When I was a child in India, sometimes I complained to Mummy that she didn’t look like other mothers. I would ask her, “Why isn’t your hair black like everyone else’s? Why don’t you ever wear lipstick?” She always replied, “My hair is white because it grows that way and I don’t wear lipstick because I don’t like it.” What she never said was, “My hair is white because I’m older than other mothers, and I’m older because I’m not your mother, I’m your grandmother.”
No one ever actually said this. As with any worthwhile family secret, the truth was only told when it was already known. There was no sudden unveiling of knowledge; rather, there was a gradual awakening of insight. I grew up in the story that my mom’s parents were my parents. That story changed in small pieces I digested slowly, until the new story became real as though it had always been the only story and, suddenly, my life changed to fit it.
I was reminded of this strange beginning recently when I watched Hassan Minaj’s ‘The Homecoming King’. The stand-up comic recounted how he and his dad came to America while his mom remained in India to finish medical school. She joined them after eight years and brought with her a younger sister Minaj hadn’t known he had. For a flashing moment, I felt I could see deeply into his heart and hear through its beat the faint throb of old pain. At his story, a small pain in me resonated excitedly in recognition, like a tuning fork. Oh, you too? Same here!
Apparently, when my mom left for America, I was nine months old. I’d just learned to walk and, in my first few days without her, my grandparents watched me search through rooms, sobbing, stumbling with exhaustion, but refusing to stop. It broke their hearts and they decided they’d do their best not to let me feel her loss. So, they raised me in India as their youngest daughter, having me call them Papa and Mummy.
Throughout my childhood, Papa told me stories about his grown-up children in America. He used the same tender hours between wakefulness and sleep that grandfathers in fantasy films do, and regaled me with bedtime stories about siblings in a far-away fairyland. As in those films, his stories were intended to sow seeds. They created liminal moments between my special future of eventually reuniting with my mom and my ordinary present of knowing Papa/Mummy as my parents.
In Papa’s tales, his eldest daughter was someone who loved me more than anyone else in the world did, but she had to live far away. He focused my attention on bright constructions of her love rather than on plot points irrelevant to a child. Imagine a heap of chocolates that reaches all the way to the moon; her love for you is even bigger than that.
We called this distant figure Inna, a baby word I’d invented for my mom during our early months together. She hadn’t wanted to conform it to a traditional moniker and it stuck. Once I met my mom in America, after nearly ten years, Inna turned out to have been a prescient and perfect name for her. It denoted nothing yet connoted every mystery of our relationship. This magical sobriquet let us exist simultaneously in multiple realities — one where my parents were my parents, one where my grandparents were also my parents, and even one where my mom and I were still somewhat sisters.
Decades later, I still traverse these realities through linguistic portals. In Hindi, the people who raised me in India are my parents, as Papa and Mummy. In English, I refer to them as my grandparents. The people who have raised me since I arrived in America are my parents, my mom as Inna and, my dad, not Indian and available only in English, simply as Dad. In English, I refer to my mother’s brothers as my uncles. But in Hindi, I live an inner family life where each uncle is my Bhaiya (older brother) and each of their wives is my Bhabhi (sister-in-law).
This sui generis classification isn’t just our family’s vocabulary, it’s also its grammar. What I call my relatives aren’t trivial labels, they’re laden honorifics. They shape relationships just as, say, if you were to begin calling your boss Master. However it might start out, no label remains evacuated of meaning. Similarly, naming two pairs as parents brought both relationships into this sphere. I won’t bore you with either the drama or the minutiae of how we triangulated ourselves. Suffice it to say, the triangulation itself has been a governing theme. I took guidance from both sets and neither set could raise me without sharing me with the other.
My whole family is influenced by Papa/Mummy’s fiction of me. For example, my partner knew from our early dates that he’d inherit two pairs of in-laws. Even some distant young relatives in India who’ve rarely met me consider me Didi (older sister), although, as my mother’s youngest cousins, Hindi would have me call them uncle/aunt. No relationship in my life has been straight-forward; they’re all coiled around my origin myth.
I don’t know how it was for Hassan Minaj with his surprise sister, but my pain at this myth wasn’t the sharp cut of betrayal, it was the strain of overburdened muscles. The changing stories stretched my sense of self and reality at a young age, but I never questioned that they were fashioned with benevolence. They walled me off from one small truth to accentuate the vast space of another: my family’s love.
My early launch into a new country, with a new language, new parents, even old parents turned into new grandparents, has made metamorphosis my basal standard. It’s when the obvious becomes strange, or vice versa, that I feel most familiar to myself. I’m only now realizing how my family’s early fiction shaped my fundamental need to explore hidden stories. Maybe it’s why I’m convinced not only of the elasticity of reality but also of the power of language to shape it. It’s definitely why I’m certain the intricacies of the human heart are illimitable.
It’s also why this isn’t an essay bemoaning my family’s falsehoods. Bad fiction can be a lie, but good fiction helps one to make sense of the truth; that’s why this is an essay celebrating the power of my family’s storytelling.