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Dusshera On East River

4th of July stirs up memories of Dusshera and home.

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The incredible 4th of July firecrackers light up the skies over East River scattering joy in the air. The festive atmosphere - so many faces, so many people mirroring my joy, in a space away from home with a feel of home - is reminiscent of the crowds on a crisp October evening as we are transfixed by Ravana's effigy, stuffed with firecrackers and held aloft by tall scaffoldings, ready to explode any minute.

But these are the 4th of July firecrackers brightening up the sky at sun down. The colors, the crackle, the sounds narrate stories of Dussheras from my childhood, of firecrackers lighting up other skies, another time, another place, another life. The demonic figures from an epic tale going up in flames as we stare in amazement. The same excitement mirrored in my daughter Manu's eyes as yesterday became today.

I stand there as always, transcending geography, connecting dots of then and now, combining familiar and unfamiliar in response to new, untangling events and images, sifting and sorting through archives of long term memory, weaving with forgotten threads the new nuances of a familiar melody.

I wonder sometimes if in a few years when I am in India I'd miss America, the people I met here, the friends I made, the teachers I found and learned from, the houses I converted into home, the "familiar essentials" I surrounded myself with, the rites of passage from driver's license to traffic violation tickets, subway maps to Trip Tiks, culling coupons to letting my fingers do the shopping, learning to use ATM's (I'll probably miss its lack of attitude when the cashier at the State Bank is having a bad day) and choosing between the hardsell of AT&T, MCI or Sprint (I know I will long for them on out-of-order  phone days during the monsoons).

I will probably look back fondly at the journeys with my daughters from pampers to prom dresses, crayon drawings from elementary school stuck on the hrefrigerator to Alanis Morissette and Smashing Pumpkins (go figure!) posters on their bedroom walls - a heartache of another kind.

I can relate to Manu when she suggests building a highway between New York and New Delhi so we could drive down to Nani's house everyday.

I hover on the periphery of two parallel worlds and wonder if time is arbitrary, if continuity is also a place with its own maps, its own territory, its own seasons and celebrations in child time where life and memory merge, existing simultaneously.

A loud electric crackle in the sky forms a sweeping arc that stops short of becoming a full circle leaving me room to step out of that space and reenter raw unedited reality, of half moons falling off the skies before completing their cycles, of unfinished stories and short changed lives. Life with all its promise of timelessness, endlessness, changelessness is caught in time and change mapped on a confused calendar.

I see this confused acceptance in the eyes of the hot dog vendor from Bangladesh driving his cart across lower East side. I see it on the face of the physicist from Pakistan driving a yellow cab on 125th and Broadway, in the trembling hands of the aging Sardarji selling Daily News at the toll booth as we enter FDR Drive. Shadow lives living in a parallel reality, sharing images of our common humanity, hard work, stubborn hope, mutual forbearance, building new lives here block by each tiny Lego block.

It seems as if life stepped on a never ending escalator, traveling through the winding, curving, merging, converging, overlapping pathways of a complex maze that you can step onto, but cannot exit, and all you can do is maintain your balance, letting others pass you by and learning something new each step of the way. It reminds me of Manu's model trains that back up from the yard, ease into the oval tracks and then keep chugging around in circles, going nowhere in particular, yet ever on the move.

Momentarily if you do manage to gain some distance from the constant departures and arrivals and step back onto the transition lounge you discover so much has changed over time. You have changed, grown, matured.

The cousins, aunts and uncles you grew up with are much older and different men and women who have come through their lives tested and tempered by their journeys, their struggles, shaped by their experience, some similar, some very different from your own.

Your isolation, their intermeshing provide different focuses, different frames of hreference, different stories. Their silences, their words, their choices, their prisons punctuate their lives. Together we sort through our memories, recall fragments and pieces of remembered conversations, revisit those places where we halted for a pause before moving on.

I feel as if I am in a sacred stone temple with sounds of ceremonial chants all around me, some remembered human voices rekindling memories, echoing the songs my heart has yearned to hear, but only now learned to listen to.

The music complements the shooting stars in the sky, the left over smoke a residue of the brightness that was - life and memory existing simultaneously. Between the loud bang announcing its arrival and its smoky departure the firecracker has a limited lifespan. It has a shifting tenure - tenure as a child, a girl, a woman, a daughter, a sister, a wife, a mother, young, middle aged, old. Life unfolding in all its possibilities - birth, growth, maturity, decline and death; then starting the cycle all over again to form new galaxies, new stars, new universes, new people recycled from old.

I think what I miss most about India are the signs of life as it is happening, an aliveness, an absence of illusions about the transitions, an acknowledgment that life happens. Back home birth, marriage, death, celebrations, funerals all take place out in the open for all to see, share and experience. On a particular day you might have your entire life laid out before you in all the shades and hues of the varied transitions. A child can see what is in store for him, an older person gets to relive his experiences.

I sometimes miss the richness, the fullness of lives back home, the group of women sitting together in the winter sun sharing recipes of the afternoon meal or of life, the clothes and grains spread out to dry, the jars of pickles soaking in the sun, the kids laughing about nothing in particular, just experiencing the joy from the pores of their skin, a sense of ease and well being, of being home, of belonging.

I wonder if the hot dog vendor from my subcontinent with his faint, hesitant smile also traveled back in time to a similar image as he acknowledged me in my saree and kumkum, like an echo of something remembered, a moment shared with a stranger/ kin, just as I share the 4th of July celebrations with other strangers/kin.
 
Originally published in Little India, July 1996 

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Entertainment | Arts & Entertainment | Magazine | June 2007

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