What Kind of Love Has it Got to do With
This youtube link is my narration, with pictures, of the below story called What Kind of Love Has it Got to do With.
What Kind of Love Has it Got to do With
by Geeta Raj, in memory of my father Prithvi Raj, 1937-2010
New Delhi, India:
I started telling my life story to my father over spicy tomato soup in New Delhi. Having turned 32, I had come to Delhi from DC to meet my father after many many years.
In between my little-girl gulps and tears, I zig-zagged through pieces of the last 23 years. We moved on to crunch on papadums. It was the kind of crunch you hear in your head, on the inside of your ears.
We sat in a busy restaurant in Connaught Place – one of the largest financial and commercial centers in Delhi. A librarian from Oklahoma reading a romance novel dined to my right and, to my left, a South Indian family with small children who were picky eaters.
Later that week, at Nathu’s Bakery, we settled in a maroon booth surrounded by concrete blue walls and neon lights casting a shadow from the whirring fan in the March evening heat. And, since eating together bridges estrangement, there were vegetarian coleslaw’esque sandwiches with abundant mayonnaise, lukewarm weak chamomile tea, and British-style biscuits that we dunked into that weak tea.
I only remember bits of my childhood – most if it is a dark, lonely blank. I remember emotions not particulars, like feeling pressure when under anesthesia but not sensation. Memory loss was anesthesia to the abuse, violence, and perversions that came from living with a mentally unstable and former refugee uncle as our legal guardian and a mother with manic depression.
I get tired of trying to fill in the years of my childhood that my father was so desperate to hear and finally admit my dark memory to him. In a rare moment of showing me physical affection, he put his hand over mine and said: “I’ll help you remember. We’ll figure it out together.” He tells me he didn’t know where we were for almost half of 1987, the year before he essentially left the States and my sister and myself for good. For as much as I know, 1987 may not have even happened.
We get a second order of weak chamomile tea (sorry dad, can’t do any more chai) and deduce that indeed my mother did leave Texas with myself and my sister for India in 1987 without telling my father.
I pull out my digital camera and surprise even myself. On my memory card (a large one I am complacent about organizing and deleting) was a documented picture of my signature dated September 1987.
“Dad, I at least know where we were in September 1987.” My father buys me a chocolate truffle cake, the only pastry in India that doesn’t taste like rose water. I’m comforted by this gesture of my father buying sweets for his daughter – it was a little nibble of an intimate father/daughter moment I so much craved.
“Why do you have a picture of your signature,” he asks. I’ve always loved postmodern theory and literature (shout-out to Paul Auster!) and I’m diving into this true postmodern tale of location, identity, personality, confusion. A story within a story within a story.
I explain to him how, two years prior, my sister and myself had visited Haridawar-one of the most popular pilgrimage places in India - to bring my mother’s ashes and lay her to rest in the Ganga River. Haridawar attracts millions of pilgrims, tourists and peace seekers. It’s located on the bank of the holy Ganga River and means the Gate to God. It’s where you go to honor all stages of life. 4:12 Modern life has only reached bits of Haridawar- the banks are filthy, people shaving and bathing at every corner, shops overflowing with glittering prayer pieces and a slippery sludge of mud and water coats the floor. It could very easily be 1955.
On the banks, in the middle of the shops and prayer stands, stands a statue of one of India’s freedom fighters. In front of that is the home of a family of priests who have performed all rituals for my mother’s family for generations. The elderly priest we found at this home remembered my sister and myself from when we visited as children. He also remembered – now 20 years later - how I loved to sleep on the roof but would complain about the bedbugs from the straw beds.
I don’t remember much but to me Haridawar was about summer holidays, marigolds and roses, the electric buzz of Ganga’s waters at night-time, and summer monsoon rains.
After performing the final rites for our mother, we signed the family scroll at the home of this priest. Rolls and rolls of old-school style scrolls were piled high on creaky wooden shelves and filled with dated signatures by all guests.
It was summer, it was damp, we were sitting on a hard-surface couch in a dirty home that still had elephant-ear toilets. Though it wasn’t a Jhumpa Lahiri novel of exotic India, mysticism and Indian accents with an educated British slant, this priest did have an extraordinarily magical power to flip through time as he flipped through the scrolls.
He pulled the scroll belonging to my mother’s family – the Dhingra’s – and traced to a 1913 signature of my great-grandfather who had signed in an old Urdu script. In 1913, the British were still in India and Pakistan hadn’t been created.
My vivid imagination in fast forward, I flipped through the history of this family as he flipped through the scrolls. British Raj, build-up to the bloody 1947 partition, losing all, refugees in India, a depressed grandfather, rage, humility, migrating to Germany, migrating to the U.S., seeking economic relief…..and boom, he stops at 1987, at my mother’s signature.
Seeing her handwriting brought so much of her back. And right next to her signature was mine at ten years’ old. Geeta Raj. September 1987.
Back at Nathu’s, I eek out this story for my father. “Dad, see, I can prove it. We were in India in September 1987.”
I inhale deeply, clicking back and forth on my camera as I showed him all our signatures, dates and explained the preservation of a life I never knew.
My father held the camera to his face, the pain of lost time written into the curves of his cheeks, and sucked deeply on his cigarette.
There are snapshots about my father stored away in my heart. How he used to tell me not to go in the rain “because you’re so sweet you might melt.” How he encouraged my love to read but would caution not to use a word “unless you know its meaning.” How he always told me I was a talented writer.
It never occurred to me, until after I shared my childhood stories, that he may actually love me. I now know, after point-blank asking, that he does. That I am linked to him by the intensity of which he missed both my sister and myself in those 20+ years. But like all Gemini men in my life, my father was also a difficult man to love.
Does he love me because I am biologically his daughter? Or for the person I have become, for my choices, my preferences? For how I kept writing my whole life, like he told me, and for all the times I still blush at the idea of melting when I’m caught in the rain.
When my father says he loves me, what kind of love has it got to do with? **** I was and still continue to be esurient to know my father, his history, to fill the equations, the space. To experience more moments when I observe so much of myself in my father. How he’s a bohemian. How he talks to every random stranger at every curve of every step he takes and how I have done the same my whole life. How he loves photography and how I do. In our case, it’s certainly nature, not nurture. After we determined where I was in September of 1987, it then became my father’s turn to share about his journey through refugee camps in 1950’s post-partition India, working through university, earning 5 degrees and leaving India for a different life, Afghanistan, Japan, coming to America. It was his turn to color in the gaps of who my father is, of what he believes, of what he supports.
I’m hiccupping because I’m crying with such velocity; I’m proud and surged with intrigue by his stories. “Dad, did you know that I also moved to Washington, DC and then to Kabul? I had no idea you lived in any of those places.”
I ask him to tell me a story about when I was born. As he smiles at the memory of me as a slippery, water-logged toddler, I know he’s smiling at my courage for jumping off the highest diving board as a 2-year old and for all the plunges I’ve taken in life since.
That’s the kind of love it’s got to do with.