I am eight years old and living with my family through a hot summer in the neighborhood of Santa Cruz in Mumbai, India. We are preparing for my Grandparent’s fiftieth wedding anniversary party, and family has flown in from all over the world. So much of Santa Cruz reminds me of our life back home in Florida. I see exotic palm trees and brightly colored sunrises. I hear the sounds of horns honking in the streets and savor the aroma of spices wafting through the humid air. All the windows in Grandma’s flat are open, and the early morning breeze tickles the lace curtains until they reveal the sunrise, boldly orange. I help my Grandmother in the kitchen to make “chapatis” with flour and oil. We roll out the dough and sprinkle flour and bake them in a clay oven. Later we enjoy them with butter and jam.
It is time to go with Grandma to the market I see the women dressed in traditional saris and men in salwar kameses. I hear the sound of dry feet beating the pavement as men run their auto rickshaws. In shop windows we find the saffron and burgundy colored fabrics embroidered with golden thread, and elaborate gem stone jewelry. The smell of fresh mangoes and pomegranates fill the air. Grandma negotiates for some fresh cuts of fish to make fish curry, and we walk back home for some respite from the sun.
As the sweltering sun sinks slowly in the sky, we venture outside again with my parents. We pass the street walls plastered with colorful Indian film advertisements on our way down to the park to play. The willow trees droop down to touch as we walk down the lane. I am amused to see that my father grew up close to the beach, just like I have so many miles away from here. We walk past Dad’s church, Sacred Heart parish and his school of the same name. The next day, Dad walks us through the boys school and they all giggle when they see me and my sister, since girls go to the convent’s school.
We return home, and Mom warms some goat milk for us before bed. Grandma comes to pat us on the back until we fall asleep in our beds, and I pretend to be asleep just so she will feel she can rest. Outside I hear the sound of the night watchman walking and slapping his cane on the ground to ward off any criminals. A few hours after that, a devout Hindu can be heard walking through the streets singing his prayers in a lulling, mystifying tone. Before the break of dawn, we stir once again, to hear the early morning venders calling up from the street with their carts of fruits and vegetables. We come to the window in time to see women with heavy pitchers of water placed precariously on their heads, gliding gracefully with the assurance of generations gone before them.
Grandma is cooking again today, and I hear her giving instructions to the servants in the predominant regional language, Hindi, which I can not understand. My Grandmother’s golden bangles make a jingling musical sound when she bustles around. I feel her soft but dry hands on my face, lovingly pinching my cheeks. I marvel at how she maintains her household and fusses over her guests to see that they are well fed and comfortable. The home is busy with preparations and many family members visiting.
While Mom soaks my nails in a bowl of gelatin because I am biting them too much and this is supposed to help them grow again, my brother and sister are down below on the street with Dad enjoying their first pony ride. I am sulking because I want to be riding the pony. Later, Dad takes us all to the beach, and makes it up to me with a camel ride along the seashore. We drink our “thumbs up” soda and giggle at the men with the monkeys who dance and steal coins from our pockets. We watch with awe as men charm cobras from wicker baskets.
We return home, and at night I hear the sounds of fireworks cracking continuously for the Hindu festival “Diwali.” My family is Catholic as many families in Santa Cruz are, so we do not honor the festival, but we enjoy the lights from the balcony. Over the din of chattering family and popping of fireworks, we hear the bowl drop and roll on the hard floor. Even above the noise, I hear the whimper of my Grandmother. Even at the age of eight, I know in my soul that my ailing, sweet Grandfather has just passed. It is two nights before their fiftieth anniversary celebration. My father and his siblings have just returned from a trip to the store, and rush to comfort my Grandmother. We turn off the television and Mom ushers us quickly for bed.
The next day, I see Grandpa lain in his coffin in the middle of the main room of the flat. I am not afraid. I approach the coffin and he looks so peaceful. The breeze blows the lace curtains behind him, and the hum of traffic is the reminder of the world going on. I wish I could have held his hand one last time, or heard him play the piano once more. I remember he was smiling the last time I saw him, sitting on the piano bench. Around us people are expressing their condolences to my Grandmother, she has a faraway look in her eye and never lets go of her little white handkerchief. I see my cousin and my sister running in their puffy dresses, meant for the party, playing hide and go seek, unaware of the significance of the moment.
We attend the funeral in the same parish where my father was an alter server and sang in the choir as a child. He sings the requiem for Grandpa at the back of the church, from the rafters, where no one can see him shed a tear. But I detect a waver in his voice and it makes me feel ill, because my Dad is always strong. After Grandpa’s burial, we make a trip to Goa, the island from which my father’s family originates. We play on the white shores, picking up shells and splashing around in the surf as Mom and Dad sit watching us and holding hands, being very quiet.
We return to Mumbai for a few days before our trip home to the states. My father takes us on a train ride to see some sights. We ride “third class” because we arrived too late to buy any other ticket. I see a small moment of distress on Dad’s face, but we hop aboard. As the world starts to blur, I see children naked and abandoned in the streets. In “third class,” we see homeless people hobbling around without limbs, begging us for rupees. When we get off the train, we see dirty-faced people without teeth who stare at us and don’t look away. A woman came up to us and begged for milk, holding a dead baby in her arms. These are incidents that are considered common place in India, but to us they are beyond comprehension.
Before the last Mass we celebrate in Santa Cruz, my six year old brother brings all the rupees he has saved and tells me he is going to give them to the beggar who we would see there each week. As we walk up to the church, the beggar approaches us, and my brother nervously hands everything he has to the man, so anxious to feel like he could make an impact on India the way India impacted us. After Mass it is time for family farewells and packing suitcases. We say goodbye to Grandma, who holds our faces between her hands so tightly with endearment, and I still see her waving goodbye to our taxi with her white handkerchief which she never lets go.
In those last days, I witnessed all the horrors of a third world country from which I had been so sheltered. Not just in America, but in Santa Cruz too. I knew I couldn’t go back to hiding behind lace curtains in my Grandmother’s beautiful home after seeing what I had seen in the city. I had spent a month eating mangoes and drinking milk in abundance, playing in parks and on beaches, riding ponies and camels and wearing pretty dresses. Every night I had a clean bed and safe roof over my head. Those experiences changed my childish views of the world because I encountered human suffering that I could not rationalize, and I lived through the first death of a loved one. I returned to my home with a deep love for India and my heritage, and with a profound gratitude for the abundance we enjoy in America, but with a new understanding of the human experience. I would never be the same again.