Phone home: Keeping ties with families back home
And so many of our stories begin with…
My father was the only person in his family to leave his village in search for a better life for himself and his wife, my mum. His search took him to Indonesia and then later the UK where I was born.
For my parents, like many immigrants, keeping ties with their homeland was important. And maintaining those ties manifested in phoning home, sending money back, taking us back to visit and continuing homegrown traditions like having lamb curry and rice flour chapatis for breakfast on Eid or drinking darjeeling tea.
I loved going to visit family in India and fondly refer to it as “back home” – even though I have no intention to settle there, ever. Everyday experiences for my cousins were novelties for my sisters and I. From drinking coke out of glass bottles to playing ludo and sitting on the roof in the sun. It was these little pleasures that created fond memories of my visits.
I remember playing on the grounds with kids from the other houses, next door neighbours and my cousins. We would play for hours, cricket, hide and seek, the Indian version of what’s the time Mr Wolf, go for boat rides, jump in the lakes and when the night came in we’d sit on the ‘Goru gari’ singing our lungs out for antakshari. Playing together was our commonality, it was our form of communication. While we would have fun and spend 6 weeks together eating and playing every day. I would get back to London and we would seldom keep in touch. It felt like any commonality was lost in the distance. Because our language was shared experiences rather than “hey, how are you?”.
Then we all started getting older, some cousins moving out from the 5 family households into other towns.
Conversations at times felt painful, the nuances often lost in translation meaning that they often stayed at surface level.
Me: Are you good?
Cousin: Yes, how are you?
Me: Good, have you had lunch?
Cousin: Yes, I’m just sitting outside now and everyone is sleeping.
Me: Is it hot?
Cousin: It was but we just had lots of rain.
And then I would say “Mum/Dad/Sister wants to speak to you” even if they didn’t because it was an easier way to move the conversation over.
Last week I woke up and I messaged my mum and said, “What’s Nani and Nana’s number?”.
I felt a sadness, a sadness that they were getting older and we were talking less.
A sadness that my aunt who was diagnosed with cancer could no longer talk.
I felt guilty.
A guilt that I hadn’t kept up relations with the people I had the fondest memories of growing up.
Sleeping in my Nani and Nana’s bed, going to the bazaar with my Nana, my Nani oiling my hair or making up pickles to take back to London. My aunty helping me have a bath in the outside shower, taking 3 buses from her town to make sure she came to see us.
I didn’t know what to say, while the conversations often felt painful, maybe it was just enough for them to hear my voice, to hear a presence. Maybe it isn’t about what the conversation is about, maybe just phoning home is enough. The same way my parents used to phone home with a quick hello on a calling card just to let them know they were in their thoughts.
I still haven’t called home and my Aunty passed away last night.