I woke up at 3 am, in the throes of despair. I re-lived how I had reached Waltham and Needham Mass., alone in 2000, and had sat up listening to tapes of ghazals to be reassurred that despair was universal. For the rest I simply wrote, revised, and presented in conferences. Somehow amount and quantity seemed to be the way to fill up the spans of empty time. I remember late nights at my makeshift desk gazing out at the traffic of Massachussetts Avenue in Cambridge, now a train of red lights, now a train of white, working through my fledgeling ideas on gender, literature, culture.I even wrote on the town of Cambridge—to do an ethnography of a place is my idea of rising above it. I spent an unusual amount of time in the bookstore opposite my apartment, the reason, one might say that I had chosen that apartment at all.
Some years later I similarly arrived in Portland, all alone, and buried myself in a tightly organised schedule of work, play, food and music. But there at least I had friends, David and Carolyn Savage, and we watched movies and ate together. Irfana, Shefy and Rifka came over; Sombabu and Nandini came at another time; and mummy and daddy came in a partial overlap. Seeing that I was there for all of one semester, it was a busy time. I finished up articles and read over and finally made sense of many old notebooks. My drawer of casettes was so well organised. I knew them all with an obsessive intimacy. I organised a lovely concert for Sombabu, perhaps the best he has played. But before and after that, I did not speak to anyone for days on end. I simply found the best lit spots in my house and sat and wrote in them.
Then, unbidden, came to my mind the beautiful times. Little Nandini of five weeks old, little Irfana of five and a half years, a valorous Sombabu looking out for everything, and I, recovering from delivery, surgery, and a brand new job at a friendly, intelligent place called Brown. Providence was hushed with swathes of white snow when we reached in December. We all rushed to acquire quilts and quilt-like coats, and all, new baby in the lead, woke up at 4 am to a heated, vaporous house full of sitar music, morning tea, lecture preparation, (advanced) kindergarten level activities, and the subdued excitement of a family together. Nandini’s growth from five weeks to three plus years, from silent gazing at the mobile playing the Nutcracker Suite’s selected notes to Winnie the Pooh, and Irfana’s from kindergarten to grade three, from phonetic words to Little House on the Prairie, marked our time there, though all the rest of us aged alongside too. Even though the children were little and must have had their moods, the time stays in my memory as very calm because steeped in togetherness.
Most of all I hugged to myself a total replay of my last departure from this room I an waking up in, in Claremont. How exciting it had all been this past December. My planning and packing, airports and travel, overnight wait at Delhi, arrival in Banaras, arrival in Lucknow, wedding, children, work, oh, exciting, exciting, exciting. I could keep thinking of it and luxuriating as in a spa.
Why would one live separate and alone when a simple gesture—“I have decided”—would put one back in the folds of the family? This has been particularly pertinent for me when it has been no necessity but literally a decision that has kept me separated and alone, listening to ghazals, then making a case for how it is to listen to this old-timers’ sad poetry that I am placed where I am. Begum Akhtar in Portland. Talat Mahmood in Needham. Jagjit Singh in Ann Arbor. Now all their ghazals are so familiar to me that I cannot listen to them in that way of discovering something; nor, now that I am fifteen years older, do I appreciate old recluses’ poetry as imaginatively. That excitement of when I told Kim Marriott about my discovery of “Aging people’s poetry,” and he listened with his characteristic cocking of the chin, is gone. When you lose your thesis, you lose your excitement. Tere bare me jab socha nahin tha—mai tanha tha, magar itna nahin tha. I would not be so lonely, if a different way to be had not popped into my head….
So now I have to sit and think of why I am here, because being intelligent and decisive, of course I must have good reasons. I salute the Buddha and his teachings and wherever I travel I pay homage before his pink and golden statues, as just now in Seoul and before that, Giangzhou. I stir up my ideas about how the world is one, how life is lived inside you, how everyone is finally alone, how love must focus not on a few individuals but on all of humanity, how the real pleasure is work and the best work is accomplished when there is nothing else to do. All powerful ideas, each of which has taken me years to develop the truth of, and each of which deserves a tome.
And one by one I demolish them all. I am left with a few simpler ideas that can hardly stand any test, so they lie low, close to the surface of the floor and humbly present themselves.
If I am perchance in America, and alone and loveless, at least I could: drink wine with friends and talk about important issues. I could make some savings and start building our house in Chitauni. Before that I could contribute to Irfana’s studio and travel and Nandini’s travel. I could get them both over every six months and do things together here. I could exercise a lot and take a class and learn something new. I could see some of this beautiful country. I could write, write, write.
But my heart weeps. I am consoling myself, and I am inconsolable. Of course I could do all that but it has all worn thin. It has all been done and done and here I am still, waking up to darkness. Meanwhile India has changed—it is true what everyone says—and I could drink wine there and talk to friends about issues, I could travel to wonderful places and experience whatever I liked. And I could set up my wiritng place there with all the lamps and bolster pillows I liked and be absolutely in tune with my work. Money could buy anything, and I already have the things so do not even need to buy them. So I vigorously avoid confronting the money topic, to not feel further bad that just in case there was an argument to be made for being here for the money, I have already jeopardised that in my own casual (better word than careless) ways.
But that is too heavy a thought even for me. Let me stick to the love and the feelings. I miss India, as all my friends know. But as Eileen said, surprised, back in 1974 when I told her about my feelings for the Indian monsoon, just two years into my stay in America, the stay that would grow into four decades in a wink, “I didn’t know you felt that way.” Everyone, myself included, thinks I think. No, I feel. The Buddha thought–I think.