Dear Mom and Dad,
Well, I finally made it back to India and took Cherise and the girls with me. It’s funny to look back at how much I hated going to India as a child, but how refreshing and eye-opening this trip was. Maybe it’s because I went out of my own decision or perhaps it’s because I got to see it through Iris and Robyn’s eyes, but it definitely felt different. Every minute I was in Assam, I was taking in the sights, this sounds, and the smells of your home.
I had three goals when we started the trip. The first goal was to make sure I took care of dad’s ashes. The second goal was to engender an appreciation for India into the girls. Finally, I just had to see the Taj Mahal. Being Indian and not seeing the Taj Mahal was my silent shame. For an iconic building that represents my heritage, it was not only vital for me to finally be there but also bring it to my daughters as a way of connecting to India.
You guys won’t believe how much Guwahati has changed since the last time you were there. Some of it will never change. The sheer number of people was overwhelming. There’s a certain lawlessness, whether it was the random fires being started on the streets to burn garbage or people just setting up random stands or stalls with no sanitary regulations. Traffic signs and lanes weren’t rules, but rather suggestions that largely went unheeded. There’s no regard for unwritten rules of personal space that you have in the US. You can stand on a line with three people and yet the guy behind me is closer than people in a packed bar. It’s a liberal’s dystopian view of a libertarian world. And yet, progress is reaching Assam and there’s hope for prosperity that’s being held by many of the people I spoke to. Ads everywhere for tech jobs and tech training. Hondas and Toyotas have replaced livestock on the roads, though the drivers are still as crazy as ever. We managed to be in Assam at the same time as Prime Minister Modi, though that just made traffic a little more of a pain. But as much as Assam has changed, I suppose I have changed as well since the last time you and I were there. This time, I was the father. And as much as you love me, I know you are anxious to hear about the girls…
You’ll be happy to know that the girls loved India. Of course, the key part of my strategy was to make sure that this trip was very different for them than my trips were as a child. We kept it relatively short (10 days), had activities planned for each day, and were very particular about what food we ate. We were treated to a wedding on the first day, complete with colorful bride and full buffet. Mom, you’ll be happy to know that Iris was a huge fan of Golub Jamun. Remembering how you used to make that for me as a child, I did have flashbacks to memories of us. The girls have never had the pleasure of having you prepare their dinner, but they definitely got some of the experience as the matriarchs that were on full food alert mode. They were insisting I go back for seconds, commenting that Robyn wasn’t eating enough, and hovering and watching us as we ate every bite. Out of love, of course…
Of course, our chatty girls turned into the quiet wallflowers amidst the barrage of relatives and occasional language barriers, but I kept watching them and they were soaking in all in. Iris was really adventurous with the food and both of them were really appreciating the sights and sounds. They’re too young for cell phones, but for the purposes of this trip, we gave them each an old iPhone and let the document the trip. It was fun to go through their pictures and see what they thought was camera-worthy. If exclude the overload of dog pics (yeah, Robyn has got a bit of a dog obsession), they still managed to snap hundreds of shots of people, buildings, flowers, and just the essence of India.
The second day was the date that I have had circled on my calendar for some time. I can’t begin to describe the gamut of emotions I ran through with the ashes ceremony at the Hindu temple. Dad, I know you weren’t very religious, but that seemed like the right thing to do and I knew you’d be proud of me for doing it. Seven months earlier, in your last full day alive, you weren’t quite yourself. You were agitated about something and we couldn’t figure out what it was. At one point, you became curiously upset with us. As we kept trying to understand what was wrong, you said “leave me alone and just let me go back to India”. It was clearly an idle threat and one that we dismissed. But even though I know you weren’t of right mind, those words stuck with me throughout the time after your passing and I can’t help but believe it was a final request. Mom, I know I didn’t do this for you. I’m sure it because I thought I was too busy, but I can’t remember what made me too busy and I’m certain I’d be embarrassed if I did remember. I can’t make right what I’ve done wrong, but I can say I’m sorry and I have begun to understand how important something like this can be–for both of us.
That afternoon, we went to see the elders. Mom, your sister Minu looks so much like your mother and she was so happy to see us. She remembered Cherise well and the look on her face when she saw the girls was a sight to behold. Until this point, they had only been pictures (pictures that were prominently displayed in her house). Of course, it was clear something was missing. Your sister Raju, who has been there for every previous trip, had passed away since the last time we were there and it was a reminder that time passes and nothing is forever. Your other sister Bulu was also doing well and she has a bit more of an incentive to visit the US with her kids and grandkids there. Of course, we’re of different generations living in different countries, so the conversations were brief. Still, it was so nice to see them and it brought back memories of all of you sisters sitting together in a sunny room thirty-five years ago, talking about everything and nothing until the sun went down and it was time to eat. There’s no question they miss you and, until now, I never thought about how important that must have been to you.
That night, we were treated to dinner with all the cousins on Dad’s side at a Chinese restaurant. While the venue was far from traditional, the idea of having the long-lost family relatives who we’ve seen so little of over the years was truly special. They didn’t do it because of me as much as they did it because of you, Dad. Don’t get me wrong–I’m sure they love me as we are all family, but they did it because you were remarkable and caring man who never shied away from helping or encouraging these wonderful family members. The ridiculously generous hospiality they showed us was their way of saying thank you to you. They gave so much of themselves to your son, treasured daughter-in-law, and lovely granddaughters because you gave so much to them. I had an out-of-body moment where I looked over the scene. The same cousins that spent time together and played together 35 years ago had reconvened with spouses and children, laughing and sharing stories like we were still very connected. I imagined you standing next to me, looking at this scene and smiling with some level of satisfaction that some legacy of family lives on despite the distance of separate continents.
After all of the emotions of Assam, making the detour of our trip him to visit Agra almost seemed anti-climactic after the emotions and relationships of the previous days. I say “almost” because the Taj Mahal can never be associated with the words “anti-climactic”. Our private tour guide, a doctoral candidate in Indian history, was worth his weight in gold. Dad, you would’ve liked him–he was Mitt Romney’s tour guide a couple of years ago. Anyway, his friends call him “the doctor of love” because he constantly speaks of the Taj Mahal as being the ultimate edifice of love. We heard the countless stories of love between the man who built the Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan, and his wife Mumtaz (Dr. Love kept pointing to Cherise and referring to her as “your Mumtaz”), learned the family lineage, including Shah Jahan’s father and his major appetite for “wine and woman” (he meant women, but kept using the singular “woman”).
SIDE NOTE: I worried about what Iris & Robyn thought when they kept hearing about this obsession with “wine and women”. I assumed they completely ignored it until our drive from Agra to Delhi when we were doing things to pass the time and one of them was this on-line questionaire that we were answering about each other. Iris was asked “what’s Daddy’s favorite hobby?” Iris thought and thought and couldn’t come up with anything. Then, suddenly, out of nowhere, Robyn yells in her best accent “WINE AND WOMAN!” I still can’t stop laughing at that one. I love that kid…
The funny thing is that I was prepared to be disappointed in the Taj Mahal. After all, I can’t think of anything that’s been built up more in my mind over a longer period of time. And now, traveling all this way, right down to a four-hour car ride from Delhi, just to see this thing. There’s no way it will can live up to the hype.
And then I saw it…
Honestly, it looks like a mirage as you come upon it. It’s hidden from view until you pass through an archway of an edifice designed to hide it until just the right time–and then it hits you. If I never walked closer than those first steps past the archway of the initial edifice, I would’ve sworn that it was just floating. Dr. Love insisted that we would “cry real tears” when we first laid eyes upon it (“even Mr. Mitt Romney cried tears when he saw the Taj Mahal”). Obviously, I dismissed that because I just don’t do that stuff. But I’ll be damned, he came really close to being right. The engineer (yeah, I know, “electrical”, whatever) in me finds buildings so much more fascinating than anything else touristy. Keep your mountains, your safaris, your theme parks, your beaches (no, wait, I’ll take the beaches), but show me incredible architecture and that inspires me. And this was incredible architecture. I’m forever changed by the majesty that was this building and the grandeur wasn’t lost on Iris and Robyn. In the ultimate touristy move, we bought a marble table with encrusted stones that were handmade by the direct descendants of the same Persian artisans that built the Taj Mahal (we actually went to where it was made and saw the artisans at work). It was expensive as hell (don’t worry Dad, I bargained with him in a way that Cherise said would’ve made you proud), but it was our way of taking a piece of the Taj Mahal home with us. Besides, Cherise knows she isn’t getting a Palace like Shah Jahan’s wife, so a table ain’t half bad.
As we got on the plane in Delhi to return home, I was reminded of each of the times we traveled back to the US as a kid. As someone who truly loves and appreciates America, I had that anticipation of sleeping in my own bed, drinking water from a tap, and (and new one for this century) reliable WiFi and cell reception (yes, I have issues). But unlike those trips as a kid, I started thinking about coming back. When? How? What could we do? Fortunately, the kids were thinking the same thing. You have to love a trip where you do a lot of great things, accomplish all you hope, leave before it gets monotonous, and welcome the idea of going back.
As perfect a trip as we could’ve imagined. I think the only frustration is that these are the stories that I would normally share with you, Dad. As the experiences transpired, I kept thinking “oh, I can’t wait to tell Dad about this” only to get the splash of water in my face that I can’t. I suppose that’s why I thought a letter to you would be the best way to capture these experiences. As with Mom, I’ll learn to adapt to this new world and, fortunately, Iris and Robyn are starting to reach the age where they can understand my stories and not quite at the age where they get tired of hearing them.
I miss you both and hope you’re still proud. You were both constantly in my thoughts and I imagined how you each traveled those roads 50 years earlier. This trip was to acknowledge both of your passings. Mom, we left for India on the 20th anniversary of your death. I couldn’t think of a better way to honor you than to take the granddaughters you never met on their first trip to India. And Dad, we went a long way to honor what I believe was your final request. This trip was a thank you for not only for the years of sacrifice you gave, but also the bond to this world and culture on the other side of the world that will now live on in your granddaughters. I may have spent years resisting it as a child, but as I watch my daughters grow up, I recognize the value it provides. Long after you’re gone, I still gain valuable lessons from you.