The windows of my grandparents’ old house are always ajar, a sandstone frame for the bustling Mumbai cityscape outside. Most days, boys pitter-patter through the dust, kicking up clouds that cake their squinting faces as they catch cricket balls. Motorcycles sputter sweet gasoline. Fruit vendors wheel their creaky carts around, following the arc of the bridge descending toward the distant British Opera House.
My grandparents’ home has been in our family for generations. The house’s crumbling stucco walls are marked with craters. The tiles are cracked and chipped. It’s 1,000 square feet at most––less, probably. Small AC units wheeze and stop and start back up again with cold, hacking coughs of comfort.
Every day, my grandfather sits down in the kitchen and ruffles his architecture blueprints next to his computer, glasses drooping down his nose. He pushes them upward every once in a while, sorts the fresh fruits in the adjacent rickety fridge, and “helps” my grandmother cook by affectionately patting her on the back.
My grandmother is five-two. She always smells of sandalwood with a hint of rose, which wafts in cursive spirals through the house. Her hands are rough and wrinkled. I know this from the countless times she’s squeezed my cheek, remarking sweetly how tall I’ve grown, how I should eat more, how she’ll make me food right at that moment, and how she’s so beyond proud of me. Sometimes, my grandmother’s arms remind me of a tree. Hundreds of wrinkles spread like roots from her elbows to her wrists. Whenever I see them, I imagine a single divot cutting past her wrist and into her pale palm. I imagine it struggling to cling to the worn skin that surrounds it, like a family tree threatening to wither, its thousand-year bloodline sprouting dismally behind it.
Every morning, the crows perch on either side of the house’s metal railings, their curved talons resembling commas jammed into a thin, steel sentence that line the Mumbai streets, the same way my sentences have learned to end when I’m there. “Do you, you,” I say, a lost thought filled in by “dream?” or “wish?” or “wonder?” all of which hang suspended in the air in front of me. My mother tongue
reaches out to catch them all. She strains against my throat, buckles, and flops dejectedly. Our ancestral home brims with dozens of photo albums, telling the stories I cannot speak in our mother tongue. My mother’s birth, then her brother’s. Her marriage. The rituals, the prayers, the incense, the relentless culture I never sensed in myself. In one photo, various extended family members crowd around my cousin with the blank space I’ve left cleaved between their bodies. My tears fill the emptiness with a blotchy, bodily version of myself.
“Sepia” would be the closest word to describe the faded photos I flip through. “Sepia” originally meant “cuttlefish” in ancient Greek. Cuttlefish can survive up to 600 meters of hydrostatic pressure. I had this vision of being swallowed by fifteen thousand miles of Pacific Ocean. A thousand Newton’s worth of hydrostatic pressure, thinning my bloodline until my bleached body would brush up against America’s borders like cheap driftwood. I think of the cuttlefish huddling around me as I float, weightless in the Pacific, the sepia bringing me back to the surface and filling me with breath.
The bars of my grandparents’ home frame the life I would’ve lived if I’d been born in Mumbai.
If my parents didn’t relentlessly dream, if they hadn’t closed their eyes and jumped, washed up
on the shores of a country designed to bleed the brownness out of its immigrants’ bodies.
The house contains the history of all I cannot find in myself, sprawled in cratered walls and elderly wisdom. It is the filled space in a photo album. A fridge brimming with fruit. A small, cooling breath.
On my last visit this summer, I self-studied Devanagari, the script in which my mother tongue Marathi is written. I noticed then, as I made my way toward fluency, one phonetic syllable at a time, that the script oddly resembled a jagged, imperfect cursive. That, like smoke flowing from a stick of incense, can be inhaled; it can fill the body with something as sweet as sandalwood and rose and pass on scents from generation to generation. That, curling and looping with the endless promise of my grandmother’s wrinkles, need not end.
I wrote my name in the script and studied the creases etched into my palms. I realized then—it was all in my hands.