Sunday, August 2, 2009

thoughts on india: two


In Chandigarh, before I walk into my mom’s older sister’s home for the first time, I am nervous. How will we communicate with the language barrier? If we find a way to communicate, what will we say? When I do go through her door, I stop worrying about what we will or won’t say, and I worry instead that I will begin to cry. I am meeting her for the first time since I was two years old.

When I see her, I immediately see my mother’s face in hers. She shares my mother’s back and shoulders, her build. I think of how happy my mother would be to know that I am in India in the home of her older sister. Truthfully, it feels to me as if my mother does know, as if she’s peering through a window and watching. I wish she could be in the room with us, not a spark, but marrow-in-bones and breathing flesh.

My masi’s arms are like my mother’s arms. Perfectly smooth and slight of hairs. The same microscopic lines scrawl like a faint map across her skin. When she is irritated and scowling, I see the shadow of my mother’s scowl. When she laughs, I hear the echo of my mother’s laughter.

She cries before I do, but then we are both crying. I wish I could remember what she said about my mother, but I don’t. I only remember that I got to grieve my mom with her big sister, a woman who I had no real memory of before that day.

Later, my mom’s older sister takes me to visit my other masi, my mom’s younger sister who also lives in Chandigarh. In this masi, I see and feel my mother’s youngest brother. She cries too, telling me, “You’re mom went too soon.” Then we are both crying. She squeezes her arms around me, brings me close to her, and when she hugs me, I feel my mom hugging me.

In Bhatinda, another of my mom’s younger sisters also carries my mother’s image in her own. “Masi means ‘like mom', ma-si,” she tells me. She also cries for my mother, and I cry with her. She tells me, "Your mom was not just my sister; she was also my friend." Over and over, I want to touch her forearms, press into them like I am kneading dough. I hold her hands because, like my mother’s, the tiny bones and little plump veins rise like soft little ridges beneath softer, taut skin; the palms are comfortable pillows that I squeeze again and again.

Both my mom’s older sister in Chandigarh and her younger sister in Bhatinda have hands are the same as my mother’s hands. Breathing next to both masis, beside all three masis, really, is like breathing beside my mother. And when we cry together, there is grieving in these tears, but also celebrating.

I have always seen them in photos, but the resemblance still stuns me. It is not just the way my masis look – though when my Bhatinda-masi is concerned that c. and I are not eating enough, it writes itself into her eyes and mouth and forehead in the exact same pattern that concern used to spread across my mother’s face – it is the intangible way that I feel in the presence of each of them that relaxes and overwhelms me.

I notice that the three of them have hands that will not be still. Fingers step, one at a time, over their corresponding thumb, thumbs rub slowly against corresponding fingertips like they are counting prayer beads. I watch their hands move when they speak. My mother lived continents away from these three sisters for 37 years, but I used to observe her hands and fingers dance the same meditative waltz. Sitting in India, having seen all three sisters busy their hands in the same manner – one that speaks of weaving, cooking, sewing, storytelling, building everything a person requires in life, I wonder if my mom’s only sister who made it to the US, the one masi I actually grew up with, also has dancing hands. How could I never have noticed before? Rather, how could I have taken for granted growing up with just one masi, one woman who is ‘like mom’?

All together, they were five sisters. Now I know them all. I know what they look like and what they feel like. In my head, I line them up in a row, and there is a thread that weaves through these women – my eldest masi holds the end of it in her left hand and it continues into her right hand. Then it pierces my mother’s earlobe and travels into her her closed mouth where she holds it with her teeth before it falls down and into her right hand. It continues to my next masi, makes a few stitches in her left sleeve and droops in front of her waist; she holds part of it in her right hand. It travels on to my next masi, makes a stitch in the neck line of her blouse and then weaves through her hair. It comes down around her neck, and glides over to the fifth, youngest masi, where the end curls into her hair and emerges out of her mouth and down into her right hand. She holds it firmly. Each of their lips are set in a smirk that indicates deep contemplation and some secret joke. Lips set in a crooked line, half happy and half sad, it is the trait that all the sisters share.

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