What Is Lost by Surya Milner

Emerging Writer Series

Every two weeks, I will be publishing an essay from an emerging writer. This week’s essay is “What is Lost” by Surya Milner. Surya is a writer currently living in Bozeman, Montana. She tweets irregularly @suryamilner.

This essay was edited by Meg Pillow.

My mother’s mother, Lalita, was a kind of shadow woman. Despite her central role in our family’s day-to-day operations in Bandra, a bustling middle-class neighborhood in Mumbai, I know very little about her. Her absence from our family narrative is striking, in great part because of the airtime we collectively bestow upon her husband, my grandfather Mangesh, a bird-nosed man who recorded sound for Bollywood and who went deaf building bombs for the Quit India movement in the years leading up to Partition.

It has been decades since my grandfather’s explosives torched British buildings, decades since he chided his wife for her love of ladoo, decades since he was diagnosed with kidney failure, decades since he died. When he did, my mother, bereft, decided to leave her family’s pistachio-green bungalow on Linking Road and found herself here, in a sunny place called Southern California. In my mother’s mind, her father’s memory is bright, constant, present, but Lalita’s memory has vanished. One September morning, when the month is still ripe and fresh with promise, I roll out of bed, plod downstairs, and rest my elbows on the kitchen table. I tell my mother that I want to understand who my grandmother was, why we never speak of her, and where that silence comes from.

She tells me she will think about it.

*

In the fall, when there is no fall in Southern California, I am still searching for Lalita, counting wispy grass on low-slung hills. There’s been a spate of “transracial” women exposed by media  outlets here and there—women who pretend to be a race that they are not—and despite the Black Lives Matter signs dotting every other lawn, here, as across America, some white women are pretending to be black. Racial grifters, some say. Ambling about the neighborhood—contemplating how much water it takes to paint this place green—I marvel at how suddenly a story can switch, how quickly a narrative can change.

My feed tells me that vice presidential candidate for the Democratic Party Kamala Harris is both Indian and Jamaican. This fact is fascinating to many people. Online, screen names argue about her authentic self. An Atlantic explainer titled “The Wikipedia War Over Kamala Harris’ Race” details the ways in which the compulsion to validate one family’s past can result in the tampering of history in hostile, ill-intentioned ways. This politics of representation—modulated by strangers on the internet who insert and delete biographical details of Harris’ life—feels beside the point. A fact is not always a way of knowing. Sometimes I pretend that it is as I seek to recollect and represent the thrust of my grandmother’s life.

The latent American obsession with ancestry begets the idea that the present is necessarily a continuous accumulation of the past. Hence the disdain for the racial grifters—their past does not meld seamlessly into their present. Hence, the squabbling over Harris’ true racial identity.

I wonder what it means to live truly, here, siloed at the bottom of a fuzzy taupe hill. These San Joaquin hills are bald lumps of golden brush rising out of verdant master plans, and when I look at them, I am struck by the lack of continuity that feels central to my position: After 23 years, I have returned to the southern California suburbs in which I was born, to this artificial greenery within dead, dry heat. 

The late South Indian poet Meena Alexander asks: For what is the present after all but a growth out of the past? For a first-generation immigrant like Alexander, or my mother, the present must be a direct continuation of her past, despite how irreconcilable the two might seem. It is difficult to cleave one’s life in two, though many try. Alexander likens the boundaries of place to those of time, evoking Walt Whitman: (As a projectile formed, impll’d, passing a certain line, keeps on). If we are all bullets blitzing across a blue sky, remembering the past might be a means of validating our present—as in this is what America used to be, which is why now we might ask for something better; or, this is where my family once lived, which is why my life assumes these contours. But this, I think, is separate from identity and from what I am trying to say here. 

Most days, I walk about the neighborhood, listening to radio shows and thinking about Lalita, dwelling in her absence, mostly, contemplating her life’s unknowns. I wonder if, as a girl, she even wanted to marry; I wonder about the contours of her daily meditations while stepping through Bandra’s loud streets and banyan trees.

In early October, when the air is quiet and heavy, I stream a program about casteist discrimination in San Jose, several hours north of me. The subjects of the show are men and women from India, engineers mostly, who came to the United States from India decades ago; they hide their low-caste backgrounds from co-workers who still unwittingly and wittingly berate, smear, or shun them because they were born to Dalit parents, those who were slung so low in India’s caste system that they are effectually outside of it. There’s an ongoing lawsuit now being leveraged by the state of California against Cisco Systems for caste-based discrimination.

The show hosts speak to a Brahmin American man named Maltik, who calls his mother in India. 

“Maltik has been trying to get his mother to acknowledge that he is no longer a Brahmin,” the show host tells us. “It’s this thing that he inherited from her and from all of her ancestors.” 

I’ve been trying to parse out Maltik’s dilemma in my own terms, which is tangled up in the feasibility of casting off privilege though not, perhaps, family history. Can I separate the two? I return to Arundhati Roy’s writing on caste Hinduism, which maintains that now the caste system is up for export. Wherever Hindus go, they take it with them. I suppose this is what my mother sought to leave behind when she immigrated to the United States, renounced Hinduism along with her high-caste background, and married my father, an optics engineer from Denver, Colorado.

Perhaps her efforts were futile. I have been wrestling with Roy’s belief that there is a quotient of Brahminism in everybody, regardless of which caste they belong to … Brahminism makes it impossible to draw a clear line between victims and oppressors. It’s difficult, trying to discern where all those lines end and mine begin. Though I resent the impulse to delineate power within the scope of a single person, it feels urgent to try.

I didn’t know my grandmother’s name until two years ago. I only knew the name Lalita in the context of #4Lalita#4, an old password on my mother’s computer. When I ask about her, I’m met with silence, as if the name itself has grown unfamiliar with disuse, like worn running shoes in a cardboard box, stashed and forgotten.

This is the space I am trying to fill: between what was and what is, between one nation’s injustice and another’s, between what we lose and what we keep. This preoccupation with ancestry and lineage as a means of validating my borderless identities seems doomed, and yet I try:I’ve been treading water, failing to reach that distant shore of memory. The problem: I’m not sure what I’m trying to remember.

*

For now I am, as I said, searching for my grandmother. Here’s what I have so far:

At nineteen, she sat barelegged against the balcony rails, watching the likes of Gandhi and Nehru patronize the sidewalks of Linking Road. It was pre-partition Mumbai. She was the oldest of three sisters, daughters of dominant caste Hindus: a lawyer and a clerk.

In 1952 she got up from the rails and studied for her degree in general education from a women’s college. After a stint as a bank teller, her family arranged for her to marry a man by the name of Mangesh Desai, an orphan-turned-chemist-turned-sound engineer. She became a mother, which she remained for the rest of her life.

My own mother has given some of these factoids to me, but she is ultimately reticent, telling me she needs ‘time’ to remember. She never does, and I don’t press. But I imagine Lalita much like my mother’s embodiment, three continents removed: feet planted by the kitchen counter or shuffling outside to the garden to pick rosemary. Backbone of the family, she is, though she would never say so. 

On an abbreviated autumn day in mid-October, I call Lalita’s sister, Aruna, who lives in Phoenix. I say, hi Aruna Mavshi, ask her if she can tell me something about my grandma. She gives me a lot of empty generalities, about how she has nothing bad to say about her because she was really a nice woman. And then she says:

She was a very gentle person, she was very helpful,

she was very kindhearted. That I know. She never talked back

to people. She never opened up about how she felt about certain things. She was not a bad mom. And she would get scared of every little thing. 

Say that again?

It runs in our family; we get scared of everything.

If there was a cockroach downstairs, she would run upstairs.

Really?

She would just get emotional as to what would happen. She didn’t like hospitals, she didn’t like doctors. I think she was just afraid. But basically—I don’t have anything bad to say about her.

That’s good.

Why?

What?

If anyone wants to say anything bad about her, I will get really upset.

Oh. I don’t want to say anything bad about her.

I just want to know what she was like.

After the call, I thumb over to Whatsapp. My signal is wavering when I dial Lalita’s other sister, Gigi. It’s morning in Pune, a sprawling city just south of Mumbai. I’ve just been trying to grasp a sense of who she was, I tell her, and I’m wondering if you might be able to help me.

Like Aruna, she says:

She was really a good person. Actually we all are. Don’t you think?

Sure.

We used to suffer, but still… we would forget.

The conversation patters on, and I am left with more of these hand-waving explanations of how she was a sweet, perfectly kind woman, wouldn’t hurt a fly, brought tea in tiffins to her daughters and their friends during exams. Anecdotes about her timidity—her fright at letting the children use the oven, or, in the final years of her life, of visiting the corner store.

*

I suppose I am looking to see if Spivak was right when she said that the subaltern cannot speak. The words subaltern has come to stand in for all oppressed groups, and despite Spivak’s later insistence that her point was not to say that they couldn’t speak, but that, when someone did try to do something different, it could not be acknowledged because there was no institutional validation, her words have nevertheless made a wedge in my mind. Subaltern means without voice. Subaltern means that even with a voice, nobody can hear you.

When Spivak wrote her foundational work “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, she was in some ways speaking to the story of her grandmother’s sister, Bhubaneswari, a widow who burned atop her husband’s funeral pyre in the Hindu custom of sati. So while Spivak’s they refers to satis in particular—women whose lives begin and end with their male counterparts—she is also referring to the subaltern woman as an archetype, a woman who has little say over her own existence, even in death.

Lalita was not a sati, but she was a widow, and a woman whose light died out not with fire, but with water. Fifteen years after Mangesh’s death, she went for a shower one morning, and it was there that she simply collapsed.

Was my grandmother subaltern? I suppose the answer might depend on one’s definition of the word, or one’s vantage point. If so, the question becomes can she speak? More often, I wonder what will she say when she does? and did I show up too late?

*

Weeks after our call, Gigi Mavshi beams me a series of three photographs: one of Mangesh with my mother and aunt, one of Mangesh behind the mixer, and a bleary one, of Mangesh next to a woman I can’t identify. I type:

Who’s that?

That’s Bha with Lata Mangeshkar.

I didn’t know he knew her.

Didn’t your mother ever tell you that Bha was a world-famous personality?

Of course, she did. He was the “sound man,” the one in the movie, the one who could “make silence sing.” It was Lalita whose life was perpetually shrouded: in time, half-truths, niceties.

It wasn’t surprising, this subtle shift in representation that, almost invariably, eclipses what came before.

*

When the Santa Ana winds start picking up, I come into possession of a photo, black and white and worn. It’s Lalita in a sari, legs crossed, donning glasses without the frames. She is serious here, intent, sitting on a concrete bench against a gunmetal backdrop. Her pallu cascades into colors behind her shoulders, though I can’t make out its shades from the grey. I keep the photo with me, wishing there were more.

But there are not, and I have begun to accept my inability to conjure a whole person from my mother’s long silences, my great-aunts’ reputational restraints. I turn to other fictions, stories that make the day-to-day a little less painful, marginally less confused. 

In my religion, father figures eclipsed the mothers. The ultimate Father lived in the high school gym we called church. He was the animus of our prayers: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

I had a real father—beside me, head bowed in consternation—and a real mother, too. But all of us with feet planted on the linoleum floors, all those Sundays, saw the immovable hand of another Father, one who was unknowable and yet counted more than the rest. After Sunday school, hanging around the outdoor track, I planted two feet within the crisp grass oval, feeling something like awe: diminishment, transcendence. A great gulf between me, a small brown speck, and Him, the whole sky. There were few mothers in this fiction, but mine would soon appear beside me, clasp my palms, and lead me to the parking lot. 

The old testament told me the story of Lot’s wife, which I understood as a lesson of the dangers in looking back. Lot’s wife—who goes unnamed in the Bible, though she appears as Edith in Judaic texts—flees the fallen kingdom of Sodom when, against orders, she turns to steal a glance. Today, Lot’s wife still stands, a pillar of rock salt above the Dead Sea.

Perhaps it’s better to look forward. The Hindu mother goddess Kali derives her name from the Sanskrit word for time, as in, the beginning and the end; as in, something so massive as to mean nothing—or perhaps, everything.

I have been preoccupied for some time with Kali’s image: fire on her lips and blood on her hands. She dances over the corpse of her husband, Shiva, her eyes alight with hunger, her skin a cerulean blue. My family’s neighborhood temple in Mumbai is like a stop and shop for dutiful Hindus, constantly streaming in and out, from which they worship the three main incarnations of Goddess Parvati, Lord Shiva’s wife: Lakshmi—wealth, Sarasvati—knowledge, and Kali—the eventual triumph of good over evil.

Though Kali embodies the concept of time, it is time that has obscured her origins. She can be traced to the Dravidians, the original inhabitants of the Indus Valley. When the Aryans invaded, a clash of religious practice meant that the idea of the mother goddess—progenitor of Kali—was met with resistance, though she was eventually adopted into the Hindu pantheon. Image-driven devotion, which you could call idols, existed in India before the Aryan invasion; it was a practice, like many others, that the new Hindus adopted, humans meeting themselves in newfangled forms.

I sometimes imagine Lalita as a patron of the temple, praying every morning to Kali, among the others. I wonder if she felt a great gulf, too, between herself and her object of adulation. I wonder if, because Kali is both woman and mother, Lalita ever superimposed her life onto that of the goddess, or if her motherhood was more a yielding than a choice.

*

There’s a set of golden records that once belonged to my grandfather Mangesh, adulatory discs for his contributions to Bollywood. Last spring, at a movie theater in Austin, Texas, my mother’s family placed them all on a table, leaned in, and posed for a photograph.

We had gathered in honor of my grandfather’s biopic. He had passed nearly two decades prior, but now his life was resurrected in real time on the big screen. There he was, pressed against the mixing machine; recording the sounds of trains and horse buggies; smuggling pistols in the Goan fish markets. I can list many things about him without ever having known him. He was slight of stature with a large temper. He produced audio in movies for people like V Shantaram, Satyajit Ray, and Raj Kapoor, movies like Sholay, Paakeezah, Meera Naam Joker. He resisted the British. Before that, he came of age in a backwater Maharashtrian village by the name of Kolhapur. He married Lalita, whom the biopic didn’t mention, didn’t even say her name. He had three children, one of whom I call Mom.

I collect these factoids like rare pennies, though they are no measure of a life. They are, however, more than a single photo, more than a handful of memories shared by distant aunties, more than absence, more than void.