Flying the 7775 miles from Boston to Kolkata with my wife, I kept thinking about the family members I’d be seeing for the first time in over 25 years. Who exactly were these Aunts and Uncles, these half-remembered faces gesticulating down at me and trying to make me laugh at 6 years of age? What could we possibly have in common? As Boston became Frankfurt and Frankfurt fell away from the windows of a Lufthansa jet filled with fellow brown people, there were butterflies in my stomach. I felt like an actor about to perform a role without knowing the lines. How could this not be awkward and strange?
The 9 months I spent living with my mother and her family outside Kolkata consisted largely of pinballing between Aunts, watching them gossip and knit and put away gallons of tea without ever really feeling integral to the proceedings. I was lost in the cacophony of a house ruled by women with fierce tempers, and the only respite came from spending time with the men. My grandfather took me along for his “evening constitutionals”. He would buy chewing gum for me and paan for himself before we’d stroll over to the cricket field for a bull session with fellow husbands on break from their better halves. Sometimes Shankar Uncle, a lanky man who had married one of my mother’s older sisters would join us, and that was always when voices would rise and topics would grow risqué. He was cool in a way that reminded you life was a joke, taking it too seriously meant becoming the punchline, and causing mischief was one way to release the pressure. Together they gave me some crucial lessons. My grandfather inspired through being unfailingly decent and never complaining about the scars on his body from a lifetime of insulin injections. Shankar Uncle helped me fly kites, set off fireworks, and generally allowed me to be a boy. And when we’d return to the house and hear an Auntie screaming bloody murder about the latest drama, they’d give me knowing looks. “These broads,” the look seemed to say, “we gotta stick together or they’ll eat us alive!”
The Shankar Uncle who greets us in Kolkata has the same lanky build but the skin is sallow. He’s in his 60’s now but the youthfulness he wore like an impenetrable shield back in the day is fighting advancing age at every turn: the twinkle in his eyes combating hunched shoulders, the warmth of his voice at odds with the low sigh that escapes, unbidden, from his lips. I’ve changed drastically as well. And yet, taking each other in, it’s impossible for us not to grin like fools.
“Do you still like sweets?” he asks.
I pat my belly. “Of course. Do you still smoke?”
We reach into our pockets to be the first to pull out a pack, extract a cigarette for the other, and light it. I can feel the unmistakable connection we share even though I’ve lost most of the memories. Relishing a smoke on a side street filled with vendors and dozing dogs, blinding orange light forcing us to squint, it’s as if the years apart never happened. He didn’t have to watch my grandfather slowly waste away to nothing. I didn’t have to learn about the cold sweat that comes with adulthood.
On the drive to his apartment, Shankar Uncle chats with Erin about our wedding. He saw some pictures but it’s clear he regrets not being able to attend (weddings are an even bigger deal to Indians than they are to Westerners). I fill him in on some of the details: the DJ, the kind of food served, the mixture of joy and terror that comes from ending one life and beginning another. While I certainly never expected any relatives from India to make the journey (although an Aunt on my father’s side did attend), I also never thought of them as anything more than abstracts, people I vaguely knew in a place far, far away. But they’ve never thought of me that way.
The apartment is cluttered and filled with family and well-wishers. A television bolted to the ceiling blares a Bengali soap opera. I get a big hug from Tooloo Auntie and a hard pinch on the cheek. I look for signs of her legendary temper, but there’s none, just the happiness of seeing someone you care about after far too long. Despite our protests, she gives Erin jewelry, which is traditional when meeting a new bride.
“Do you remember me?” another Auntie asks. She has a kind face and dark brown eyes like my own. “You would follow me around saying, ‘Give me goat! I love goat meat!’”
I don’t remember, but it doesn’t matter. I shrug and answer, “I STILL love goat meat!” And everyone bursts out laughing.
Shankar Uncle and Tooloo Auntie have two daughters. The eldest has recently gotten married, but her husband lives in the United States and spousal visas take a long time to process when you hail from a “developing” country. She shyly asks Erin and me what it’s like to live in the northeast, how bad winters are, what people do for fun in the U.S. She’s on the cusp of beginning a new life of her own, and though I worry she’s not nearly prepared enough, she is the lucky one. Her younger sister suffers from mental illness. She has trouble making eye contact and darts in and out of the living room where everyone’s gathered. At one point she smiles at Erin then whispers something to her mother.
“She says you look like Madonna,” Tooloo Auntie tells Erin.
They don’t try to mask the difficulty of the situation. Shankar Uncle is upfront about the challenges of trying to help his daughter grow up while knowing, beyond a doubt, that her life will be anything but normal. I recognize the exhausted look in his eyes: my father had it during the years when he almost single-handedly kept our family together in the face of my mother’s schizophrenia. What’s surprising is the relief I feel in the wake of seeing it. For once, I don’t have to try and spin my mother’s story into something artificially positive. These are people who’ve known her back when she was a wise-cracking teenager with a love of English Literature and egg rolls. So when Shankar Uncle asks me how she’s doing, I can simply respond:
“Better. The medication she’s on seems to have stabilized her. But you never know when she might get sick again. What might set her off.”
Shankar Uncle nods knowingly. And I realize, for the first time in my life, that through the worst years of my mother’s illness, through those endless winters where she cycled in and out of hospitals and it felt like my father, younger brother and I were marooned on a desolate planet, we were never really alone. Halfway around the world my extended family were facing down the same monster. Halfway around the world were people who loved me and understood.
I put a hand on Shankar Uncle’s shoulder and smile.
“Things are good right now.”
Featured Image: Shankar Uncle and me, Kolkata, 2011