किताब और उसकी लिखाई का आपको अंदाज़ लग जाएगा. सोचने वाली बात है लिखने वाला आदमी कभी-कभी इतना सीधा क्यों लिखता है? मुझे हिन्दी नहीं आती इसलिए कभी पेड़ पर और कभी दूसरों के छत पर घूमता लिखता हूं और देखने वाले बाज दफ़ा आंखों पर काले चश्मे के बावजूद शर्मिंदगी में घबराये फुसफुसाते हैं कैसी जलेबी लिखता है ये भाई, क्यों लिखता है. मैं जलेबी लिखता हूं सो तो मुझे समझ आता है, मगर बिना जलेबी बनाये की अंग्रेजी कोई क्यों लिखता है, इसलिए कि वह सत्तर के दशक के अमरीका का बच्चा अखिल शर्मा है, कलकत्तिया अपना घामड़ विजय शर्मा नहीं?
मालूम नहीं आदमी वैसा क्यों लिखता है जैसा लिखता है. मगर यह भी सच है कि कभी-कभी इसी सीधी लिखाई की वज़ह से ही किताबें दिल में उतर जाती हैं और बीसियों साल निकल जाते हैं, वहीं दिल में बनी रहती हैं. इतनी सारी महान किताबें हैं, ज़रा-ज़रा से के आकार में निहायत सिंपल लिखाइयों वाली किताबें हैं, उनको लेकर किसी और दिन बहकूंगा, फिलहाल आप अखिल के बेखिल में बहकिये.
"I used to think that my father had been assigned to us by the government. This was because he appeared to serve no purpose. When he got home in the evening, all he did was sit in his chair in the living room, drink tea, and read the paper. Often he looked angry. By the time we left for America, I knew that the government had not sent him to live with us. Still, I continued to think he served no purpose. Also, I found him frightening.
My father was waiting for us in the arrivals hall at the airport. He was leaning against a metal railing and he appeared angry. I saw him and got anxious.
The apartment my father had rented had one bedroom. It was in a tall, brown-brick building in Queens. The apartment’s gray metal front door swung open into a foyer with a wooden floor. Beyond this was a living room with a reddish brown carpet that went from wall to wall. Other than in the movies, I had never seen a carpet. Birju and my parents walked across the foyer and into the living room. I went to the carpet’s edge and stopped. A brass metal strip held it to the floor. I took a step forward. I felt as if I were stepping onto a painting. I tried not to bring my weight down.
My father took us to the bathroom to show us toilet paper and hot water. While my mother was interested in status, being better educated than others or being considered more proper, my father was just interested in being rich. I think this was because although both of my parents had grown up poor, my father’s childhood had been much more desperate. At some point my grandfather, my father’s father, had begun to believe that thorns were growing out of his palms. He had taken a razor and picked at them till they were shaggy with scraps of skin. Because of my grandfather’s problems, my father had grown up feeling that no matter what he did, people would look down on him. As a result, he cared less about convincing people of his merits and more about just owning things.
The bathroom was narrow. It had a tub, sink, and toilet in a row along one wall. My father reached between Birju and me to turn on the tap. Hot water came shaking and steaming from the faucet. He stepped back and looked at us to gauge our reaction.
I had never seen hot water coming from a tap before. In India, during winter, my mother used to get up early to heat pots of water on the stove so we could bathe. Watching the hot water spill as if water being hot meant nothing, as if there was an endless supply, I had the sense of being in a fairy tale, one of those stories with a jug that is always full of milk or a bag that never empties of food.
During the coming days, the wealth of America kept astonishing me. The television had programming from morning till night. I had never been in an elevator before and when I pressed a button in the elevator and the elevator started moving, I felt powerful that it had to obey me. In our shiny brass mailbox in the lobby, we received ads on colored paper. In India colored paper could be sold to the recycler for more money than newsprint. The sliding glass doors of our apartment building would open when we approached. Each time this happened, I felt that we had been mistaken for somebody important.
Outside our building was a four-lane road. This was usually full of cars, and every few blocks there were traffic lights. In India, the only traffic light I had ever seen was near India Gate. My parents had taken me and Birju for picnics near there, and when they did, we would go look at the light. People were so unused to being directed by a light that a traffic guard in a white uniform and white pith helmet stood underneath, repeating its directions with his hands.
My father, who had seemed pointless in India, had brought us to America, and made us rich. What he had done was undeniable. He now seemed mysterious, like he was a different person, someone who looked like my father but was not the same man.
All the time now my father said things that revealed him as knowledgeable, as someone who could not just be ignored. My mother, Birju, and I had decided that a hot dog was made from dog meat. We had even discussed what part of a dog a hot dog must be made of. We had agreed that it had to be a tail. Then my father came home and heard us and started laughing.
Until we arrived in America, my mother had been the one who made all the decisions about Birju and me. Now I realized that my father, too, had plans for us. This felt both surprising and intrusive, like having my cheeks pinched by a relative I did not know.
He took Birju and me to a library. I had been in two libraries till then. One had had newspapers but not books and was used primarily by people searching employment ads. This had been a small, noisy room next to a barbershop. The other had been on the second floor of a temple, and one had to pay to join. This had had books, but these were kept locked in glass-fronted cabinets.
The library in Queens was bigger than either of the two I had seen. It had several rooms, and they were long, with many metal shelves. The library had thousands of books, and the librarian said we could check out as many as we wanted. At first, I did not believe her.
My father told Birju and me that he would give us fifty cents for each book we read. This bribing struck me as un-Indian and wrong. My mother had told us that Americans were afraid of demanding things from their children. She said this was because American parents did not care about their children and were unwilling to do the hard thing of disciplining them. If my father wanted us to read, what he should have done was threaten to beat us. I wondered whether my father might have become too American during the year that he was living alone. It seemed typical of him to choose to identify with wealthy Americans instead of the propriety of India.
I wanted to take out ten picture books.
My father said, “You think I’m going to give you money for such small books?”
Along with Birju and me reading, the other thing my father wanted was for Birju to get into a school called the Bronx High School of Science, where the son of one of his colleagues had been accepted.
MY MOTHER, BIRJU, and I had taken everything we could from the airplane: red Air India blankets, pillows with paper pillowcases, headsets, sachets of ketchup, packets of salt and pepper, air-sickness bags. Birju and I slept on mattresses on the living room floor, and we used the blankets until they frayed and tore. Around the time that they did, we started going to school.
At school I sat at the very back of the class, in the row closest to the door. Often I couldn’t understand what my teacher was saying. I had studied English in India, but either my teacher spoke too quickly and used words I didn’t know, or I was so afraid that her words sounded garbled to my ears.
It was strange to be among so many whites. They all looked alike. When a boy came up to me between periods and asked a question, it took me a moment to realize I had spoken to him before.
We had lunch in an asphalt yard surrounded by a high chain-link fence. Wheeled garbage cans were spread around the yard. I was often bullied. Sometimes a little boy would come up to me and tell me that I smelled bad. Then, if I said anything, a bigger boy would appear so suddenly that I couldn’t tell where he had come from. He would knock me down. He’d stand over me, fists clenched, and demand, “You want to fight? You want to fight?”
Sometimes boys surrounded me and shoved me back and forth, keeping me upright as a kind of game.
Often, standing in a corner of the asphalt yard, I would think, There has been a mistake. I am not the sort of boy who is pushed around. I am good at cricket. I am good at marbles.
On Diwali, it was odd to go to school, odd and painful to stand outside the brown brick building waiting for its doors to open. In India, everything would be closed for the festival. All of us children would be home dressed in good clothes—clothes that were too nice to play in, and yet by the afternoon, we would be outside doing just that. Now, in America, standing on the sidewalk, I imagined India, with everyone home for the new year. At that moment, I felt the life I was living in America was not important, that no matter how rich America was, how wonderful it was to have cartoons on TV, only life in India mattered.
One day a blue aerogramme came from one of Birju’s friends, a boy who had not been smart or especially popular. I read the letter and couldn’t understand why this boy got to be in India while I was here.
At school I was so confused that everything felt jumbled. The school was three stories tall, with hallways that looped on themselves and stairways connecting the floors like a giant game of Snakes and Ladders. Not only could I not tell white people apart, but I often got lost trying to find my classroom. I worried how, at the end of the day, I would find the stairway to take me down to the door from which I knew the way home. Within a few months, I became so afraid of getting lost in the vastness of the school that I wouldn’t leave the classroom when I had to use the toilet. I imagined that if I left, I might end up wandering the hallways and not be able to get back to my class. I imagined I would have to stay in the building after school ended, that I would have to spend the night in school.
QUEENS WAS A port of entry for Indians. Indian stores were not specialized then. The same store that sold Red Fort rice also carried saris, also had calculators, blood pressure cuffs, and the sorts of things that people took back to India as gifts. Back then, even in Queens, there were not yet enough Indians for the stores to carry produce. To get bitter gourds and papayas and anything that might spoil, my father went to Chinatown.
In India, to earn blessings, my mother used to prepare extra rotis at every meal to feed the cows that wandered our neighborhood. In America, we went to temple on Fridays to, as my mother said, begin the weekend with a clean mind. Our temple was one of just a few on the Eastern Seaboard. Until recently it had been a church. Inside the large, dim chamber there were idols along three walls and the air smelled of incense, like the incense in temples in India. In India, though, temples also smelled of flowers, of sweat from the crowds, of spoilage from the milk used to bathe the idols. Here, along with the smell of incense, there was only a faint odor of mildew. Because the temple smelled so simple, it seemed fake.
ONE NIGHT, SNOW drifted down from a night sky. I felt like I was in a book or TV show.
FOR ME, THE two best things about America were television and the library. Every Saturday night I watched The Love Boat. I looked at the women in their one-piece bathing suits and their high heels and imagined what it would be like when I was married. I decided that when I was married, I would be very serious, and my silence would lead to misunderstandings between me and my wife. We would have a fight and later make up and kiss. She would be wearing a blue swimsuit as we kissed.
Before we came to America, I had never read a book just to read it. When I began doing so, at first, whatever I read seemed obviously a lie. If a book said a boy walked into a room, I was aware that there was no boy and there was no room. Still, I read so much that often I imagined myself in the book. I imagined being Pinocchio, swallowed by a whale. I wished to be inside a whale with a candle burning on a wooden crate, as in an illustration I had seen. Vanishing into books, I felt held. While at school and walking down the street, there seemed no end to the world, when I read a book or watched The Love Boat, the world felt simple and understandable.
Birju liked America much more than I did. In India, he had not been popular. Here he made friends quickly. He was in seventh grade and his English was better than mine. Also, he was kinder than he used to be in India. In India there had been such competition, so many people offering bribes for their children to get slightly better grades, that he was always on edge. Here doing well seemed as simple as studying.
One of the boys that Birju befriended was an Indian from Trinidad. My mother and Birju talked about him often. My mother wanted Birju to avoid him because the boy did not get good grades. I think she also looked down on him because he was not from India and so was seen as out of caste.
“He thinks a sanitation engineer is an engineer, Mommy,” Birju said, sounding upset, as if his friend’s misunderstanding hurt him. “I told him it was a garbage man.”
My mother was boiling rice at the stove. Birju, I remember, was standing beside her in a tee shirt with brown and yellow horizontal stripes that made him look like a bumblebee.
“Why is that your problem? Why are you going around educating him?”
“He doesn’t have good parents. His mother and father aren’t married. Neither one of them went to college.”
“He’ll drag you down before you save him.”
My school was on the way to Birju’s, so Birju used to walk me there every morning. One morning I started crying and told him about the bullying. He suggested that I talk to the teacher. When I didn’t, he told our parents. My father came to school with me. I had to stand at the front of the class and point at all the boys who had shoved me and threatened me. After this, the bullying stopped. I had been upset that Birju told our parents. I hadn’t thought that what he suggested would make a difference. The fact that it did surprised me.
In India, Birju had collected stamps, and he would sit for hours and look at them. Now, he made model airplanes. He spent whole days at our kitchen table, his mouth open, one hand holding tweezers and the other a magnifying glass.
MY MOTHER TOOK a job in a garment factory. The morning that she was to start, she came into the living room wearing jeans. I had never seen her wearing something formfitting before. Birju and I were sitting on one of the mattresses. “Your thighs are so big,” Birju said, laughing.
My mother started screaming. “Die, murderer, die.”
Birju laughed, and I joined him.
In India, when my father said we should do something, we wouldn’t really start doing it till our mother had decided whether it made sense. In America, our parents were closer to equal importance. My father had all sorts of plans for us. Mostly these involved us assimilating. He made us watch the news every evening. This was incredibly boring. We didn’t care that there were hostages in Iran or that there was a movie called The Empire Strikes Back. He also bought us tennis rackets and took us to Flushing Meadows Park. There he made us hit tennis balls because he believed that tennis was a sport for rich people. Both Birju and I wore white headbands.
My father was still irritable and suspicious as he had been in India, but he also had a certain confidence, like no matter what happened he would have done one thing that was uncontestably wonderful. “A green card is worth a million dollars,” he repeatedly told us. My mother, despite working in a garment factory, was mostly the same as she had been in India. She had been enthusiastic there about trying new things, taking me and Birju to movies and restaurants, and she was the same in America. She took Birju and me for walks in grocery stores so that we could see things we had never seen before—canned hearts of palms, boxes of colorful cereals. My mother said that she wished she was a teacher but she did not feel diminished by her work. “Work is work,” she said.
My relationship with Birju changed. In India, my mother used to come home around the same time we did. Now, Birju was expected to take care of me until she returned from work. He was supposed to boil frozen shelled corn for me and give me a glass of milk. He was supposed to sit with me and watch me do my homework as he did his. Till America, I had somehow not paid much attention to the fact that Birju was older than I was. I had thought that he was bigger, but not more mature. Now, I began to understand that Birju dealt with more complicated things than I did.
BIRJU AND I were sent to spend the summer with our father’s older sister. This was in Arlington, Virginia. She and our uncle lived in a small white two story house beside a wide road. The houses in Arlington had yards. The hot humid air there smelled of earth and the newness of green plants. Among the exotic things about Arlington was that the television networks were on different channels than in Queens. I turned nine while I was there.
In Arlington, Birju began studying for the test to get into the Bronx High School of Science. He had to study five hours a day. While I got to go out, Birju had to stay in the living room and work until he was done with his hours.
When we returned to Queens, Birju had to study three hours every weeknight and all day on weekends. Many nights I fell asleep on my mattress as he sat at the round, white kitchen table, his pencil scratching away.
Despite all the time Birju was spending with his books, my mother felt that he was not studying hard enough. Often they fought. Once she caught him asleep on the foam mattress in the room that my parents shared. He had claimed that he needed quiet and so instead of studying at the kitchen table where he could be watched, he should be allowed to go into their room to study. When my mother came into the room, he was rolled onto his side breathing deeply.
She began shouting, calling him a liar. Birju ran past her into the kitchen and returned with a knife. Standing before her, holding the knife by the handle and pointing it at his stomach, he said, “Kill me. Go ahead; kill me. I know that’s what you want.”
“Do some work instead of being dramatic,” my mother said contemptuously.
I became infected with the anxiety that Birju and my parents appeared to feel. When the sun shone and I went to Flushing Meadows Park, I had the sense that I was frittering away time. Real life was occurring back in our apartment with Birju studying.
The day of the exam finally came. On the subway to the test, I sat and Birju stood in front of me. I held one of his test preparation books in my lap and checked his vocabulary. Most of the words I asked him he didn’t know. I started to panic. Birju, I began to see, was not going to do well. As I asked my questions and our mother and father watched, my voice grew quieter and quieter. I asked Birju what “rapscallion” meant. He guessed it was a type of onion. When I told him what it was, he began blinking quickly.
“Keep a calm head,” my father scolded.
“Don’t worry, baby,” my mother said. “You will remember when you need to.”
The exam took place in a large, white cinder-block building that was a school but looked like a parking garage. The test started in the morning, and as it was going on, my parents and I walked back and forth nearby along a chain-link fence that surrounded basketball courts. The day was cold, gray, damp. Periodically, it drizzled. There were parked cars along the sidewalk with waiting parents inside, and the windows of these grew foggy as we walked.
My father said, “These tests are for white people. How are we supposed to know what ‘pew’ means?”
“Don’t give me a headache,” my mother said. “I’m worried enough.”
“Maybe he’ll do well enough in the math and science portions that it will make up for the English.”
My stomach hurt. My chest was heavy. I had wanted the day of Birju’s test to come so that it would be over. Now, though, that the day was here, I wished Birju had had more time.
Midway through the exam, there was a break. Birju came out on the sidewalk. His face looked tired. We surrounded him and began feeding him oranges and almonds—oranges to cool him and almonds to give his brain strength.
My mother was wearing Birju’s backpack. “It’s raining, baby,” my mother said, “which means that it’s a lucky day.”
“Just do your best,” my father said. “It’s too late for anything else.”
Birju turned around and walked back toward the building.
Weeks went by. It was strange for Birju not to be studying. It was strange not to see his study guides on the living room floor beside his mattress. It was as if something was missing and wrong. Often Birju wept and said, “Mommy, I know I didn’t pass.”
A month went by and then two. A warm day came when I could tie my winter coat around my waist during lunch hour, then another such day, like birds out of season. Spring came. In Delhi, they would be turning on fountains in the evening, and crowds would gather to watch.
The results arrived. Because Birju had said it so many times, I knew that an acceptance letter would come in a thick envelope. The one that he showed me was thin and white. Tears slid down his cheeks.
“Maybe you got in,” I murmured, trying to be comforting.
“Why do you think that?” Birju asked. He stared at me as if I might know something he did not.
Our mother was at work. She had said not to open the envelope until she arrived, that we would take it to temple and open it there. This made no sense to me. I thought what the envelope contained had already been decided.
My father arrived home after my mother. As soon as he did, Birju demanded that we go to temple.
Inside the large chamber, my mother put a dollar in the wooden box before God Shivaji. Then we went to each of the other idols in turn. Normally we only pressed our hands together before each idol and bowed our heads. This time we knelt and did a full prayer. After we had prayed before all the idols, we got on our knees before the family of God Ram. Birju was between our parents.
“You open it, Mommy.”
My mother tore off one side of the envelope and shook out a sheet of paper. In the first paragraph was the answer: Yes!
“See? I told you we should open it at temple,” she said.
We leapt to our feet and hugged.
With her arms still around Birju, my mother looked over his shoulder at me. “Tomorrow, we start preparing you,” she said.
It sounded like a threat."
(फैमिली लाइफ़, अखिल शर्मा, डब्ल्यू डब्ल्यू नॉर्टन एंड कंपनी, न्यूयॉर्क, 2014 से साभार)