Siddhartha Mahanta | Longreads | October 2018 | 12 minutes (3,041 words)
At 11:53 a.m. on March 31, 2015, I received a text from Dad. “I just dropped off the keys to the house…and said a prayer one last time on behalf of the family,” it read. The house in question was the first concrete thing he’d bought in America way back in 1979, a modest, nondescript one-story suburban starter home we’d moved out of some 26 years and three months earlier, in the winter of 1989. He’d hung onto it, tending to it, landlording it, in hopes of one day gifting it to either me, my sister, or brother. This would not come to pass.
When I saw his text, relief washed over me. After a tortured year of preparing to put it on the market he’d actually gone and finally put it on the damn market. Of course, it wasn’t just that one year of re-carpeting, repairing faucets, replacing bathroom tiles, fighting with the homeowners’ association over loose gutters and paint colors. It was years of Saturday afternoons spent fixing leaky pipes, broken tiles, fritzing-out air conditioners, or trying, failing, and calling in a contractor, who often seemed to be a brown guy named Jim Patel.
From around age 10 to 14, I accompanied him on these trips. Dad would wear his Saturday man’s-work-attire: white polo, dark-blue work shorts, long white athletic socks, lumpy, nondescript running shoes, ill-fitting generic white cap. “It’ll be very quick, baba,” he’d say somewhat mindlessly, hopping out of the Chrysler Plymouth, slamming the door behind him, plastic Home Depot bag swinging from this hand as he bounded across the crunchy lawn. He treated the old house like a child he’d had to leave behind, but had never forgotten.
What’s to say of the unremarkable thing itself? A small dining room was separated from the living room by a waist-high, white brick wall. Along one side of the living room stretched a long window looking out onto the backyard and patio. An exposed white brick fireplace. Columns buttressing an intimate dining room, giving it someone’s notion of a backwoods lodge. An L-shaped hallway leading to two bedrooms and a master bedroom; an attic, its air thick with the expulsion of discarded memories, a graveyard of knicknackery and emotional flotsam.
For the ten years we lived in it, the old house was where Dad brought his grieving, cataract-afflicted mother from India — for him, a place of pain, anger, and loss — to live out her remaining years, haunted by the losses of her husband and several sons. It was the site of many a dinner party of uncles and aunties and screaming, runny-nosed, onesie-clad toddlers, everyone in their own way marveling (some with more braggadocio than others) at their great fortune at landing in vast, income-taxless Texas with its booming energy economy and cheap housing and quality public schools, its friendly, Christian neighbors, its public pools and Tex-Mex.
* * *
Before Texas, my folks’ first stop in America as a couple was pre-Silicon Valley Foster City, California (Dad had come several years earlier). In my mind, I see their early American days in sepia: cross-country road trips, Dad with his titanic sideburns, slick bell-bottoms, and flannel shirts, draped around a then-lanky frame; Mom, with her thick, long black hair and salwars. Later, they huddled in cramped kitchens in Milwaukee, surviving the first real winters they’d ever known. I imagine Mom stirring a pot of daal on the stove, listening to Dad talk of life amid the cubicles, recounting conversations with the engineers possessing dubious social graces. How to make sense of the strange, plangent cultural strata of the time? Of the still-recent horrors of Ted Bundy? Or the once-illustrious, fallen Green Bay Packers? The gentle American letdown Jimmy Carter? The grim visage of the Ayatollah?
For the ten years we lived in it, the old house was where Dad brought his grieving, cataract-afflicted mother from India — for him, a place of pain, anger, and loss — to live out her remaining years, haunted by the losses of her husband and several sons.
My father’s early impressions of such things taught him what to fear. The ’70s were boom times for the serial killer, or so they’ve said, and, for dad and his peers, a time when everyone sought their piece of the dream — the work visa, the permanent residency, the sacred passport (you could only talk to such things in hushed tones, lest you jinx it). A two-pronged, destabilizing terror. Fear of this type is a powerful mover, a myth maker; it’ll circumscribe the boundaries of your curiosity, discouraging you from venturing.
After Milwaukee, they spent a frigid year in Allentown, Pennsylvania, then Houston, with its concrete arteries circumscribing soon-to-be-bulging pockets of Indians, Chinese, Vietnamese. Suburbs with generic names like Pearland, Clear Lake, and Sugar Land, peppered with their churches and Little League baseball diamonds. A land of soccer practice Mondays, taco Tuesdays, Boy Scout meeting Wednesdays, SAT prep Thursdays, high-school football Fridays. Bayous snaked along the edges of golf courses and palatial country clubs. It was here that Dad had staked his ground.
* * *
My associations with the old neighborhood feel like best-guess reconstructions. There was the tree out front I’d tried to climb when I was 5; I fell, cutting a nasty gash along my right calf. (I still have the faint discoloration of an ancient scar.) Trundling around in my plastic Fisher Price three-wheeler, my ground-level view giving me a close look at the cracks in the sidewalk, at ominous, furry caterpillars and foreboding fire ant hills. I thought of their underground empire, their network of endless tunnels, their electro-chemical communiques, passing along rumors of unexploited mounds of sugar, drops of saccharine nectars of unknown origin. Who were we to drown them out of their conquest?
Lost in my imaginings, I’d roll up to the cul-de-sac, where the kids from around the block would mostly ignore me, but sometimes tell me to follow them beyond the street, past the cul-de-sac, over to the bayou to investigate rumors of ascendant neutria. Later, after we’d moved away, kids from around the block tried to convince me that my best dude, my only dude, from the neighborhood, a kid named J.J., had been killed when the roof of his house’s garage fell on him; turns out his family had just moved away from the neighborhood, and no one had told me.
In the house itself, the living room was our ever-changing diorama, a play box of forts and mazes built of pillow cushions, swampy fantasy lands we fjorded in laundry baskets. My sister in her short boy-cut and flower print dresses, tripping and tumbling, giggling at the swamp-vision of alligators, snakes, beady-eyed frogs, creeping out of the bayou behind the house, pressing the grassless dirt patches for worms and things she’d seen in picture books and on 321 Contact. She’d sit with Dad in front of the TV after he returned home from work.
They sank into the couch together, her Cabbage Patch next to them. Down the street lived the Patels, devout Hindus, prized members of their temple community. Down the road and across the way lived the Dases, with their stupidly accomplished kids, piano and computer science prodigies. There were neighbors like Kent Bannister, he of the aviators, baggy trousers, work boots, and a khaki hunting vest and red Navy-style cap — a cut-rate Tim Allen-cum-Tom Clancy. He resides in my memory as a weird sort of American archetype: a Vietnam vet who rose at 7 to mow the lawn, came back out after lunch to walk the dog and regale his rapidly diversifying neighborhood with stories of war and correct American living — the whole mess, from learning to change your transmission, to shooting deer, all that.
* * *
The new house we moved to in ’89 was bigger, draftier, cavernous even (you could see what we were having for breakfast from my bedroom on the second floor), but still modest in aspiration — a sort of secondary starter home. It’s where I vanquished King Bowser, where my homies posterized me on the driveway, where I wailed on my Bach Stradivarius, where I whispered into the phone until all hours with my unattainable crush, where Dad single handedly willed me to a 5 on the Calculus AP exam.
And yet, I felt little good will or sentiment towards this place. Investing in a physical space — financially, emotionally, attitudinally — feels oddly anachronistic. Even before the Great Recession ripped away the toxic notion of the inseparability of the American Dream and home ownership, I couldn’t understand, on the most basic level, what a sense of home was supposed to do for you. Near as I could tell, the real places that seemed to have any emotional purchase on us were thousands of miles away in far northeast India; everything else, blatant simulacra.
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How to share this feeling with Dad, as landlordship’s tentacles ensnared him, never permitting him a moment’s rest, always dragging him into another errand on a holiday, twisting his mind and body into a premature seniorhood? It is, in one sense, a rejection of everything my parents held dear. Not an ungratefulness, but a numbness, a feeling that for all the energy and purpose poured into those 1,644 square feet — reinforcing the family’s past in order to ensure something for our futures — we were cheating our present.
In the years that followed the old house, time unspooled its cruel inevitabilities on Dad, taking away his mother, his friends from work. Family friends, too, started dying, beating their spouses, drinking themselves near to death. The naivete, to live with the belief that in this country with all its good fortune, we could sail past it all somehow — that we’d be protected.
He began to seem tired and almost always ready to be sick, living on boiled vegetables, yogurt, whole wheat bread, and baked, lightly seasoned chicken. He used to enjoy the serving and the smelling, the dicing and the mixing, the stirring to perfection. The anticipation for the second helping had emptied out of him. Dessert went the way of short-sleeved dress shirts, replaced with portion control and three different kinds of blood pressure medicine.
His dress shirts always seemed a bit too big, his pants baggy, that bulky laptop case threatening to drag him down. He’s always been a smaller man. But there had been a reliable solidity there once. Now, at 71, he barely fills out the old, worn, v-neck undershirts. I still expect to see the thick mustache and that tangle of black hair. Impressively curly Dad, solid dad, who could whack a tennis ball clear across the court with one loping stride, replaced by graying, much-thinned, more-groomed Dad. In the mustache’s place: a strip of white stubble. I miss the mustache. Its thickness, its definition, how it made him smile bigger.
* * *
As we were closing the books on the sale of the old house, word came that our family’s ownership of Dad’s childhood home back in India was in jeopardy. A combination of legal ambiguity and a local absence of heirs to the property — Dad’s parents and all of his siblings who stayed behind had passed away — had, for all intents and purposes, eroded our claim to the house. It seemed that a caretaker family had moved into the house, alongside a cousin of mine who, for complicated reasons, wasn’t able to fully take care of herself. The family seemed to feel they had a claim to the house superseding ours.
Dad decided he’d fight for the house. He hired a lawyer to file the paperwork making clear it was still very much ours, and even deigned to visit India to assert the same. Suddenly, that empty, haunted place he’d left 40 years before mattered to him.
I’d been there several times, never longer than necessary. The house sat in Guwahati’s Jurpukuri neighborhood, named for the boggy lake at its center. My trips to Guwahati were spent largely with my mother’s family. There were more of them, for one thing; their lives seemed to go on, their families growing. With Dad’s family, the sense of the funereal was oppressive, the sadness over a closure that would never come without end. But go, go you must, to these birthrights of yours.
On each visit to the Jurpukuri house, I would close my eyes and walk through its hallways, passing through each room and up to the roof patio. I’d press my hands against the walls, sit on old furniture, hoping with desperation to hear something — to conjure a ghost. Not of my dead grandfather or an uncle; strangely enough, I’d want to meet my father as a little boy. We don’t seem to have a word for the past idea of a person, a flicker of who or what they once were — a person-shadow, maybe? (Once, I sat in the play room and watched an entire soccer game, alone, in hopes of hearing something else in that room. I don’t even like soccer.)
We did, in the end, prove our claim to the Jurpukuri house. My cousin could still stay in the house, as would the caretakers, but it was ours. For Dad, it seemed the fulfillment of one last mission. Doling out money for a lawyer, for bribes, maybe, to hang on, out of a sense of obligation, to see things through as the last surviving son. So many brothers, gone: dead brothers, missing brothers, brothers lost in infancy. With each death, the wages of inheritance had fallen onto the shoulders of the next. Once, the idea had been to fill it with a family: children skittering across the exposed concrete, scrambling up the stairs to the roof patio to throw a ball around and tease the fruit vendors going from door to door.
A pressure cooker screaming from the kitchen over the squawk of the radio. The point of fighting for that house, it seemed, wasn’t so we’d ever live in it. Instead, it’s more of a marker: The Mahantas were here.
* * *
There’s a story, some parts apocryphal, some parts embellished by memory: Dad, hunkering down in the Old House for Hurricane Alicia in the summer of 1983, which had been slated to be the worst to hit Houston in 20 years. (Mom and my sister were away, visiting family.)
I pictured him sitting in a corner, his arms coiled around his knees; the power was out, and the pale walls were soaking in that spooky, early-evening blue. Before it got too dark, he’d read the paper, check his watch, wonder when the wind would pick up. When it got dark, he’d snap his eyes shut. His stomach would rumble; he’d wish he’d heated up more rice and daal. He’d rise, pace the hallway, look across the living room, still echoing with fresh memories of laughter and late night singalongs. We never drank enough, he’d lament, not with the kids watching and, who knows, slamming doors on fingers, cracking skulls on door frames or bed corners. Poking out their little eyes. He’d walk into my sister’s room, its floor strewn with My Little Ponies, marbles, and some building blocks scattered, and inspect a crayon drawing taped to the wall: A little unit of brown people, a tree, what looked like a Golden Retriever, some purple splotch in the sky. Adjacent to it, a Valentine’s Day card made of pink and purple construction paper.
I knew my father never wanted to talk about India, his childhood, whether it was the place that made him the man he grew up to be or a cruelty from which to escape.
I’ve often wondered whether in private moments like these (increasingly rare in the years to come), his mind drifted back to India, a place marked by an unfathomable degree of loss and tragedy for him: unresolved grievances and incomplete legacies. I knew he never wanted to talk about India, his childhood, whether it was the place that made him the man he grew up to be or a cruelty from which to escape. Maybe wherever we spend our formative years is some odd and terribly unfair mixture of all that. But I feel okay saying Dad had it rougher than most.
In his wanderings from Guwahati to IIT Roorkee, to Milwaukee and Foster City, back to Milwaukee, to Allentown, to Sugar Land, Texas, what did he hope to find? There are the obvious, tangible things: Home needed to be a place where he could protect us from all the things he’d learned to fear — those bayous where lurked alligators and snakes and frogs that, if they peed on you, would give you tetanus (so the kids on the street said), and the anthills teeming with vicious fire ants. From the kids who stayed out too late, didn’t listen to their parents, and played in the streets in bare feet. From the feverish war stories about dead friends and live ghosts that rumbled out of Bannister at twilight on those sticky July nights after Dad had finished mowing the lawn, leaving a confused, discomfited grimace. From shark attacks to fiery car wrecks on the 610 loop to the Night Stalker — pick your local news poison, your America’s Most Wanted fever dream. The terror that seemed to stalk every corner of American life, in Dad’s feverish imagination, only affirmed his impulse to protect us.
* * *
On the day of the text, I finally understood: That 30-year mortgage tethered my father a simpler time. But putting aside, for a moment, the tax benefits of preserving that tether, keeping the house seemed an excuse to cram the past into a corner of his present for reasons alien to everyone except him.
Dad ended the text with a blessing for my older sister and me — “god’s gift to us when The family lived there,” the place where we learned “to crawl, walk, and speak.” Saying goodbye, he wrote, accepting that we no longer owned the house, “was a little emotional.” For years, I’d thought of the old house as another sibling; reading the text, it suddenly seemed more like a long-suffering family member we were finally taking off life support, as if he were coming to terms with the end of some grand adventure.
What I couldn’t appreciate then, and perhaps never will, was the sense that owning and living in that house had amounted to accomplishing the unaccomplishable for an immigrant still new and relatively alone in this country. A safe harbor, a proof of concept that he and his little family had just has much a right to build a life here as anyone else.
* * *
Siddhartha Mahanta is an editor at The Atlantic. He lives in upstate New York. .
Editor: Sari Botton