Rudrapriya Rathore’s family
Rudrapriya Rathore is a publicity agent for The Puritan. Here she writes about vacationing in her parents’ new house, considering multiple places “home,” and connecting to Salman Rushdie.
As part of the annual December mass-migration of grown-up children, I diligently went home for the holidays—home being the house my parents live in, despite the fact that I’ve never lived there myself. It’s a roomy place, an hour and a half northwest of Toronto, in a town called Erin that has a three-leaf-clover on the welcome sign and no transit system whatsoever.
My parents ended up in Erin the same August that I moved to Montreal for college, effectively severing the ties to Toronto we’d built over the previous decade. As soon as they pushed the new white leather couch into place, I disliked the house, the way its lower levels remained at a glacial temperature no matter the season, the overly friendly neighbours. Every visit thereafter had me feeling raw and out of place, and not just because we were the only visible minorities in at least a ten kilometer radius. I couldn’t wrap my head around Erin’s upper-middle-class culture of using one’s location away from the city to masquerade as an “authentic Canadian,” as if there was such a thing.
For the longest time, my parents and I joked about our next-door neighbours—who were very nice and somehow always knew, as though they came straight out of a Faulkner novel, all the local gossip—because they uttered phrases like “I says” and called their couch a “chesterfield.” In comparison, we must have seemed pretty strange. We didn’t have a ride-on lawnmower or a pool, or horses in a nearby stable. We never cut a Christmas tree or put up lights, and we don’t watch hockey with the religious fervor I’ve seen on the faces of many jersey-clad pub crowds.
My parents adapted to the countryside not by socializing but by hiking on even more isolated trails during weekends. They took apart pieces of decadent suburbia and re-assembled them, planting flowers in the massive yard and putting out bird feeders, but refusing to get the hot tub fixed; instead tearing it out themselves with an electric saw. They made this place work for them, somehow, despite the long commute to do something as simple as buy groceries.
Over the last few years, when I wasn’t spending semesters in a dorm room, a shared Mile End apartment, or a tiny studio in Montreal, I was shuttling myself to Erin. The house became a very peripheral space. Even though nothing happens here—or maybe because of that—the outside world unravels easily, as if to be picked through.
Everything from catastrophic college relationships to unsuccessful attempts at employment to bouts of anxiety over minuscule decisions has been hashed out on that white leather couch. Stored away in my body are imprints of horrible summer-long stretches of fear and anxiety as I hunted for a spot on those three acres where I might be able to sit and write something. That stillness combined with an internal chaos and my inability to go anywhere froze Erin in time, so that each time I entered the house’s front doors I felt like I was reliving the circumstances of every visit that came before.
This time around, I found myself sitting in the doorway to my parents’ bedroom, my dog looking on in curiosity as I scattered old photographs into an expanding circle around myself. It was rare that the collection saw daylight, generally remaining in an old leather briefcase that belonged to my maternal grandfather—but the photos are great, still clear, some of them pretty funny, and I thought for the millionth time about how I should do something with them. My grandmother’s pet dynasty of German Shepherds, all named Yoko, deserved an exhibition in the living room at the very least. (Photos of the aggressively large buckteeth that followed me into adolescent braces could stay locked up forever).
Whether it was because those pictures, especially the ones from my childhood in Delhi, Udaipur, and Calcutta, seemed so far away, or because the reason for this particular visit to Erin was to combine my house and dog-sitting duties while my parents travelled to those very places for a three-week-long visit, the experience hit me in the gut.
I didn’t feel any loss at not having tagged along and endured the long flights to get to a further home, a home more removed from us now, after living in Canada for 15 years. After my month-long trip there two summers ago, during which I braved insanely hot temperatures and food poisoning, I knew that going home hardly ever felt the way I imagined it would. But looking at those photos, my nostalgia for the subcontinent still surged through my body, as potent as ever.
The desire to resurrect the past is one of those universal feelings that don’t make any sense. The object of longing never existed to begin with. Whatever pangs I did feel for relatives I hadn’t seen since childhood, my mother’s old habit of dressing me so that we matched, and our miniature dachshund, Biju—these had circumstantial if not completely coincidental relevance to the locations they were attached to.
That past could do nothing now to reconcile the partly self-imposed distance from the mother tongue I was born into with the intense if occasional alienation I felt when I realized that nothing in my day-to-day life connected me to it. Of course I moored myself to India. Its stranglehold on my identity has been constantly reinforced by everyone I love. But I’ve also known for a long time that this particular form of belonging coalesces in photographs and in memory only through the narrativizing machinery of distance, after decades of change.
Salman Rushdie’s Shame
Our reality in India, while we were living it, was different from our current one in many ways, but they have in common the splintered mix of familiarity and discomfort that accompanies my time in Erin. We moved around then, too, going wherever my father’s work took him. We lived in stifling small towns and big cities. We lived in a handful of disparate local languages. At one point, my mother moved back into her parents’ house with me while my father completed a graduate degree on the other side of the country. The stability and coherence of that life, manufactured and made so legible by memory, is the kind of myth we love putting up on walls.
This year during their visit, my parents will retrace those routes, spending only a couple of days with each pocket of extended family, eating the dishes they ate decades ago at their graduations and at their wedding. I already know they’ll come back with a list of everything and everyone that’s changed.
At that Indian wedding in 2014, between violently throwing up and trying to dance in the heaviest, most expensive jewelry we owned, I read Salman Rushdie’s Shame. I hunted down a pen in my great-grandparents’ bustling, stone-walled countryside house to circle a line often quoted by academics, a favourite of lit critics: “I, too am a translated man. I have been borne across. It is generally believed that something is always lost in translation; I cling to the notion … that something can also be gained.”
The self-described condition of Rushdie’s narrator resonates so deeply with ex-pats, immigrants, and those in exile because it loosens the reins of attachment. All is not lost, we tell each other and ourselves. There are newer homes to be found, to be tried on like clothes, to be kept or discarded.
Of course, the other reason this passage is so famous is because it acquits us in some way. In declaring your self-appointed loss, you reveal your membership to a global culture in which mobility rather than rootedness serves as currency. In choosing to belong nowhere, you can begin to belong everywhere. That has always rubbed me the wrong way about my own love for these lines—embedded in his mourning of home and his claim to homelessness is the narrator’s implied self-indulgence and his ownership of the very real “gains” of such a translation.
Reading Rushdie for the first time that summer, though, was also a relief. It was like I had come full circle, leaving a place like India, hating it for never quite being able to free myself of its influence, and returning, finally, to immerse myself in a book full of people who were struggling with similar kinds of loss. It was shocking to find characters that spoke a familiar—not identical, but definitely recognizable—mix of Hindi and English in an award-winning literary text. Did you know about this? Why didn’t you tell me? I wanted to ask everyone. Why hadn’t my entire family been reading these books? Where had we been looking?
My childhood reading was made up in large parts of books by Roald Dahl, Beverly Cleary, and Jacqueline Wilson. My mom threw her Enid Blyton into the mix whenever she got the chance. A lot of these books, especially the Wilson ones, made me really uncomfortable, since they were full of girls who wandered around freely in their British towns, going to movie auditions or aquariums only to have anxious episodes where they revealed that they had actually been abandoned by their parents and were all alone in the world.
Rushdie made me uncomfortable because it was suddenly possible that not only did everyone have a different way of finding and being in their homes, but that they had different ways of being lost, too. Books like these tip my concerns back at me. They house me, permit my comfort if that is what I demand from them, and remain familiar even while they are unwieldy. And when, like a home, they don’t fit right, when they don’t live up to my frameworks and associations, they ask me about their failures—about how I might continue to lean on them while looking elsewhere.
Rudrapriya Rathore lives in Toronto, where she is working on her Creative Writing MA at U of T. She recently completed her undergraduate degree at Concordia University and won the Irving Layton Award for Fiction in 2014. Her work has appeared in Headlight Anthology, HOOD, and Black & Blue.