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I talked to my grandmother in India on my birthday. It used to be that I struggled for things to talk with her but our conversations have got better since she started losing memory. Her memory is at the sweet spot of someone who's lost their social inhibition after a few drinks, but one more drink and she will stop making any sense. It will then come to be that she wouldn't know why she got banned from that bar one night. She told me that the neighbor comes to check on her every day and that my late grandfather's distant relative drives her to the hospital when needed. In a complete non sequitur, she says, "The trees in the yard have been trimmed," and the image of the large mango tree stooping over the well flashes through my mind. Every other summer, it produced plenty enough to distribute sackfuls of mangoes to all the neighbors. Anyone who visited Grandmother would be besieged by the question, "How about I send some mangoes with you?"
"No," they'd decline politely
"But they'll get spoiled," my grandmother would say
"No, that’s alright we have the mangoes you gave us last time" they’d reply
"Are you sure? You could make mango curry with it" comes the insistence from my grandmother, her brows furrowing and her lips pressing together harder every time she was declined.
Most visitors would eventually succumb. Their defeat represented by a transparent cheap plastic bag, bursting at the seams with mangoes they would shyly carry out of the house at the end of the night.
In the odd summers where the mango tree disappointed, Grandmother would turn to the lumbering giant jackfruit tree. It was common knowledge that you must never accept the whole jackfruit that’s forced upon you when you visit your relative in the countryside. If you did, you would have to labor over it for an entire afternoon to eat it. Then there were the slender and tall coconut trees, six or seven of them situated at different parts of the big yard cause they needed a lot of groundwater. That or to minimize the danger of coconuts falling on your head. I'm unsure. Trying to figure out which of the trees she might be referring to on our call made me realize why she never moved to the United States with her kids, and why she let her permanent residence expire.
By contrast, my aunt's in-laws, who are the same age as my grandmother, moved to the United States in the late 1960s after Lyndon Johnson passed the national immigration act. For the last 40-odd years they have lived in Pasadena, a Houston suburb known for the number of chemical plants it has. There are no mango trees to be found in their yard. With the little space that they could find, they planted an assortment of vegetables. The gardening they do is an exercise of agency over their physical environment, a repetition of habit more than a fruitful endeavor that would feed them in any meaningful way. They do get duck eggs every week. On enquiring more about where the ducks came from, I found that they live in the pond in the nearby public park. My aunt's in-laws had been feeding them so now the ducks came to lay eggs in their yard. One time while telling him how good the eggs were, my aunt's father-in-law went on a non-sequitur about how the KKK used to pelt their house with eggs when they first moved to this neighborhood.
Later in the evening, biased by the nostalgia of the conversation I had with my grandmother, I rant at two friends about how American cities are terrible cause I cannot walk, how the food that you get in grocery stores is frozen and preserved for weeks before it reaches there, and about how progress is an illusion and America's position as the place to be is not true anymore. One of them replies "I disagree, it used to be that you needed to hire an entire team to make a website but now you can do it in 20 minutes." While I try to make sense of that answer the other asks "Why don't you move back to India?". At that moment that question makes as much sense as asking me why I was born. So I reply in a feeble voice "because I've friends here". The real answer - It's probably because I've got used to the immediate sensorial pleasures of central air conditioning when its 100 degrees outside, perhaps because I enjoy the narcissistic impulse of being at the center of the world at all times, because now I like a girl who would watch a Wim Wenders movie with me, because I learnt to write in English before my own native language, because whatever existed in India does not exist anymore because it is the kind of place that aspires to be more American than America. That’s what every place aspires to be. The trees have been trimmed, there is nothing to go back to, and where I am will have to do.
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