I can tell, from the tone-shift towards timbres of mourning, that my mother’s conversation with a friend has reached its inevitable terminus at Problems with This Day’s Generation. There’s a new one this time. “My kids,” her friend says, “just don’t know their second cousin’s names. If I ask them to draw a family tree they’d stutter and fail.” My mother nods and agrees. “Yes, mine too.”
I sit and listen; I nod my head. I can’t disagree: I don’t know my second cousin’s names. This is my family: I have three first cousins, two grandparents, two aunts, two uncles; including the (one) baby and (one) marriage, this makes fifteen, give or take in-laws.
There are—obviously—more people I’m related to, who I know and love in addition; but it’s these people I’ll begin with. I’ve grown up an international millennial, across three homes and four schools. Across this gap year, little has remained constant: country to country, house to house, a suitcase open and a suitcase closed.
How much room am I supposed to keep for the relationships I’ll carry with me? There are weight restrictions on flights, and studies that show we only keep 100 people close in our life at a time. What the last twelve months have emphasized for me is that sometimes you get to choose who those people are, and sometimes you don’t, and sometimes you get lucky.
Everyone doesn’t come to Bangalore this time—my eldest cousin is in New York with the baby—but the set almost completes.
My uncle and aunt on my mother’s side—her elder brother and sister-in-law—live in Bangalore. Sai, his son, three months older and a foot taller than me, returned home from his first year in college a few weeks before I came barely visible behind a curly labyrinth of overgrown beard and hair. Preetu, his daughter, who I call Preetu akka, five years older and several inches shorter than me, works at a data-processing firm here. Both cousins come over the days after I arrive; we sit and ask each other the same questions too many times and marvel at the fact that we are all moving forward, onwards into uncertain futures.
My grandparents come laden with cardboard boxes and kilograms of turmeric powder—it’s cheaper where we are, no need for you to spend so much in Singapore. They pull out mangoes the size of my head and press them into my hands. “You called us and told us you were missing the mango season.” My grandfather, meant to be on bed rest, searched the whole of the city for these last fruits. I am sticky-faced for days, my fingertips rouged orange with juice.
My brother and father come late, courtesy of a hydraulic failure on their first flight. They also come laden with cardboard boxes—shoes and shirts, gifts for everyone to wear. It was Sai’s birthday and he pulls on the hoodie they got him and makes a peace sign. Everyone laughs; we take pictures together in every possible configuration—all-the-women, all-the-cousins, grandparents-and-grandchildren, permutations and combinations, each one beaming.
A few days later my aunt and uncle on my father’s side, his sister and brother-in-law, arrive, and the house is full; it takes ten minutes to lay the table, two bottles of water to fill all the glasses for everyone. My uncle calls my mother Chelli, meaning younger sister, and tells everyone who asks that that’s what she is to him. No blood between them and yet.
So my family is my family because of the genes that flow between us—I have my aunt’s round face and curly hair, my uncle’s skin—but I’d also like to think there’s a choice in it. Support cannot be created only by genetic duty. I can always count on these people for a hug or a hair-rustle, who will never call me by my actual name but instead by age-old variations with little to no relation to my original two syllables. My family is my family because they are the people who sit next to me on the dinner table and who will pile my plate teetering. (My family is my family because we share an almost religious fervour for food, involving days of planning and coolers carted halfway across the world.)
My family is my family because these are the people who fill the house and make it alive. The TVs running—the cricket match or badminton game, ridiculous Telugu soap operas, the latest Netflix comedy, someone napping on the couch, on the lawn, rattling pots wafting smells from the kitchen, every ten minutes a shout as we call out to each other. “Mama!” “Dada!” Like birds in large colonies, trying to pinpoint their children among masses of identical feathers—only it’s just us in the house, and the call is, rather than a way of practical location, an affirmation. You’re here, you’re near; I can rely on your presence.
Preetu akka leaves for the US a few days after we all arrive. She’s going to start her Master’s degree, her first time living out of India, and there are days of farewell events leading up to her departure where we all congregate in mildly different arrangements. On the last day the majority of us troop to the airport before her flight. We fill up a long table in a bar and order lots of snacks. No one’s crying; those who were going to finished their tears yesterday, after the final biryani lunch. Preetu akka herself is bright-faced and laughing. It’s an entirely new chapter ahead. She is about to leave behind the longest home she’s known for the great unfamiliar. She will not be back in India for a year, maybe longer. We make plans for her return, talk about the foods she’ll miss, the places, the conveniences.
Her suitcase is stuffed with ready-to-eat Indian meals—just add hot water, ordered over the last weeks. Yesterday my aunt added 10 more to her suitcase with an express delivery—just in case, she said. I promise to visit her over Thanksgiving. “It’s a family holiday, right?” I think about how I’ll be making the same journey soon while she manoeuvres her suitcase through the airport entrance. We squint at the check-in desks. Has she checked in yet? How long will immigration take, do you think, and then the flight to Dubai, then Florida?
Later my uncle on my father’s side tracks her plane on his iPad. “She’s over the Atlantic now,” he calls out. Every hour the icon inches a little further away. I wonder how it’ll feel when it’s me. I can’t know. I can only wait for it to happen.
And that’s still months away. For now, the house rings with languages I don’t understand—Telugu, Bengali—and languages I do—Hindi, food, the rules of gin rummy.
I am grateful for many things but most of all this. That I have these relationships to carry with me. That I will keep carrying them, and that I can come back to them, again and again. That I will always have room for these people. That these people will always have room for me. I keep getting asked, over and over, what home means to me, but my answer doesn’t change: where my family is.