Our theme for the month of November is “firsts.”
I’ve never seen the Taj Mahal. I like this photograph because to a casual glance it appears that I have. This was taken of my mother and me in early 2004, on my first visit to India, at Bibi Ka Maqbara in Maharashtra. Shah Jahan commissioned the Taj Mahal as a mausoleum for his wife Mumtaz; their son Aurangzeb built Bibi Ka Maqbara just a few years later for his first wife, Dilras Banu Begum. I’ve always remembered Bibi Ka Maqbara as a sorry imitation, but I didn’t realize it was the work of a child going to great lengths to imitate his parents. Yet interestingly, he doesn’t outdo them; it follows the architectural style very closely but everything is smaller than the admittedly highly-edited photos I’ve seen of the Taj Mahal.
I’ve been trying to pin down my memories from that first trip to India. My father had died two years earlier, in Chicago. My mother and I carried his ashes back to Mumbai, where he grew up. We spread them at the beach on Mahim Bay, where he played as a child. I’m returning to India this December, empty-handed.
A couple weeks ago, I called the Indian Consulate in Chicago with a question about my visa process. The woman on the line asked me my first name, then asked me to spell it, then asked, severely, if I was serious.
Yes, my name is India like the country.
I’m named after my father’s homeland, a place I know very little about. Because he’s dead, Indian culture is not something I absorb in my everyday life. Instead, I go about awkward, textual, supplemental acts. I try to decipher the loopy handwriting on faded blue airmail letters. I rewatch the tape my father recorded of the Bollywood classic Hum Aapke Hain Koun! (Who Am I to You?). I turn to books that have been on the shelf in my room since before I could read: essays and poems and translations by the late A.K. Ramanujan, scholar of South Asian languages, my uncle’s autobiographical self-published stories, a picture book series adaptation of the Mahābhārata epic. I follow the chicken korma recipe my mom (who is American, of Dutch descent) makes; she got it from Madhur Jaffrey, who in the vein of Julia Child, is credited with introducing Western kitchens to the joy of Indian cooking. I try to wrap my mind around the subaltern school of thought. Occasionally, I roll up the sleeves of a blue kurti and wear it with jeans.
For all of this, India remains deferred.
Indian writers are, themselves, particularly reflective upon the impossibility of mastering knowledge of such an expansive and diverse geographic region. And many of them, like Jhumpa Lahiri and Salman Rushdie, are writing at a remove. In the titular essay of his collection Imaginary Homelands, Rushdie writes
It may be that writers in my position, exiles or emigrants or expatriates, are haunted by some sense of loss, some urge to reclaim, to look back, even at the risk of being mutated into pillars of salt. But if we do look back, we must also do so in the knowledge—which gives rise to profound uncertainties, that our physical alienation from India almost inevitably means that we will not be capable of reclaiming precisely the thing that was lost; that we will, in short, create fictions, not actual cities or villages, but invisible ones, imaginary homelands, Indias of the mind.
India was never my homeland, but my attempts to interpret my namesake make me feel like I’ve spun a similar fiction. I’m wary of this as I make plans for my visit in December. It’s as if I think I’ve seen the Taj Mahal. I haven’t. Maybe I never will. I’ve seen something not as large, not as grand. But I know I didn’t imagine it.