Searching the faces at the Delhi airport, I know my father's old now, at least compared with how I remember him. I haven't seen or spoken to Papa in 19 years, but in the past year, he has initiated e-mail contact. He has promised to be here tonight when I get off the plane. The photo he recently sent shows that his hair is now white. I also sent him a photo, to prepare him that I'm no longer the kid who would jump on his back and sing Hindi songs with him.
A few yards away, someone tall, with white hair, is walking around. I know immediately: That's my father. He's 56 now and far darker than I remember. He's wearing a dirt-smudged, Third World-looking tweed jacket. Reflexively, I stick out my hand: "Hi."
He states his full name and stiffly takes my hand.
We go outside, where the heavy, ground-level fog is dotted with scooter taxis. Standing on the sidewalk, we see a woman in a sari greeting a man. She cries and buries her face in the man's stomach, as he strokes her hair and smiles.
"How are you?" I ask my father, unable to meet his eyes.
"Fine," he says, smiling.
"Do I seem like the same person?" I ask.
"You will always be child to me," he says in English, with an accent that doesn't sound that Indian; it's subdued, with no singsonginess to it.
His smile gives way to a frown, and, as he looks around, I notice his eyebrows are raised. He must feel uneasy. A few months ago, I e-mailed him that I had overdosed on sleeping pills and landed in a coronary care unit. There, hooked up to a heart monitor, I felt my father's absence with a sharpness I hadn't known before. "Dear Papa," I wrote, after I was released. "As much as I have tried, I do not have a template to understand myself or this world, and, at times, the knowledge that I have spent all these years without knowing you overwhelms me . . . It is so basic, to want to feel loved. I have not felt that." Within days, he replied, "Dear Child, You cannot do that to me and I wont allow you. I did not groom you for that. Give me a chance to explain what I mean . . . You owe that to me. Yes you indeed do, whatever I am for you. Papa." He later added, "You were closest friend that I had in my entire life and I never cheated you. Day will come when we shall meet. And we have to cling to hope." Within weeks, I bought a ticket to Delhi.
My father looks around for two men who have accompanied him to the airport. He soon spots them, colleagues from the engineering college where he teaches computer science. We go to his Suzuki -- he later says he got the car a month ago, to drive me around -- and the two of us take the back seat. I apologize for a last-minute flight change that's left him waiting in Delhi since yesterday.
"Time is not an issue in India," he says, as we drive on through the fog.
I DIDN'T ALWAYS want to return. In 1982, my father took my sister, Joanna, and me from the United States, without our mother knowing, to his village in Rajasthan. We were there, in India, 18 months before our mother finally reached the country and sued to get us back. When we returned to America, after nearly two years, Joanna and I could both still speak Hindi, but I wanted to forget it. Once, while riding bikes, Joanna called out to me in the language, but I purposely didn't answer, and we never tried to speak it again. In the years since, I have never asked Joanna or my mother about that time in India, because the mere mention of my father not being around was too hard for me. Only recently had I thought of retracing my steps.
Considering a return was difficult. I had no address for my father and learned that my mother had ditched his letters to me -- three, all in response to ones I wrote him. (In one he requested architectural books, and that, my mother said, was proof that he was a user.) But this past year I got an e-mail, unbidden, from him. He had surfed the Web, found my workplace and written -- for the first time in four years -- to wish me a happy birthday. A month passed before I replied, but we began an e-mail dialogue about safe topics. He told me how he chose my first and middle names, and shared thoughts on tolerance by a Hindu sage. I told him life was good, that I wanted to see India and that he and my mother had shaped my life in "all good ways."
That was a lie.
My mother was born in Romania in 1939, the year World War II broke out. While eight of her aunts and uncles and one of her grandmothers were killed in the Holocaust, she and her parents hid in a basement with other Jews, and, at war's end, she spent four years in a displaced-persons camp before reaching Ellis Island. My father was born in a Rajasthani village in 1947, the year India gained independence. He got what his two older sisters didn't: an education. Both of his sisters were married off by the time they were teenagers. He had an arranged marriage himself when he was 19, but he soon came alone to America, to study at Florida State University. In the university library, he met my mother, who worked there.
He had his first wife back home -- and a baby, Anita, he had yet to see -- but, within three years, he got a divorce and married my mother.
The marriage was probably doomed from the start. Perhaps my father felt guilty being in America when his father died back home, and he definitely wasn't happy when my mother converted to Mormonism. When they divorced, she moved Joanna and me to Utah, but, after a year, my father persuaded her to settle in Richmond, where he then lived. She agreed and got a job as a clerk in a law firm. As they finalized their custody agreement, he insisted that Joanna and I be enrolled in an orthodox Jewish school to learn about our roots.
Right before Thanksgiving 1982, he picked up Joanna and me from school to spend the weekend with him at his new apartment in Washington. As he drove, he asked, "How would you like to go to India tonight?" At 6, India sounded like Disneyland to me.
But Joanna, then 8, said, "I don't think it's a good idea." My father had my vote, though. "It's two against one," he said. "We're going." We'll only be gone two weeks, he told us. That night, we boarded a plane.
When we landed in Calcutta, men vied for our bags, while beggar children and legless men packed street corners, speaking a language I couldn't understand. At night, Joanna and I slept under a mosquito net, but she got a fever anyway. Within days, I asked my father when we were going home. "Soon," he said.
After about a week, we got on a bus toward his village in the Rajasthani desert. There, Joanna and I found a world without electricity or plumbing -- or English speakers.
One day, as we stood by haystacks, our grandmother came up, dragging her legs because of a malady that no one mentioned, and cupped her hands to her mouth -- her way of asking if we wanted food. From then on, I'd often sit next to her, watching her make chapati over a fire. My father's first wife lived in the village, too, and, like many women, flicked her sari in front of her face when a man approached.
Joanna and I soon picked up the language, and we stayed in the village for about five months, then moved with our father to Pilani, a city about three hours away, where he took a job teaching at a university. He got us Hindi tutors and enrolled us in a private school. After school, I'd sit by the apartment window and dream of my mother coming down the dirt road.
My mother was doing everything she could to find us.
It would take her more than a year to get the papers -- passports, an arrest warrant -- and enough funds to go to India. Her father, a retired steelworker, agreed that once she got there, he would wire money to help her.
Several months after we had arrived, Joanna rifled through our father's luggage, found an aerogramme and wrote to our mother, telling her we were in the village. When Joanna saw a villager heading to town, she gave him the letter to mail.
When my mother got to India, she found that the U.S. warrant for my father's arrest had no legal force. She also learned that, in India, the father was the legal guardian after the child's fifth birthday.
Over the next five months, she faced one problem after another, from getting hepatitis to discovering that my father had disappeared with Joanna and me, taking us into the Himalayas. When we all finally resurfaced, a judge ordered that Joanna and I be made wards of the state, and the two of us were under 24-hour police guard alone in a hotel.
My mother won in a lower court and was allowed to rejoin us, but my father, she says, planned to appeal to the state High Court. Seeing that our exit visas had expired, she changed the handwritten dates, and hours later, after midnight, she awoke my sister and me, saying we had a plane to catch. At the airport, the guard looked at the visas, then back at my mother. Then down again and back at her. She sensed that he knew us from articles that had been appearing in Indian newspapers. She also thought he knew the documents had been tampered with. "He had the power to change our lives," she says. "He gave us our freedom."
MY FATHER'S SUZUKI is parked outside a fast-food Indian restaurant near the Delhi airport. Inside the restaurant, I pass him color Xeroxes of photos of Joanna, her son, Mordechai, and me, and he leafs through the images. When he comes to the only shot of my mother, smiling in the snow, he takes off his glasses and swallows a couple of times, as if he's choking up. After a minute, he looks up, his eyes red.
"She is in good health?" he asks, still holding the picture.
I nod yes.
We go to the car. As one of my father's friends drives, I tell my father I'm tired. Why not put my head in his lap, he says. That's what you did when you were little.
I decline and doze against the window. After five hours, I awake to find that we're winding through dark, dusty streets, where people sleep on corners, under makeshift canopies. This is Jaipur, a city known for its forts and marble temples. More than 2 million people -- as well as donkeys and camels, cows and monkeys -- make their home here. My father teaches at a two-year-old engineering college with 1,300 students and stays in a bare room at the college's hostel. He returns every few weeks to his village home, about five hours away.
While I watch a stray dog pass by, my father seems to sense my disgust.
"Everything coexists here," he says.
THE NEXT AFTERNOON, we go to the home of one of his friends. Why we're here, I don't know and don't ask. Even small interactions feel tense; I don't begin to know how to talk with my father. As we all take seats on the lawn, I look at him.
"You're really dark," I say. "And I'm really light."
After a while, we all go inside, and my father talks to his friend in Hindi, little of which I'm able to follow. He's not including me in the conversation, and after 10 minutes or so, I walk back outside.
Within seconds, my father comes out, looking startled.
"I've traveled thousands of miles to come see you," I say. "The least you can do is focus the conversation on me." I walk over to a concrete partition, overlooking a trash-strewn lot. He follows me and stands by my side, silent.
"Don't you ever feel liked you missed out?" I ask.
"I'm here to try to forgive you," I say, trying, unsuccessfully, not to cry, "before my birthday."
"Oh, Lisa," he replies, after a moment's silence, "I always said you may not have problem with world, but world may have problem with you."
I don't know what he means.
"You have changed," he says, put off by my tears.
"But yesterday you said I was still a child in your eyes."
"You will always be child to me, but your thinking has changed."
He says he did his best in America, but he and my mother couldn't make their marriage work. Standing there, he quotes his favorite movie, "Fiddler on the Roof," in which Tevye, the Jewish milkman, tells his daughter why she can't marry a Gentile and why she must stick to tradition:
A bird may love a fish, says my father, but where would they build a home together?
THE NEXT MORNING, we stop at the home of a first cousin of mine. Sitting on a cot outside her place, I glance at a student periodical from my father's institute, where classes are taught in English. Leafing through it, I see a question-and-answer interview my father gave.
"Sir," it reads, "every one of us is quite eager to study in US. What are your thoughts about it?"
That night, I bring myself to read my father's response:
"Let me say that it's a fine idea to get education in abroad. Your plan should be clear. Primary question is the immigrants' dilemma. On one hand you dream about a new land, culture, tradition, whereas here you have your own family and people. Most immigrants went to US and faced this dilemma as they start to settle there. You will have to make a decision about yourself, your children and what kind of tradition they will inherit. This question should be very clear, are you going to come back or will you settle over there? If you are not clear with this question your life will be in jeopardy, you will be a torn person with a split personality."
In the morning, after I bathe with two buckets, my father asks, "You are getting used to?" He asks if I can extend my two-week stay (I say no) and later says he can get me a job in India. To that, I say nothing. When he asks if I can still speak Hindi and I say no, he looks down. "It will come back," he says.
In the afternoon, as my father and I sit outside on a cot, there's so much I want to say to him, but I'm overwhelmed. I can feel our not looking at each other. At one point, he picks up the Aquafina bottle on the table before him.
"How much would this cost in U.S.?" he asks.
I tell him a buck or so.
In India, it costs about a quarter, he says, adding that a person can get by on $100 a month and save the rest. My father probably makes $500 a month.
Clearing my throat and grinding my palms into my thighs, I tell my father that in the past 19 years I would have appreciated something from him, if not money, then a birthday card. "I mean, do you love me?" I ask. "Because I don't think you do."
He shakes his head nervously. "I do not know about such words. All I know is I had responsibility, and I did it. Didn't I support you till age of 9?"
He rattles off excuses for why he's been absent: He didn't know where we lived; people move around a lot in the United States; he couldn't convert rupees to dollars. His explanation does little to ease my anger, which is already heightened by what he told me yesterday: I now have a half brother, a 5-year-old boy he had with his first wife, Anita's mother, Chandra.
"Well, you know, I'm not here on a joy ride," I say. "I mean, you don't just swallow 50 pills because you're looking for a little attention. I've just tried to kill myself."
"I know," he says quickly, "I was very disturbed to read that."
Thinking I've said too much -- this is only day two in India -- I say I'm sorry.
No, it's good to talk, he says, that's why we're going to the village.
Why we have to wait until then to really talk, I don't know. Nor am I in any hurry to bring it up, but I decide that that's when I'll ask him about why he took us from our mother.
WE STOP IN A TOWN, where Anita and her two small children join us on the drive. Along the way, we pass yellow fields of mustard -- a cash crop in the area -- as green parrots land in the trees. Soon we reach the edge of my father's village. Sri Amarpura is its name. I'm told it means "the man who never dies." As we pull up to my father's gated house in this century-old, 700-acre community, children surround the car. To the right is a tree I remember: That's the neem tree my grandfather planted the year my father was born. I used to tear off branches and clean my teeth with them. These days, my father eats its leaves to control the diabetes he recently learned he has.
Nearby stands the old stone house, now abandoned and crumbling. A new home my father designed and started to build three years after Joanna and I left India now rises opposite it, made of stone and covered in plaster. Maybe that's why he wanted the architecture books years ago.
A small boy stands inside the house's foyer and smiles. That's my half brother. He instantly clutches my hand. A woman in a checkered white, orange and red sari, like the one my grandmother always wore, approaches. She smiles. This is my father's first wife, Chandra. She's now bent over, also like my grandmother was.
I climb some stairs to my father's bedroom, where he says I can sleep. When he opens the door, I see on the wall yellowing printouts of photos of my mother, Joanna and me. He soon shows me around and says that the home has three guest rooms, one for each of his daughters.
"Uh, I don't think Joanna's interested," I say. He smiles and pats the air: "One day she will come, too."
That night, my father sits before an open fire, on a wooden stool. There, he cradles Anita's 5-year-old daughter, Sheetal, who has deep brown eyes and cropped hair. As my father sings to her, she tries to snatch his nose. "Lisa!" he calls out to her. He shakes his head and tries again. "Joanna!" Wrong again. "Sheetal!" Over the next week, my father slips several times, calling Sheetal by my name.
Sitting there, we end up talking about his days as a student. So my father could study in the States, his father mortgaged his land, all 70 acres, but the money was only enough for one semester. Those first weeks in America, my father couldn't sleep; he was worried he would cause his father to lose the family farm. But within two weeks, he got a job grading math papers, and the extra $100 a month helped him support himself. Within three months, he met my mother.
Later that evening, my father and I sit outside, on a cot, with our feet touching the sand.
My mind races as I contemplate how quickly my time in India is running out.
"Do you have any words for my nephew?" I ask, thinking of Mordechai.
"Tell him he is always welcome to India, to learn about his roots," he says, swaying slightly. "I won't keep him."
My visit is halfway over, and I have yet to ask my father what's been on my mind since I stepped off the plane: Why did he take Joanna and me? Now he has just given me my cue. Turning to him, I squint to hold back tears and start the question as best I can. "You said we'd only be gone two weeks."
He looks at me. "What?"
"Twenty years ago, you said we'd only be gone two weeks."
"I do not remember two weeks," he says, looking away. "It was supposed to be temporary."
"You're telling me it was supposed to be temporary," I say.
Yes, he says. I had return tickets and everything. Your mother knew about it. The next thing I hear I am charged with abduction. I lost my job. My belongings were put on street. I could not go back.
"Why India? Why Calcutta?" I ask.
"I wanted you to meet my mother. She was sick. I did not know how long she would live."
For the first time, I'm struck with this thought: Maybe he isn't a wretched person. All this time, I saw his taking us as an attempt to spite our mother. I never considered that he took us to India for his mother.
He says that it had been nine years since he last saw her. She was paralyzed on one side, and he thought there was a doctor in Calcutta who could help her. In the end, she declined, not wanting to take the three-day train ride.
"I hated Calcutta," I say.
"I did not like it, either," he says. "I never went back."
I think of all the questions I want to ask him. Abruptly shifting gears, I ask if he's ever cried, if he cried when his father died.
He frowns, shakes his head no.
When his son was born?
"I have cried maybe three times in my life," he says. And one, he says, was when my mother converted to Mormonism. "I was in bed three days," he says.
"What else?" I ask, wanting to know the others.
"If I tell you, it will upset you," he says, looking at me apologetically.
"When I got that e-mail from you . . ."
I mutter, "About the suicide attempt?"
He presses his hand to his quivering chin. His eyes well up.
Seeing him like that, I say, "I won't do that again." But he doesn't seem to hear me. After a moment's silence, he gets up and walks away, retreating to the back of his house. The weight of his emotion catches me off guard, and I don't follow him.
Instead, I go to the barn and play with Sheetal. After several minutes, I notice that my father has taken a seat on the cot near the foyer. He reclines there, smoking.
I walk over to him, carrying Sheetal, and take a seat on the cot while Sheetal rests by his side. He seems calmer, so I ask about his life now, about Chandra.
"My first wife and I do not get along," he says. She lives in a room downstairs, because, as he told me earlier, "it would not be fair to put her on street." Why, I ask, did he decide to have another child with her? He says that he's had enough ex-wives and didn't want another, so he turned to Chandra. (Anita's husband later tells me my father wanted a son to inherit the farm.)
When I ask why he introduced himself at the airport with his full name, he says he was surprised that I only extended my hand.
"Truthfully," he says, looking at me, "I was expecting a hug."
His thoughts turn to my mother. "She changed a lot," he says, adding that in their first days, she'd quote the biblical book of Ruth: Your people are my people, wherever you go, I'll go. He talks about her conversion to Mormonism and rolls his eyes at her "spiritual journey" that, he says, upset our lives in Florida.
He recalls those Florida days, how he taught me to swim. Standing in the pool, he'd throw me headfirst into the water. "You were my brave girl," he says and looks at Sheetal, squeezing her cheeks between his fingers. "Now I know you still are."
DAYS LATER, Anita's husband drives us to Karni Mata, a Hindu temple swarming with rats that people come from all over to worship. As I walk shoeless on the grounds, my father extends his arm and, for the first time since I've arrived in India, I lean on him. Later, as we drive back, I look at him sleeping in the front. I think of the lost years, of his smoking and a letter I wrote him 19 years ago, after India, asking him to give up cigarettes. I think of his cough, which sounds deep and painful, and his diabetes. I know there are no graves for Hindus, and I ask myself where I will go to mourn him when he dies.
As night falls, we stop at an outdoor restaurant. There, seated next to my father on a glider, I ask him what I should tell myself if I start thinking again that my life is a mistake.
"Nature would not have created you if you were mistake," he says. "As soon as you are no longer useful, nature will destroy you."
"Everyone," he says.
In the days ahead, he grows increasingly distant. He's already told me that I'm not the strong girl he remembers, the kid who would raise her hands and shout, "I am the leader!" And he dismisses any responsibility for the abduction charges by saying, "Americans are very reactionary people." I, in turn, lash out, telling him that I was an idiot for coming to see him, to which he says nothing.
Noting the growing silence between my father and me, Anita's husband tries to create "sweet memories" by driving us to Agra's Taj Mahal. The next morning, in Agra, my father doesn't say hello to me, and the rest of the day I wonder how I'll cope if he doesn't say goodbye when it's time.
That evening, when my father and I reach the airport with Anita and her family, I snap at him and say that unless I take the initiative he probably won't say goodbye. "That is not true," he snaps back. When that final moment arrives -- only passengers are allowed inside -- all of us stand near the door. My father sighs, then turns and faces me with that frown. It's that look of disappointment I have come to hate, of his seeing the person I've become. I want him to know that I won't ever again expect anything from him. But before he can say anything, I spit on him, hitting him on the right side of his jacket.
He looks down, then up at me, startled, and raises his hand as if to hit me. I turn my back and walk toward the airport door. Suddenly, I hear Anita call, "Sheetal!" My niece must be following me. I haven't said goodbye to her or anyone. It's too late.
Inside the airport, I'm overcome. Shocked. I can't turn back to go see him, since he has surely left by now. And even if I do run after him, he won't want anything to do with me. I've destroyed any good that could have come of this return.
AFTER THREE WEEKS, I write an e-mail to my father, asking his forgiveness. I thank him for caring enough to make sure that Joanna and I learned about our roots, both Jewish and Indian, and for giving us the chance to meet his mother before she died. "You could have left America alone, but you chose to take us, and I think that on some level that showed love. Now that I've returned from India, I cannot find myself entirely regretting my days there as a kid."
Days pass without a reply. Maybe my father has had enough; those years after we left India were no joy for him, either. During that time, my mother wouldn't drop charges. And for nearly 10 years -- every month, he told me -- he had to travel to a district court in India, a trip that he said took the whole day, to defend himself. Finally, the court gave him an "honorable acquittal," as he sneeringly called it, but not before the judge told him he wanted an explanation: Why did he do it?
"Your honor," my father recalls saying, "they were my children." As he left the judge's chamber, my father added, "May it rain on your city." My father says that by the time he got to the bus stop, it started to rain.
A week goes by. Then another. Eventually, I receive a letter. I wait hours before I open it.
"Dear Lisa," it says, "Hope things are well with you. We are all in very difficult positions and are doing the best that can be done under the circumstances. To err is human but it takes a lot to recognize it and have courage to correct it. I know you are intelligent and very decisive person . . . Things are not working the way they should. May be there is some divine message in all this. Let nature work its way and let it show you path. Relax and give it a chance . . . you are good. Dont look to past . . . let future guide you."
A few weeks later, on my birthday, I check my e-mail. There's no birthday wish from him. Just as I stare at an empty mailbox, my phone rings. "Lisa," says the voice, "it's Papa . . . Happy birthday." And within days, I get an e-mail from him.
For the first time, he delivers the following promise. "We are in touch and some day we will get same feelings we had one time," he writes. "Like I said I still cling to Lisa that was and find it hard to make transition to Lisa that is. I am trying and will succeed one day, just need patience and time . . . Papa."
Lisa Singh is a writer based in Richmond.