize in Poetry by Four Way Books for his first full-length collection The Taxidermist’s Cut (March 2016), the 2015 AWP Intro Journal Award, the 2015 Kundiman Prize for The Cowherd’s Son (forthcoming 2018), and a 2015 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant. His fellowships Voices of Our Nation’s Artist foundation, Kundiman, The Home School, and the American Institute of Indian Studies language program. His poetry and translations appear in Best American Poetry 2015, Quarterly West, Guernica, Prairie Schooner, Crab Orchard Review, Drunken Boat, Anti-, and PANK. He received his MFA in Poetry and Translation from at Queens College, CUNY where he was Editor in Chief of the Ozone Park Literary Journal. Currently he is pursuing a PhD in English from the University of Hawai`i, where he teaches poetry and composition. www.rajivmohabir.com