My father has his own language for everything. A friend of a friend is a FOF. A suitcase is a rolly-polly. When I finished my MFA, I was a NINJA: No Income, No Job, No Assets. The tree in his and my mother’s front yard, he points out to me as we walk, is called M-Squared, because it’s either a maple or a magnolia, he’s not sure which. Growing up in the South, I used to see this bumper sticker everywhere: ‘I can do all things through Jesus Christ who Strengthens Me.’ One day in high school, I went out to my dad’s car and saw that he had made his own bumper sticker. It said: ‘I can do all things through Lord Venkateswara who Strengthens Me.’ My dad moved to Atlanta twenty-nine years ago with one suitcase, and began to name the new things he saw, and press himself into this life, and a world sprang up around him.
Two years ago, I put my things in a storage unit a subway ride away from where I’d been living in Brooklyn and took a suitcase with me to Rome, Georgia, where I planned to write. I had gone through a break-up and was trying unsuccessfully to finish a draft of a book. Leaving New York seemed like a good idea. After two months, I thought, I’d go back and begin my life.
But after Rome and back in New York again, I ended up moving fifteen more times. On the first of almost every month for two years, I carried my suitcase up several flights of stairs to a new apartment, and then carried it down thirty days later and lugged it up a new flight of stairs. I couldn’t bring myself to sign a lease – to commit to New York, my old life, for more than a month at a time – until it felt like home again, the place I should be forever. I don’t know what I was waiting for – some feeling of warmth, some feeling of being necessary. As soon as New York felt like that place, I would unpack. Each time it didn’t, I moved.
Finally, on Christmas, I found myself back in my parents’ carpeted house in Atlanta. This hadn’t been my plan. As I lugged my suitcase up the most familiar staircase, I imagined my dad asking me to tell him how many steps there were. ‘Thirty-nine,’ he’d say, and then ask if that was a movie, The 39 Steps, as he does every time he sees me walk up these stairs. In trying to find a home, I’d somehow ended up in my childhood bed, falling asleep next to a Gone with the Wind poster.
My first weeks back in Atlanta, I take walks with my dad around the country club that borders my parents’ neighborhood. My mother’s at a wedding in India. When my dad walks, he walks with a big stick because he’s scared of dogs. The houses here are a mix of Georgian, Tudor, neoclassical homes with sprawling lawns and dogs that bark at us from the edges. We pass by women in visors, speed-walking in pairs.
As we walk, we discuss writing books. My dad says, ‘Nothing could be harder,’ and talks about all the times he’s tried to start his book. When we get home, he opens up his laptop at the kitchen table, to get started again.
He’s a business school professor and has always had two book ideas – one is a finance self-help book. The second is a novel that involves a fictional plot about Chelsea Clinton. A few years ago, my dad said that his dream had always been to write a book by the age of sixty. He said this two days before he turned sixty. So that weekend, we began to co-write the first book. We’re at ten pages.
After typing a few words, my dad closes his laptop. He says he knows now what he wants printed on his tombstone: ‘Despite publishing, he perished.’
Over the next weeks, I take my dad’s car and drive past Chick-fil-As, and trees that end in kudzu, to look at apartments that are mainly carpeted and cat-filled. When I introduce myself as Kalpana, Southerners hear Coconut. One landlord calls me Carpet. My parents say that when I was five and they sent me to Montessori school, I stood in the corner and cried because I only knew Tamil. No one understood me, and I couldn’t understand anyone. My mother had to write out the Tamil words for food and bathroom, so that my teachers could speak to me. The South still feels like that sometimes – a universe made up of a completely different language.
One day, I get lost in the Kroger parking lot. I click on the remote control and my dad’s car beeps in front of me. Confused, I walk in the opposite direction. A man with a kind smile shakes his head at me and says, ‘Bless your heart.’
My plan for January – to get a car, apartment, and write – is not working. I’m unable to find an apartment that I like, or a car. Because there’s nowhere to walk to, except past all my parents’ neighbors to the end of the cul-de-sac, I stay inside the house most days.
One morning, my boxes arrive from the storage unit. Sitting on my parents’ basement floor, I open some of the smaller boxes and tear up. When I was moving, I kept a few paperbacks with me, but I haven’t seen most of my books since I went to Rome. I feel more at home, here, than I’ve felt anywhere in the past two years. I pull out my OED. I can’t find the magnifying glass to read the small print, so I flip through its pages. I find three yellowed papers tucked inside that I’d forgotten about.
They’re my dad’s vocab lists, from when he was twenty and in Madras, learning English for the GRE. The sheets are beige and tissue-paper thin, and in his messy blue cursive are columns of words. The lists are arbitrary and extraordinary. He defines ‘libidinous, lascivious, lubricous, licentious, lewd, lustful and prurient’ all as ‘sexy’. He has a French section, and carefully writes out the pronunciation of each word. Ennui: on-wee, bon vivant: boe-vivah.
While I was still living in New York, he and my mother visited me, and we saw a Broadway show, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. In the lobby, attendants asked for audience participants. My dad has always wanted to be a stand-up comedian, and immediately went over and filled out a form. Of all the volunteers, my dad was selected. It’s set up so that the audience member goes up on stage and spells a word right in the first round. Then in the next round, they’re given an extremely difficult word, eliminated and asked to head back to their seat. But my father kept spelling words like ‘dengue’ correctly. After three rounds like this, they still couldn’t eliminate him.
After each win, the cast linked arms with my dad and danced in a circle. My dad jumped up and down during each circle dance. The actors could hardly hang onto him, he leapt so high with such joy.
In the next round, they asked him to spell ‘meeshevoshop’. This time, my dad spelled the word wrong. As my dad returned to his seat, the announcer admitted it was a made-up word, because that was the only way to have the show continue on schedule. The crowd couldn’t stop clapping as he sat down.
That night, home from work, my dad sips from a minigoblet of red wine and opens up the book of songs that accompany his India-bought karaoke machine.
Sitting on the couch, he enters the number for ‘Bol Radha Bol’, the old Hindi film song that’s always his first pick. As the opening chord plays, my dad opens and closes his left hand while his right hand grips the mic. Slightly shaking his head and his shoulders, he sings in the most earnest and hopeful voice, begging Radha to speak. Tell Radha tell, will this meeting of two rivers happen or not? / My mind Ganges, and your Jamuna mind, will they merge? In the car, he sings along occasionally to the Beatles or Maroon 5, but it’s when he’s singing ‘Bol Radha Bol’ that he’s his most passionate, that he has every word memorized. The karaoke machine, as if wanting to reward his knowledge, his loyalty, gives him a score of 97. I sing my best ‘Uptown Girl’ while a black-and-white photo of the Brooklyn Bridge sits on the screen. It gives me a 45.
A few years ago, friends of mine got married in Atlanta and had karaoke at their reception. When my dad found out they had his favorite song, ‘American Pie’, he added his name to the list. Usually when ‘American Pie’ plays on his mix CD, he sings, ‘A long long time ago,’ and then hums the rest of the song, because he doesn’t know the words. That night, my friends’ friends – FOFs – watched an Indian man in a suit sing every single word to ‘American Pie’ in the slowest, most sincere, effortful voice. With the words on the screen before him, he sang each syllable with perfect precision, enunciation, until eventually the DJs had to cut him off because ‘American Pie’ is eight minutes long.
Another time I watched him perform before a crowd was after he got voted Teacher of the Year by his students, which happens frequently. He went on stage, and instead of giving a thank you speech, my father said, ‘Let’s recite the Eight Words.’ Together, he and his executive MBA students chanted, ‘Dream Big, Work Hard, Learn Constantly, Enjoy Life.’ These are his favorite eight words, which he’s always asking me and my sister to repeat, and which we can never remember. Newt Gingrich’s daughter introduced these words to the world in a book she co-wrote with her father. My father’s a liberal, but he’s open to anyone having something good to say.
Over the next weeks, I read, I start to leave the house more. One rainy afternoon, a friend picks me up, and we go to the mall I used to hang out at in high school to see a movie. It’s sold out. We end up wandering into a Build-A-Bear store, where you select a fur, accessories and a scent, and take these different parts over to a machine to be ‘built’. We watch a kid watching rapturously as the machine aggressively stuffs a limp gray cloth with feathers, until it puffs up into an elephant. We drink at the dank, restaurant bar on the main floor and begin to write out on a napkin a story about an Indian girl and her elephant. For a moment, being in my hometown feels unfamiliar, a surprising remix.
At home, my father takes my mother’s yellow sari and begins to wrap it around himself, telling me and my sister that we need to know how to wear a sari, and that he can teach us. He ends up tangled in the folds of chiffon. When we ask who his favorite daughter is, he says, after thinking on it, ‘You’re like my eyes. I need both of you.’ When I say sorry for not doing the dishes one morning, he sings, ‘It’s too late, baby,’ then asks me if that’s a song. Eating peas, he tells me that peas are his favorite food because a hundred peas only have one calorie.
At the dinner table with my mom and dad one night, I begin to weep.
‘What?’ they both ask.
‘I don’t want you to die,’ I say.
My mom reaches out and touches my wrist.
‘We’ve lived good lives. We have everything we want,’ she says.
‘That makes it sound like you’re going to die,’ I say, crying.
There’s a pause.
‘Okay Kalpana, we won’t die,’ my dad says, realizing what I need to hear.
The next day, I carry my suitcase out. I’m going back to Rome, Georgia, to the same house I went to two years ago.
I think of my dad coming to the States in the early 1980s with one suitcase. My mother came over the next year, carrying a three-month-old me. My dad says he was scared, riding the New York subway for the first time to collect us at JFK. At baggage claim, he picked up his wife and her suitcase, and I met him, and he met me.
I think of my dad landing in Delhi twenty-five years later. His brother had called the day before to say their father was sick. My dad couldn’t get on the same-day flight, so he went the next day. When he landed at 10 p.m., he ran to baggage claim and met his brother at Immigrations. His brother told him that their father had died at 9:15 p.m. The two rode down empty roads, past sleeping cows and scrawny dogs, to the hospital, but it had closed for the night.
At 5 a.m. the next morning, they brought their father’s body home, and my father’s sister bathed and dressed him in a veshti while a priest performed a puja in front of a small flame. Embers from the fire were placed in a pot, which my father carried. That afternoon, the three brothers rode over to a cremation site in a mini-van, their father laid out between them, bare-chested except for a thin white thread that strapped from his shoulder to his hip. At the site, their father was placed on top of a stack of wood, and ghee was poured on his body. My father, as first-born son, took a stick out of the pot of embers he held and touched the stick to his father’s neck. He lit his father’s body on fire.
My father says after doing that, he doesn’t fear much.
I think of my dad in his twenties, hanging out of a packed train in Bombay, wind on his face, on his way to work, and now of him driving his Camry in Atlanta traffic to Georgia Tech.
My father came here with a suitcase, some lists of vocabulary, and, in a part of the States that he perhaps never thought he’d call home, he sang seven minutes of his favorite song at a wedding, was voted teacher of the year and performed on Broadway.
India is still his home. It’s where his mother is. It’s where, the day after he cremated his father’s body, he and his two brothers drove out to the Ganges, dumped in their father’s ashes and then took a dip together in cold, holy water. My dad says that as a child, his father would wade into the Kaveri River, carrying my dad on his shoulders, and that that day it was my dad’s turn to carry his father’s remains into the water. It’s ‘Bol Radha Bol’, a song about two rivers, people, merging, that he knows all the words to, and that he croons at night.
But it’s Atlanta where he’s commissioner of the NBA: the Noontime Basketball Association, a group of Georgia Tech faculty and staff that play at lunchtime, and Atlanta where he goes by Dr J, a name his friend gave him in the eighties, in the era of Julius Erving’s slam dunk. It’s Atlanta where his bedside clock is set five hours ahead, so that his clock says it’s nine a.m., when the actual time is four a.m., to trick himself into thinking he’s waking at nine. It’s in Atlanta where, in 1991, he got to ask his favorite politician, Bill Clinton, a question during a town hall meeting. On national TV, my dad asked Clinton if he would consider Ross Perot as a running mate, as Clinton once said he’d do in a speech, to which Bill Clinton said he never said that.
When I ask my dad how he knew Atlanta was home, he says ‘It’s where I got a job.’ He says moving to the States was ‘a shock’, and that he wanted to turn around when he landed. I ask if he ever thought about moving back to India. He pauses then says, ‘The kids wouldn’t have been able to adjust.’
‘You mean me?’
I put my suitcase in the car and shut the trunk.
My dad says, ‘Maybe I’ll come up and work on my book too.’
I say okay.
As I drive away that day, past M-squared, I wave at him, and he waves back. Years ago, on a plot of land in the New South, my father opened up his suitcase and unpacked a universe of words. He made a world that is my home, and he gave me a language, so that wherever I go, I might also be able to name the things I see. So that Atlanta might feel like a possible home, as might the other, parallel world of New York, one flight away – so that in either place, I might unpack my suitcase and, like my father, be able to start to make that world my own.
Photograph courtesy of the author