My thatha (grandfather) is sitting on the terrace of his apartment in Bangalore, India. It is morning there, nighttime here in Portland, Oregon, where I’m living with my parents, more than seven weeks into India’s nationwide lockdown, ten weeks since my university announced that classes were moving online and students had to depart campus. In Bangalore, no one can leave the house except to pick up essential groceries and medicine. A few days ago, Thatha left his apartment to get pills for a sudden outbreak of shingles. “It’s difficult to go through this during this pandemic,” he tells me in Kannada, “but so many more are suffering.” He misses the walks he used to take through the park with his four close friends, where they would exchange snippets from their favorite poems.
On the phone, Thatha is silent for a while, his breathing labored. “What do you see outside?” I ask him. “Ghostly, empty streets,” he says. “Police officers standing at each corner.” He asks me what I see. I’m sitting at the desk in my childhood bedroom, where I made my way through elementary, middle, and high school, the bookshelf filled with picture books and novels by Patricia Polacco and Enid Blyton.
As I begin to answer, I think about how I was supposed to be receiving my diploma on campus at Yale University this Monday, surrounded by my friends, and for a moment, I ache for the memories that will not be made, the photographs never taken. To distract myself, I ask Thatha about my mother’s undergraduate years at Lady Shri Ram College in New Delhi, a women’s liberal arts school. He pauses, then laughs, recalling the time she came home late from school with a scarf wrapped conspicuously around her head, afraid that her grandfather would not approve of her short haircut. Her grandfather heartened her that she could wear her hair in any way and he would still love her simply because she was his granddaughter. I laugh, too, a feeling of release passing through my body. Our merriment carries into our separate air, and for a moment, we are together in the space of the past.
As graduation approaches, my life has been filled with congratulatory video calls, but all I see is a still image. My mind is stuck on the final day before Spring Break, when my suitemates and I had dinner at Mecha Noodle on Crown Street in New Haven. We took a photo before we ate, our heads curving together over bowls of soup. It was the last time we saw one another, the last time we hugged.
One afternoon near the semester’s end, I am sitting with my mother at our dining table, steam wafting from our cups of Earl Grey. She takes out an old photo album, stops at a picture of her and her lecturers at Lady Shri Ram College, all clad in bright orange, blue, pink and red sarees. This was April of 1988, the final day of classes. My mother explains to me that she did not have a festive celebration, but simply gathered in the canteen with her classmates and lecturers to reminisce. My mother stands at the back left of the photo, looking down at the ground. “Without this picture,” she says softly, touching the photo’s edges, “I wouldn’t have a memory of the day I graduated.”
As is conventional for college students in India, my mother lived at home during her four years at Lady Shri Ram, her days following a predictable routine of classes and commuting. She remembers having a tight group of girlfriends with whom she would do “simple things,” like visit Connaught Place, a market teeming with stalls full of scarves and jewelry, or drink chai at one of their houses. “Our friendships were, we sat in classrooms together, we went to the canteen and talked.” She flips back in the photo album to a picture of herself and her girlfriends on a college outing to Tilyar Lake. “Did you keep in touch with the friends you made in those years?” I ask.
She smiles a quiet, sad smile. She has struggled to stay in contact with her Lady Shri Ram friends. “Looking at these pictures though,” she tells me, “it’s almost like I’m traveling back in time.”
At twenty-two, as she neared the end of her master’s program at Delhi University, my mother became engaged through an arranged marriage to my father, and prepared to enter a family she knew little about. “I was going into something I didn’t know. I didn’t know what the next day would hold,” she says. She was afraid of not fitting in with my father’s family and their way of life. “I gave up everything I knew.”
In early 1990, soon after marrying, my parents immigrated from Bangalore to Sydney, Australia, wanting to start their lives over. As my mother describes it, she and my father suddenly found themselves in a country experiencing a deep recession, utterly unfamiliar with the city or the culture. “I felt uprooted,” she says, lifting out a photo of herself in front of security at Sydney Airport. In it, she stares blankly ahead at the air, unsmiling. “It took me a long time to adjust. I’d never lived away from my parents. I started missing Indian food. I didn’t know where to get Indian groceries.”
In the past two months, I’ve felt suspended—physically stuck at home, and, in a larger sense, unable to move forward from my time at Yale. The days are repetitive, but time pulses forward, and, on Monday, May 18, at 8 a.m., bleary-eyed, I will wake and listen to President Salovey’s address and officially graduate from Yale. Though the past week has been crowded with events to remind seniors that we are, indeed, graduating, it is difficult to process this reality, because the chapter of my life on campus feels unfinished. When my residential college, Davenport, held its senior toast on Zoom, I felt adrift in a sea of familiar faces within their boxes. I listened to my Head of College’s kind words, his reassurance that these online events are merely markers of our graduation from Yale, not our final celebration. But despite the language about new beginnings, most of us are “moving on” but not moving.
In her essay “To Speak Is to Blunder,” Yiyun Li writes, “One crosses the border to become a new person. One finishes a manuscript and cuts off the characters. One adopts a language. These are false and forced frameworks, providing illusory freedom.” At my age my mother moved from one country to another, but she felt stuck upon arrival. “Those first few months in Australia, I was always thinking of the next time I could travel to Delhi and see my parents,” she says. Those months, she tells me, were so painful that she has never been able to talk about them. I notice she recounts her memories in English, not Kannada, and I wonder if using her second language offers her a kind of distance. She speaks in a calm and considered voice, as though she is talking about another person, a self whose experiences are not quite her own.
After giving birth to my sister in Sydney—a year before she and my father moved to the U.S., where I was born—my mother finally started feeling at home in her new life. Little things helped ease her sense of uprootedness. She bought a chabudai table at a local market, and though she didn’t know how to use it, she found its soft purple color inexplicably comforting. She started walking around the city every day with a group of other pregnant women, who became her friends. She spent weekends taking the train to neighboring suburbs, and one day signed up for a typing class at a local vocational school. She remembers the tea and biscuits that always sat on the counter in the school kitchen and the gentle voice of her teacher, Fay. “I thought I’d forgotten all this,” she says, her face brightening as though she is hearing her own stories for the first time.
When I first moved back home in March, I spoke with a concerned professor over the phone, and told him I was having trouble making meaning of everything that was happening. “You need distance to make meaning,” he said. “You need time.” I wonder if it is time that has shaped the chaos of my mother’s past into a story she is able to share with me now.
I am afraid of what I will forget. I am afraid that I will lose touch with my closest friends as we’ve been pushed prematurely apart. A friend and I both plan to move to Virginia in the fall, so we join a Zoom call for classmates planning to move to the region, but hang up after ten minutes of staring at unfamiliar faces. By text, my friend describes feelings I recognize. We seem different from who we were on campus—and also distant from who we used to be when we lived at home.
I imagine my mother at twenty-two, arriving at the Sydney Airport, staring at the stranger snapping a photo of her, unsure and afraid. I imagine her walking with a group of pregnant women in Sydney, women she has not kept in touch with but who nonetheless gave her a sense of purpose in this transitional period of her life. I think of the small, repetitive tasks that have pulled me through the last two months—walking with my high school friend, driving around the block and waving from behind my car window at my neighbors—and how unexpected people and places have become the tapestry of my final moments “in” college.
As immigrants, my parents are acquainted with the U.S. educational system only through my sister and me. Seeing me graduate from an American university today would have been a novelty for them. When they came to this country, my parents shared the hope that so many immigrants have for their children: that we would face fewer uncertainties than they had. For them, college graduation is the ultimate materialization of their efforts, a ceremonial confirmation that their difficult choice has paid off. That feeling of culmination deferred, they too are facing an array of emotions, struggling to find a sense of closure for themselves.
Late at night after talking with my grandfather in Bangalore about his life in lockdown there, I tiptoe downstairs to the living room. My mother and father are fast asleep. I pull the photo album from the shelf below the TV and flip to the picture of my mother in the Sydney Airport. I take it out of its slot. As I begin to see the arc of my mother’s life—a confusing transition that ultimately leads to this house where she raised two daughters and grew to middle age with the man who was once a stranger to her—I start to imagine the possible arc of mine. One day, far in the future, I may be telling my own daughter about this time, how, as a second-semester senior in college, I used to meander my childhood neighborhood’s streets for hours, lonely and restless, how I finished my college thesis in my childhood bedroom and graduated from my laptop screen. “Rarely does a story start where we wish it had, or end where we wish it would,” Li writes. But somewhere in all the chaos is a story, if we are given the time to see it.