Yes, her birthday, but even as she still can feel that little-girl special feeling, it’s getting of an age when she looks around at people and thinks “He’s young” and “She’s young.”
At the Security check there was a sign saying, “If you were born before this day on this month in the year 1937, you may….” Either take off your shoes or not take them off or keep your jacket on or whatever.
She actually had to calculate—how many years would it be before the year written on that sign said 1951? At that point, how would she be walking….hobbling? what would she be able to carry?
Where would she be going?
But of course there would be no such sign. The world was hurtling forwards too fast for anything that was a technology today to remain the same 14 years later. 14 years before, google had just appeared and facebook had not been dreamt of. But , then again, airports had been just the same. The Dutch were so advanced that when she had lived there in the Netherlands in 1999 and been charged for speeding once and had disregarded it, when she passed through Amsterdam in 2003 just to transit, they pulled up her speeding ticket! On the airport computer! And refused to let her either go in or out or through or beyond the country!
That was one exercise of control and disciplining that has hardly been bettered in the last 14 years. Readers, she went to two different ATMs in the airport and paid up in a hurry—now four and a half times more than the original fine since the Dutch, of course, needed her money so desperately. Not to be racist, ageist, sexist, but only to celebrate her old birthday, she recollects: those militia at the airport who stopped her were square jawed, pale, with cropped blond hair and glittering blue eyes—and they were really young.
Her friend Lyuda in Moscow had whispered to her as they passed some Soviet militia, “Ponimaesh. Oni ochen mladshee. Ix preglashaet kogda oni prosto iz shkoli (You know, they are very young. They are recruited [by the Soviet state] when they are barely out of school.” Lyuda also suggested other problems with their recruitment, but she was a rebel before her time, observing all the cracks in 1971, way before the Soviet Union collapsed.
She, our birthday person, need not worry about not having seen enough history. Everyone sees enough. What has she built up in history? Is the more interesting question.
Her labour and her sweat and blood have built up generations of educated Americans. If she looks at the checkerboard of scholarship and academic activity in the USA, why, there she stands. In thirty five years she has been to scores, hundreds, of conferences, lectures, visits to campuses, taught thousands of students, talked, written, published, researched, oh god, contributed, contributed, contributed. She thinks she is not in the rat race but really there is no other pace.
But her actual contribution? Well, she has amused some people. At least two told her of laughing aloud as they read her stuff. Two others insisted that she had formed their research careers. Two others acted speechless when addressing her. Many others were polite and respectful. She seems to have made the mildest of dents with her writing.
The most beautiful compliment, however, was paid when in a library, she cannot remember which, where, she opened a journal that was simply lying before her. Vaguely, she remembers she had time to kill. The part of the library she had found herself in was sunny and comfortable. She always liked journals. Maybe she should look at one. She opened one. A book review caught her eye, on some aspect of working class culture in India. She read without too much focus. She turned the page. She read, “ But the author is not some Nita Kumar to be able to depict the lives of people…..”
It is embarrassing to not remember more or clearly. It is because of the same reason that has been ticking away from the age of consciousness, life is a beautiful dream. If you take it seriously, it is still more beautiful a dream. If you take it as a dream, it is doubly a dream. Ah, beauty….
Wherever that philosophy came from, now she stretches out her arm to her mother, when all her life she had done so to her father, with his books and his recitation of poetry, and her mother with her helpless look confronted with the written word. The domesticated, disciplined, mother, who it took her forty years of scholarship to realise was not that by choice and who has that little girl hidden in her that it is worth trying to write a book to retrieve.
So, we know by now that she has been through the Security Check, has passed her time devouring sundry wines of California, has noted that the bartenders are young and cute and terribly old fashioned in their lingo and behaviour, and is on her way somewhere in an airport unchanged for 14 years. She will spend her birthday totally, 22 hours of it, but all 24 of it if you go by local times, on the plane.
Except, wait. She has come back full circle, like the Indian intelligentsia she studies. She had always wanted to shake off the colonial legacy, blah blah, and discover her Indian-ness, blah blah blah, and therefore celebrate her birthday the Indian way. When she was born, her mother told her—the lying-in (sweet term) was at home—the uncle, young Ishan mama had been to the Ravan dahan, the burning of Ravana’s effigy. Look, everyone should know the story—I mean you poetic New Yorkers. What is the point of being this cosmopolitan intellectual if you don’t know the story of Ram???
So, her birthday is on Dasehra, the day of Ravan’s defeat and the day of the ritual burning of the effigy of Ravan. Ishan mama’s visit to the celebration proves it. Now that she is properly Indian as everyone in that long line of “the new Indian intelligentsia” has tried to be, she can stand up and declare, It’s not 10th October, friends. The birthday is on Dasehra Day.
And she’ll be in India on her birthday!