For so many Americans, India still evokes an Orientalist tableau–kings and queens dressed in luxurious swaths of cloth, riding on elephants to the Taj Mahal. That vision is fictive, in part because India formed a democracy after a devastating revolutionary war, and in part because the Taj Mahal has only ever been a tomb. A more true-to-life picture of India could be found in Kalyani, my parents’ hometown, which they abandoned some thirty years ago in favor of then-Bombay, followed by the United States. Despite those wanderings, however, my mother’s journey could seem remarkably circuitous. She, like her mother, has settled in a university town, married to a professor. Those superficial similarities, however, belie the enormity of her flight–from motherland, from language, from family. While she has returned many times since, she has not once returned to so alien a landscape: for the first time in these thirty years of intercontinental flights filled with nostalgia, her father’s house no longer exists.
My mother has sold her father’s house to a real estate developer. He, in turn, has built a five-story apartment building that towers over the houses surrounding it. Ma claims to be a vanguard of progress—she presages that her sleepy West Bengal suburb will enter modernity, a condition I understand as the retreat of families into cookie-cutter flats, away from the warmth and casual chatter that characterized her childhood. Modernity, as it has swept through India’s major metropoles and seeped into their suburbs and exurbs, alienates individuals from their cultures and the families that reproduce them. It eradicates difference and reproduces the precarious stylings of Western metropolises; here, the city will grow too fast and too ugly to love the people who live here, as it has elsewhere.
The flat my mother has bought on her father’s old land is expansive: a third-floor apartment, four bedrooms with four baths. It is empty, too, because we do not live there, but for a fleeting week every couple months. There is no furniture, except beds, an old wooden table, and twelve plastic chairs we have rented for the week. My vision of bourgeois life had always been the van Eyck Arnolfini Portrait, with its luxuriant fabrics, carefully detailed interior, and trappings of prosperity. It occurs to me, however, that these smooth marble floors, washed twice daily by help we’ve hired for the week, and the Doric columns that rise out of them, are no less symbolic than the Arnolfini merchant’s bowl of oranges.
When I close my eyes, I can still remember the house I used to play in: the attic where, without fail, my sister and I could find the trading cards we had hidden there the previous summer, the balcony where my cousins used to play cricket, the mattresses my grandparents had slept on, that smelled so strongly of incense—and dust. In my vision, my sister and I are watching a cartoon on TV, when the picture disappears; there is a loud noise as the fan stops spinning and the heat settles over us. Inevitably, there is a shout—“Loadshading!”— a term for the brownouts that pop up throughout the town, but a phenomenon I had then construed as inevitably Third World.
I am a little nostalgic now, for those shouts, for that heat, for the dusty bedrooms of my mother’s and my shared childhood. All that is left are the family members that have always filled those rooms, and even they are more aged–more independent, and more fleeting, in the cases of my cousins. I marvel at my mother’s remarkable fortitude. If I have accumulated a sentimentality over that house, over my brief and infrequent weeks spent in its halls—I cannot imagine the crashing disorientation my mother must feel, having effaced the very walls that contained in their moulding her graduation, her marriage, her parents’ deaths.
I cannot help but feel betrayed in this new flat. Each step I take into the next room feels like a contractor’s legerdemain; as if the Spartan marble and refurbished bedstead is liable to disappear in some elaborate sleight-of-hand, giving way to the dusty mattress of my memory. It is, however, gone. The furniture my mother had judiciously (I wish I could say sentimentally, but that feels accusatory) recovered from her childhood home before it was demolished had been sold for some petty sum. It was, by all accounts, scattered across the homes of Kalyani’s hundred thousand residents–and entirely irretrievable. There, too, sentimental symbolism has been obliterated, giving way to the flow of commodity and capital.
Ob-litera–against the letters. I cannot imagine a word more fitting for that erasure of the symbols for my mother’s stories. She is a strong woman, however—she does not trust sentiment when it gets in the way of what she sees as the inevitable totalizing wave of modernity. Perhaps for that same perceived inevitability, I am unwilling to let go of nostalgia. I do not know whose approach is better—or if there is such a thing as “better” when it comes to confronting the persistence of memory. Even so, I can guess what my mother would say.