Two years ago from this date, it would not have crossed my mind to look up the town of Glenside, PA. Things have changed since then, and now that I am married to a Glenside boy, not only have I looked it up, but also travelled to and stayed there. A small suburban town on the east coast, located north of the bustling city of Philadelphia, Glenside is part of both the Abington and Cheltenham townships, in Montgomery County of the state of Pennsylvania.
Lush and verdant at summertime when I was visiting, the skies lazuline and magnanimous, and clouds floating by leisurely like the shock of white on an old man’s head, Glenside was beautiful. The streets and houses were pretty as a picture postcard, gold-plated with sunshine. An amateur birdwatcher, my first few weeks in the town also served as an essential introduction to some of the Birds of America: the magnificent blue jay, the bright shock of red that is the cardinal, the ubiquitous orange-breasted robin, the fluffy little yellow oriole, and the whitish-grey mockingbirds, pottering around the bright green manicured lawns, and hopping about on the piles of freshly-laid mulch. Big fat squirrels and wild furry rabbits had the run of the land, sometimes peeking out of the blossoming bushes of hydrangeas, the lovely pink and blue heads of the latter swaying in the gentle breeze, a serene but riotous profusion of beauty. Evenings there in the summer dispelled the notion that it must get dark after six; there would be light almost until nine. But towards the end of evening, Glenside would become surreal, iridescent, a thing of memory, lambent in the rose-coloured light of summer sunsets.
A few minutes’ walk from the Glenside train station, a route that I can tread upon at will in my mind, was a two-storeyed grey house with white windows, and a sprawling old oak tree in the backyard. Coming around the corner, I always spotted the oak tree first, its branches Atlas-like holding up the vast dark blue sky, streaks of it bleeding into the earth at twilight. Those branches, limned with a light green moss, bent slightly inwards upon the house as if in a protective half-embrace. The sound of the oak leaves rustling in the wind, sometimes like the sound of pouring rain, and at other times like the sea rushing in hungrily to meet the shore, stood out in the silence that often pervaded Glenside. It was a kind of silence that seemed deafening during my first two weeks there, as if my ears would explode in this intense loudness of quietude, as if there weren’t any people around, or they knew how to keep themselves absolutely still. Slowly, as we walked towards it, the deck of the grey house would appear in the line of our vision. Seeing the house lights switched on, my husband and I would know that Mom and Dad were back from work (Mom is a school teacher and Dad a physiotherapist, two of the hardest working people I have ever met). That would mean sitting down to dinner together, probably out on the deck, the leaves of the oak tree spread out against the sky in the shape of small star-like dark green asterisks, reminding us of the tree, something far larger and older than any of us sitting at the table. We would tell them about the sights we had seen that day, the places we had been to, and the people we had met, and show them the photographs which we had taken, including embarrassing couple selfies. My husband’s family loves to tell stories, the incidents and people in their lives transformed into tales that never fail to bring forth good-natured laughter. At dinner, I listened to those stories with rapt attention, absorbing them, memorizing each detail, telling myself that these were my stories too, as was this family that I was a part of now.
Just merely being in the house filled me with joy, a concrete physical structure that has always been home to my husband and still is, where each piece of furniture has a story to tell, from the table in the kitchen where he sat and did his homework during his years in school, to the framed photographs of my husband and his siblings’ high school and university graduations lined up on the piano in the living room; and then the refrigerator which has become prime real estate for showcasing magnets from all around the world. Even the house itself has a story to tell of its own growth, rooms added to and walls knocked down and expanded over the years, as the family grew from just my parents-in-law to include their three children. To be in such a house is remarkable, for someone who has spent the last eleven years of her life dealing with a cornucopia of losses, first my father, then what it meant to be a family, then all our furniture that was sold, and finally, the house that my father had bought for us three years before he passed away, such that there are no physical remnants left of my growing up. Except a few photographs, and memories that are annoyingly intangible, sometimes it feels as if I was born as am I now, springing to life as a fully grown woman of twenty-seven.
When my husband and I travelled to Kolkata together for the first time, to introduce him to my mother, we went to my maternal grandparents’ house where my mother, brother and I had come to live after my father had passed away. That house contained six years of my life; the house in Malleshwaram, Bangalore where my father would eventually die of a cerebral attack held a brief five months; then the house that we sold had another three years; before that the company flat which had about twelve years; and I had spent the last five years in various parts of New Delhi. Taken together these made up the sum of all parts. Scattered about these houses and cities were the different shards of my life, the ‘thousand sordid images’ of which my soul was constituted. Thus, in the evening silence that wrapped us as my husband and I walked towards his home, a silence occasionally punctuated by the strident chirping of crickets, making our way through the streets where fireflies hovered drunkenly, a feeling of anticipation would rise in me. As the table was set, dinner was served and we took our seats, my husband and I facing Mom and Dad on the other side of the table, and sometimes my sister-in-law would join us if she was home for the weekend, I could tell myself that I wasn’t merely looking on at someone else’s family. I wasn’t peering in through the window of someone else’s home, lit up at evening time, warm and inviting, but that I was part of this family, I had a seat at the table that had been in the family for so long, and soon the familiar sounds of laughter and conversation would envelop us, in this home that was so removed from the one in which I had grown up.
Thinking of that grey house and the old oak tree, an inexplicable feeling of belonging wells up within, and my heart whispers that I have another home, far, far away from where I am right now in New Delhi, but a real, concrete one nevertheless. In Bengali, I am supposed to refer to it as my shoshur bari, the home of my parents-in-law, where my husband was born and lived until he moved to India, and where we stayed the one and a half months that we spent the past summer in the United States of America.
It does strike me as strange that a place I had not even heard of before meeting my husband, a place that is sixteen hours of flight time away from India-not counting the layovers in between-has become a home, my home. However, it may not seem all that strange considering the diverse geographical trajectories that women’s lives often take upon marriage, as they leave their parental homes and travel to their husband’s abode. At nineteen years of age, my mother left the city of Kolkata, the only home that she had known since her birth, and travelled to New Delhi, not her shoshur bari, but where my father had been posted at the time of their marriage. Young and largely inexperienced in the domestic quagmire of married life, a husband ten years older than her, aging parents-in-law in tow, and living in a new city where even the language was different than the one she had grown up speaking, Ma would have been forgiven if she had thought that her marriage had led her to a place that was continents away from home, to a way of life completely unfamiliar to her. She used to cry a lot when she first moved to Pitampura, a neighbourhood in north-west Delhi, finding herself uprooted from home, friends and family. It is but natural that she doesn’t remember those early years of her life in New Delhi too fondly. Three years after their marriage, I was a year old and Baba was transferred to Kolkata. I have often wished to go back in time and see my mother’s face at that moment when my father first told her of the news of his transfer. The soft, quiet smile on Ma’s face lends it a radiance that is indescribable unless one beholds her in person at that point of time. She had not felt like she belonged there, she had wanted to come home, to the place that had always been familiar to her. The journey to my shoshur bari, even though it really was continents away from the country where I was born and had lived all my life is a story that is vastly different from my mother’s.
The past is a dead metaphor, and the familiar can sometimes become a millstone around one’s neck. So, on to new and unfamiliar things, and that brings me to Glenside. It was a relief to look up at someone at the dinner table, someone you love, to look into their eyes and smile lightheartedly, knowing that their heart is also not broken in the same places as yours, like your mother’s is or your brother’s. It was a relief to walk into a house where it was easy to open the door and go in, and to not have to think of that first time when we came back to my mother’s childhood home after Baba’s death in Bangalore even though ten years had passed since then, and to leave behind that feeling of desolation and destitution which had followed in our heels for so long. It was a relief to walk about the streets of a place where the air was fresh and clean and crisp, with a delightful nip even in June, and visualize the image of my husband as a young boy running up the hill, his calm blue eyes level with the road ahead and shining like the first light of spring upon the farthest Hebrides, and the sound of his evenly-paced footsteps, a hymn to the quotidian pleasures of life. Once, when he was taking me around Glenside, we came across a slim ribbon of a creek that wound its way all around the town and at some point probably joined the Wissahickon, a tributary of the Schuylkill River that girdles the city of Philadelphia. Teeming with life aquatic in the musing quiet, the waters of the creek were a cool shimmery jade green in the dappled light of the sun that day; it slaked your thirst if you simply looked at it. I remember feeling young and in love, as my husband was telling me about how as a young boy, he had hiked all the way up that very creek with his friends. The sky was as clear as a looking glass, and when I looked up, it seemed as if I was also looking down at myself, and the two of us smiled at each other. When I looked down again, my eyes fell on my husband’s outstretched arm, on the constellation of freckles that peppered his skin, so I reached out my hand and held his in mine.
Populated by a few thousand people, Glenside is not even a patch on the nearly twenty million population strength of the city of New Delhi, or the roughly five million of Kolkata for that matter. Also, there is greater diversity in its myriad stands of trees than in the population composition, but things are different now than how it used to be, my husband pointed out. I suppose my presence in these parts affirmed his observation. Even in its small or smallest of towns, America is a testament to Heraclitean flux, a palimpsest for the journeys that people from different parts of the world have undertaken, at different points in human history, whether in search of peace or prosperity, and ultimately, one hopes in these times, a lasting tale of human perseverance. When I visited the house of my father’s brother in Little India, the town of Edison, New Jersey, for the first time in the roughly twenty years that he and his family have lived in the US, or, when my husband’s family, Irish-Italian, often sat down to a meal of pasta and meatballs in red sauce, or looking at the Irish welcome sign ‘Fáilte’ that greeted me when I stepped inside my husband’s aunts’ houses, both on his mother’s and father’s sides, I wondered what it meant to be an American for an American, to live in a petri dish of the world.
On the fourth of July this year, as I walked down to Glenside Avenue with my husband, and his mother and sister, to witness the Glenside Parade, I was clad in a white T-shirt with the American flag unfurled across my chest, a gift from my sister-in-law. Standing along the sidewalk with other residents of the town, we stood and cheered on the hour-long procession of polished and gleaming red fire trucks from the fire stations of Glenside and its neighbouring towns; festive tableaus of characters from Star Wars, as well as a Christmas scene, with Santa seated in his sleigh, which was attached to a live reindeer caught urinating as the vehicle was slowly driving by; a Gospel Rock band on wheels to a troupe of old Turkish musicians; a Mrs. Pennsylvania waving regally from her car; groups of Democrats and Republicans with party banners (my husband enthusiastically booing the latter); and a cavalcade of marchers, from colourfully costumed Mummers to people dressed in uniforms from the Revolutionary War. It was the cheerfully harmonious hodge-podge of utterly disparate things coming together that stayed with me from that day. During the course of my stay, my mother-in-law had invited me to talk about India to a twenty-strong group of five-year olds in the primary school where she taught. Almost all the kids were white, barring one or two Asian faces, and my task was to compress a colossal and complicated oxymoron of a country, India, into a short presentation for a bunch of five-year-old kids. With help from my husband, the two of us did eventually put together a short presentation, but we also shared our individual stories of life in India. When I looked at him regaling the kids with the story of how he had to wear a tall, funny hat, a topor, for our wedding, something that would not have crossed his mind while growing up in Glenside, it struck me that perhaps it is impossible to call one place home, or to have a singular identity, and that by finding each other, the two of us have created something new from many things that are old and will perhaps fade away one day, or remain deep down within us.
I imagine the past as a little blue-headed and black-bodied sunbird, standing out against the light like only darkness can. Its wings the size of a heartbeat cutting shapes into the wind, bristling with the force of remembrances, as delicately-built as nostalgia, although elusive like one’s memory, it is almost always desperately trying to keep its head above the sweeping tide of time. And who are we? Birdwatchers, beguiled by these little things that can do the one thing we cannot, fly, cut across time, and distances, and alight on our palms, and then give us the slip and fly away again. When I go back in time, I find myself in that house in Bangalore where my father died, the utter stillness of the rooms, the curtains unmoving as if they are holding their breath, the ensuing emptiness of grief like a slow, long, wistful song that is always playing in my mind, the sharp-edged pieces of loneliness under my feet, and the everydayness of a normal family, a regular life, receding further and further away from my thrusting hands. But the past is also a piece of fiction, stories that we tell ourselves and others, as we live enmeshed in the gossamer threads of time that can be the present, or the future. Time, the primordial nutcase, with a multiple-personality disorder.
In summer, all the trees of Glenside are artful storytellers, the cedars, oaks, chestnuts, poplars, elms, beech, cypress, red maple, and more, telling themselves that fall is far away, and winter is a pale ghost, scorched into oblivion by the hot, blazing sun. But a twenty-minute drive away from Glenside is Valley Green, a forested park cleaved into two parts by the Wissahickon, with a six mile trail running along the length of the river. This is one of the many places where my husband used to come when he was running cross-country in school, his footsteps having seeped into the memory of the soil in almost every part of Glenside and beyond. In spite of that, Valley Green had always been his favourite place to run, the place that he had often told me about with a twinkling smile on his face, as we took walks in the different parks of New Delhi. When I first stepped inside Valley Green, an arboreal wonderland, the trees melding into a current of electric green, youthful in their virility but so old, a deep, rich resinous smell coming off their barks, and the murmuring chant of the creek in the background, I realized then that I was in the presence of the sublime under that all-encompassing, immense blue American sky, seemingly larger than life. The world suddenly opened up in front of my eyes, born of a silent, contained implosion, bursting into life with a searing clarity. We, my husband and I, walked down the trail, next to each other, so intensely alive in the present, belonging nowhere but to the here and the now, and to no one but each other in that moment. The place was full of people, enjoying a day in the sun, and yet Valley Green had a way of enfolding us in its entirety, amidst the grass that fanned out at the bottom near our feet and the benediction of a tapestry of leaves above our heads. The light of the day was papery thin, melting against our skins. It seemed as if the heavy feet of autumn would know not to tread upon these paths, marauding winter would never dare touch this place, only spring, precocious child-like spring, was allowed in, and then left quietly as summer assumed all its splendorous glory. This was happiness then, plucked from the nest of time; my valley green, not transcendent, but very much transient, and strangely at peace with its ephemerality, in its little moment in time.