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These Clean, Dust-Free, Febrezed United States of America

Portrait of a Time photo 1

I was nine years old the first time I visited the United States of America. Sounds weird, doesn’t it? To say the whole thing like that — the United States of America, these United States of America, the American States, United. Do you hear the bald eagle screech in there, somewhere? My father sat me down before we left and said to me, “Yash, there are rules there, do you understand?” I shifted my head a degree to the right; there was a dragonfly on the window pane. “You can’t litter there.” The world was my trash can. “No sticking gum under tables.” Where else do they put their gum? “In fact, no gum — you’ll lose your teeth.” Wait, what? “I’m serious — look at me. If you throw things away on the street, they’ll arrest you. Then you can sit in jail, and we’ll come back home. Do you want that?”

Two years ago, I returned to the Clean United States of America (pristine, gum-free). Boston is tidy, dust-free, with dirt that smells like Febreze. This world is packaged in cautiously labelled cardboard boxes, taped on the top, the bottom and edges too, for good measure; this world is careful, contained. The streets are quiet, the houses plain, the cars fast, the people islands. Small bubbles, small sterile pockets of life that pass me by.

My mother jokes that our home would be easier to keep clean if my siblings and I left Kolkata. The ketchup stains on the sofa are telling; the writing on the wall in my room is telling; the chipped marble from when my dog was teething is telling. This home is lived in. “Don’t touch anything you’re not supposed to — not in a museum, not on the street.” The Clean, Dust-Free, Febrezed United States of America: Hands off! you’ll get your finger grease on everything!

At home, in Kolkata, the sky is closer to the ground. Puffs of steam rise from kettles on steep and grow up to become clouds; and little school children sprawled in the backseat of minibuses look up and count the threads in each one. When I was in the fourth grade, an English boy, Tom, joined school. He said my name like “Yass,” emphasis on the “ass.” One day in music class, our teacher was playing “Jamaica Farewell,” on the piano. Tom sat in front of me, with his long spikes of golden brown hair — his parents let him get blonde highlights — calling my name: Ass? Ass! I yanked him by his ridiculously cool hair and got up to run — a strategy that served me well, always.

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“Jamaica Farewell” is a peculiar children’s song: It’s about leaving a loved one behind, never to be seen again. As my classmates sang this soft, sad song, we fought. We rolled and stumbled over each other, throwing punches wildly, our legs kicking like we’d been thrown into the deep end of a swimming pool. The music rose in crescendo; the guitar strings shouted, “Fight! Fight! Fight!” The piano was nails digging into skin; the chorus a hard push that sent us tumbling. Kolkata is this mad, mindless harmony. The city is set to music. The city is a small stone, circling the edges of a swirling eddy, tearing down a river, into its banks, into the river bed.

Oh, if only it was a painting of a stone, set in the painting of a river.

When I return to Kolkata, I’m caught off guard by how difficult it is to slip back into my old life. A small bowling alley, forgotten beside the rising slope of a bridge, under which, I have seen pigs on two different occasions, at least, has disappeared. The languages that raised me have rusted in isolation; the words sit awkwardly on my tongue, twiddling their thumbs. As I stand on the street, sipping chai with my friends, people walking past can tell that I do not live there; there is some secret code that everyone else is clued into. What is it? Tell me, please, please.

Home is neither here nor there; it was, once upon a time. That radical question of where I belong can only be answered by turning to the past, to the memories of a life simpler, easier. Home exists in the corners of my mind, tucked into my fourth birthday party, a walk through the city at midnight, the death of my grandmother. Home is known retrospectively — if you are lucky enough to have ever had one. Homesickness, as put eloquently by a professor, is ontological: It is a fundamental aspect of the human condition, a longing for the past, for a sense of belonging so primordial that it predates language, that it outweighs the weight that any word could bear.

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