There was no design in my becoming a migratory bird before I had set foot on the American soil as an immigrant 17 years ago, my second longest uninterrupted stay at any location. In view of my ninety-two-old tenancy of the planet, I might call it a day to itinerant life.
It was pure chance that the last two novels and a memoir I happened to read were about girls who came to ‘Amrica’ to make it good in life. The protagonist of the first novel is the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi figuring as the heroine Ifamelu in her autobiographical novel Americanah. Her very first encounter in the land of opportunity was the cultural diversity that immigrants invested it with and one she was not familiar with. She was frantically looking for a saloon where they could wash her head and redo her hundred plaits.
The author of the second novel In The Midst of Winter is the reigning queen of Latin American literature Isabel Allende who is a first cousin of assassinated Chilean president Salvador Allende. It is about Lucia Maraz, a Chilean immigrant, living in New York for higher education.
The third one is a short story I mined from First Day Project on the Internet. In the first few days of arrival in the Uncle Sam territory, a girl from Mumbai is struck by oddities of American life. But I found Isabel’s novel about the Guatemalan immigrant comes closest to my experience, the sunless landscape rendered more stygian by mountains of snow pining to be cleared.
I had come to America several times in the past, always accompanied by my wife and always before winter showed its pallid face. This time I came not by a hurriedly fabricated Vietnamese boat or cooped in a Mexicantruck trailer mounted on an 18-wheeler chassis but by an Alitalia flight with a four-hour halt at Milan on a Christmas day, bereaved and without my wife who died a fortnight before. My daughter and her husband who came to India for the crematory rituals suggested I should shift to the US and stay with them since there was none in India to take care of me.
As we drove home from JFK we passed through roads walled on both sides by mountains of snowdrift, dirty and brown at the base. We reached home as the darkness and silence enveloping the suburbia added to the gloom in my mind. We had dinner and went to bed. That night my wife appeared in a dream and said, ‘so, you’ve come without me.’ I cried loudly and unabashedly making my daughter and her husband rush to me and calm me down.
Next morning I woke up to a future of immigration I had neither invited nor intended.. I found the house drowned in a bottomless pit of quietude. You could hear the sound of the earth circling the Sun. My daughter and husband left for work and my grandson for school. My daughter left me a note telling me where to find food she had made for my lunch. She knew I could make coffee for myself. I made coffee and went out to collect The New York Times dated 26 Dec. 2001 shivering inside a blue plastic wrapper on the front lawn.I came back inside and reached for the Lavazza coffee I had just made.
With the coffee cup on the side table as witness I opened the NYT and found this report: As the hunt for Osama bin Laden continues on both sides of the border between Afghanistan's Tora Bora district and the adjacent tribal regions of Pakistan, a succession of speculative and unsubstantiated reports have surfaced suggesting that the Qaeda leader may already be dead as a result of American bombing or even illness.
I lost interest in the paper and moved to the library. On one of the racks I found a photograph of my wife and myself standing before a slot machine in Trump’s Taj casino in Atlantic City, waiting for the machine to cough out a few quarters.
My eyes welled up with memories of the places she had visited on a tourist visa. She was an asthmatic and wondered how she could climb all the 170 steps of the Hearst Castle to get to see the palace. After she had done a few steps she began panting. An American tourist who understood her dilemma lifted her up, cradled her fragile frame and ran up the steps to the top and waited there for us to catch up with him.
This occurred during a long east-west tour my son-in-law had planned to do by air and road. We flew out of JFK to San Francisco from where we flew to Reno. From Reno we started a long journey to the 200 million-year-old Lake Tahoe. On the way we stopped at Los Vegas known the world over as the city of gambling and fast divorce. This city of pleasure impressed neither my wife nor me because we were tired and hungry. But I was hungry and dopey in the immediate present too after the long intercontinental journey and the boring drive home from JFK through Staten Island, Jersey City etc.
I took out the meal my daughter had left for me in the fridge and warmed it in the mike and settled down to savor it continuing to wonder at the sudden seismic turn in my life as if I was born a second time in a new country without molting my Indian personality, my body and mind. Do I tell myself it is the body which is migrating and not the soul. Somehow, I couldn’t find on the American horizon an alternative to migration.
None of the earlier migrations and the one to the US happened because I wished them to happen. The four migrations within India were a cocktail of pleasure and pain.
The first migration from Bezwada where all of my siblings and I were born was the centre of the agrarian civilization created by the sacred waters of the Krishna, the political economy that landowners were in control of, an economy that helped landowners capture political power and the landless build the most powerful proletarian movement in the country.
Consequently, literature too adopted two different paths, the Gandhi nationalists reflecting conventional thinking and the Communists representing wider national and international perspective, the giant Visalandhra Book House that beginning with avant garde literature extended its publishing arm to our ancient epics, mythologies, reprinting of extinct and rare manuscripts like the old Vavilla Ramaswami Sastrulu and Sons. They adopted the low pricing practices of Moscow’s Foreign Language Publishing House.
In India: A Sacred Geography (by Diana L. Eck) the Harvard scholar demonstrates how Sanskrit, temples, rivers, pilgrim centres created in the country’s different communities a pan-Indian consciousness much before Moghul and British rulers created it for administrative. Reasons. Bezwada is where on one hill you have the Temple of Virgin Mary and on another Kanaka Durga, the incarnation of Parvati. In the valley the hills created is the Hazrat Bal Mosque, preserving a relic of Prophet Mohammed.
To be continued