History is Written in Choices and Blood

Art by Aidan Chang

“History is written in blood, Mallika.

That’s what my father tells me. I feel the warmth of my hand clasped in his, the creases of his weathered skin reminding me of the multitude of experiences his life contains. We are walking in Gopalganj, the home of my father and grandfather and his grandfather before him. The walls, once brilliant white, have faded, time taking its toll on the resolute structure. I trace my finger over them, feeling the pads of my index accrue dust and dirt and centuries of experience in a matter of seconds. These walls have been washed and repainted countless times by people who shared my blood and my name and my skin—but who could never have imagined where I’d end up. 

The house is rectangular, with a large aangan—courtyard—in the middle. My grandfather sits every day, his leathery hands gently cradling the metal fire pit at the center of the aangan, his jaw slowly working through the last vestiges of his paan—areca nuts and betel leaves—a vice that has stained his teeth blood red.

I am nine. My mind cannot comprehend the universe behind the history written in my blood. 

I have always underestimated the importance of geographical proximity. My Hindi is better when I am in Gurgaon, speaking to my aunts and uncles and cousins. My reading comprehension magically makes leaps and bounds, and all of a sudden I become immersed in a culture that is uncouth, cacophonous, storied, and wholly undignified. It is mine. From the golden beams of sunlight that bear down upon us, causing beads of sweat to trickle down our faces, to the constant humdrum and noise of 1.4 billion people struggling to coexist—everything reminds me of where I came from. The moment I feel my plane leave Delhi’s airport, I feel my connection fade. 

Connection with something that has no taste, smell, texture, or touch can be tenuous at times. That was what I thought as my plane soared into the sky. The further I go from my homeland, the more distant I feel my connection becoming; it is a dangling thread straining with all its might to hold on, in danger of unravelling at any moment.

I felt the undoing of my ties to India every time I moved to a new place. Going from India to Hungary, my first memories were of questioning myself and my identity. Why didn’t I look like the German and Hungarian-speaking children who filled my preschool? How come my skin shimmered like cocoa butter under the dappled summer sun while theirs glimmered lily white? Why was I different? 

Like a plant uprooted from its natural habitat, my roots curled around nothing, trying desperately to look for nourishment where there was nothing but arid air.  

Moving from Hungary to Romania at age six meant— yet again—upheaval. Although I enjoyed going to the British International School, all of Miss Jessica’s talks about embracing diversity could not fill the gaping hole in my heart. You never realize the value of your home until you leave it. 

Moving back to India for grade two meant going back to my phuas and mausis and aunts and uncles and cousins. It meant spending Diwali not explaining to others what it meant, but rather being with my cousins and watching the reflections of fireworks glimmer in their eyes as we stood there, knowing this moment would be shared between us forever. It meant that I ate daal every day at school, and I didn’t have to tell anyone the difference between lentils and pulses (it’s a rectangles and squares situation). 

Culture is a strange and fleeting thing. It can be found in the community of mischievous third graders with too much time on their hands who climb trees and bother adults and generally get up to no good. Culture can be found in the tender hands of my mother, who used to have steaming hot second lunches (crucial for childhood development) waiting for me every day after I brought my sweaty, exhausted body home from school. It can be found in the festivals and joyous celebrations that bring hundreds of people together to rejoice in our limited time on Earth, and the strange and incredible things that can happen during that time, from love to hate and everything in between. 

Moving from place to place can be soul-crushing. Moving from India to Singapore in sixth grade was like being taken from a pool where I had finally mastered freestyle and then being dunked in the Atlantic, with rip tides and currents and sharks coming from all directions. It was scary. I was scared. I became invisible, losing all culture so that I could blend in, to not embarrass myself with my pronounced Delhi accent and over-enunciated ‘t’s. I tried to approach others and found myself frozen, helpless and suspended in water as I slowly sank down. I had been still for so long that I had become a background prop. 

I suppose if the path of my life were to be considered a wave, this would be the trough. The string connecting me to my culture was a hair’s width apart from tearing and leaving me untethered, with no space suit to help me breathe in the non-existent atmosphere. 

My father must have felt quite untethered when I came to him, crying and telling him I wanted to blip out of existence. Not to die, but simply to erase myself and never have existed at all. No trace of me left behind.

I felt the salt in my tears burn my cheeks as a trail was carved down my cheeks, the quiver of my lips as I stood in front of him. I felt the Singapore humidity cause beads of sweat to intermingle with my tears, saltiness intensifying on my tongue. 

Beta….” My father used a term of endearment, and I felt the weight of my tongue like an anchor in my mouth.

We stood there for a while.

Eventually, he stood up. He smiled at me and went into the kitchen. Crestfallen, I followed him in, wondering if I was going to be punished? Yelled at? 

My dad grabbed some cheese. He told me to find biscuits in the cupboard, the little packets of Parle-G that my mother bought from Mustafa’s and hid from me because I could devour 20 of them in one go. Mystified, I followed his directions and found myself following him out the door. Although light pollution had dimmed the brilliance of the sky, some constellations were still visible. The Big Dipper, simple enough to jump out to me, was right there, comforting in its presence, and if I squinted, I could make out Orion’s distinct shape, his torso meeting his arms elegantly. My father spread out a chequered blanket on the dewdrop-crowned grass, gesturing for me to come sit. 

“You know, the Greeks made all of this up,” he said. I glanced at him and nodded. We had learnt about the constellations already in class. 

My father fixed his gaze on me. We had the same nose, I realised, straight and a little rounded with a small dip by the bridge. The same little crookedness in our front two incisors.

“History is written in blood, Mallika. And so is culture. Your great grandfather was one of India’s founding members. His blood flows through your veins. You can’t forget your history, beta…It’s literally flowing through you at all times.” Even though I had heard these words before, they felt new.

I blinked. I supposed he was right. We continued munching on cheese for a while. 

I’ve realised there is power in the vulnerability of our connections to each other, and to our culture. Culture isn’t a fleeting mirage in the sky—it’s an active choice. My mother chooses to make lunch for me, my aunt chooses to have everybody over for Diwali every year, and I choose to honour my ancestors every day.

Culture is tangible and real—it took me a long time to realise this. Culture is the tang of mangoes from my grandparents’ mango tree, juicy and sweet and ripe with history; culture is the plainful, melancholy twanging of a sitar in my music class and the ink of madhubani painting and the comforting earthy smell of mehendi on my forearms and the wrinkles on my grandfather’s warm hands. 

I cherish my culture, and because of that, I am connected to it. No matter how far away I go or how vulnerable that connection becomes, the string will never become unraveled, because at one end of it is an extraordinarily hard-headed, stubborn woman who refuses to let go, knotting and twisting and writhing until she is wrapped in the sights and smells and sounds of it. I choose to be connected, to share my cultures and to share in the cultures of those I love, be it through food or music or love itself.