…about the impact significant events have on an individual’s ability to determine their own destiny.
The Tangled, Destined Indian
I often wonder about the strange, misplaced events and nuances that occur in our lives; and I wonder about why these moments are the ones my brain chooses to remember. I can remember my second grade teacher’s laugh, and I don’t know why. I can remember touching the metal radiator, the one that lived in our old apartment, on a cold, cloudy day. I can remember being a child and seeing the cover of a National Geographic magazine in the grocery line. I remember that very vividly. I had just learned to read. In big, italicized, red letters, the word “India” jumped off the page at me. The word fascinated me. From then on, India was my place of longing, and National Geographic became the memory that sparked it all.
Back then, we still lived in that old apartment, my mother and I. Our neighbours upstairs, I knew, were Indian. I knew this at that young age because on hot, Alabama summer nights, past nine o’clock, they’d cook. They’d cook all night long – concocting large feasts for an Indian princess who would sit barefoot on a bright, pink cushion on the ground. She would be fed these extravagant, prepared feasts by young boys in beige, tasseled pants, who were also barefoot. It was a beautiful bounty of food for the princess, or so I imagined. The smell of the spices would excite my nose. My feet, barefoot in my pyjamas, would set to dancing. My mother would complain. She would testify that they “stunk up the whole building.” I liked it fine.
It’s funny – that smell sparks another strange memory for me. I don’t know how it happened, or why it happened, but this event is in my existence, and my brain chose to remember it. Why I don’t remember my first day of high school, or what my first kiss felt like – I don’t know. But I remember this.
I was up in that apartment above our own, one day, when my mother must have been out. I suppose I walked up there myself. I remember the little old Indian woman opening the door – the number on it was an 18 – her brown skin smiling like her white teeth. She invited me in, and at her little kitchen table, she served me chai in a thin, white tea cup. I sipped it with delight.
My mother was furious at me for being in that apartment. So we moved. We’ve moved a lot over the years, and the newest is a house. I’ve never lived in a house before. There’s no radiators or noisy neighbours or long flights of stairs anymore. But there’s windows that look out to trees, a porch with a swing, and an exterior that needs repainting. The hot summer night wears on; my mother and I are painting the house a shade of dark grey. It’s so dark and so hot that it’s like the night sticks to my brown skin, which is many shades darker than my mother’s. It’s a perverse coat of sweat that does nothing to make me any cooler. The sound of our brushes thwack back and forth; the trim bristles slide as her hand traces the corner of a window. My mother has never been one for talking. Without explanation, I lay my brush down and climb up the porch and into the house. When I come back out, she’s already sitting on the edge of the porch, awaiting my return. With the two saucers in my hands, I pass one to her before sitting down myself.
“What is it?” I know she was expecting her own homemade iced tea, made from her grandmother’s own Alabama-old recipe.
“Chai.” I respond.
“Chai?” She takes a sip. Sets it down. “I don’t like it.”
“That’s because you’ve never had it.” I say. “It’s Indian. You know I’ve always wanted to go there.”
This is a memory I know I’ll remember. I know why I’ll remember it, too. Someday when I am eighty, when my skin has wrinkled so much that the folds look black with their depth, I will remember the night I first drank chai with my mother. It’s the night that was so heavenly hot, yet it cooled when my mother told me about my father.
My mother saw India as the carcass of a dog long since dead. The India she knew was a boy with spice and manipulation on his tongue. India was a whirlwind affair that ended with her running away and hiding in shame. Yet, she told me, my father was what allowed her to take control of her own destiny. If it weren’t for him, she said, she wouldn’t have me. I suppose it isn’t our mistakes and misadventures that decide our futures, it’s how we respond to them that does. My destiny was an accident. I was not born Indian, I suppose you could say. Yet it was my destiny to be Indian.
I hope to convince her. It is my heritage, after all, as I have only now learned. To me, India is the accumulation of all of my past experiences, and not just the obvious ones like the shiny, bold cover of the National Geographic, or the smell of my neighbour’s kitchen as two girls, generations apart, sat down together to share a cup of chai. It’s spirit is in my second grade teacher’s smile, and the excitement of my first kiss. It’s my small hands touching the radiator, turning the clouds into a warmth I can see. I see India as a bright array of purple butterflies, exotic, and riding the air like it smelled of mysticism. India is a land that can fit its entirety beneath the yellow stretches of a canvas tent, like one big wedding, marrying the ideas of beauty and vibrancy in a way that no artist ever could. It’s the melting pot of every colour and opportunity that ever existed. It’s the hot air balloon that brings me higher to my fullest potential.
I still like to imagine the colours. The reds of letters and buildings and cars; the pinks of saris and fruits. Brown skin, just like mine, everywhere I look. Purple butterflies, white tea cups, beige tassels; my old Alabama memories are everywhere I look, but nuanced into my new, Indian life. No longer are my experiences and fortunate mistakes the hints of my heritage. I have realized that everything in my life, every moment, has lead me to my motherland, my destiny. India is no longer my place of longing, but my home.
I like it just fine.