I decide to visit the ancestral village. There is protracted discussion on how best to get there.
The driver has a theory. “We should take the national highway across the state border and loop back, after which we take the dirt road down to the village.”
That was the plan when we left. We are now on the highway.
My cell phone rings. I recognize the number. “Hello.”
“Where are you?” asks the voice at the other end.
“I’m not quite sure. We’re probably one hour away from the village.”
“Wait! Have you crossed the rice mill yet?”
“I think we passed one about five minutes ago. We’re coming up on an intersection.”
“Turn, turn, right now!”
“Which way do we want to turn? Right? Left? Back?” The driver hits the brakes hard, pulls over to the side of the road, and stares at me.
“Turn back to the rice mill and take the road on the left. Wait, let me think if it is to your left or right… Yes, it is to the left.”
“Are you sure that is the easiest way to get to the village? Can’t we just cut across the state border and come back?”
“No, that is not the right way. We never take the dirt road. We always take a shortcut. Let me give you the details… You want to take the road that cuts off near the rice-mill, drive past the high school, and go past the temple until you reach a thoroughfare.”
“And then?” I ask.
“And then call me. I’ll give you the rest of the directions.”
Clearly, this is not going to work. I turn to the driver and say “Do you have any idea how to get there?”
He nods in the affirmative, but that is not entirely accurate. No driver has ever admitted to not knowing the way.
Two hours later we are relieved to finally enter the village. We pass the high-school which came up on land donated by one of my family members. We pass the library which my grandfather helped start.
Some villagers crowd around the car to see who has come. I feel like a celebrity.
After another ten minutes we make it to the house. I get out of the car, stretch, and look around. There are insects which I shoo away. I walk up the dirt path to the house. This is the soil my ancestors trampled on for generations. I am careful not to get any mud on my shoes.
I come up to the intricately-chiseled door. I remember this door from the distant past, even though my callused hands are not those of a child anymore. I run my hands over the smooth panels. I push them open.
An old woman wearing a white sari is standing behind the door waiting for me. She says “Come in” without ceremony. I bend down to offer my pronaam and accept her ashirbaad.
Next to her is another woman, about twenty-years older than me, who is giggling. She is happy to see me. She remembers taking care of me when I was a child.
The old woman takes me inside and points to a very heavy chair before entering what I assume is a kitchen. I sit down on the chair and look around. There is very little furniture. I raise my legs almost immediately. There are bloodthirsty mosquitoes everywhere.
The old woman comes out with a small ceramic plate in one hand and a stainless-steel glass in the other. She places the small plate with sooji halwa next to me. She hands me the glass of water.
“I really don’t eat sweets that much.”
“This is really not much. If you had given us a bit more notice or come earlier in the day, we could have caught fish from the ponds,” she says slowly.
“True. But this is sufficient. And I like sooji.” I shift in the chair and eat quietly. Sufficient is probably not the right word. I am conditioned to worry about places like this. I reassure myself. One mosquito bite will not give you malaria. Drinking the water will not kill you.
I look at the cracks in the mud floor. Were there that many before? Wasn’t there a thatched roof before the current tin one? Once I am done eating, the old woman asks “Do you want to see your rooms?”
I ponder on the question. My rooms? My grandparents used to live here. This is where my father and my aunts spent their childhood. This is their home. This is where I spent three of the first four years of my life. But that was a previous life. My rooms are on the twelfth floor of an apartment building in another country.
She continues. “We keep cleaning all the rooms, though there are very few of us here anymore. All the children and their children have moved to the cities. Hardly anyone visits. You have all forgotten us.” She pauses and then asks again, “Do you want to see your rooms now?”
I offer the only acceptable answer.
The two women solemnly lead me into a courtyard. I am greeted by the faces of other relatives upon entering a different part of the house. There are smiles. “How are you these days? We remember you as a little boy. You know, we have kept the gramophone records we used to play when you were a child to get you to eat.”
“Maybe you can teach me a few tricks that worked so I can try them myself.”
They smile. “You can take the records if you want.”
“I don’t even own a record-player.” There is silence, which the old woman interrupts by opening the door of one of the rooms.
The room is very dark and nearly empty except for a small wooden bed in one corner next to a small window and a bookcase. It is all very unimpressive.
I spread out the mat on and lie down. I shut my eyes.
I hear the tinkle of bangles and the jingle of keys tied to an aanchal. My grandmother uses keys to open a tin full of biscuits. I hear a creaking sound. My grandfather must be sitting on a hammock outside reading the newspaper and mumbling to himself. The room is full of toys and clothes. The courtyard outside is brimming with laughter. Members of my extended family are all here.
What is this place? I open my eyes. It is still dark and empty. I get up and step outside the room.
A bell is ringing. A priest is completing the sandhyarati in the puja room. I chat for another hour or so. I am told my grandfather made sure there we were well stocked with fresh fish because I ate steamed catfish everyday. That my grandmother dressed me up in a sweater and socks even when it was hot because she was afraid I’d catch a cold.
I look at my watch. “I really must be going now. It is getting dark and I need to get back to town. ”
The old woman walks up to me. “Come. I have to show you something before you leave.” She slowly walks up to a photo framed on a corner of the mud wall. She wipes the thick, translucent plastic covering it and calls me near. “You have not seen this before. No one else has this. It is a photo of your great-grandfather and your great-grandmother.”
I look at the fading photograph and see a stern looking dark middle-aged man in dhoti next to an equally-stern looking woman in a sari. I squint and see a resemblance to my grandfather. Maybe. Maybe not. I am quiet for a while.
The old woman comes up close to me and looks straight into my eyes. “You will not forget us, will you? All the others are gone. I will be gone soon too. You will come once again before I die?”
“Of course I will be back soon.” I force a weak smile and then look away so our eyes do not meet. We do not talk any more but quietly walk outside the house towards the car. The last time I was here was fifteen years ago when my grandmother was still alive.
I get mud on my shoes.
On the way back, we get lost again. We pass fields, villages, narrow unpaved paths. We almost run off the road into paddy fields. We nearly get swallowed up by creepy-looking forests. As we pass through an unknown village, a crowd uses the light from our headlamps to spot a venomous snake which they then promptly beat to death.
Finally, after what seems like an eternity, we make it to a slightly-more navigable road. There are people here who know the way to the highway. We follow their directions and heave a sigh of relief when we are back on the highway We stop for some evening cha at the eatery and then it is a straight shot back into town.
The next morning I pack my suitcases. I have a flight to catch.