A Chipped Peacock

Shades of blue and green shift through my outstretched fingers and dance under the light, and out of the jumble of colors, a peacock arises, his tail chipped from use and a spike protruding from his back where the earrings are held to the earlobe. I wonder if long ago he danced to the rhythm of another girl’s footsteps, a girl whose eyes moved in shades of black, like mine do. Comfortable with her life, adorned by the money of silver speculators, she probably had no idea that her family would soon lose everything. Turning the earrings over in my hand, I feel nothing but a faint pride that my ancestors were gamblers, that their wealth was built, and lost, on taking risks in the bygone era of the British Raj.

The sprawling, dry city of Phoenix hovers in the back of my mind: the slow sweeping of the sky from blue to orange to red at dusk, the mountains turned to blood, their rigid contours defined against the soft light of the setting sun. This unforgiving vista of desert imparts the people with a certain rawness, a certain frankness, that makes other parts of the country appear stifling in comparison. We are the forty-eighth state to enter the Union, and our newness is projected in the metallic glint of skyscrapers erected seemingly overnight. The air used to simmer with the heat of construction and growth; now, suspended, the half-finished buildings lie in a state of restless anticipation before they can begin to boom up towards the sky again. Only the sunsets go on as before, dyeing the vaults of the divine with prismatic splendor until the colors seep down, turning the abandoned hardhats into crowns. But the memory of the city halts abruptly at the recent depression. Far off in the countryside, the land still booms with the melodies of the Navajo. Under our canals lie the ruins of the Aztec waterways, but we have never been a city to live in retrospection. In winter, the air is clear not only of dust, but also of recollections of family members cheated, uncles killed, desperate veterans buried under the grounds of family cemeteries.

The stucco walls of my house fondly remember the growing pains of two babies, but they remain aloof and untouched by memories of the dead. My backyard is not broken by freshly broken mounds of dirt on which I can lay flowers and say prayers. And even if it was, what would I remember, standing at those graves? My most vivid memory of my grandmother is from a dim dream I had when I was four. News from my family in India is muted, and even when I talk with my relatives on the phone, their voices are distorted by the distance and their faces are blurs in my mind. My family is a sapling growing in virgin ground, and the roots we are building do not touch the roots of the tree whose seed we grew from. But I don’t mind.

Our roots are nevertheless strong because they intertwine around one another. Without childhood friends, my parents turn their attention to me. The only time I feel the lack of family is when Thanksgiving rolls around, and the large mahogany table in our home suddenly feels absurdly large and empty.

At school, my friends sing, “Land where my fathers died; Land of the pilgrim’s pride,” and I join in with a clear voice, though my heart lies flat at the words. Their fathers died here, not mine. At home, my mother hums “Come home, O Traveller, your country calls you.” The way the laugh lines around her face twist and the far-off look in her eyes leave no doubtof the country she’s remembering and hoping to go back to. But when I hear her sing, a vague sense of loneliness wakes andpushes itself out of my heart. Both my parents and my friends know where they belong, where their mothers andgrandmothers belonged, and I feel that I should know as well.

After all, in Hindi, my name means a bridge, one who brings two people or ideas together. As a first generation daughter of immigrants, my name is oddly appropriate; after all, I am supposed to connect the traditions of the old country with the opportunities of the new. But instead of connecting, I am more often teetering over a gaping chasm, feet on one country and hands on the next. I had hoped, as I grew older, that I would stop jolting from side to side on the Indian-American scale, that I would finally find my footing. But I am forever that one child at the Diwali party clad in jeans, among women wearing their best sarees, or the kid arrayed in a full-length lenga choli at a casual Christmas gathering.

 

What country calls me? When I was a child, I heard the soft voice of India in the way my parents looked at the flag on Indian Independence day, their lips parted, eyes soft, lost in the light of a childhood they had left behind for a rocky desert steeped with rough people. I thought I heard its cry in the patriotic songs they sang, in the movies of bloody revolutionaries, in the rhythm of Gandhi’s march. These impressions are a part of my blood, of my very-conflicted self.

Consequently, I was very excited to visit India at the age of eight, having already decided that any country my parents could love so must be the best in the world. But I found a land of extremes, pulsating to the heartbeats of a billion people living, breathing, working, procreating. With all those heartbeats, would you notice if one stopped? In streets so alive with colors and crowds, do you notice the beggar wheeling himself on rusted wheels, the dark stump of his leg blending in with the shadows? I noticed, because I was less adept at ignoring, more sheltered than my parents were.

Though many years have passed, I still remember a mother coming up to us and asking for money, a son following her with his hands open. Just a few years older than my brother, the little boy had no idea that begging was shameful. A grin overstretched his dirt-covered face as he blabbered in garbled Hindi for some coins. Before I could watch him for more than a second, our burly driver hurled himself at the little boy’s mother, arms outstretched to slap her and voice raised, as if he owned her. Cringing, the child grabbed his mother’s skirts and began to cry, his dimples and innocence turning to dust.

I knew then that India could never be mine, not in the way it was my parents’. Please don’t misunderstand me: I love my culture. I love my religion. I love the way we place candles leading up to our door on Diwali, to welcome the start of the new year. I love the bright colors and popping spice of chane bhature and aaloo paranthas. I love talking in a different language when I don’t want anyone else but my family to understand me. But I couldn’t live in the country my parents loved, living their history all over again. Though my mind may not be tinted orange, green, and white, in the colors of the Indian flag, it is certainly not red, white, or blue either. Or, at least, the red is the color of Sedona rock, the white the hue of the glaring sun, and the blue the shade of the Colorado River.

I still laugh at the first-generation Indians who try to totally assimilate themselves into American culture. America isn’t really a melting pot or a stew- or, at any rate, it’s the first stew I’ve seen where the carrots distrust the potatoes and the beef is constantly protesting all the other vegetables. To pretend otherwise entails making my name more Anglo-Saxon, swallowing my anger when history textbooks calls our Hindu gods fictional. But still, I hope. I hope that, if not I, then my children will be accepted here, that they will never have to hear the words “go back to where you came from” from a history teacher or a politician.

Go back to where you came from! As if my parents were locusts, rather than self-respecting business owners. No, I couldn’t kowtow to the norms of the land my parents had chosen to live in, even though I loved the rugged ridges of the mountains near my home, loved the dripping summers of mesquite trees and chlorinated pool water.

I ponder all this the next time I am in India, mull over my life when loneliness arises in me again, as I realize how little I fit in anywhere. The thoughts rise again to my mind, now, as I roll over the earrings in my hand, feel the chipped tail of the peacock dig into my palm.

“They’re for you,” my grandmother says, looking at me carefully. “Your father’s grandmother kept them for you.”

A tingle of warmth goes through my body. Someone thought about me before I was born, before I was conceived in thought or body. My mind drifts back to that strange girl, long ago, with my features, and down the line, through silver speculators and shop owners, until I get to my great grandmother. A small picture of her hangs in the alcove next to my desk, and in it, she grins without teeth. The arms she folds across her chest are dark brown and thick, and I realized long ago that they look exactly like my father’s arms. I remember that she raised my grandfather and his brother when her husband died, leaving her a widow, unable to read or write anything but her own name. She sewed to make a little money, cooked and sold relishes to send her boys through school. But throughout her hardship, she never sold these earrings or any other relics of her past. Even at the age of eighty, she was able to smile and stand tall, back unbent by hardship.

Holding the peacocks in my hand, I feel the strength of my great grandmother filling my conflicted veins. As if in a dream, I see that courage passed down to my father and mother in their choice to leave their home and build a new one. They didn’t do it so that their children would spend the rest of their lives wondering where they fit in, dilly-dallying between one country and another, unable to choose. I don’t belong, I realize, to either the fractured desert of Arizona or the fog filled jungles of Delhi; I belong to values, to strength and determination and the people who exhibit them, no matter where those people are found.

 

personal essay/memoir by Anvita Gupta, age 16

2014 Gold Key, American Voices Nominee

BASIS Scottsdale, Scottsdale

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