“Through all this ordeal his root horror had been isolation, and there are no words to express the abyss between isolation and having one ally. It may be conceded to the mathematicians that four is twice two. But two is not twice one; two is two thousand times one.”
I am coming home soon. Even though I am supposed to be home here in India, I am anticipating my return to Rockville. As a person who, now more than ever, lives in limbo between two cultures, I ascribe no concrete sense of belonging or comfort to either of the two countries between which I vacillate. In fact, although I’ve lived there my entire life, the overwhelming majority of the United States is as foreign to me as the subcontinent.
When I think of America and the sense of “home” it evokes, naturally I think of my neighborhood. Completely unremarkable, ensconced on the fringes of D.C., its more refined and worldly cousin, Rockville can boast of nothing besides the fact that F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife are buried in St. Mary’s cemetery up the road.
But I have grown up there. I am acquainted with the streets, the street corners, the landmarks, the parks, the park benches. I have spoken with the Albanian barista in the town center about his favorite black and white films, and the neighborhood drunkard, a native Aborigine, about his long-lost wife in France.
Perhaps I have such an affinity for the place because it is the one place I’ve truly explored firsthand. Of course, one could say there’s hardly much to explore, and they would be right. By “Rockville,” a city of about thirty-five kilometers squared, I mean the Town Center, the Metro, St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Glenview Mansion, and the handful of streets that make up my neighborhood.
My grandmother sometimes sees me sitting quietly, deep in thought, and comes up to reassure me: “Don’t worry,” she says, “You’ll be back in America soon. I know you miss home.” But she’s mistaken. It’s not America I miss. Even “missing” it seems like a stretch, an indulgence. I try to tell her, to explain my relationship with my hometown, but to no avail. “No, no, don’t worry,” she insists, “ I understand. I had to leave India for three years once to live in England. It was miserable.” She can’t grasp what I feel, perhaps because her sentimental notions and reflections have so long been shunted aside in favor of real, practical concerns; “the meat and potatoes of life.”
I am a little galled. I’m not pining for America, as a whole, and all that it represents: its almost offensive cleanliness, its insularity disguised under the names of “independence” and “privacy.” No. Of course it is a human thing to yearn for the opposite of something when that something can become overwhelming, like how I do sometimes yearn for the clean marble of the twin sinks in our upstairs bathroom, when I stumble into the bathroom here and see streaks of mud on the tiles and a cockroach darting from wall to wall. Yet, there are times when I wish for the eclectic noise of the unwashed, unnamed masses on the streets to fill our Rockville house when it is sunk in silence during the winters.
But I am not an All-American woman. America, unadulterated, amorphous, isn’t what makes my heart tick.
A sense of belonging, particularly to a place, I believe is overrated. One never truly belongs anywhere; indeed we do not even belong on earth for longer than a few decades, until we return to the dust. If everybody truly belonged where they ought to, wholly and without anguish, the world would be organized like a filing cabinet. What’s more, is that we probably would not have art, as the best art, the creative impulse is largely born out of a sense of displacement and dissatisfaction with the state of the world as it is; there is a desire for more. That is why I no longer cleave to either India or America, in their vast, individual sense. I love them for what they’ve taught me, for the light they cast on each other. Bangalore is mine, India is not. I do not mean to limit myself; I am sure that as I grow I will become better acquainted with both of these countries, but it is unlikely that any place be ever be so close to my heart as these two cities.
Rockville has held my family in its hand for nearly twenty years. Bangalore for fifty. That is no small thing.
Barely two days after alighting on Sri Lankan soil for the first time, I attended a camp for young people promoting religious and ethnic reconciliation after the war. “You’re going right in the deep end,” I was told with a laugh. The camp involved a group of about fifty young people ages eighteen to twenty-eight, who had come from all over the tear-drop shaped island, including metropolitan areas like Kandy and Colombo, to Jaffna and Batticaloa, home to farmers and fishermen. It was structured around various seminars relating to how to react in the aftermath of the war — the importance of perspective, the root of fighting, how to build trust.
Questions were asked such as “What is a fight?” “What is a disagreement?” “What are the reasons behind bloodshed?” These discussions were lead in part by victims of the war, from both the Tamil, Muslim, and Sinhalese sides. You cannot move on and forget the past; the wounds that have developed within people don’t just vanish, especially if they are not addressed or legitimized, they insisted. The only way to move on is for people to obtain justice. Fighting can be a way for society to move forward. It is a person’s human right to speak out against whatever oppresses them, to react. But the way in which this reaction manifests itself is of the utmost importance. An older Tamil woman in a striped shirt and skirt stood up and told the audience that these young people were the future — this was the generation that would help restore Sri Lanka.
What struck me most after hearing that, is how much affirmation I have taken for granted. I have heard the phrase “Youth are the Future” declared with brazen self-assurance countless times, in auditoriums, classrooms and playing fields since I was a child. But I have never heard it while sitting among young people who have had the burden of witnessing their families and their country ravaged by war and racial violence. The Sri Lankan civil war lasted nearly thirty years. To many, the years up until thirty are considered the prime of one’s youth. Thirty is the age my mother was when she gave birth to me. She had lived an entire life before then, and she would recount the stories of her past with gratitude and tenderness. Many Sri Lankans, however, particularly in the rural areas in the North and East, experienced their childhood, their youth, their old age, alongside the jarring sound of detonating bombs and gunfire.
The speaker who most captivated me was a man who had joined the LTTE as a youth, the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam, a militant organization based in the North and the East that fought for Tamil rights. After the war severed him from his family, he was completely bereft of any comfort or love in a country tearing itself to pieces. His story was not what struck me, but the fact that he was unable to finish it, breaking down in tears and retreating back into the group. He bent over the chair with his face in the palm of one of his hands, the other hand clutching a paper airplane. His, expertly folded, had flown the farthest out of the entire group.
The discussions to follow throughout the next couple days involved spreading the messages of Truth, Reconciliation, Mercy, Peace and Justice. Some examples brought forward, involving the detrimental nature of violence on the part of the LTTE, made him visibly uncomfortable, almost defensive. He still harbored a strong sense of filial piety for the organization, that resonated with some sense of belonging. The motivation for such camps, such exercises, is partly a reaction to that phenomenon. What makes a man, abandoned as a child, decide he wants to join a guerrilla group that repays blood with blood? And even more remarkably, what makes that man later turn to religious freedom reconciliation efforts?
Some would say that there is a yearning in all of us for the divine, a hole, a sort of pocket tailored into us by our Omnipotent God that can only be filled with worship. In countries like Sri Lanka and India, rife with scenes of devotion — temple offerings, masses, the call to namaz — this is easy to believe. The Romanian sociologist Mircea Eliade and his contemporaries believed that once a man discovered religion, once he became a Homo Religiosus, he was forever changed — he could never go back to a life separate from the metaphysical. There seems to be great evidence for this In Sri Lanka, a country where there is still great reverence for the sacred despite the opposing efforts of modernity.
At lunch one day, the question was brought up of whether violence against another is every truly justified, in response to the former LTTE member’s decision to join their forces years ago. We decided that that was not the most pressing question, rather, to what extent is a person, having suffered to such a degree, deserving of compassion?
As I observed the young people, I saw that they were genuinely invested in peacebuilding. The second day, a puppeteer came to lend a visual perspective to the issue of religious freedom. He split up the campers into groups of four, instructing us to put on a play relating to violence in Sri Lanka. I watched as twenty-eight year old men and women painstakingly glued yarn onto wooden ladles, and cut dresses out of cardboard as if clothing their children. Their performances were thought-provoking, often a combination of Tamil, Sinhala and occasionally, English. They touched upon the difficulty of harboring so many different creeds underneath one flag, political violence and corruption. One particularly memorable play discussed Buddhists who were disturbed by music from the mosque, and Muslims who were disturbed by music from the Buddhist temple — sounds of the sacred clashing.
As a lover of words, someone who experiences life largely through conversation, it was difficult to relinquish control and attempt, with clumsy hand-motions, to begin a friendship without them. I found however, that this was not so bad, as sometimes, when there is no common language, you relinquish your pretensions. It is a sacrifice for both parties, a challenge. You communicate instead in smiles and nods — the face is the canvas, the channel of expression. Human emotion and the way it is manifested through gestures is a universal language in itself.
To establish a real, authentic human connection with someone whom you disagree with or cannot comprehend is no trivial thing. Such things require time, emotional investment. “People want to mind their own business while others are fighting,” said one of the speakers. Biology can identify organs, psychology can diagnose trauma, Medicine can cure illness — this has been established. But unless there is a sense of communion unhindered by prejudice, no true healing can occur. “Results are the fruit that tumbles on the ground,” was one of the most significant messages of the camp. The analogy suggests that things that have fallen for a while have the capacity to rise up again; the fruit sprouts and grows, just as the future redeems the past.
And should I then presume?
“One does not reveal one’s greatness by remaining at one extreme, rather by touching both extremes at once and filling up the space in between.”
“To know and love one other human being is the root of all wisdom,” says Ryder in Brideshead Revisited. Throughout my lifelong apprenticeship in affection, I have felt this to be more and more true, in particular due to the McAndrews. Even after I try to expunge them from my life, they invariably return and strike some kind of bizarre, universal chord within me. Being acquainted with them has been extraordinarily formative: to be attuned to not merely another person but another group, to see how they work, how they grow — but most importantly how they change, and how I change with them. I have fumbled with my buttons since I could grasp them, and I still do. The McAndrews are a bit like that.
Perhaps it’s the whole family dynamic; I know these people so absurdly well. Mary and John, the forebears, Eliza, Chris and Rob, the progeny. Even after months I can anticipate what is going on with whom, who has lowered the bar and who has earned a place on the mantelpiece. When I love people it usually hurts a bit, and it hurts now to listen to Mary talk about her worries, her husband, her son. She still calls me on rare occasions, although it has been nearly a year since I broke up with Rob. She envisioned us being together forever; in fact, I think she may even have cried more than I did when we agreed it was over.
But I understand.
The part of me that wanted Rob and I to work out was not merely the part that loved him, but it was also the part of me that had a great admiration for fate, coincidence, history; I have always been drawn to the intersection between dreams and reality, things that have a shadow of the Extraordinary. My mother once said to me, after an awful fight with her father-in-law, that “when you love somebody, you don’t just marry them– you marry their family.” This is true. The formation of a person’s life lies in where and how it began. Why else would psychoanalysis rely so heavily on buried childhood memories? It is difficult, even now, to speak to Mary. I could never force myself to despise her, even though her anecdotes about Rob’s new girlfriend are far from comforting. She simply lacks tact, and at this point in time, I don’t think she will ever learn it. Blake’s eternal words, “Man liveth not by self alone but in his brother’s face” revolve in my head like a mantra, reminding me to accept it. Accept and forgive, accept and forgive. I am no Saint, but I have sinned and I would like to be accepted and forgiven myself. In our present age there is a widely held belief that, in order to save oneself, we must retreat into our own spheres in order to properly “love ourselves.” It is almost a kind of secular bastardization of the Religious Life, the way we are encouraged to revere and normalize even our abject sins.
When Mary McAndrews’ father Charles Harper, the MIT astrophysicist, died, the entire Harper/McAndrews family gathered for a family reunion in California. They then rented a large white van and drove all the way down to Texas with the body in the back, like a strange homage to The Grapes of Wrath. It took three days, with no respite even at night. On the way they stopped in National parks; hiking, swimming, building campfires, exulting on mountain tops. I had never seen or heard anything like it. When asked, Rob replied simply, “It’s what Grandpa would have wanted.”
A wealthy man, Charles Harper’s death precipitated an influx of funds the McAndrews were not prepared for. Thus, his generous inheritance was spent on a lengthy skiing trip in Italy. It seems to me that no matter how sophisticated some members of McAndrews family were, spontaneity is what most characterized their actions when natural human order seemed to falter. In the face of death, Mary McAndrews — an otherwise very organized champion of matching china — threw caution to the wind and agreed to travel across the country in a large van with twenty other people and her dead father’s body.
A few years after Rob, her third child, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. The first time she underwent radiation, all of her eggs were eliminated. She had been struggling to have another child for years, but this marked the ultimate end, the crossing of a line she could no longer retrace. One way her devastation manifested itself was in a trip to a foetus museum in Chicago with her family, her three small surviving children. Years later, her son recalled the incident vividly, speaking of the warped and blotchy foetuses as “beautiful.” Rob would rationalize this tumultuous period in his own life, his mother’s depression and periods of neglect, by saying he was glad to be the youngest, and that he wouldn’t have had it any other way. “Being the youngest means you don’t have to be serious all the time.” I suppose that’s how he saw the rest of his family — “serious all the time.”
His father, a Dean of Philosophy at a University downtown, disapproved of his son’s epicurean taste for life. Of course he loved him, but he could not bond with him on that profound emotional level at the crossroads between paternal love and philosophy; the one that in ancient times was stimulated by discussions of the works of Aristotle and Plato — What does it mean to be a father? What does it mean to be a son? What does it mean to love between them?
Yet, Rob loved his father in the way one loves some inscrutable yet influential figure, whose authority could be argued against, but not avoided. It was a childish love, tinged with rebellion, for John’s wizened face with drooping spectacles was one likely to incite rebellion in a child — in a way it symbolized the old and eternal, two things invariably at odds with the transient euphoria of youth.
John’s relationship with his wife was similar. She bustled around, intent on making Worry her second profession, while he “studied,” reading the Church Fathers in the adjoining room. I recall Mary’s anxious party planning fondly: the bizarre folk who would stumble into that small house with its lovely elevated yard, the garrulous Italians, the St. Bernardus beer, the baklava, the perennial pulled pork, the flower arrangements, the vegetable pickling, the swing-dancing… I always wondered how John felt about the basketball hoop his sons had insisted on placing at the very back of the yard, marring the beauty of his clipped lawn and clusters of hydrangea.
Perhaps Rob’s party-throwing, with the vomit, the beer and the gyrations, was simply a convoluted form of his own parent’s hospitality. “I wish you would come,” he’d tell me, “because without you here I’ll have no one to kiss.” And then to make up for my absence, he would call me at 2 am amidst the din and tell me how much he missed me, until a plate broke or a table leg gave way during beer pong. To live and thrive at the height of chaos seemed to be his way. In my secret heart I think I loved this, this side of him I had always tried to cultivate in myself, during my years of insecurity and tenuousness as a younger child. He was the embodiment of cool — down to the way he carried himself, the way he walked, broadening his shoulders so the outline of his pectorals could be seen through his linen shirts. When walking through the stained streets of foreclosed houses in my exhausted neighborhood, his checkered shirts and matching cardigans would cause the eyes of passerby to linger on this bizarre paradigm of American abundance.
For a young man so intent on living a spontaneous life, he held a handful of very firm convictions upon which he based the foundation of his identity. In terms of his Catholicism, the central theology of the body and the restrictions against fornication were a grey area for him — he lost his virginity on a Friday in Lent after Bible Study. The regular attendance of Mass, however, was imperative — he went every single Sunday and Feast Day without fail. The mere act itself of entering a Catholic church and obtaining the sacrament ticked the box; it didn’t matter as much whether or not the homily was moving or the music was up-lifting. Once, he sat at the back of a church where the entire service was in Afrikaans, received the sacrament, and left. Refusing to make promises was also a monumental principle of his. “I can promise nothing,” he would tell me when I begged him, “I am telling you ‘yes.’ Jesus said ‘Let my ‘yes’ mean ‘yes’ and my ‘no’ mean ‘no.””
We were so different in every way one could imagine. I loved the beautiful and the numinous, silent ecstasies of beauty; he loved the vibrancy and energy of effervescent life. This was clear on New Year’s Eve of 2015, when everyone was encouraged to recite a poem. I chose Gerard Manley Hopkins’ As Kingfishers Catch Fire: “For Christ plays in ten thousand places/Lovely in eyes and lovely in limbs not His/To the Father through the features of Men’s faces.” He chose Jim: Who Ran Away From His Nurse And Was Eaten By A Lion: “He hadn’t gone a yard when — Bang!/ With open jaws a lion sprang/ And hungrily began to eat/ The Boy: beginning at his feet.”
We are all similar up to a certain point, until we taper off to different ends like the dendrites of a neuron.
To see a person’s flaws, the chinks in their armor, the great, and often comical contradictions in their lives, has always been, for me, the most difficult thing. I have always wanted to love like God, for I believed that to love like God allows one to patch up the embarrassing chasm of childishness and incompetence inherent in youth. However, I have not understood until now, that to love like God is in part childishness, it is vulnerability, it is weakness. It is meant to cause pain. “…Let these be your desires/ To know the pain of too much tenderness,” wrote Gibran, “To be wounded by your own understanding of love/ And to bleed willingly and joyfully.”
To love someone and not understand them is hard. It presupposes a kind of unconditional love, what the Greeks would call agape, “selfless love.” It is the kind a parent has for their child, or family members have for one of their own who is incurably ill. That breed of unconditional love is something everyone must strive for, but when you are young, to jump into that, to experience it alongside the first pangs of adulation, is like doing quadratic equations before you can divide.
I have examined the minute layers in between and I still don’t know quite what it is about these quirky families that enables them to wedge themselves into our hearts long after they have ceased to be the way they were when we knew them. It is one of my silly fantastical theories that young people who were once in love will always be in love, on some infinitesimal square of the vast space-time continuum.
“I am no longer in love with her, that is certain,” writes Neruda, “But maybe I love her… Love is so short, forgetting is so long…”