When The Home You Left Isn't The One You Return To
A trip to the house my grandfather built in India made me realize that home is never exactly how you remember it.
My parents still live in the same house I grew up in: an unremarkable four-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath cookie-cutter that looks like every other house in their Calgary neighborhood except for its peach exterior. I don’t think they had any say in the house being pinkish rather than grey or blue, but something feels perfect about ours being a little too cartoonish for the neighbourhood. There’s a porch and front yard that’s always manicured but never used and a backyard that was scattered with sour fruit from an apple tree every fall until the tree started rotting and had to be cut down. Our block is deeply suburban, the only edge being the outpatient treatment centre located across the street in the middle of a massive park. The patients are quiet, most of the time, though sometimes teenagers are seen running away from the compound, with an adult bolting after them. Once I was very excited to find a cigarette butt on the sidewalk in front of our driveway.
I had birthdays in the living room, temper tantrums in my bedroom, and friends over to roller-skate in our undeveloped concrete basement. When my brother got married we had three of four ceremonies in our family room and backyard. My mom fainted next to the television one morning when she skipped breakfast and five years later, in the same spot, I told her and my dad that I got into school across the country. My niece Raisin was born almost two years later, and three years after that, as we played in my mother’s closet with her heaviest gold jewelry, she looked at me with her big blue bulb eyes and said, for the first time, “Oh, Boo, I love you!” — a sentence I am not sure she understood at the time, but one that has bound us together ever since.
The house is as old as I am, and at 25, it’s lived a good life. When I have nightmares, ones where my parents die and I am devastated and I can’t fathom standing straight, I image scenarios where my brother and I have to decide what to do with the house. Do we sell it, hoping another family takes over the four bedrooms, finally making use of the jacuzzi tub my mother filled with plants and decorative soaps interchangeably? Maybe someone will rip up the little remaining carpet, getting rid of the big black stain in my bedroom where I dropped an eyeliner brush. Maybe they’ll finally finish the basement.
I already know I don’t want to get rid of the house. My parents don’t need the space and, eventually, they won’t want the stairs, the stand-up shower, the freezing cold basement, but I want them to live there forever. This house has been my home, forever, even when I hated it and wanted to leave. But I keep forgetting that for my dad in particular, it’s a far cry from the place he remembers the most as being home.
The home we grew up in was a big get for my parents, proof that they succeeded in achieving the immigrant dream, so of course they filled it with memories of another home. Next to the front door is a stitched wall-hanging of Ganesh, little mirrors sewn on his arms and belly. The front room has coffee table books with photos of Kashmir and Jammu, the places where my mom and dad grew up. In the kitchen, my dad put up a black and white photo of his mother and father standing expressionless next to each other in a barren room, my grandfather wearing those same thick-rimmed black glasses I’ve seen him wearing in countless other photos (I have a few similar pairs myself) and my grandmother in a white sari draped over her head. Their bedcover was always a kutch cover, adorned with little mirrors that poked out of the stitching and poked my little 7-year-old butt as I watched my mom fold herself into a powder blue sari.
My grandmother, Behenji, moved from India to Canada to live with us for a few years and the house smelled like mothballs while she was forever watching Days of Our Lives. (She spoke no English, but could somehow tell you exactly what was happening to Marlena that week.) She hated it at our house in Canada, everything was too cold and too foreign. She moved back to India to live with my dad’s younger brother, Chacha, in the house my grandfather built, the same house that nearly everyone in my family has lived in at some point.
When we think about it now, the house is just a collection of empty rooms that we can't fill anymore.
It’s so easy for me to forget that my dad used to live somewhere else, somewhere too far to imagine: a house on a sprawling property in then-rural India, on the other side of a string of fruit markets, spice shops, and a man who sold cutesy notebooks and pens with British colloquialisms on them. When we visited India 14 years ago, we stayed in this old house too, though it had since been taken over by Chacha, his wife, and their two kids. My grandmother still lived there too, and when my brother flew in a few weeks later, there were 10 of us staying in that house. My cousins shared a room with our grandmother, I slept in the master bedroom with my mother and father, and my aunt and uncle slept in the living room. The house and front yard were encircled by a black fence too heavy for me to close properly. Once, I accidentally let a cow into the property and Chacha watched it eat the single flower he was able to grow in the yard. When I giggled, he threatened to feed me to the cow.
The house is empty now. My cousins grew up and went to school and live in neighbouring cities, and Chacha and his wife moved to another house 40 minutes away. When we think about it now, the house is just a collection of empty rooms that we can’t fill anymore.
I have only heard three stories about my grandfather. The first, is that he built the dusty red two-bedroom home in the Tilab Tilo neighbourhood in Jammu, a northeastern city in India in 1964. My dad is the eldest of three children, and he took over the house after he married my mom in the late '70s — it’s customary for a new bride to live with her in-laws. Chacha was in another city for school, and my aunt married a month later, so for a while, it was just my parents and my grandparents in that house. Years later, when my father would leave for Canada (my mom and brother would join him a year later), Chacha would take over the home as the patriarch.
The second, is that nearly everyone remembers the last time my grandfather was in the house. Everyone has a version, but the most common one goes like this: It was 1979, a few months after my brother’s birth, and my grandparents were sleeping next to him on the flat roof of the house thanks to a mercilessly hot Indian fall. My grandmother, then in her fifties, woke up and took my brother inside to change his diaper. When she returned for her husband, he didn’t wake and she screamed for my dad.
He had had a heart attack in his sleep and Mom says they found him with a hand on his heart. I can’t remember what I’m supposed to call him because I have never had to call him: I was born more than a decade after his death. I became new roots digging deep into a Canadian culture that loved the opposite of what my family knew: beef, farming, whiteness.
We returned to the house this past December, years after our last family trip to India. In the time since our last flight to Jammu, all my grandparents had died, my cousins had gotten married, my brother got married and they had a little girl. I don’t know if anyone else wanted to see the house, but it was the only place I felt like I really remembered or felt connected to. Everything else in India feels so separate from me — I wasn’t born there, I never lived there, I don’t understand what anyone is saying, but I remember the house.
Besides, we heard Chacha was trying to sell the house, so it felt important to visit it for what would likely be the last time. I asked my dad if he would take me and my mother, my brother, my sister-in-law, and my niece, and my dad’s cousin who used to live right next door to the old house came with us.
In my memory, the old house was bright pink, the windows alway being flung open, the door as wide as I was tall.
In my memory, the old house was bright pink, the windows always being flung open, the door as wide as I was tall. I remember the path that ran from the black front gate to the entrance was a mile long, the high ceilings, the green acre of land they had for a backyard.
As we walked down an unlit alleyway to the house, nothing looked that familiar. Mom walked next to me, watching my face instead of watching the road (which is dangerous if you’re averse to stepping in literal bullshit), waiting for my expression to light up at the familiar sight of a fence or an awning or a window, but nothing connected. Mom’s pace slowed down as we approached the black fence that I had remembered being on the opposite side of the road. And wasn’t the entrance right on the corner? And wasn’t the fence big enough to let a car in and not, say, a well-fed toddler?
“This is it?” I asked Mom.
“Well, where else?”
The house was not reddish-pink like it used to be, instead, it was a grey, dusty rose. The house was smaller than I remember, like everything is when you return to something from when you, too, were much smaller. Ivy was growing all over the side and the renters had put up a sign promoting the computer classes they host there, something Chacha permits for free until he can sell the property. The grass looked grey too, though admittedly, it had been a chilly winter. The front door was padlocked shut. The side door that my cousin and I would bolt out of to run up the stairs to the roof was locked too, and so narrow that I didn’t know how I ever fit through it.
My dad’s cousin walked around to the side door and asked me to shine the flashlight from my phone onto the lock so he could find the right key. When he opened it, the door stuck until he wrenched it open, and then he waited for me to walk in. I had to tilt my body sideways to enter.
The kitchen table took up more of the front room than I remembered. The master bedroom and living room were filled with little desks and old computers. The windows were boarded up. The light was dim and yellow, the way it always was at night because of rolling brownouts that everyone in the country seemed used to. Raisin ran between rooms, touching everything in the exact way we had all expressly told her not to in this country because her hands inevitably always ended up in her mouth seconds later.
We stood in the middle of the house and took up more room than I think we should have. “This is smaller than I remember,” I told my dad and he laughed. “See the ceiling fans?” he said, pointing up. “We used to just have the one for the longest time. Even in the summer.” The ceiling was peeling now, the fans broken, and all the bedroom doors locked. My father’s cousin went around opening the doors, all except my grandmother’s old bedroom. He said he didn’t have the key for that one, so I just looked at the door. My cousins had shared this room with Behenji, so the door was covered with stickers of Daffy Duck, their own drawings of cartoon Hindu deities, and clippings from children’s magazines.
My dad pulled a little stool away from next to the fridge (squat, small, still as small as I remember it was) and sat while we all stood. He looked at the kitchen door and then leaned back with his hands wrapped around one knee. “In the summers, we would take a few bottles, jerry cans, go to the canal outside,” he said. “Did you notice, it’s like a sewer? It used to be a beautiful canal where I learned swimming.”
“It was gushing water,” Mom added.
“Wonderful water, and it was ice cold. We’d go, dip the jerry cans in that. We’d have ourselves a little meal and we’d have cold water. It was bucolic!” He talked about mango season, about how his dad built this house. I walked around the house again, alone, while my mom told my sister-in-law the story of how my brother pulled a pot of boiling oil onto himself as a toddler, his skin blistering but somehow, only leaving a miniscule scar on his leg as an adult.
I took the stairs to the roof and wondered who would let their children run up and down such narrow and crooked and curved stairs with no railing, unsupervised. The rooms upstairs were open, but empty, just like they were when I last visited. The view was different too: Countless new homes had been built, meaning more clotheslines, more distant echos of children yelling. Fewer cows.
What they miss are people who are long gone, and their 10-year-old selves dipping jerry cans into a canal that doesn't exist anymore.
Raisin called for me at the foot of the stairs, “Boo, where did you go?” I didn’t want her to take these death-stairs without help so I went back downstairs to greet her.
When we got back to the main area, Papa spoke, largely to himself, about maybe keeping the property and renovating it. “I could come here in the winters. All it really needs is some fresh paint. Or, well, not really, we’d have to build the whole place up again.” My mother and I shared a furtive glance because this is something he said every few months, anytime something reminded him of home: Maybe we should move to India? Plenty of the Baby Boomer men in my family have done this: hit 60 and decided it was time to return to a place they left 30, 40 years ago. They never followed through because what they miss isn’t the place, the way the sun hits the palm tree outside your window, the way that hot weather always makes the air look reddish, even at night. What they miss are people who are long gone, and their 10-year-old selves dipping jerry cans into a canal that doesn’t exist anymore, when brothers and sisters still lived together in the same house without children, needy goddamn children who don’t speak Hindi or Kashmiri. Old world, yes. So old it’s unattainable. I suspect that even our relatives who stay in India miss this too.
My dad hated India and he always wanted to leave. While we were in India, he would throw little fits about cleanliness of sheets or little cockroaches found dead in corners. “How did he survive here?” I asked my mom during one spritely fit where he got mad about how the towels at our hotel were folded.
“Why do you think he left?”
By all standards, my father’s new home in Canada and my uncle’s new home in India are “better.” Papa’s house is bigger, heated consistently, and the two blackouts that I can remember were due to weather and not well-trod circumstances. I got my first computer at 11 and the internet was lightning fast. Immigrants who move to North America chirp “Better life, a better life!!!!” nearly constantly at their children, largely when their westernized, asshole children misbehave.
But the only way to do better, to have better, is to lose pieces of what was. It’s inevitable that you can’t bring everything with you, like carrying water in your cupped hands from one pond to another. There are too many cracks, and because you were so eager to move you’ll just have to get used to new water.
The third story I have about my grandfather, I heard while we were standing in the main room next to the sink where we used to brush our teeth and wash our hands at my grandfather’s house. My dad sighed heavily and pointed at the mirror hanging over the sink, the same one that had seemingly always been there. “I can still see my dad, sitting in front of that mirror and shaving.” His voice cracked and he rubbed his eyes. “My mother would be across, over here in the kitchen cooking. And he would sit on a little daybed and I would watch him shave.”
He coughed and rested the weight of his head on two fingers. “I should keep that mirror,” he said.
It’s been a few months since Papa came back home — his third home, I guess — and he’s taken a step back from wanting to keep the house he grew up in for himself. “If I went to the house, there’s nobody,” he said. “The purpose of going into a comfortable cocoon defeats itself,” he says. “It seems that when you reach a certain stage in life, you revert back to something more familiar, something more familial. I can’t explain it to you. It just happens.”
Chacha’s new house is 40 minutes away from the home he grew up in with my father, in a more remote area. It’s comparatively palatial, all marble and bright flowers in the yard and a porch swing. Raisin and I immediately went for the swing when we saw it. “Your grandmother liked that seat too,” Chacha told me. They have a computer, a desktop that isn’t very fast but gets the job done. All the bedrooms have big windows that let in plenty of light.
On one side of the house is an Indian dirt road that leads back to the city, and on the other, a few miles away, is Pakistan. The internet conks out a lot, and I ask my uncle why this keeps happening. He rifles through a junk drawer and pulls out a little slug of lead.
“What do you think this is?” he asks me.
“And that’s why the Internet is so slow here.” The bullet, he says, came from the India-Pakistan border. There is always unrest around here, he says, but you wouldn’t know it by the evenings we spend at his house. Guava grows in the backyard, and it is bright pink and so sweet. I have never seen a pink guava anywhere else.
This is nothing like my grandfather’s house, but it might be closer to what he and my dad remember. There isn’t a ravine, but a goat walks past our window followed by a little boy trying to guide him in the right direction. If that isn’t bucolic, nothing is.
My brother, sister-in-law, Raisin, and I leave India two weeks before my parents. Chacha helps us pack our bags into his car to take us to the airport. Mom and Papa hug us goodbye — neither of us cry, largely because I think we have all had enough of each other for a few weeks at least. But my aunt cries so hard that I want her to go back inside. When we get in the car, I turn back to get one last look at this new house, at the new gate in freshly painted black, and at the plate affixed next to the fence with the house’s address. Above the house number is “Prithvi,” my grandfather’s name, one last link to a man who will never see this house or the people in it. We drive to the airport, and I watch as the name shrinks in the distance. We turn a corner, and it’s gone.