The Pan Am flight was confirmed for the wee hours of May 19th, 1989. I discussed my pending future with Beeji, my paternal Grandmother, who raised me as her own daughter
“It is best for you,” Beeji reiterated every time. “It’s time you got to know your Daddy as not just a title, but as a father, and have a real family. America is your destination now,”
she clarified throughout the remainder of my days in Agra, Dayalbagh.
“Why? I’m happy here, with you. You’re like a mother and Darji is like a father. Bauji is like my sister and Tayaji…he’s like a big brother. My family is right here, I argued.”
“I’ll not be around forever. You’re going to need guidance throughout your teenage years. Those years are hard for a girl, you know. That’s when she needs a strong family.”
Beeji justified, but her words made no difference.
Beeji’s reasoning seemed feeble, though somewhere, in a small logical corner of my mind I understood her concern. But as often is the case, emotions rule logic—-I couldn’t see beyond my torn feelings. Dueling with split emotions, I had to convince myself that going to America wasn’t so bad after all. Perhaps it was my fate. Who knows what might be waiting for me across those deep oceans, I told myself. I beamed a futuristic smile, lined with dark sadness.
The much dreaded, gray morning of May 18th had finally arrived. The plan was for us to huddle up in a hired Tata van at 6:00 P.M., and start our three hour drive from Agra to Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport, for a 2:30 A.M. flight. Daddy had arranged for one of his friends to pick us up from the John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.
My final hours were retreating swiftly with last minute packing, and friends stopping by the house to say farewells. Beeji’s house was filled with chaos and commotion. Haze loomed over the atmosphere, foreshadowing the long impending night— it was my last evening at Beeji’s house for an indefinite amount of time; the only home I ever knew. I wished to freeze these last hours forever. Beeji had demonstrated remarkable composure until then, but that day she too looked ruined. I stole some moments from the oncoming dusk to spend with Beeji. I knew these last moments with her would always live within me, giving me the strength to go on.
The van stopped at the gate of Beeji’s house and waited for the entire family to squeeze in: Daddy, my stepmother Helena and her mother Bubby, my grandparents Darji and Beeji, my Dad’s older brother Tayaji, and their sister Bhuaji, Mummy, and my siblings, Rani, Neal, and Saara. Saara was afflicted with severe Cerebral Palsy, and required a bulky wheelchair-like stroller.
Tayaji and Bhuaji hustled to get the luggage locked and placed atop the rustic white van. Once everyone was crumpled into the vehicle, there was no elbow room. The van started with a weary groan, inching past my home. Gathering speed, it jerked over dirt roads and large pot holes, making my neighborhood a thing of the past. I bid my colony farewell, and then the town. The little chai shacks, the dirt road to river Yamuna, little tailor boutiques, fresh fruit and vegetable stands, and the boney untamed dogs, stray cats , and cows roaming the streets, soon became a memory.
It was a glum drive punctuated with sobs of dread. Beeji wept in silence cuddling me close.
“Beeba, you must eat well and take care of yourself,”
Beeji urged in a hoarse voice.
“I will, and you also. Don’t overexert yourself. Just sit and write letters to me. Lots and lots of letters, okay?”
I pleaded. Beeji hugged me closer, stroking my hair.
“My eyes are weak, but I’ll write… I also need to hear from you. Watch your eating habits,”
Beeji sounded faint.
With every roll of the van’s wheels, with every second passing, I was one step closer to departure. My heart sank. I earnestly prayed for something, just anything to happen, to slow down the roll of those wheels.
In Faridabad, a city between Agra and Delhi, the bumpy vehicle halted with a severe jolt. My uncle, Tayaji, and the navigator, got out to examine the situation.
“It’s a tire blowout,”
he announced. A smile lit my eyes. It was miraculous. My imploring prayers were heard.
It was a dark, deserted roadside with diesel trucks leaving clouds of pollution as they raged by. Tayaji and the driver pushed the van to the side of the busy road, and occupied themselves with changing the tire. There was no time to spare.
Beeji, Bhuaji and I were in dire need of a restroom. There was no such facility within sight. As is commonly done in India with long travel, we retreated behind the shielding tall grass and dense bushes.
It was a little past midnight by the time the van was on the road again. Bhuaji, who through it all remained calm and dignified, poured garam masala chai, from a thermos, and passed it around in little stainless steel cups, along with paneer pakoras. Beeji and I had no appetite. The hopeful spell, that I may be saved from my fate of leaving home, was rapidly vanishing. Bubby remained in her comfortable nook of the van snoring loudly through most of the drive. Darji stayed in a little corner, with a pillow behind him, adopting sleep as his companion for the majority of the trip. Tayaji kept the passenger seat and navigated for the driver.
The effulgent lights of Delhi illuminated the way, signaling our proximity to the airport. My heart pounded hard. This was it, I knew. An ill feeling crept over me, but I ignored it, and grabbed hold of Beeji passionately. This was the zenith of agony for Beeji and I, and Bhuaji too. I wished to rewind time, even if just for an hour, as long it I could freeze it right there. Now it was time to be valiant and ladylike, just like Beeji had always taught me.
“Beeji everything you’ve given me, I’m taking with me. I’ll use everything you taught me when time comes…I’ll always try to do the right thing,”