Momo loved the Hudson. On clear afternoons, when yachts glided by on the river’s shimmering surface, she gazed upon the Statue of Liberty and decided to become an American some day. ‘When has geographical distance stopped us romantics, Juju?’ she asked, her bold red dreams flying like Cadillacs against blue Manhattan skies.
My Ganga was different: she would trickle in with memories, not flood her way into my dreams. When I was five, I had first stepped into her at Rajarhat, clasping Bapi’s fingers tight lest the current should carry me away. But the river did not flow that day; it pooled in playful ripples against my calves, binding me, beckoning me homewards towards her unusual stillness.
Momo and I were lost falcons, spiralling around an unattainable centre, groping for meaning in the juxtaposed layers of our being. I waltzed into boardroom meetings wearing uptight suits and clicking heels with Tagore humming on my earphones. Momo wore saris to class and taught thirty-odd children the dates of the American Civil War. The Star-Spangled Banner had become as much a part of our lives as the Mahalaya, and Chambers Street often folded upon itself into the familiar criss-crosses of College Street.
It was about time, Momo explained. ‘Look at the prospects,’ she urged, ‘then decide.’ When the forms came in, she burst into my room to impress upon me the merits of turning American.
‘It is like growing into a new home.’
‘If only it were as easy to cross the Atlantic re, Momo’, I argued, as Maa cried over long-distance lines. Identity is a powerful, personal affair. In animated conversations, Momo often emphasized, ‘Nothing significant will change.’ She saw an unfragmented world, one without those narrow domestic walls which, she believed, confined me. ‘Citizenship’, she explained, ‘was about political rights. It is not what I am, though it is what today I choose to be.’
I disagreed. As a modern woman, I would not grow into a new home if it meant also growing out of an old one. The politics of my existence ran deeper; I could not walk up to strangers and say, ‘Hi, I am Shrijukta, and I am American.’ My identity was inscribed on my passport, complicated by an alienation that came when to myself, I was as foreign as others perceived me to be.
Yesterday, her name was called: ‘Ms. Shrimoyi Banerjee’, as she stood with people who celebrated a new-found place. She paused for a while, thinking perhaps of the smell of shiuli blooms on an October evening, of Dasgupto’s bhetki-fry in mid-June rainfalls, and of me: her first playmate. The infinities of the world had gone by us in just a few staggered moments.
After the ceremony, she walked up to me and smiled, ‘This does not change anything significant.’
I looked into her eyes, shook my head, and said, ‘No, it does not,’ even as I felt the seven seas open up in the space between us.