By Sivani Babu
Grand Prize Bronze Winner in the Thirteenth Annual Solas Awards
We push through a sea of people and cows, the dust and smog swirling red and heavy, giving the scene around us the hazy air of a vintage photograph. A calf chews languidly on a banana as flies buzz around its head. We walk down the street as the tinny sound of temple music floats by and the aromas of everyday life assault our senses: fruits, spices, incense, the musk of oxen, diesel, smoke. Nearly two decades have passed since I last walked KVR Swamy Road, but I still remember the childhood admonitions to keep the dust down by not dragging my feet. I laugh. A drop in the bucket, I think to myself, but I make sure to pick my feet up anyway, hopping, jumping, leaping over puddles and pungent piles of cow manure.
I hold my memories close. I’ve missed this place. It was such a significant part of my childhood that it is hard to believe I have gone so long without returning. Emotions, like humming birds, flit around, constantly changing directions. I am excited to see my uncles again after all these years. I am nervous to meet their wives and children. I am curious to see how the place has changed. And I am hopeful that it hasn’t really changed at all — that the memories, some long forgotten, will still be there, waiting for me.
My parents and I, flanked by my uncles, arrive at a small wooden door. Has that always been there?
One of my uncles opens the narrow door, revealing a private alleyway that separates two buildings. Shafts of sunlight flood the space between the structures as gray water trickles through a narrow drainage canal that runs the length of the alley. I stoop down, step through the door, and slip off my shoes, the feel of cool cement on my bare feet plunging me into a memory.
~ ~ ~
Thwap, thwap, thwap, thwap. I was six years old and running across the room, trying to see how loudly I could slap my feet against the concrete floor. The sound was captivating — a novelty compared to my carpeted existence back home in California.
Outside, the heat was fierce, the sun: relentless. Rickshaws, bicycle bells, car horns, and the mooing of cows all mingled in the familiar symphony that I’d come to associate with summers in Rajahmundry, India.
Thwap, thwap, thwap.
“Nimadhee!” — gently — my mom chided as I ran by, lapsing into her mother tongue, a language she seldom spoke at home.
I slowed and softened my steps for a moment — just long enough for her to return to the conversation she was having with her brothers and sisters. Then, buoyed by their raucous laughter at my back, I was off again, slapping away at full speed. I joined my cousins on the terrace, our own laughter blending with the chorus as we peered over the terrace wall and gazed down at the scene below: men on motorbikes dodging rickshaws and cyclists; women on foot balancing woven baskets atop their heads. I watched the baskets full of eggplant and mangos, squash and sapota go by.
The house on KVR Swamy Road didn’t look like a house — at least not like the houses I knew. I was a child of California’s Central Coast. Aside from the homes of my friends, which were a lot like my own, the only house I really knew was the stucco structure with the red tiled roof and fruit trees in the yard where the scent of the Pacific lingered on a westerly breeze. The floors were carpeted, the walls of my bedroom were papered with delicate purple butterflies and posters of Magic Johnson, and the only people who lived there were my parents, my siblings, and me.
But the house on KVR Swamy Road was different. It was actually three concrete, whitewashed houses bought over several years. The individual buildings were connected on the lower levels in certain places, but by the third floor — the top floor — the buildings were separate. The ground floor held my Thatha’s — my grandfather’s — print shop, and the family, immediate and extended, lived in the sixty-two rooms above, sharing one kitchen, one dining room, and a handful of squatty potties.
After marrying my mom, my dad jokingly started calling the house Kothaval Chavadi after the famous wholesale vegetable market that supplied produce to millions of people in Madras. The house was never quiet. It was always bursting with people, not just family, but also friends, employees, and business associates. No one ever knew who was supposed to be in the house and who wasn’t, so the assumption was that everyone belonged. Anybody could wander in off the street, and as long as they didn’t act shifty, they’d be served a full meal and treated like the old friend they just might be.
We were the only part of the family in the United States, so during the summer, my mom would take me and my siblings to Rajahmundry and we’d stay with family in the house that looked nothing like a house but that was undoubtedly a home.
~ ~ ~
More than fifteen years after my last childhood visit, I stand in a shaft of sunlight between the buildings and look around. The din outside the narrow door fades away. I was nine the last time I’d stood in this alley. After my grandparents died, my mom had stopped bringing us back here. Most of the doors are closed. The alley is silent. I take a few steps. I want so badly for them to take me back in time. Instead, they take me to my great aunt’s room, to a woman I’ve always called “Big Ammamma” — Big Grandma.
I remember her as a woman of stature — a woman who towered over everyone, but she no longer towers over me. She’s been hunched by age, and also, I am not nine years old anymore. My five-foot seven-inch frame means that few people in India tower over me these days. But it is more than her height that has changed. She is quieter. Her voice shakier. Her presence more delicate.
“Ela unnaru?” How are you? I ask her in stilted Telegu, my words rusty from decades of disuse.
She laughs at my attempt, pulls me in and kisses my cheek, and then promptly asks me when I’m getting married.
On a solo trip to India, my dad once told his entire family that I was engaged (I wasn’t) just so he could avoid having a similar conversation. I briefly consider taking a page from his book. He’s standing behind me and I’m certain he would back my play, but my mom is standing next to me, and she would never approve.
“We’ll see,” I say, and the conversation immediately comes to a lull.
I look around the room and then out to the alley and the closed door across the way. Something feels off. And the only thing that is familiar is the scent of coconut oil in Big Ammamma’s hair.
~ ~ ~
The whirs, bangs, and whooshes of the enormous printing presses reverberated off the concrete walls. I sat with Thatha in his office as he worked, the scent of tobacco and cloves drifting from his clothes. I’d made a habit of throwing out his cigarettes when he wasn’t looking.
“You shouldn’t smoke,” I would say to him, filled with the indignance of a child.
“A’unu, Amma,” — yes, Mom — he would say, smiling, his glimmering eyes framed by the thick, black rims of his glasses. He never got angry and never complained, but he didn’t quit either.
I’d been his tiny shadow all day long, splashing around as he filled barrels in the morning when the water came on for an hour, following him as he introduced me — his “granddaughter from America” — to some of the shop owners next door, sitting across from him as he taught me to play chess, and tagging along as he went down to the print shop.
Kalahasti, Thamma Rao & Sons had been in the book publishing business since 1882 and was steeped in history. Thatha and his brothers inherited the business from their father and in the 1940s, as India moved toward independence, the family had taken great risks to print and distribute contraband, pro-independence literature. As the story went, they’d printed the contraband in broad daylight and at night, they’d caught up on their normal publishing jobs. The only thing more surprising than the brazenness of the operation was that it had been successful. The British only ever became suspicious at night and their nighttime raids proved fruitless.
A history of revolution was fine and good, but at six years old, I really just wanted to play with the printing presses. And even when he should have, Thatha never really said no to me.
Work stopped as he picked me up and stood me on a stool. There was an organized box of typeset letters in front of me. I had watched the machine and the men who ran it all morning long. I knew what to do. I grabbed a handful of letters and set them into the printing press. My spoken Telegu was decent — honed out of necessity during these summer trips — but my ability to read it was nonexistent. I set complete gibberish and then, with Thatha’s help, pulled a lever to ink and print it. It didn’t matter that I had printed nonsense. I had a Cheshire cat grin on my face, and so did Thatha.
~ ~ ~
Now, as an adult, I am back in the house, still trying to get my bearings. Where was the kitchen where we’d heated water on the stove for early morning bucket baths? Where was the dining room where I’d begged to sit on the floor and eat with the adults?
“Where was the print shop and Thatha’s office?” I ask Thamma Rao Uncle, one of my mom’s five brothers.
“It is no more.”
I know what that means. The print shop was destroyed several years prior when the government demolished part of the building to widen the street.
“Is there anything left?” I ask, wondering if there might be books or a small piece of machinery that I could take back with me. I know the answer, but I am still saddened when another uncle, Dharma Rao, confirms it.
I try to hide my disappointment but am unsuccessful.
“Chustanu. For you, I will look,” Dharma Rao Uncle offers.
I thank him, and I know that he will look, but I suspect there is nothing left to find.
~ ~ ~
The town had grown dark and all of the oil lamps in the house had been extinguished. We’d wiled the hours away playing cards and carom board, laughter filling the night until it was well past bed time. Thatha had set up a row of cots on the terrace for all of the kids and I climbed into mine. Blanketed by the sweet scent of jasmine and camphor, I counted shooting stars, wishing on each of them as they passed overhead until I fell asleep.
~ ~ ~
“What about the terrace?” I ask my mom, who in turn asks her brother.
I am desperate after all these years to find something that feels familiar and so many of my memories are tied to that terrace: nights under the stars, my uncles hammering a giant block of ice into small pieces to fill the cooler of bottled water and Thums Up cola that they’d bought for our visit; sewing fresh flowers into sweet-smelling, colorful garlands; flying kites in the afternoon swelter, their neon colors shimmering in the heat as the concrete scorched the soles of my bare feet.
I look hopefully at my uncle and he gives me the head nod, the one that simultaneously combines the nod for yes with the shake for no and means whatever you want it to mean. I would laugh, except that I need to know the answer.
“No. You can see where it was from the roof, but we cannot go up. It is locked.” He explains that the terrace was gone and though it is possible to see where it was, they no longer have access to that part of the house. It does not belong to them. After my grandparents died, it passed to a member of the extended family who keeps it locked and keeps people out.
I sigh and look at my hands in my lap. Eshwar Rao, my youngest uncle, stands abruptly and leaves the room. I wonder where he is going, but I sit and listen as the conversation moves on and then dies. This silence, too, is strange and unfamiliar.
Why had I thought that after nearly two decades, the memories would still be here?
When he returns to the room, Eshwar Rao Uncle has a key in his hand.
“Come with me,” he says.
I stand and follow him up a narrow staircase. As we near the top, the staircase turns and there is a drop in the ceiling.
“Watch your –” he starts to say, but he is too late.
I smack my head against the concrete, stumbling as bright golden dots swarm my vision like bumble bees. I blink a few times then reach up and rub my forehead, pleased to see my hand come away with only a dusting of chalky whitewash rather than a smear of blood. I’d never had to duck as a kid.
Eshwar Rao Uncle cringes and hisses. “Are you okay?” he asks.
I am and we keep going.
I follow him up the remainder of the stairs and then down a walkway past more closed doors. Something is nagging at me. We reach another door and I watch silently as he slips the key into the heavy metal padlock. Something is still bugging me.
We step out onto the roof.
“There,” he points. When I follow his gaze, I find a brand-new building — one I’ve never seen before.
The key is still dangling in Eshwar Rao Uncle’s hand and I finally realize what has been bothering me.
There are no doors in my memories of the house on KVR Swamy Road. They were there, I’m sure, but no one ever closed them and so it was as if they didn’t exist. The closed doors came later — after Thatha, the last of the family’s true patriarchs, had died; after Kalahasti, Thamma Rao & Sons had fractured and splintered; after the buildings had been divided among quarreling extended family members; and after the government had demolished so much of the home to widen the road below. That had been the final blow. They’d sheared off half of the house and left the building unfinished — half-destroyed rooms open to the street, allowing the memories to escape until they were gone just like the terrace where I’d once slept under a canvas of night that smoldered with embers from millions of miles ago.
How, I wonder, could there be nothing left?
I want to cry.
I want to hug Thatha.
“Will you come to our home?”
The voice surprises me. It belongs to Dharma Rao Uncle’s oldest daughter. A teenage girl who I’ve only just met. She skipped school to spend time with me, her cousin from America, and I have welcomed her company throughout the day. While my once boisterous uncles have grown quiet with age and haven’t said much, she has filled the void created by their silence and I am grateful for that. I hadn’t noticed, but she had followed Eshwar Rao Uncle and me up to the roof, as had her parents, I realize. They all look at me expectantly.
“Of course,” I say, turning back toward the door and the walkway and the stairs. Their home is in the building next door.
“We will go this way,” my uncle says, stopping me midstride and gesturing across the alley as I turn toward him. “Like when you were small.”
I follow him across the roof.
I’ve spent the entire day looking for parts of the house that feel familiar. I’d wanted to see the places and people that had made my early stays in India as important as they were. I’d wanted to see things that reminded me of my grandfather — to linger in the life of a man whose impact on me was disproportionately larger than the amount of time I spent with him before he died. I’d wanted to gather those memories like flowers and press them between the pages of my mind — to take them with me.
But there was, it seemed, nothing to gather. Thatha was gone. When I was nine, he’d suffered a stroke while my family and I were in the air, returning from what would be our last summer visit. My grandmother had followed shortly after. The house had been irretrievably changed after that. The people, too, in so many ways. And I was no longer a dewy-eyed child. But I’d carried this place with me. I’d slept under the stars in Death Valley and remembered those nights on the terrace. I’d studied the game of chess, finding beauty in the strategy and growing into an accomplished young chess player, and remembered those early lessons. And I’d opened brand new books, breathing in the scent of ink on paper, running my fingers over gold-stamped bindings and elegant typography, and remembered my grandfather.
Maybe that was the point.
I look over at Dharma Rao Uncle standing on the roof and remember how I had used him as a human jungle gym in my youth. I smile at the memory and listen. I hear the laughter that once bounded off of the concrete walls and floors, and I smell the faint scents of jasmine and camphor, of tobacco and cloves. I slap my feet against the concrete, grinning as we near the edge of the roof. How many times had I taken this route between buildings as a child? Dozens? Hundreds? I take one quick glance down at the alley several stories below.
And then, just as I had so many times before, I leap.
Sivani Babu is the co-founder and creative director of Hidden Compass. She is an award-winning nature photographer and travel writer whose work has appeared on BBC Travel and CNN, as well as in Backpacker, Outdoor Photographer, Iron Horse Literary Review, and Expressions, the North American Nature Photography Association’s annual showcase of the best nature images. Her photos have been displayed in galleries and exhibits around the world. Sivani graduated from the University of Chicago and served as a Teach for America corps member before attending the University of Pennsylvania Law School, but her love of adventure and storytelling (and her diminished sense of self-preservation) ultimately took her away from a career as a federal public defender and sent her sailing to Antarctica, chasing storms through Tornado Alley, exploring the remote Yukon Territory in winter on crutches, and road tripping across the U.S. with her septuagenarian former high school speech and debate coach.