by Nalini Jones
- USA -
Tomorrow evening, I fly to India. My bag is mostly packed and is a source of consternation to my dog, a sensitive soul who fears imminent departure. For me it is a sort of icon, a reminder of dozens of other trips to see my family in India. I remember the care with which my mother packed, the strong sense that every available space must be used. We were trafficking in whatever was rare or difficult for our family to find, from our own school pictures to electronics, from the sort of nightgown my grandmother favored to the peanut butter we American kids liked to eat, even on our chapatis.
Marian’s own suitcases were battered and inelegant, strapped shut with cords. Her younger daughter Tara sat on them when it came time to latch them. Inside, folded among her blouses and tucked into her shoes, were packets of soup, cake mix, oatmeal, vitamins, a family-sized jar of Metamucil, a touch tone telephone, a shower curtain with plastic rings, a radio. “It’s 1983,” her husband Daniel said. “You can buy radios in Bombay.” He was what Marian called an American, although she too had a U.S. passport now. His family, which he called Irish, had not lived in Ireland for three generations and he had never been there. He did not understand the boxes of pasta she brought home to her mother every other year, the Black & Decker iron, the dresses from Macy’s.
- From Half the Story
Tucked inside my suitcase today are pairs of shoes my mother hopes the neighborhood mochi (cobbler) will repair; gifts for my uncle; household cleaning supplies that are expensive in Mumbai; catalogs for my grandmother. For several days my mother has gone out on shopping forays, assembling these items for me to bring "home."
The title of this collection is What You Call Winter, but all of its stories began with a single preoccupation: what we call home. I was born and brought up in the States, as was my father, my sister and my brother. But my mother was born and raised in India. She left Mumbai as a young woman with a bachelor's degree, intending to study languages in Europe for a year or two before returning to her parents' house. Instead, several years (and languages, and jobs) later, she married an American and arrived in the States, where she has remained ever since - more than thirty-five years. She still calls Mumbai home.
This is entirely understandable to me now. Her parents live in the same neighborhood and even the same house (wildly updated) where she grew up. Of course that place remains a touchstone for her. But when I was a child, I think I felt bewildered and perhaps a little worried that my mother and I didn't share the same home. Hers was a place we had never lived, where she could speak languages I couldn't speak and eat foods I was not permitted to eat. I experienced this as a strange sort of disconnect. But as I became an adult, I was more and more intrigued by the complicated relationships she and other emigrées had with their original home. Whether they wanted to go or felt driven, whether they longed for home or were relieved to have escaped it, they all had to forge a new understanding of the place they had left. The India they knew was changing all the time, so that their sense of home was moored to time as well as to place. And I was interested in the people who stayed.
“I still can’t believe the house is gone.” Jean stared at the flat building. “I know Dad had to do it but don’t you hate this? Don’t you hate looking at it?”
Toby didn’t mind terribly but he knew it wasn’t the moment to say so. For the first time he realized he had not thought to follow Jean. She had gone and he had stayed; he had chosen India. It had never before occurred to him to think in such terms. He had barely noticed the choices he had made or that they were choices at all; one thing seemed to lead to the next and he had fallen into a life that had not seemed to require much vision. But perhaps he had seen what he needed.
“I miss the garden,” Jean said. “I miss all the gardens. And all the trees… Do you remember the day Stephen told us there was a cobra in the brush pile? You went dead pale, Mummy thought you would faint.”
That was something Toby didn’t remember. “Are you sure that was me?”
But he let Jean tell him the story and then he kissed her good-bye and promised to see her again, once more at least, before she had to go.
- From Home for a Short Time
I also realized that I had a relationship with India, albeit at a remove. When I was a child, we spent long holidays there and as I grew older, I visited on my own. I love being there; certain tastes, scents and sounds of India are among my strongest memories. I recall very clearly what it was like to be a child there, set loose in a garden, waking up beneath mosquito netting, or lingering in the kitchen to watch the servants work.
When she had gone, his older sister Marian came to the door and smiled at Jude as she put up the netting; the mosquitos would not be out so early, but she knew he liked to sleep beneath a tent or a ship’s sail. “Just lie quietly if you can’t sleep. It’s only an hour.”
Jude started to count, but seconds became minutes so slowly that he despaired. He could feel another day surging past him while he was trapped in a dim room. His chest reeked, a fly buzzed. The overhead fan did not become a propeller. Some days it gained speed until the whole roof lifted off and the bed hovered above the rest of the house, but today it was just a fan, dull and stupid, its blades sluggish as clock hands. His mother had closed the wooden window guards but slivers of midday sun fell across the floor and one, wire-bright, reached the bed. Jude moved his toe idly in and out of it. He could hear Uncle Peter and Neil below him in their compound; their words were muffled but their voices had the serious pitch of workmen, deep in collaboration. Birds kept up a constant chatter and someone argued with a fruit vendor. Briefly Jude imagined it was a giant crow, dressed in his mother’s old coat but with Aunty Freddy’s red leather pocketbook. Then he heard the unmistakable creak of his own gate swinging open and the sharp clownish blast of a bicycle horn. Simon was off somewhere, free to do as he liked because he was fourteen. Jude kicked the folded coverlet at the foot of the bed.
- From The Crow and the Monkey
I developed a kind of intimacy with this place – which is not my home and which, though beloved, is at times disorienting. In many ways, the gulf between familiarity and foreignness posed the greatest challenge to me when I was writing. I felt deeply connected to a place where I had not lived, and the questions that consumed me most urgently dealt with characters in India. Sometimes, when I was having trouble, I thought how much easier it would be to set a story in New York or New England - anyplace I knew well. But that clearly wasn't the material I needed to explore; whenever I tried to write those stories, I found myself looping back to India. Eventually I created a fictional neighborhood, based on my mother's but of my own making, so that I could move freely around in it. I drew a map and devised roads, schools, parishes. That was the beginning of Santa Clara. Originally the stories weren't linked, but they shared such a common purpose, such a sense of having arisen from the same series of questions, that it felt natural in revision to knit them together. So the structure of the book came to reflect the structure of the neighborhood, in which people feel very connected to one another.
…for a moment Marian was transported back to St. Hilary Road, to her mother conducting conversations from the middle of the road. Marian stared at the laughing woman in the wide American street and felt a surge of longing for neighbors whose voices calling from one garden to the next strung their lives together.
- From Half the Story
And of course, I think these stories grew out of my questions about distance and closeness in families, the sorts of questions that all people in all families probably ask themselves, and perhaps can never fully answer.
- Cover photograph by Peter Zander / Jupiterimages, book jacket image courtesy of Alfred A. Knopf, Publisher.
About the Author
Nalini Jones was born in Rhode Island, graduated from Amherst College, and received an M.F.A. from Columbia University. Her work has appeared in the Ontario Review and Creative Nonfiction (online), among other publications. She is a Stanford Calderwood Fellow of the MacDowell Colony, and has recently taught at the 92nd Street Y in New York and Fairfield University in Connecticut. She has also worked for several years in music production, most notably for festivals and concert series in New York, Newport, and New Orleans. For more of Nalini's work, visit her website - www.nalinijones.com.