By Neema Avashia
A discordant symphony of birds wakes me at 5:50 each morning. Parrots, finches, kingfishers, and motmots all argue over whose song should fill the morning sky. In bed, still half asleep, my nose fills with a familiar mix of sweat, mosquito-repelling incense, and humidity-dampened bed linens. I expertly extricate myself from the mosquito netting, activating muscle memory built during childhood summers spent in India. Only when my feet hit wooden floor, instead of stone, do I remember: I'm not where my sensory memory thinks I am. This isn't my great-aunt Aai's house in Gondal, India, during the height of monsoon. This is Tobago in February, in a house rented from a stranger.
I escape from the frigid cold and dirty piles of snow that epitomize Boston winter by snowbirding in the Caribbean. On day four of vacation, my skin finally loses its ashy coating. My melanin production spikes, and my complexion turns from dijon mustard-yellow to cherrywood brown. My nostrils and fingertips perpetually smell of the garlic, onion, cumin, and bright green chadon beni that find their way into every meal I’m cooking. My lips burn in the best of ways every time I get another taste of Trinidadian hot pepper sauce.
Physically, I am completely blissed out.
Mentally, an epic battle is underway between my limbic system, which craves more of this familiar stimuli, and my prefrontal cortex, which knows I won't have it.
Geckos running the walls, midday sun showers, and temperatures in the 90s trigger my limbic system. I crave masala chai and spicy fried snacks, taken while sitting on the swing. I want my Aai’s cool hand on my forehead after a long day in the sun. I want to navigate crowded city streets with my cousin Anand in search of the best samosa, paan, ice cream, Indian-Chinese food. I want cold marble under my feet when I am praying in temple; music in my mother tongue; late-night story-telling with old friends in the stone-tiled courtyard. I even want the bone-rattling rickshaw rides that leave me drunk on exhaust fumes and stinking of kerosene.
My hypothalamus wants more than a week in Trinidad and Tobago. It wants a month in India this summer. But my prefrontal cortex knows that India isn't possible.
Six years years ago, my senior thesis from college was placed online without my consent, then discovered by Googling family members. In the thesis, I tried to unpack my conflicted feelings about the gendered expectations of my Indian family compared with the relative freedom from such expectations I experienced growing up in the U.S. I wrote about my aunts and cousins as a way of understanding my own definition of womanhood. My observations about the gender dynamics among Indian married couples were judgmental in all the ways that a 21-year-old can be. And in my family's subsequent anger upon discovery of my writing, they made it clear that I am no longer welcome in their homes.
After my thesis debacle, I went to India to apologize to my family, and face their anger. For the sake of my humiliated parents, I touched the feet of elders, begged forgiveness, paved a path for my parents to salvage some semblance of relationship with their siblings.
But in addition to feeling like a traitor, I now also felt like a fraud. Though I have been with my partner, Laura, for almost nine years now, only a handful of my family members know about her--primarily those in America. The majority of my family assumes I am a loveless spinster, and I have not found the courage to correct them.
To be 39 and unmarried is to be pitied. To be 39 and gay is to be condemned. On that last visit, the state of Gujarat had its first public celebrations of Pride. I watched even the most loving and forgiving of my family members make limp hand gestures, turn her mouth into a mocking grimace, squeal in a high pitched voice, in response to the people she saw celebrating. Where I wanted to feel pride and joy, and some sense of acceptance, I could only feel shame in her presence. Watching her, I knew that I would not go back. My family’s anger, combined with their potential judgement, was too much for me to face again.
Just last week, my sister called me, excited that India’s Supreme Court had finally struck down laws punishing gay sex.
“How are you feeling?” she asked, midway through her gush of excitement.
Civics teacher that I am, I reminded her of Brown v. Board’s passage in 1954, and the fact that American schools are still profoundly segregated today. I told her the thing I say to students when I teach Brown.
“It’s a lot easier to change the law than it is to change people’s minds.”
She posted a link to an article about the court case on her Facebook page. A test, she called it.
“Let’s see if any of our family members like it or comment.”
Only one, a younger cousin, has as of today. I am unconvinced any others will come forward.
On the phone with my mom this morning, I dodge, yet again, her suggestion that we visit India together this December.
Instead, I settle for approximations of India. For weekend visits to America’s Little Indias: Devon Street, Jackson Heights, Edison, Waltham.
For Trinidad, island home to an 150 year-old Indian diaspora, with people who look like my family, dress like my family, eat like my family, even pray like my family.
For Tobago, whose heat, smells, and wildlife allow me to pretend, for just a moment each morning, that I am home again.
Neema Avashia is an 8th grade Civics teacher in the Boston Public Schools. Her written work has previously been published at WBUR's Cognoscenti and in the Aerogram.