Some mornings I wake to the patter of Raju's sewing machine outside my bedroom window, the murmur of her voice singing along to a Punjabi pop song streaming from the speaker of an old cell phone.
On these mornings, when Raju's voice wakes me, I know I've been dreaming of India.
It takes only a moment, a rub of my eyes, a stretch down through my toes, for me to realize that it's not Raju's sewing machine I hear, but the tapping of rain or the clinking of my partner stirring cream into coffee. I'm not in Raju's house in Punjab, but in my own bed in California.
Sometimes I stay in the sheets, close my eyes, and try to recall Raju's face: that wide-eyed gaze, her kid smile revealing a row of rotted teeth, long black hair twisted into a knot at the base of her neck. Other days I get up quickly and splash cold water across my face to rinse away the dreams.
Raju was born seven years after me in a north Indian village surrounded by wheat fields. Hers is the same village where my mother was born and where my grandmother grew up. It is the village my family left behind for America.
Until I was 27, I knew nothing of this village or of Raju. I'd grown up in small-town California, had never been to India, spoke no Punjabi. My mother hadn't returned to her native country since emigrating to Los Angeles with her family at age 15. She'd adapted quickly to American life—married a white man, moved to a rural town where she had no history, taught her daughters only English. [End Page 85]
While my mother seemed intent on shedding her past, my grandmother returned to India as often as she could. When she was a younger woman, she traveled home to Punjab to visit her family there every other year. But with age, the journey became more arduous and my grandmother's trips less frequent. I knew my link to India would dissolve once she could no longer travel. When I was pregnant with my first child, I asked my grandmother to take me to see her village. My mother, who would need to be the bridge between my complete lack of Punjabi and my grandmother's limited English, was convinced to come along as well.
The night of our red-eye flight, the three of us ate dinner at my grandparents' house in Los Angeles: yellow dal, fried okra, a stack of buttered roti. My grandmother's friend Paul, also an immigrant from northern India, came by to offer last-minute advice on traveling. Don't drink the water. Always get your driver's cell number. Never give beggars money.
I asked Paul if he missed India. He shook his head, then, wiping the corner of his lip with a napkin, added, "I will tell you this: Once a person leaves his country of origin, he will never belong anywhere again." I glanced at my grandmother, wondering if she too felt this way. But she was busy filling Tupperware with okra and rice for the long plane ride ahead.
"And you?" Paul said, turning to me. "Why do you want to go to India?" I stared at my plate, not sure I could explain what compelled me. Perhaps I believed if I traveled to the place my family was from—walked the streets, sipped cha with neighborhood women—I could somehow shrink the chasm between myself and my Indian heritage. Or maybe I imagined that a trip to the village could infuse my life with tradition, with the sense of roots and belonging of which I felt so bereft in America. I looked up from my plate and mumbled something about just wanting to see where my family came from. Paul said nothing. He only grinned back at me as if he knew I wouldn't find what I was looking for.
Two hundred miles stretch north from Delhi to the village of Pharwala, where we were headed. A...