I was aware of Andhra but I had not been before. I was eighteen at the time and by then, enough of my mind had been set to make it difficult for me to open myself to the place. I was wary of how over-determined it was, my belated homecoming. I did not know my relatives. But I knew they would assume that by my arrival, I would go from incomplete to complete.
There was much I enjoyed immediately. I liked driving around Hyderabad and seeing how many stores had our family name, Balareddy. And I had never seen my parents so confident and so relaxed, showing me their high schools and colleges and introducing me to their childhood friends. I remembered how they were in celebrations back home in Alexandria; we would go out to some fancy restaurant in the Old Town for their wedding anniversaries and I would be in charge of ordering, because my parents were terrified of pronouncing "haricots verts" and "gnocchi." The waiters would chide them for not drinking enough and not smiling enough and all the while my parents would just grimace—they went out because they believed they were supposed to, but they hated the self-congratulation, the idea that they were supposed to celebrate not divorcing each other.
But back in Andhra, they were comfortable. At endless family gatherings, they held court—I had never seen them make anyone laugh before; I had never understood before how much time in the States they spent worrying about doing something the wrong way. And their marriage never looked better. We would walk along the streets together and as I trailed behind, I would see my mother sneaking her hand into my father's, a mouse in its cubbyhole.
Meanwhile, my grandmothers would just shiver with delight at the sight of me. They fawned over how tall I was (5' 4") and how "wheatish" my complexion. They understood barely a word I said, but they loved to watch me chatting away in English. The sheer fact that the language did not intimidate me made me seem like a genius. These tiny, pudgy women tried to get me on their laps and feed me by hand. Every afternoon, they made me plates of sweets, beige tiles of milk fudge that apparently represented one of the summits of Indian cooking, taking many hours, much sweat, and much saffron to produce. Of course, I told no one that they tasted only like sugar cubes mashed into butter. My grandmothers marveled at the fact that I liked to take a shower as soon as I got up in the morning. I did this only so that I wouldn't have to use the bathroom after anyone else, but they seemed to think my cleanly habits marked some kind of beatitude.
And in return for their affection, I was affectionate too, covering them with hugs and kisses. But there was neither the recognition nor the warmth of homecoming. They were totems more than people, placeholders for notions of family and authenticity that I would want to further develop one day, but right then I did not have the energy to engage them as people. When I returned to the States, I thought of my family back there, but not often, and I never wrote or called.
I should have known more about Andhra than I did. My grandfathers reminded me of that. They would invite me to their Masonic halls and ex-military lodges, clubs with the allure of a church basement feted for bingo night, fake wooden floor tiles, plastic tables, and red velvet awning wreathing the ceiling. I went along to be agreeable. My grandfathers' friends liked the scandal of being seen in such places with a young unmarried woman, a scandal excused only because I was American and because they never, ever let me actually drink. (When the men returned me home at midnight, my parents would be fast asleep but my grandmother would be awake, to check my breath and to let my grandfather know how many potential suitors of mine he had scared away).
My grandfathers' friends all fit the pattern of old Andhra men—the dark, crickety eyes, the skinny thighs and arms, and their indulged bellies—and as they got drunker through the night, they started swiveling their chins and pausing in between sentences with such self-delight that made me think their next words would be revelations. And they were: they were shitty revelations. My grandfathers' friends insisted on having me explain my curiously denuded, barren, woeful self to them. Why didn't I know Telugu? Why didn't I want to learn? They asked me to pronounce my name and they shuddered as my flat Beltway accent steamrolled over the inflections.
My grandfathers came to my rescue, explaining that I was an American, but that made it worse, like I was too decadent or self-absorbed to care. To get back some pride, I asked the old men what great Telugu novels or poems they would recommend, but they had no recommendations and preferred to talk about Wodehouse, Dickens, and Archer. I turned to Telugu philosophers or playwrights and again they had no names. They told me I was missing the point. You learn the language, they said, so that your grandmothers can bloody understand you.
The disconnect between my family in Andhra and me was not surprising, but towards the middle of my trip, I stopped gloating about the fact that I had evaded a cliché and started to feel disappointed. I kept thinking back to a summer road trip we all took, through the Civil War battlefields in the mid-Atlantic: Gettysburg, Antietam, Bull Run.
This trip was something my father had been talking about for a while. It was the sort of trip that only fathers want to make. I tried to beg off, but my mother would not let me. She always liked to indulge any kind of enthusiasm in my father since it was a difficult emotion for him. So, to avoid putting mileage on our Lexus, we rented a car and lit out for the territories. My father exploited our captivity to the hilt and held forth on the historic importance of each stop on the itinerary. It had been a storm-filled summer and I still remember the battlefields: stone-stacked clouds above the bright green plains. Once we entered the park gates, we never said anything. We did not talk. We just watched. The hills rode up and down like waves and the hay-like grass shone like gold. We could hear terns and blackbirds in the distance. There was wind and through the long grass, the wind sounded like rain. These fields had a proud, widowed beauty to them. They were sagas of grass, and we did not want to speak. It was a moment of respect that was unforced, that was entirely natural, and as we shared it, as I looked at the sunlit meadows with my family, and as I saw my father rapt, I did feel that this is my country. It was so beautiful anyone would want it. I felt that it was mine, but mine only because I had borrowed it. It was mine in the sense of possession, not ownership. I could draw inspiration from it but not strength. I could find opportunity but not safety.
But I found neither possession nor ownership, neither inspiration nor strength, neither opportunity nor safety in Andhra. For all the rush and throng of its cities, Andhra was still defined by what it lacked. It did not have the commerce, the history, the arts, the culture, the nature found elsewhere. There was a very successful condom factory near Vijayawada, some choppy, unswimmable beaches at Visakhapatnam, and the landscape, arid and rocky, was something to see on the train-rides in between. But no one would go all the way across an ocean for such sights. None of my non-Indian friends had heard of any of the places I would be visiting and none of my Indian friends had ever been to these places.
In fact, my Indian friends knew very little about Telugus in general. Other Indian states had real peoples, peoples with local characters as distinct from one another as the French and the Japanese. They had reputations that even I had heard of: Gujaratis were crafty, diligent businessmen; Punjabis, brash and warm-hearted; Tamils, haughty, competitive intellectuals; Bengalis, flighty and artistic cum pretentious; Keralites, relaxed and soulful. When I asked my family what the national opinion was of Telugus, they dissembled. A few would say "shrewd," others, "lazy," but most resisted an answer. They told me they did not understand why I worried about such frivolous things; and I told them, perhaps that was the Telugu trait, not to be bothered by such things, to cling to a clannish mediocrity, to cultivate and defend your homeliness. To be allergic to any ambition except the holding of a good job. Once someone told me that the slur for a Telugu person was "Gulti," I was not even offended; I was touched that someone had gone to the trouble.
It was only in the old city quarters of Hyderabad that I found a hint of the character that I was looking for. Hyderabad, the capital seat of Andhra Pradesh and the lodestar of the Mughal influence. In the old city, amid the criss-cross of telephone and power lines, were the delicate, refined symmetries of Islamic architecture: turret-tops of red sandstone that had been tempered into lilting petal-like arches, the star-tiled mosaics clambering up the interior walls, the glimmering cutlass script of the Urdu inlaid into the walls of the mosques. Unlike the Hindu temples, there was no code required to decipher the syncopated beauty of these buildings. This was by far my favorite place to spend my time, in the shadows of the minarets amid the paan-wallahs and kebab stands. But it did not count. The arabesques had been there for nearly four hundred years, but the old city was still as foreign to the rest of Andhra as it was to me. That was the whole point; they were built to be foreign, to make an outpost in Andhra that could stand with Isfahan, or Cordoba. Only most of the rest of Andhra was not charmed by it; either they were indifferent or they were affronted.
Now it is clear that, for this first trip back to India, I had been impersonating a character. To protect myself, I had been incorporating a certain level of unreasonableness and truculence in my personality mostly for my amusement. I had built up routines and sub-routines of resistance and I was surprised at how well they held up, how coherently they worked together. The coherence made the pose feel sincere. Although they were new, my disgruntlement and the dissatisfaction felt a little like personal growth; they were guards against complacency. I was starting to demand more from my life. Like my cousins, I too was on the make, just psychologically, not financially. I was impersonating a character, but I did not know who she was. This was my saving grace, my ignorance presenting itself to me as a glint of originality.
We had not come to Andhra for the entirety of my childhood. My parents had not seen their parents in eighteen years. There's no reason to be coy about why we finally came. I had an abortion. That was the reason. My family in India did not know that. My parents wanted me to keep my innocence in front of them. But that was the reason we visited after eighteen years apart.
At the start of the previous fall, I lost my virginity to Raj Malhotra, who, the summer before, had felt me up in our basement supply closet. I had liked the way his shoulders felt warm under his shirt, I had liked the eagerness of his kissing, and I had thought he would be . . . let's just say I thought the main event would be very different from what it was. After it was done, we avoided each other. I missed my period by two weeks and one late Saturday night, drunk on red wine, I called him sobbing. He saw me the next day, petrified. We had both taken local buses to a mall in a rundown part of town, where we figured no one would see us. At the Taco Bell, he bought me a burrito and told me he wanted to go to college and wasn't ready to be a father. And then he went on about how he thought I had taken something and how I told him it would be safe. And then finally he apologized and said that he would do whatever I wanted. He said it again and again, because it sounded safe. I was jealous of him for that, for having such an easy role to play in this. He kept offering to buy me soft-drinks and ice cream, because he had seen the movies where the pregnant women are ravenous and demanding and require sweetness and indulgence. I laughed because he thought that was what we were, and I saw a little spark of hope or relief in his face, as if our situation were some hoax. But I was laughing because I had considered asking him what he thought we should do. I didn't though. That would have been unfair; I was already going to get dismantled by this decision and I wanted to protect him from the same.
At school, I held myself together. Only when I came home did I fall apart. I hid in my bedroom, hoping that my depression would seem only like typical teenage angst, but my mother caught on pretty quickly. For a week, I held onto my secret and we got into a thousand little fights about everything from my homework to my tone of speech. When I finally told her the news, she looked relieved before she was disappointed, just as, the next day when she took me to her doctor who told me I was pregnant, I felt first vindicated—I knew my body so well!—and then inconsolable.
I remember also thinking that I was glad that Raj and I were both Indian; it would be a helluva time to get a half-Indian child adopted.
But in the end, we did not go that route.
Earlier, I said that I was impersonating a character, but that implies a level of agency that I didn't actually have. I had very little energy, little in reserve and nothing to waste. My personality was ramshackle and hasty, just whatever quick decisions I could make to bridge the gap between self and circumstance. Later on, I felt my personality to be larger and more authentic—the same under all circumstances—but it was even less free; it was nothing besides the history of all the things I did, and some of the things I did not do.
We did not visit before because my parents' careers did not allow it. Before my father finally got his promotion and my mother could quit working, their vacations were too short, two weeks each year, too little time to risk the jet-lag, too little time to risk me getting sick from the food or water, too little time for my parents to give equal and meaningful attention to both my mother's side and my father's side. And of course, the longer my parents waited to return, the more momentous their return seemed and the more inadequate those two weeks.
But having got used to the light touch they applied to their origins, I had difficulty seeing my parents now grabbing them up with both hands. I don't remember any awkward period in their coming over, a time when they were annoyed with the power failures, with the bribes to the traffic cops, with the beggars clamoring for them and with the absence of toilet paper. They had endless patience in Andhra. We were there for three months and if my father had to spend every day in his mother's living room, eating her idlis and drinking her coffee, that man would have wanted for nothing in his life.
When we were all together, the talking always started in English, so that I could join in, but the gang shook me off soon enough and their talk took flight into Telugu. I didn't know what they were saying to each other. Yet the group seemed to come together seamlessly, all the members knowing intuitively when to let one of them shine, and when to chorus together—a jazz quartet on a cruise ship.
While they chatted, I tried to look busy. I told myself I owed Raj a letter, so I tried to write him one. I thought of what I wanted to say to him, and also what he might want to hear from me, but I had no idea about either. And as I sat there, listening to my family trot and loll, my father and his sisters and brothers, my mother and her brothers, I could not help but think that even if they did not have a common past, they wouldn't have needed one; they would have found one another all the same, and they would have all been as close to one another as they were. If it were to come to surface that some of them had been switched at birth, their love for one another would remain.
Why did I think this, what was my proof, and what did it really matter? I did not know. There was nothing in particular, no single event that led me to this conclusion. But I believed it still. I could imagine it, could understand it, and did not immediately discount it, and that was its proof. The conceivability was the proof. I felt like a cuckold. Their love of their homeland was really an infidelity; it was shorn of any sense of duty and it had all the excitement of an affair.