"There was seldom anything addressed to her. Only an occasional letter from Manash. She resisted reading them, given what they reminded her of. Manash and Udayan, studying together in her grandparents' flat, and Udayan and Gauri getting to know one another as a result. A time she'd crushed between her fingertips, leaving no substance, only a protective residue on the skin."
I felt this way once before when I took another journey with Jhumpa Lahiri. It was a different book, The Namesake, but I remember the landscape of this author's creativity, the topography of sentences, the valleys and deltas, the mountains and forests. This is a fertile place. Lahiri takes me back to my home -- so different from the home of Ashima in The Namesake, and certainly nowhere near The Lowland of Gauri's past -- and yet, I find myself reaching back into time, recognizing moments that were lost for so long that I had forgotten I even experienced them. This is what great writing does.
- Jhumpa Lahiri in The Lowland
The Lowland is not for the faint-hearted reader. It is not a kind book, but it is an important one. For a novel, it packs an expansive history lesson, a history that I, being on the other side of the border from India, never learned in textbooks and lectures. But more importantly, at its core, the novel was about time, particularly the past, a slice of time crystallized and settled into the realities of individuals affected by it. Time taking hold of lives and just not letting go. My father used to say to me, "The words that leave your tongue and the time that leaves your hand will never return." And he wouldn't warn me further than that. He wouldn't instruct me to use the time I had wisely or to hold my tongue. He would simply state a fact and leave the action up to me. I thought back to this statement of my father's that fell short of the technical definition of an advice, but governed so many of my decisions as an adult -- a life lesson, I call it still -- and I thought of it often while I read The Lowland.
How much of our lives do we forget? How much do we remember? Two people who share a moment remember it differently, the quality of the moment changes for each individual, the feel of sun on skin, the sound of a heart beating loud enough to drown out all sound for one person and the same rhythm not even audible to another, the truth and its tributaries running different courses to irrigate the two lives -- it's all relative. And sometimes one person simply forgets or knows only half of the truth or a different version of it altogether. Then what? Who do you share your reality with then? You simply guard it within you.
The Lowland compelled me to reach into the crevasses of memory and examine some caged realities that exist only for me now because they've been forgotten by everyone else. They are not so easily crushed for me, they roll between my fingertips like cool marble, grave, unyielding, ever present.
Photos by Rebecca McCue
A few months ago, I packed up two boxes of books that were gathering dust on my shelves. I made a smaller box of some paperbacks and brought them to a makeshift library in one of the hallways of the building that houses my office. I set them on the shelves of this small bookcase and forgot about them.
Last week, I was heading out from work to get a pedicure and didn't have a book to read, so I grabbed one of my old paperbacks from the makeshift library. Once I was seated comfortably on the massage chair at my neighborhood nail studio, my feet soaking in the comforting warm bath, I leaned back and reached for the book in my bag. When I opened it, a card fell into my lap. It was dated April 2006, written just over 8 years ago - the last time I had seen my sisters. It was a farewell note they had written for me and left in my bedroom while I was in my classes, having chickened out of taking them to the airport because I knew I would cry. In the upper left corner of the card was a giant scrawl made by my then
8-year-old brother, whom I have had the good fortune to meet twice in
the last eight years. That sweet little boy became a young man while I
wasn't looking, and apparently, based on reports from my sisters, his
penmanship really hasn't improved at all. My siblings and mother had just spent 9 months with me and were going home when that card was written. At the time, my sisters and I didn't know that we would not see each other again for 8 years (and counting), that we would miss each other's weddings, birthdays, graduations, that the absence of one stamp on a green passport, dependent so heavily on the diluted and withdrawn perception of the immigration official behind bullet-proof glass windows at the American Embassy in Pakistan, would have the power to keep us apart so long - without any other tangible reason.
How was this a coincidence? On roughly the eighth anniversary of our goodbye, the farewell card my sisters had written had found its way back to me. I am trying to describe what it was like to find this card, hold it in my hands, know that when it was penned and left to me, we were still just girls, barely able to understand the nuances of separation and the dynamics of staying connected distantly. We couldn't have imagined that we would not be present at each other's weddings. I would have laughed if a fortune-teller had told me that I would have a daughter who would not be held by her aunts for at least the first 3 years of her life. We didn't know this back then - when my sisters poured their love into a piece of card-stock, and I found comfort in it on lonely evenings while I read a book and used it as a bookmark. We didn't know that after that April, our lives and the map of our family would change. We didn't know that we would all unravel on our own because of nasty surprises, disappointments, and betrayals just a month after that card was written. We didn't know that our mother would be diagnosed with breast cancer that summer, and words like "mastectomy," "lymph nodes," "chemotherapy," and "bone scan" would quietly creep into our conversations. How could we have known any of this, the oldest of us being only 21 and the youngest barely 18? We were...just girls, three sisters who loved to get their nails done together every two weeks - how fitting, then, for me to find this exquisite reminder of that carefree time while I was getting a pedicure.
I miss my sisters. I don't feel it most of the time. I have my life, they have theirs - we try to make time for each other, we share our triumphs and losses, we share silly stories, we show each other our new purchases on Whatsapp or FaceTime, but I miss them. I want to be able to take certain things for granted again - like the three of us being able to sit in bed and watch Friends reruns all night, or making sauteed mushrooms and knowing that my sisters will enjoy them and not look at me like I have lost my mind for eating fungi (that's what my husband calls mushrooms), or talking about Prisoner of Azkaban and the Time-Turner for hours because something doesn't make sense to the middle sister (it's always the middle sister), or just dropping everything we're doing and going to get our nails done, picking out colors for each other, sitting side by side, talking about what to do for dinner, or whose birthday is coming up, or the new books we want to read - you know, the simple, seemingly inconsequential things, the details of daily life, completely ordinary, but so wholesome.
This card with their words that found its way back to me, is a memory of just such a time that came to a close in April 2006. What would we have done differently if we had known our separation would be so long and monumental? Would I have gathered the courage to take them to the airport, to hug them more, to apologize for being the short-tempered big sister all the time? Would I have written them a note like this, too, a time capsule to find them by surprise one pleasant afternoon? There is no way to know, but I am so grateful to the universe for bringing those happy memories of my sisters back to me in the shape of this card.
“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people
wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
I drive the same way home every day. When I emerge from a bend on the freeway, circling on I-280 South past Page Mill, I see a breathtaking view ahead of me. On my left there are the domes of three hills, lush with small blades of grass today, a forlorn deeper green tomorrow, turning brown and patchy another day. On my right there is a towering house hidden behind trees. On an afternoon that blooms as an afterthought to rain, clear and clean, tufts of cottony clouds seem to be hovering above this house. On stormy days, the trees are swaying in front of the topmost tower's topmost windows. In winter, thickets of fog seem to leech on to the ocher exterior of the house and the naked tree limbs. In summer, the house looks bright, the trees full and fat, the sky glitters in the background. It's the same road, the same house, the same age-old trees, but they look different every day. As I merge on to the freeway, I wonder how the house past the bend in the road will look like and how it will make me feel, because it does evoke something different in me every time I see it. These feelings are colored by the successes and set-backs of the day, tinged by the bitterness of failure sometimes, flavored by the aftertaste of disappointment. Sometimes, I am able to find absolute beauty when I look at this house in the heart of the hills, because I bring my happiness with me. It may look like it is crumbling in a winter storm and I may still find it to be a metaphor for resilience, because despite the stony rain and the whipping winds, it stands like it always has, sand-colored with red trimmings around the window glass, peeking through the shivering trees. I find a new story during my drive home this way, and the image of the house makes me bookmark them.
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
There are so many stories I haven't told. Messy stories. Stories of fear and heartbreak and failure and disillusionment and strength and grit and joy. I don't even know where to begin to tell them. It's odd that I feel so full of these stories, but at the same time, I am so distant from writing one down on paper. To talk about just one, I want to shape a poem around an afternoon during my childhood that taught me a hard and menacing lesson about this world. I want to transport myself to that nine-year-old's body with the two pigtails and the new frock, the hammering heart, the small feet running past the iron gates, into the heart of the house, the trembling hands not knowing what to hold on to, the trimmed fingernails finding a sagging wax candle on a pillar near the stairs, scratching it, clawing at it, breaking it down. The mother looking at that nine-year-old girl curiously, pausing on her way downstairs, "What's wrong?" "Nothing," a croak from the child's parched throat, and all the while her soft nails cracking while shredding the candle to pieces.
How much does a writer choose not to tell in her story? How much should she tell? Anne Lamott, in her book Bird by Bird, suggests telling everything, but she also doesn't pretend that it is easy to do so. I can see how telling some stories that I have chosen not to share yet will be therapeutic, but I am afraid of the walls that I will run into over and over. I have built concrete mazes around these stories over the course of many years. How do I start breaking them down, how do I start peeling away the paint that is supposed to hide the ugliness of truth? How do I make myself remember...
Every day, when I come upon that house on the freeway, it makes its way into my story for that day. I package it into memory and put it away. I imagine different people living in it, caring for it, I embellish it in my mind, and sometimes I deface it. Today, having decided to write about the house and about the fear of sharing the other more sinister stories, I kept my eye trained on the hills, but I couldn't find it. One bend after another I searched the landscape, but I could not locate that house or the mounds across from it. I must have simply missed it as I was trying to merge with the oncoming traffic. However, this meant that I had to reach into the recesses of my memory and dig out the images I had filed away, unconsciously, for many days. I closed my eyes and I saw that house again when I began to write this post. I saw it as I had seen it on those wintry days, on rainy evenings, during high summer. I saw it and I wrote about it from memory. I must reach back to that nine-year-old girl. I must touch her bleeding fingers. I must hold her and tell her, It's alright. I can't make her say to her bemused mother, "I am so scared," but I can convince her to breathe, to close her eyes, to remember. I can look into her terrified face and say, Let me tell our story, and then somehow muster the courage to live up to this promise.
Photos by Rebecca McCue