After leaving Surat in 1981, my father went to Bombay to see if he could try his luck at the diamond industry there. This time, my mother left their village and went with him. They lived in a one-room home that my father had bought for just 3,000 rupees (equivalent to 60 USD). My father saved long and hard to buy their first home, knowing early on he needed to buy a home rather than rent it.
The home they lived in was attached to a series of other homes in a small alleyway with a communal bathroom at the end.
While I was staying in India in 2016, I went to Bombay to see where my parents had once lived. I was intrigued by their story, and at this point had slowly been compiling information and stories of their lives and our ancestral villages for eight years. It was time for me to get out of Gujarat and see the other places they had once lived.
The only evidence I previously had was hearing their stories and spending time in the villages they were raised. Growing up, my mother told me stories of one of her closest friends, Jyotsana, during her time living in Bombay. She told me that until recently her friend was living in Ganeshnagar, the part of Bombay that they had all once lived. In the recent months Jyotsana Aunty, her son, and husband had relocated to a flat nearby.
I gave Jyosana Aunty a call when I reached India and she was happy to hear from me. I was staying with a friend across the city, so I took the busy train about 45 minutes to reach the station closest to where they lived.
I crossed the busy roads and walked for about 10 minutes until I reached a smaller road. Unfamiliar with the city and where I was going, I asked a rickshaw driver where their flat complex was. He pointed me in the direction of the very flat we were standing in front of. As I approached the building, I saw a woman looking out at me from one of the floors above.
The door opened as I walked up the stairs, and the same woman from the window opened the door and greeted me, half smiling, recognizing who I was. She was in her late 50’s, about the same age as my mother. I could feel her happiness as she looked at me, and told me I looked like my mother and that I had grown so much.
It had been more than two decades since she last saw me. I was just a baby when my mother had brought me and my sisters there, promising to come back again soon. My mother kept in touch with her old friend, like she did with many others, but hadn’t been able to see her in so many years.
For my mother, there was always a yearning to go back, but like many immigrants, life began moving and other priorities took hold.
Now, almost 22 years later, I was back, but this time alone and searching for answers. I knew I wanted to know more about my parent’s journey, but I wanted to go deeper than just listening to stories. I wanted to see where it started and hear stories from others, even if the people and places had changed drastically over time.
I was also at a period of my life where I was curious about my own position in the world. I had just finished walking 1,000 kilometers across Spain alone. I had left Spain to go to London, and then finally landed in Bombay. The day I reached India, the airport was buzzing. It was the day the government of India had decided to remove all 500 and 1000 rupee notes. I was only carrying 1,000 rupees at the time, and I waited in a long line before I could get just enough change for the 1,000 to make it to my friend’s home.
I could have landed in Ahmedabad where my family members or close friends would have picked me up and helped me get working currency. However, amidst this, I knew I was there for a reason and I had to be there now, at that period of my life. I was still traveling around the world, open to discovering the mysteries of the things I didn't yet know. This discovery inspired me to question how my parents had been able to get out of poverty while so many of the friends they once had in Bombay were either still living in Ganeshnagar or were struggling to make a living. My parents called it luck. However, soon after visiting Bombay I began to call it serendipity.
As I walked into the flat, I looked to the right and saw a man sitting on one of the cots. He smiled at me, also recognizing who I was. My mother had told me that her friend’s husband had a stroke many years earlier, leaving him paralyzed from one side, unable to properly walk, hear, or speak. He recognized me as I walked in the door and kneeled to say ‘Jay Shree Krishna’.
Within 10 minutes of being there, she told me my parents had always been there if someone was in need. Usually, I asked for stories up front, but she began telling me exactly what I had been thinking to ask. She continued to tell me that they gave their time, emotions, and love. In Gujarati, she said, “Your mother tells me that you come here to work in India. That you want to give…you parents were always doing something for others…the same goon [characteristic] has also come within you”.
I could see that she had anxiously and enthusiastically been waiting for my arrival. I later realized that my mom and she were close friends, and she hadn’t had a friend closer than my mom before. It was abnormal for me to imagine as my mom hadn’t kept many close for most of my life. It struck me that she had a close group of friends long before my sisters and I were born.
After a couple of minutes of my arrival, Jyotsna Aunty called her son who was at the work, to make sure he was coming home early. She also called her daughter, Chaku, who lived far away and was married with children. Since my parents were without children at the time, my father played and took care of their daughter often, so she wanted to know her daughter knew that I was there.
She brought out old pictures, most of which I had never seen before. In one of the albums were solo pictures of my parents. Worn out over the decades, they weren’t in pristine condition, but I could see my parents in their younger years in them. In one of the photos, my mother was laughing at something, looking out into the distance. I asked my mother’s friend if I could take the photo, but she seemed to not like the question. It was obvious she had valued their friendship and that that was a special time in her life. I took a picture of the photos and slipped them back into the album, continuing to look at the other photos.
I asked her if we could go to Ganeshnagar to see where they had once lived. We walked alongside cars, rickshaws and vegetable vendors along the busy street and crossed the road, still buzzing with afternoon activity. It took us about fifteen minutes to reach a road that had small alleys left and right, busy with daily activity as mothers washed clothes and children ran along the street playing.
As we weaved in and out of alleyways, she told me my father had gone into a partnership for a small diamond cutting business. He had even put some money together but was unable to follow through because he received the visa call to go to the United States. I was surprised to hear this because my father had never mentioned this to me. Also, because I realized that all he had been working towards had almost come true only for him to have to leave and start over again. I couldn’t help but think the timing couldn’t have been more perfect.
We arrived at a small alley and walked to the end of it. On the left side, a door to one person’s home was open. I peered into the home where one light dimly lit the small room where the people living there cooked, slept, and ate. Jyotsna Aunty pointed to the door across the alley and said that is where my parents used to live. The door was closed and locked as the occupants must have gone out for the day.
I clicked a few pictures for memory but spent more time taking in the sounds and sights. I could see a large temple towering behind the alleyway. A new temple, they told me, to honor Lord Shiva. I looked down the alleyway from the end where the communal bathroom was to see clothes pinned to lines and women peering out of their homes. I listened to the chattering close by and the honking of rickshaws in the distance.
As we walked out, Jyotsana Aunty told me that my mother and she had been closest to another friend. However, that friend had moved on. Their other friend’s husband was the one who was supposed to go into business with my father. However, after my father left, he continued with the business and ended up becoming a wealthy merchant. They now live in one of the most affluent flat complexes nearby. After being blessed with their newfound socioeconomic status, their other friend stopped communicating with them. There was a pause as I observed a sadness in her eyes.
As we walked back to her home, I listened to stories I had never heard before. In many ways, they weren’t what I expected to find, but to be honest, I didn’t know what I was looking for. I was struck with the rawness and honesty of my encounter with Jyotsana Aunty and her family. That evening after dinner, I felt grateful to have stood amidst the reality of her life and the life my parents lived before. As the sun went down and I boarded the train, I couldn't help but feel the distance of a thousand miles again, separating her life and mine.
That day, I was reminded of the depth of my ancestral roots, and how far I have yet to go to uncover the stories that in many ways, have led to where I and my current generation are today.