My suitemate and I have probably spent hours telling each other childhood stories in Pfoho’s dining hall. Not of our own childhood, but that of our parents growing up in India. My mom’s stories of spending summers in the family home in Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh are etched so deeply in my mind, that I can tell them with all the enthusiasm and flourish of someone recalling an old memory, complete with my own details and exaggerations. Tales of the adventures and mischiefs of her 1980s summers– spent alongside cousins, aunts, and uncles– leave me dreaming about something that is distant and unreplicable. Last week, however, I had a chance to visit the home for the first time in nearly 20 years, and create some of my own memories in a place that has meant so much to me, even though it is so far away in space and time.
Before settling in Delhi for my internship, I was lucky to be able to spend the first couple of weeks of my time in India traveling to Dharamsala and Pune with my aunt and cousins from California. There’s a lot I could say about the trip, but there’s one particular instance that encapsulates the highlight of my time there: a post-lunch walk with my cousins down to the city. After finishing a heavy meal of meat curry, fish, and naan in the family home– surrounded by my grandmother’s brother and sister, and my own masi (aunt) and mama (uncle)– the simple, mundane walk down to the Dharamsala city marketplace felt strangely surreal. For the first time, my cousins and I– even if just a few of us– were together in the place where our grandparents had spent all of their childhood. We had just eaten on the veranda where our grandparents likely ate their meals, and were now walking down the same hills where our parents had run around years ago, chasing dragonflies and teasing their younger cousins in the hot summer months.
Pictured above: the terrace of the house, view of the valley, a photo from 2002 (I’m the baby in the third picture and my great-grandmother is on the far right), and a much older photo of my grandmother and her siblings (she is on the far right)
My parents are not too interested in family history. They tell their stories for comedic value, but are quite indifferent to questions about “our family origin” or sentimental recollections of the past. To them, their childhood memories are a part of life, worth celebrating but not really something they cling to. For me, their stories– although exhilarating– come with some sense of longing, because they are unreachable in many ways. Perhaps my emotional response to sharing that moment with my cousins is another symptom of my perpetual romanticization of the motherland. As if the people and places I have seen in film camera photo albums became suddenly less distant and more tangible.
In the two days I spent at home in Texas before leaving for India, I had the chance to record some informal, “oral history”-inspired interviews with my Nani and Nana (maternal grandmother and grandfather). From my Nani’s stories of stealing daal and rice from the mess hall in her college in Punjab for her clandestine “midnight parties” with friends, to my Nana’s recollection of his older brother’s role in the armed resistance against the British, their memories– humorous, mundane, painful– leave me with more questions than answers. Hearing them speak reminds me of how much our elders have experienced and seen, and something about having those conversations and then visiting the region where they grew up gave more context and weight to their words.
The memories I made in just a few days spent in Himachal will never come close to the years worth of stories that my mom and grandparents have to tell. But it’s nice to be able to give visuals to these stories beyond my own imagination, and I’ll continue to value the feeling of togetherness and memory that I experienced there, while asking questions about the people and places that I come from.