Friday, February 11, 2011

Opening Windows

Before I turn 30, I've promised myself, I'm going to see where all four of my grandparents and all four of my great-grandparents came from. 

With 18 months still to go, I'm not far off. I've seen my maternal grandmother's tiny fishing village in the west of Norway, where her mother was raised, in turn, on fresh mackerel, sea air and goat's milk. I've stood on the spot where my paternal grandfather and grandmother built their little raised house with the corrugated iron roof on stilts in the verdant, wild bush of Trinidad (more goats here, too). I've walked many a mean street of Bermondsey, where my mother's dad knew every bus route going in Southwark (apparently this led to a degree of popularity with the young au pairs who happened upon his particular patch in Rotherhithe to go to the Norwegian church). 

But there's one part of my heritage I've never been able to experience first-hand. A part of my great-grandfather and great-grandmother's stories I'd been desperate to see. 


When I was about seven or eight, I remember my father pointing out the northern and southern tips of the vast landmass on the map pinned to my bedroom wall. He marked two asterisks on this; his unmistakeable scrawled capitals marking the top: "MY GREAT-GRANDFATHER WAS BORN IN KASHMIR" and the bottom: "MY GREAT-GRANDMOTHER WAS BORN IN MADRAS." Both places sounded so exotic and so far away from each other, let alone from my childhood home in south Florida. My father had never been to these places either, but his dark face and poker-straight jet black hair belied his roots. He contented himself with Kipling and Naipaul's literary versions of India, and I never knew if he would have liked to visit his diverse family beginnings at the top and the bottom of our map, but the foods of my childhood were certainly squarely tied in with his original ancestry (as for most Trinis): roti, paratha, chana dhal, okra, curried chicken, and plenty of hot pepper sauce on everything.

My first visit to India, at the end of last month, was to neither of the places on our map. I'm not ashamed to say it was to a place set squarely in the middle of the tourist (and hippy) trail; a place that Thomas Cook flies to twice a week and a place many Brits flock to in search of sun, sea, sand, and sex. I was certainly looking for sunshine, but more than anything, I wanted to get the measure of the people, and open a window I hadn't ever been able to look out of before. 

In most of the places we went while we were there, I was asked if I was Indian. And for once (unlike in other European countries this happens to me in - Greece, Italy, Spain), I could say with some conviction that this country was woven somehow into my family history. And I liked that. 

I'm already planning for our return journey. Next time, we'll definitely see more than a holiday resort and I hope to be able to open that window a little wider, look a little deeper, and take the time to try to visit those asterisks on the map of my childhood. I hope, with my return visit, to see a little more of the people who can already see quite a bit of me in them.

I have no more words. Just pictures.

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