Family in Sepia — by Poonam Chawla

A black-and-white photograph curled at the edges pressed between the pages of Anna Karenina falls into my hands as I fumble about the bookshelf. Anna Karenina. It appears I was using the photograph as a bookmark and apparently gave up after page 662. Do not judge me, dear Reader – I was only fifteen at the time. No doubt, I found the drama of my own life infinitely more interesting.

Enough suspense – I will get back to the photograph. It is my parents who are in the picture. My mother dressed in cotton, batik kaftan looks tired but engrossed. The small pox marks on her beautiful face look more prominent than they were in reality. Her hair is pulled back so that her forehead looks wide, giving her a patrician air. Her lightly bandaged hand (one of many kitchen accidents) is poised over the gas stove, stirring a curry of some sort.

My father, a small but rotund man is standing close behind her. His one hand is resting lightly on her shoulder. He was blonde, with menacing green eyes, the air of an Aryan forced to consort with the Dravidian clan. In this picture however, his smile is gentle, just short of affectionate. Always short of affectionate.

The two people, my parents, stuck in a claustrophobic kitchen in an apartment in Mumbai, India and stuck for eternity (or until this paper wears out,) in that soot filled kitchen – how did they get there?

A little history: He grew up in Lahore, the son of a writer, in the pre partition era and by that I mean the India-Pakistan partition after the British Raj.

She, the daughter of a prominent businessman grew up in Karachi.
In 1945, forced out of Pakistan, because they were Hindus, they found themselves in New Delhi. Theirs was an arranged marriage. They made us. Four children.

Growing up, I remember rolling my eyes every time my father waxed poetic about his childhood. Dull. Dull. Dull. He who never began a sentence without bringing up Lahore. In Lahore the milk was nectar… in Lahore the kids were respectful…in Lahore the air was fresh… in Lahore life was simple.

Insight creeps in like the first buds of a late spring as I now stare at the picture.

On my recent visit to India I felt bereft. Where were my familiars? Where was the apartment I grew up in? Demolished. Replaced by a bank. Where was the stoop I lingered until dark then kissed a boy who wouldn’t kiss me back? Where was the bookstore where I discovered Steinbeck? Gone. Rubble and concrete. Malls and car dealerships.

I go back to India often.  So the heart breaks only a little each time. But for those two in the photograph, there was never any going back. Once upon a time they dwelt in a place where dreams grew. Then they were not.

Now, an immigrant (for over thirty years) I find myself biting my tongue, each time I have a conversation with my kids. In India I had a friend…in India I lived virtually on top of the ocean…. in India my life was simpler… I am fortunate. My kids are gentler with me. They listen, nod, chuckle then retreat to their rooms as soon as it’s deemed polite.

Perhaps they understand already what I understand now: It’s the first breath, the first home, the first friend, the first kiss, the first moment when you look into your baby’s eyes that stays forever. Everything else comes second. Everything else is digital.

Poonam A. Chawla
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