~This essay was previously published in Fourth Genre (2006).
By the time the first small British community was established in Bombay, five of the original seven islands were already interconnected at low tide by shallow sandbanks, silted up over the years…By 1730, land reclamation, carried out under supervision of the British, had permanently united the five islands into a single mass and large earth works had been thrown up to prevent a major invasion by the sea… Bombay, Dom Moraes
The people living on these islands were mainly fishermen. They worshipped the Goddess Mumba Devi after whom Bombay is named. Gradually, the shallow waters between these islands were filled so as to connect the seven islands into a large one. India: The Land and Its People, Swarn Khandpur
In the photo, my father stands in front of a blooming red hibiscus, framed by pink bougainvillea. The sun bleaches the ground beneath his feet, makes the leaves of the hibiscus shine, as if they have just been polished. Holding his arms out from his sides, my father is a bird about to take flight. He wears gray suit pants, a short-sleeved shirt and a dark blue tie: his idea of vacation wear. In his left hand, he clutches a clear plastic bag that probably contains maps and brochures. His curly black hair springs from his head in mild shock, and he smiles widely, his eyes hidden by square-framed glasses.
Or does he?
I always thought my father was just smiling until a friend saw the photo and dubbed him “laughing man.” Of course, he was laughing, his mouth wide open, his teeth showing slightly. He laughed more than he smiled, the smile itself a prelude to a deep belly laugh brought on by something my sister or I said or did.
And I felt embarrassed, standing next to my friend, as if I should have known he was laughing, not smiling, should have heard the familiar guffaw. I had been looking at the wrong thing: the arms like wings, weighed down only by the bag in his left hand.
Although Bombay is a city that starts work late in the day, we rarely slept past six. The screeching koyal, the incessant cawing of crows, and the tinkle of bicycle bells as people made their way to work woke us every morning at sunrise despite the closed windows and air-conditioning. In those early hours of the morning, we often heard the pickers sifting through the garbage for plastic bottles. Above the cacophony of street noise and wildlife, I heard the early morning call to prayers, issued over a loudspeaker from the mosque down the road. The men in the alley continued to reclaim the bottles we may have discarded the night before.
“They’re looking for your bottles,” I said. My husband, a firm believer in recycling, did not like to crush the empty Bisleri bottles we discarded. He did not share my concerns about the way these bottles would be recycled.
Bottled water, especially in rural areas, is not trustworthy. Recycling the empties by filling them with tap water (or worse) and resealing the cap is a small business that starts with the picker who sorts through the mounds of garbage and sells the old bottles to a middleman, who refills and distributes them as new. My husband’s guidebook suggested that our fears about tap water, in the cities anyway, were exaggerated, that the worst we could expect from it was a “minor dose of the shits” for a couple of days.
For my father, illness was never minor. Growing up in pre-penicillin, pre-vaccine India, he had seen people die from unexplained fevers, unidentified infections, mysterious aches that never went away. Grandparents who died from bubonic plague, cousins who died from dehydration, brought on by a dose of amoebic dysentery.
The guidebook had no such stories. Its pages did not talk about people like my cousin and her husband, both doctors, and their kids, who got so sick on their last visit to Bombay that they had to use IV drips. My father assumed that we understood the seriousness of IV drips, even if we didn’t know what was in them, and that had they not been doctors, my cousin and her family would have died. The clincher, which my father saved for last, was that they ate no outside food—that is, food prepared and sold on the street or in a restaurant—and drank only bottled water.
“Obviously,” my father said, a hint of triumph in his voice, “the water they were drinking was fake.”
To forestall the impending threat of contaminated water, my father had decided during our Zurich stopover that we would save our small water bottles and take them to India, where we would refill them at the hotel with water from bigger bottles purchased locally, their purity established by unbroken seals my father would check and recheck. During our two days in Zurich, he amassed a large collection of 16-ounce bottles, argued when my mother suggested he leave some behind, and extolled the bottles’ virtues to my husband and me, when we talked about buying new bottles in India. This plan so clearly assuaged his anxiety, we stopped arguing and allowed him to take charge of hydrating us.
Why were we here? May in India: all our friends thought we were insane. I had never been to Bombay in May. I knew the July-August Bombay: wet and colorful. Soggy. Even at the most expensive hotels, carpets squished underfoot, and the walls were clammy with dampness made worse by air-conditioning. But in May, the sun beats down on your head relentlessly, and the air, heavy and thick, feels washed. Every morning, I was surprised by the intensity of the heat, the way it squeezed me in its fists, draining every bit of moisture from my body.
May was the only time we could find to travel with my parents. I thought this might well be my last trip with them, their last chance to show me all the things I did not pay attention to as a child, could not notice as a teenager. My most vivid memories of Bombay revolved around the long afternoons my sister and I spent waiting for my parents to return from what seemed to be an endless list of errands and social calls. They had a way of making their trips to the airport to clear their unaccompanied baggage sound like an adventure, but I knew if I had been with them I would not have seen this. Adventure was elsewhere, not at Santa Cruz airport, watching petty customs officials pick through the old clothes we had brought back for my cousins.
May in Bombay: another chance to capture my father’s city, make what was his mine. While my father worried about water, I worried that without him, I would be just another tourist.
At the Gateway of India, one of Bombay’s most well known sites, even the murky green ocean with foam and debris floating on its surface was inviting. A few days into our stay, my husband and I hovered under the largest of the three ornate arches, commemorating King George V’s 1911 visit to India. We read the inscription carved into the grimy yellow basalt. Young men jumped off the pier and emerged dripping wet, their clothes clinging to their wiry frames. They were not the ones who bothered us, aggressive like crows, cawing “postcards, postcards” or “Take your photo. Instant results.” These men held out photos of smiling couples against the backdrop of the monument. They insisted and pushed against us, misreading my husband’s polite refusal.
As I steered my husband towards the street, a grizzled man with a long black beard and fierce, burning eyes tried to hand him some prasad and tie an orange string around his wrist. His long fingers reached out, and I grabbed my husband and pulled him towards me, rejecting the blessed sweet on his behalf. We walked toward the Taj hotel, and three men approached us separately, offering my husband hashish, all the while ignoring me. Then a little girl got into an argument with him when he asked her why she wanted us to buy her milk instead of giving her money. I sensed he genuinely wanted to know and would have kept arguing (where had she learned such fluent English?) had I not pulled him away.
“This never happens to me,” I hissed. “You look like a tourist.”
“Geeta,” my husband said patiently. “I am a tourist. And so are you.”
“I am not.” Maybe I looked like one, but I did not feel like one. I was irritated by our encounters, the way one of my cousins might have been, and embarrassed that I had not been able to prevent them.
Back at the hotel, my father was unimpressed by my distress. “The problem is you went where all the tourists go,” he said, making it clear that despite his caution with the water, he was not a tourist—this was his home. He could still point to the first office he practiced in over forty years ago, even though the name of the street had changed. While we searched the city for Kemp’s Corner, named for a Scottish colonizer, possibly my husband’s ancestor, my father traveled to his old haunts, reliving a past we could not share. Where he saw his office, I saw a nondescript yellowed two-story building, streaked with black mold, and I’m still not sure I saw the office, even though he pointed it out every time we passed it.
This city I do not know, this place my father loved, remains inaccessible to me. He has left me with photographs and labeled landmarks, and still I only see water-stained buildings, someone’s unfamiliar black head in the foreground, a blur of bicycles and rickshaws in the background. Dust rises from the street, hazing the shaky images, and I wonder which shop, which street, I’m supposed to see. He is no longer here for me to ask, but even if he were I would have to fake understanding, try to imagine what he saw, and put the picture together for myself.
If I could not embrace tourism in Bombay, a city I had been to many times during my childhood, I would embrace it elsewhere. Over thick pieces of buttered toast and hot tea one morning, I announced to my parents that my husband and I would take a side trip to Rajasthan.
“But you can’t go to Rajasthan,” my father said. “That’s the desert.”
My mother, who understood the difference between an idea and actual plane tickets, kept reading the paper.
“You’ll die from dehydration. It’s all desert,” my father repeated.
People were dying in the desert, this was true. Daily, the newspapers reported deaths from dehydration. Many of them were rural people without access to running water or laborers who had to work outside during the worst heat of the day. One well in Rajasthan served several villages, and women would walk several miles a day to bring water home in clay jugs balanced on their heads.
My father crushed his empty bottles. He complained about the misuse of them, fretted about broken seals and dented bottles. But this effort was not wholehearted. He did not crack his old bottles, stomp on them for a fully flattened effect. He was the one who had told me to crush them, yet, as often as not, he forgot. And if I chose to enter my two cents into the conversation about this economy of water bottle recycling, he would defend the pickers. “After all, they have to make a living too.”
Maybe he saw that the privatization of water—putting fresh water into the hands of a few, who sold it in the sealed bottles we bought across the street—directly contributed to these deaths. A natural resource should be available to everyone, not just those who could afford it. Or maybe this was simply my father, who would tell my husband not to give money to the beggars only to search his own pockets for coins when someone approached him.
At the Prince of Wales Museum, with its lush gardens still dripping from the morning watering, we were required to leave our small bottle of water at the gate. The museum had a water station inside, where people drank from shiny stainless steel cups, drawing water from taps over big industrial-sized sinks, and I assumed that museum officials did not want people wandering around with water in case of spills or other mishaps involving the exhibits. I tried to imagine what these mishaps might be and failed.
Inside, I fretted over the little bottle I’d left at the gate. What if someone opened it and added poison to the water? Or drank from it and replaced it with tap water? I thought about another cousin who, on his last visit with his kids, purchased all his water bottles from the Taj, the fanciest hotel in town, which would not sell anything but the best, and at an 800 percent mark up. My cousin would not have left his water bottle in a stranger’s hands.
In the small galleries, schoolchildren pressed against each other, jumpy and excited. The rooms were narrow and people crowded against the exhibition cases, their fingers smearing the glass. We stopped in front of a display of archaeological finds of the Indus Valley Civilization, most of which occupied an area that is now in Pakistan. I showed my husband diagrams of Lothal, a site in the Gujerat that my father took my sister and me to visit when we were younger. The city, or 4000-year-old remains of it, is 50 kilometers inland. It was once a thriving port city, something archaeologists have deduced from the seashell tools and terra cotta seals found buried at the site.
Among my photos, there is a black and white of my mother, my sister and me at the foot of the dried up bed of the harbor. My mother is crouching, and I am bending over, looking at her hands. It was winter, sunny yet cool enough for me to be wearing black tights. I remember the sponginess of the silty gray ground beneath my feet. I picked up a tiny shell embedded in the ground and wondered about the people who had stood here so many years ago, what they had thought when they realized the water was drying up, and whether they knew that one day this place would exist only as a ghost town.
On that same trip, we stayed in a hotel overlooking the Sabarmati River. In the evenings, we walked along the edge of it, watching men and women cross its bone-dry expanse. The sun would set, casting the riverbed in orange and pink. In a few months, heavy rain would reshape the banks, and when the Sabarmati overflowed, water would pour into Lothal, flooding its parched ruins and devastating the surrounding villages, leaving thousands homeless, many dead. The landscape would change yet again, turn from brown to all shades of green, blanketed by flowering plants, rimmed by the debris of those lost villages.
One day a harbor, the next day a ghost town. I have another picture of Lothal, a blurry black and white showing four large rocks of varying sizes. The biggest ones have holes worn into them, like rudimentary mortars. Perhaps they were tools, perhaps they had been eroded by time and water. Lothal was an orderly city, with an impressive sanitation and sewage system. Over time, this changed: alluvial build up, erosion, and other natural changes affected the economy and the landscape, wearing down the inhabitants, who eventually abandoned their home.
On the second floor of the museum, I realized the ache in my arms and the dryness in my mouth would not subside until I drank some water. Exhaustion made my feet heavy, and I had to sit down while my husband walked through a few more galleries. Finally, at the museum gate, we stood in the shade and gulped down what remained of our water, watching a multi-generation family of ten pose for photos against the backdrop of the deteriorating colonial building. The palm trees and vibrant gardens seemed even greener against the dry, dusty ground. They laughed and pushed each other, drinking water fearlessly from canteens and stainless steel cups.
From the outset of our trip, my husband asked questions neither a trip to the museum nor I could answer. His lack of personal history made Bombay a place rather than a “home,” that dried up garden of the past that my parents and I tended through memory. He wanted to know whom the beggar children outside the hotel belonged to. Who are their parents? he asked, as they ran towards him outside the hotel. He wanted to know why there were so many people living on the pavement, and I was sure he wondered how we—my parents and I—could walk by the sleeping piles of rags at night. How to explain that we saw them too, these people who paid rent for the right to stretch out on a broken strip of concrete?
My husband’s questions were not unreasonable, but my answers were incomplete, unsatisfactory. And his questions reminded me of the limits of my knowledge, the distance of this place so central to my father’s history. If I did not know Bombay, how could I know my father?
My attempts at knowing were further complicated by the recent resurgence of Hindu nationalism. The Shiv Sena, with its hardliner Hindu politics and its commitment to “Maharastra for Maharastrians,” had symbolically reclaimed Bombay from its colonial past by renaming it. It was now Mumbai, not Bombay. Names of streets, monuments, airports and train stations had changed to reflect important figures in Maharastrian history. Marine Drive is Netaji Subhashchandra Bose Road; Flora Fountain is now Hutatma Chowk. Several sites were renamed for Shivaji, the Maharastrian Warrior who led the 17th-century Maratha resistance to the Mughal empire.
This process of naming and renaming was not new to the city, and the conflicting stories always confused me. I have read that “Bombay” comes from the Portuguese, Bombaim, a version of “buan bahia,” which means “good bay.” Originally the city was a cluster of swampy islands, colonized by the Portuguese, who gifted one to the British in 1661. The British soon claimed the other islands, creating first a port, then a city. They filled the shallow waters between the islands, completing the land reclamation process by the 19th-century. None of my books mention what they used for filler; the process takes a secondary role to the product, a unified city.
But what about the books I read as a child, the ones my parents bought for my sister and me when they were out doing errands? India: The Land and Its People claims that Bombay was a mispronunciation of Mumbai, named for Mumba Devi, a deity of the Koli fishermen, the island’s original inhabitants. The people responsible for the linguistic corruption remain unmentioned, giving the impression that the Portuguese and the British had never been there.
None of these contradictions fazed my father, who was neither Maharastrian nor Hindu. For him, there was no either/or history of shifting ownership and cultural values. He accepted ambiguity and murkiness in a history where multiple plots ran parallel to each other. He tended to his past, watered it lovingly, ignoring the changes even as he told us to pay attention to them (“People will get very upset if you call it Bombay,” he said.) Yet like everyone else we ran into, he called the train station, Shivaji Chhatrapati Terminus, by its old name, Victoria Terminus or VT.
Where I saw indistinguishable rain-stained facades, he saw landmarks. He would point to ugly office buildings and talk about what used to be there. I felt I was looking at a palimpsest of the past, trying to see what was barely there, discerning an office behind stained plaster, searching a 1000-year-dry riverbed for shells, pieces of calcium that would crumble if you held them too tight.
In Bombay, we were surrounded by water, yet we might as well have been in dried up Lothal, waiting for the harbor to fill up again. One day, my husband and I walked along Marine Drive. We were practically alone, and where there were no tourists there would be no hawkers. The air stood still. The sand and water stretched out before us should have been inviting, but as I stared at a ship in the distance, I thought of my father’s warnings about riptides. Every time we talked about the ocean, he mentioned them, although I could not remember a time when anyone in my family had actually touched the water. In the evenings, people would enjoy food and festivities along the beach, but you never saw anyone swimming or sunbathing here, not even tourists. Was it pollution or riptides that kept them out of the water?
At the hotel, I guzzled two small bottles of water and listened to the crows and the call to prayers from the mosque. Ignoring the sign in the bathroom about water conservation, I took a long cold shower and fell into deep, drugged sleep; the next morning, my wrists and hands ached, and my dehydrated body felt old and dessicated.
Like so many other residents of Bombay, my father was not born there. He was born in Saurasthra in the Gujerat and spent much of his childhood moving from one small town to another. His history is fragmentary, difficult to grasp, dependent on a few images. When he was four years old, his father, a trader, went to Africa. No one told my father, and he sat outside on the stoop of his home in Rajkot, waiting for his father to return, until late in the evening when his mother finally brought him inside. When he talked about the people who raised him, he did not talk about his father, only his mother, and the aunt and uncle they lived with in Sirdar. He talked about growing in Gondal. He did not refer to any of these places as home, only as places in which he did not stay long enough to make friends. His older brothers, already pre-teens when my father was born, were as absent as their father. They were sent to live with relatives when my father was still a child.
The stories about my father’s past were suggestive and incomplete: his brothers fought, his mother sent them away. The events belong together, but no one seemed able to explain them or decide what they meant. My parents acted as if everything was obvious, and if you asked a question, ventured an opinion, they just repeated what had already been said. The brothers fought. Your grandmother had to send them away. To Bombay. Sometimes, if pushed, one of them would say, She couldn’t control them.
My grandmother I know only through a black and white photograph as a stern, unsmiling woman in a plain, pale sari. She told my father that boys from royal families were sent away when they were five; their parents did not raise them. When he was 14, she sent my father to Bombay, where his brothers lived. Seven hundred and thirty eight kilometers away from his home, he lived alone in a hostel and went to school. This would be his last stop for 25 years before he went to America, and New York became his new home.
About his life in Bombay I have a few certainties: he had an office, he was the head of his department at the hospital. Away from the watchful eyes of his Jain mother, he had his first sip of alcohol, his first taste of meat, his first cigarette. I gathered, without anyone stating so exactly, that he preferred the company of his friends to his brothers and their wives, though he adored his nieces and nephews. Most of his friends were dead, but when he went to Bombay, more than forty years after leaving it, there were still people who knew him, old students, their children, friends of friends. His circle was wider than I could imagine.
I could have asked him for more, but my father evaded questions he didn’t want to answer; he repeated the same story again and again, full of holes, lacking in narrative drive. The older brothers fought. My mother sent them away. Or he would get combative, ask me why I wanted to know. Or he would simply laugh until tears came to his eyes. These children, he’d say. They know nothing.
“That’s because you won’t tell us anything.”
“There’s nothing to tell.”
But I did not believe him. I could not because when he pointed to something that had significance to him, he expected me to understand its significance without knowing why it was significant. I felt like the British, putting separate islands together, filling in the spaces between them. I felt aggressive, but not victorious, just worn down by the heat and the constant work of constructing my father, putting the pieces of his life together in a way that made sense. Land reclamation is a messy business. It’s a matter of forcing the pieces together, making an imperfect, swampy whole. When you step back, you see that it works, but how exactly remains a mystery.
One morning, I asked my father for directions to the apartment where he lived with my uncle and his family. He told me to direct the cab to Girgaum.
“Girgaum? What’s that?” I flipped through the guidebook. Had it been renamed? In its symbolic return to Bombay’s mythic, precolonial Hindu past had the Shiv Sena made my father’s past completely out of reach? Mild panic rose in me.
“Portuguese Church,” he said, with emphasis, as if this was perfectly obvious.
“And the apartment is there?”
He sighed, laughed to himself. Muttered, “These children.” Then he wiped his face with his handkerchief. “Turn right at the Portuguese Church.”
He smiled, then started laughing again. “Forget it. I’ll take you.”
Once, when she was two years old, my sister came home to our apartment in New York after being in India for several weeks and wandered through the living room, methodically patting every item of furniture—the overstuffed couch, the low cane chairs, the long credenza against the wall—taking inventory of the place she had left behind. She bumped up against the glass topped coffee table, with it sharp edges and ivory inlay. The houseplants, two hibiscus, a straggly spider plant, still in the corner by the windows; the view through the windows still the East River, mostly dark on a moonless night, except for lights from the occasional tanker sliding by. A small hand on the cold window, just to reassure herself: nothing had changed.
This was my father, thirty years later, checking things off, making his rounds between Colaba and the Fort, tending to memory the way a horticulturalist tends to his greenhouse. Each plant in place, carefully watered and fed, my father kept the past alive. If he noticed any changes, he weeded them out; I never caught him using the new name for Queens Road. For him, and for me now, it is still Queens Road, where he kept an office until he was 39 years old and went to America.
On our last day in Bombay, my father, my mother and I took the train to Goregaon, close to the end of the Borevalli line. We walked through the quiet early morning streets to Hira Bagh, the home, now shrine, of Baba-ji, a disciple of Shirdi Sai Baba, a Sufi mystic from the turn of the century whose teachings of universalism in religion have spread all over the world. Baba-ji and his wife, Amma, made Bombay home for my father in a way no one else would. At Hira Bagh, he seemed to give up on the illusion of control, let go of his dire forecasts. Of all the places he visited, it was the only one that made my father weep. How he first found it is not a mystery—a friend brought him one day for evening prayers and after that, this was where he came for solace and advice. Every week, he and Baba-ji’s other devotees would gather on the stone patio for darshan, sitting in silence until Baba spoke.
My husband was not with us. I was glad to be alone with my parents, away from him and his need for explanations. His questions—and my inability to answer them—brought into sharp relief the many things I did not know, and with them, a renewed sense of panic. It was impossible to imagine myself here without my parents. I felt that once they were gone, the whole thing would come unglued, Bombay, India, fragmenting into a past I would not be able to put together.
We left our shoes at the edge of the house and headed towards the marble mausoleum, the structure in which Baba-ji’s and Amma’s remains rest. Since they were saints, my parents had explained, Baba-ji and Amma did not die and go to heaven; they took samadhi, their souls passing on to the next life. Death was not the end of life, something that I, raised by default within the Judeo-Christian tradition, have had to learn and relearn. My mother covered her head with her dupatta, out of respect, but I never wear one and now, after so many years, my father noticed this, eyed my bare head with brief displeasure. I had sat with Baba-ji and Amma, and I thought they would understand the problem an American girl like me has negotiating the thin gauzy scarf, wearing it just so across her chest, and remembering not to let it droop down one side or get caught in a car door. It was quite possible that they would not have noticed, or even if they had, they would have forgiven the disrespect, understood that I was doing the best I could.
Someone once told me that when Baba took samadhi, his followers became orphans. Left by his father on the stoop when he was four, sent by his mother to Bombay when he was 14, my father was already an orphan when he came to Hira Bagh the first time.
My father looked old. His face changed when he came here: his wise elephant eyes grew smaller in his head, his hair suddenly had more gray than black, and his walk became unsteady, solemn and heavy in step. He walked with my mother and me clockwise around the white marble coffins draped in marigold and jasmine garlands, touching his hands to their feet, whispering silent prayers. Red rose petals scattered around the coffins clung to the soles of my feet. The platform on which the tombs rest looked like it had just sprung from the ground. So white and clean, perpetually new, it was a surprise in the middle of this earthy garden that would not bloom fully until the monsoon.
In this oasis, you could not hear the cars and scooters on the main road. It was quiet, save for the occasional songbird and the distant cawing of crows. By late afternoon, the heat would silence them too, casting a spell of sleep over all of Goregaon. At Hira Bagh, my father he seemed to forget how much water two people going to Rajasthan needed. Here he forgot the burdens he had assumed, the empty spaces of memory, the stories he did not want to tell, his orphan past and present coming together.
As my parents and I stood on the path leading to the gate, our visit over, blessings received, H., one of the caretakers, said, “Don’t worry. Baba is always with you. He is looking after you and your husband.” I burst into tears, and on our walk to the train station, sniffed and snuffled behind my parents, past the market and its locked stalls, stalls that seemed to come alive only after sunset. The market was quiet now; our visit had lasted no more than an hour, and I was conscious of the spectacle we created. In my tailor-made salwar kameez, dutifully trailing my father and mother, I should have been able to pass unnoticed, but who was I fooling with my missing dupatta and short hair, my old, unfashionable suit and ugly rubber sandals that looked better with shorts? My father, with his suit and tie, stood out too, but he walked with confidence; even when he stumbled, he knew where he was going, why he was here. Maybe he looked “Amrika-returned,” but in his head, he never left. Street names may have changed, but Hira Bagh would always be there.
Was I crying because I was relieved, because H. told me what I needed to hear? Or was I mourning my inability to feel so surely what my father felt, to believe that once he was gone I would make the same pilgrimage and find comfort? Hira Bagh exists outside of guide books and tourist histories. Even if the place names stayed the same, we could not stop the onslaught of rain that would come later in the summer. How quickly the monsoon would change this landscape, turning the parched earth to mud. Water would run through the streets, carving new paths and ruts to trip on. In the wet, everything would look different, a black and white photograph turned to color, trees and flowers in full bloom. Would I find my way then?
The train paused over a creek, slimy in the sun with algae and garbage. Its putrid smell filled our car, a combination of human waste, chemicals and rotting fish. It was a reminder of Bombay’s modern identity, a cosmopolitan city where great extremes of poverty and wealth existed side by side. It reminded me of how far we were from the coast and its Koli settlements, where the mixed odors of petrol, fish and salt might fill a car driving past, like an extra passenger, friendly and overbearing until the car picked up speed and headed inland, leaving the smell behind.
My mother and I held tissues to our noses; my father appeared undisturbed, lost in his own thoughts. I imagined he was thinking about Rajasthan, and how he was going to keep my husband and me from going. He was wondering whether we had enough water to get back to our hotel now. He was remembering years ago, when he took this train to Goregaon every week, walked along sleepy, sun-baked streets that cracked like overdone bread, and now he looked out the window, hanging on to his memories, for he didn’t know when he would return.
I can only imagine what he saw and heard for he would not share this information with me. He couldn’t. Instead, he would tell me, after reading these words, that once again, I had it all wrong. The problem was not with his answers, but with my questions. These children, and then he would laugh until tears came to his eyes.
The photo now sits in my living room, and every time I see it, I think of my father as Laughing Man. I have no idea where or when the photo was taken, only that it was not Bombay because he has maps in his hand. What is he laughing at? Probably me, most likely because I have asked him a question he thinks he has already answered. He does not look like a man who believes that worrying prevents disaster. He carries maps, and if there is a bottle of water in the vicinity, it is off camera, in my mother’s purse or the back seat of the car. For this fleeting moment, he looks like a man who laughs at adversity, who looks back on his life and sees the accomplishments, not the losses. He looks like a man who navigates an impossible landscape, and where people see dirt and dust, poverty and squalor, he sees beauty as well. He looks like a man who can teach his daughter to love the disjointed fragments of a place with all its contradictions and ambiguities, the sacred and the profane side by side, mixing like the smell of overripe fruit and burnt sweet grass and sage. Laughing man is a man who deep down inside understands, even as he transfers water from one bottle to the next, that when you water your garden, it doesn’t matter if the water is boiled, filtered or straight from the tap. You have come back, and in the end, that’s all that matters.
THE STORY BEHIND THE ESSAY
The essay began with the image of the pickers, the sound of them going through our hotel trash in Bombay. This was 1998. When I began writing, a year later, I didn’t know what the essay was going to be about; when I finished the first draft, I still didn’t know. I decided to use Bombay itself to establish a form—the seven islands became seven sections in the next draft. But I still didn’t know what it was about, and every time I showed a draft to my husband, he asked the same question. Multiple revisions later, the sections changed, but I still couldn’t answer the question.
I often tell my students that we don’t know what a piece is about until we’ve written in the end, and that sometimes the ending is actually the beginning. In 2004, five years after I started the essay, I finally took my own advice, and moved the last paragraph of the essay to the beginning. The rest of the essay required only a bit of tweaking, and the following year, the day before I boarded a flight to Bombay, I sent it out. How sweet it was to be in India when I received word of its acceptance.
ABOUT GEETA KOTHARI
Geeta Kothari is the editor of ‘Did My Mama Like to Dance?’ and Other Stories about Mothers and Daughters (Avon). Her fiction and non-fiction have appeared in various anthologies and journals, and she is the nonfiction editor at the The Kenyon Review. Her collection, I Brake For Moose and Other Stories will be published is forthcoming from Braddock Avenue Books.