An Ancestor in the Classroom
Sreya M. Datta
I want this to be a story about a spirit in the shape of words. Stay with me, and you will know what this means by the end.
It begins with an assignment on “decolonizing literary practice.” We are tired students, working day and night to beat the pandemic fatigue and chase that elusive first class for our Masters degree in Global Literatures. Most of us are sleepy from having only recently enjoyed the comforts of home during the pandemic and being able to complete part of our course online. Some of us are grieving. Now we are back. Like waves against a shore, our goings and comings are inexorable.
At every bend, we are reminded that it is a privilege to study about the world within the secure walls of an esteemed First World university. India, Africa, Canada, Jamaica —nothing, no part of the world is beyond our reach. Sometimes, they throw in British and American literatures too, to show that postcolonialism is a complex discourse, not bound by the mere accident of geography. We attend all our classes religiously because our visas depend on it. We cannot miss too many, otherwise this country will shut its doors on us. No one wants to waste an opportunity like this. Our presence sustains an entire ecosystem—the University thrives on our fees, landlords rely on our rent, our enterprise boosts the flagging economy. We are in a symbiotic relationship, we are wanted here.
We ring home sometimes when we are not too busy cooking dal in smuggled pressure cookers. A cooker added two kilos to the twenty-three that we are allowed by the international airlines. In the larger scheme of things, its weight is a small price to pay for all the nourishment we receive. On some evenings, I also prepare a friendly smile in case my neighbour passes me by the hallway and says, “are you cooking dal? Smells divine. Makes me want to cook some myself this evening!” For you, I want to say, it will take forty-five minutes and a lot of stirring. I say nothing because you collect my mail sometimes, when I am away at University. I do not want to upset the delicate balance of conviviality I have built up painstakingly. I collect hallway encounters like airport embraces. Somehow, I convince myself, they will all help me survive in this land.
I doubt any of us fully understands the reasons for leaving, or for staying. The comfort of a transitory community keeps us going as we move through homes and cities and find kindred spirits wandering through the same haze. When I began my Masters program, I was thrilled to feel the freedom of the new “I” that was being created in this classroom, thousands of miles from home. It gave me a freedom I had not experienced before, a freedom to chase an idea to its depths, libraries that seemed endless in their gifts, a voice that I would be able to call my own, a voice that was born in exile. I was impatient to outgrow my past associations, to impose on them the dreams of the new.
As this “I” began to walk in my shoes to the university, wear my clothes, and speak in my tongue, I found myself distracted, as if there was a small leak in me somewhere that I could not locate. Truth be told, we often could not separate this new identity from what we knew of ourselves all along. All the while that we were chiselling ourselves to fit what would make us legible in this world, we were dimly aware that the immense freedom of our experience came in the form of a subtle betrayal. A monstrous desire to succeed—whose origins we could not trace or admit—presented itself to us as a calling. It could not be dubbed mere ambition because its roots spread deeper than that, a call that seemed to be as primal as the very desire for survival itself. This self-mandated exile eclipsed many of our other rememberings, lurking behind a diaphanous veil.
When the pandemic struck, it felt like a great hand had come out of nowhere to strip back the veil. Possibly, it was the other way around, and we were being carried through the veil into the other side. A great reverse migration began as courses moved online and we moved back home for some months. As a silent, submarine virus began rippling through our lives and spitting us up like sea-foam, we beached ourselves at the doors we had left behind. When I got news of my grandmother’s death from the virus, something in me came unstuck. The leak became a sea, and I felt a chasm opening up, swallowing me.
Before we were sucked into that vortex of half-alive days and nights, I had imagined my life as a linear track. Hustle. Play the game. Live deadline to deadline. I was mostly worried about the final essay I had to write. The assignment asked us to develop new models of reading Global Literatures in a decolonial frame. This could be anything: excavating an ancient Sanskrit poetic tradition that would revolutionise theracticee of literary criticism in a Western establishment, digging the archives for institutional silences, or even something as simple as a poster on the life of an obscure individual, preferably female, preferably non-European. All fair game. Beneath our displays of camaraderie, of course, we were competitive. Especially those of us from the same country or background. I remember feeling secretly thrilled with the assessment. Would I be able to win, finally, at this game? Were my life experiences, my history, a tactical advantage? I remember wanting to accomplish something fairly conservative but just distinctive enough to earn the applause of my instructors and the praise of my peers. I was always afraid of others noticing the leak in me before I did.
This was true of ‘postmodern junkie’ Daryl who was threatening to edge me out academically. I gave such nicknames to my classmates, to make the intimacy of our small group more bearable. Daryl, at the heart of it all, was a boring guy with an ordinary, mappable life. He lived with his girlfriend and they walked their dog together. His reason for doing a masters in Global Literatures had something to do with employability: Daryl had a job lined up with an International Development firm but had to defer it because of recession crunches and redundancies. It was his way of killing time profitably. He was also a freelance writer. His stories sketched eccentric characters doing eccentric things, and sometimes, I felt jealous of his mastery over irony. It was a way of compensating for his entirely ordinary life, I used to say to console myself. In his universe, nothing amounted to anything. Because it didn’t really need to. I am pretty sure I was also jealous of his sentences. When we workshopped our drafts, his sentences were always crisp and rationally connected to each other. I often had trouble keeping my sentences under fifty words, and I think my greatest fear was to run out of words and be jammed into silence. My sentences sprawled uncontrollably, and in my worst moments, I wept over them. My professor liked what I wrote, she said I was “scholarly”. But I needed to cut down on my long sentences. I needed to become more like Daryl, I knew, with his bulletproof arguments and complete assurance.
Sometimes I ran into him in the park, walking with his curly cockapoo. In class, I almost thought Daryl had a crush on me. He was always “jumping off” what I said, or muttering “that’s brilliant” under his breath admiringly. I was secretly afraid that he was stealing my thoughts, that he was nibbling away slowly at the whole life I had brought with me here as precious cargo. When we ran into each other in the park, Daryl looked vaguely disconcerted as if he had seen a familiar ghost. My humiliation was only covered up by the pity I felt for mistakenly intruding on a world so neat and small. When he was out of sight, I would stroll by the lake in the park, imagining I was a spirit that only the geese could see. It was winter then, and the lake had frosted over. The gulls had not migrated from their home, now ice. They sat on the ice, unmoving. I imagined their webbed feet pressing on the ice. The lake thawed, I hoped, imperceptibly.
I didn’t have any Indian friends in the class—the ones I did have, I met through socials and Twitter. It was not like we had anything against each other, we just couldn’t keep up with the pressures of the course and having to navigate our identities as countrywomen and competitors. It was too complicated to describe our relationship, so there was a cordial and tacit agreement among us to befuddle expectations. That was one way we expressed our solidarity—not by being friends, but by tricking our brownness out of its box.
My only friend in the class was Gia. She was from what she liked to call a “pariah European nation”, which no one cared about. Gia did not take herself seriously. She was a rhythmic person, even though externally she was chaotic. She knew she would return to her country to teach at the local school after the course ended. Her scholarship was funded by her government, and to her, this was a lucky break for the year. When she goes back, she will teach young children who have migrated recently with their parents, fleeing war, poverty, and floods. What an irony, she used to say, coming here to learn about xenophobia.
Gia was a healer. She always seemed a bit ethereal, as if she was observing life from a slight distance. An invisible, whimsical line divided her from the world and the imaginative surplus she seemed to possess. I don’t think she tried to make everything legible, as I do. When she told stories about her life, I never knew if they were true, and somehow, this calmed me. With Gia, I believed anything was possible. Anything could be possible. One time, she told me the story of how her uncle died. He had gone out hunting in the early morning and hours later, there was still no sign of him. In the twilight, a wild boar had emerged from the woods, with blood on its tusks, and had roamed confusedly through the village. Finally, it had gone into her uncle’s house and had collapsed on the floor. There was never any evidence of foul play. The boar became a part of the family, and no one questioned its presence. Gia explained matter-of-factly, sometimes when you go into the forest, the forest claims you. I believe my uncle knew that.
When my grandmother died, Gia knew exactly what to say. She didn’t say she was sorry because she could see something in me was broken. When I had to fly back home she said to me, listen, I don’t know if I’ll see you again. But remember this. There are two types of people on this earth: those who die and those who don’t. In my mind, that made perfect sense, because for the longest time I refused to believe my grandmother was dead. Perhaps I still don’t. I never saw her dead with my own eyes, anyway. In the quiet of the night, as I was packing my bags frantically, Gia was quietly humming to herself, a lullaby for my devastation.
To us, my grandmother’s death presented itself as wholly unreal. Statistically, she was a COVID casualty. Scientifically, her lungs filled with water and her heart stopped working. Spiritually, she refused to leave for a few days after she had been declared clinically dead. She had lived a long and healthy life, our relatives said, reaching a grand old age of ninety-two. May she rest in peace. A strange word, peace. I kept repeating it over and over again. The lake in winter looks peaceful. There are worlds underneath that say otherwise.
When I returned, my home was as I had left it, but there was now a presence I had not accounted for, my grandmother’s spirit. She was the matriarch of our family, towering over all of us. I am told that she looked like a new bride on the day she died. Her hair was still raven-black, and her face calm like a still pond. I imagined her with a garland of jasmine framing her face. She was the sentinel of our house, positioning her chair directly opposite the front entrance. There was no one who could escape her notice. Ex-captain of her college basketball team, married at sixteen, graduate at twenty-six, travelled the world with her civil servant husband. A strong lady all her life, defeated by a virus.
She was not an overtly affectionate woman, often barking and growling her orders. Her ambitions to become a documentary film maker had never been fulfilled. We often wondered if she was angry because of that. She never let us into her mind, not the way we wanted. But her care was everywhere. It was in the fish-and-rice balls she fed me before school, in the onions she peeled for the evening curry, in the rhymes she recited to me as a toddler when I could barely speak. My first full sentence came out in the form of Sukumar Ray’s nonsense verse: Head office-er boro babu, lok ti boro shanto, tar je emon mathar byamo, keu kokhono janto?
Most of all, she was the one presence in our lives that could be taken for granted. When I was nine, she had asked me casually one day on the dining table, will you miss me when I die? I remember reeling from the suddenness of the question, for the first time contemplating a world where she would not always sit at the table, chopping carrots symmetrically.
All these memories flooded me as I came to look upon the faces of my parents and realized that there was a finality to her passing. They had seen her go into another life, but I had been too late. The hand that had pulled me through the veil had plunged me into the remembrances I had pushed aside to forge a new life, but I was not given the comfort of nostalgia. I was there, in that house, shrinking along with the rest of it.
Living through those shrunken months dulled the edge of the life I had bartered for myself, a life that seemed to recede into the background but whose reach extended continents. As the pandemic surged outside, our courses continued online. We had to keep writing our assignments and workshop them online. Daryl had become even more eloquent. Gia said crisis suited him. He went running every day to commune with nature and rediscover himself. He wrote sharp prose on the global inequalities that exacerbated existing public healthcare crises. He seemed to be racing alongside the virus, processing it as it happened. Gia was unhappy for a while. She lived in a remote village and everyone looked at her as if she had personally carried the virus into her community. In time, she adopted a stray kitten and was hardly seen without it purring on her lap.
My own process of rediscovery was tortuous. As the walls closed around our house of mourning, I felt myself becoming a bloodhound, constantly on the search. When my instructor asked me to share my argument for the essay I was writing, I found myself hunting out my grandmother’s handwriting instead. The “I” of my classroom was now distant in my imagination. It hounded me in turn. It was an “I” that demanded many things of me—it was the I breaking new ground, the I staking a decisive claim, the I becoming a leader in the field. Nothing deterred it, not even the thousands that were dying every day. I was not sure I was the same person anymore. I constantly battled with this loss of articulateness—my passport to equality. Without it, I was yet another migrant, feeling guilty on behalf of the country which had given me a conditional home. An unproductive, useless being.
At the same time, I began caring less and less about it. As this being that I had created myself wound its sinewy body around me like a boa constrictor, I began to multiply myself to escape its grasp. I went in search of myself in my grandmother’s loved objects, her winter shawls, her Agatha Christie books, even the machine that helped her breathe in the final days. My arguments vanished into nothingness as I exclaimed with the discovery of her handwritten recipes, left in scraps on old newspapers and paper thongas.
I began sleeping in her room. Her bed was a sea, undulating beneath me. I lay down under a dark sky, and my life stretched out in all directions at once. In those moments of a new and painful expansiveness, she visited me a few times. Have you ever seen a spirit? Not a ghost, clad in white. Imagine darkness. Imagine a compressed sphere of energy concentrating the darkness into an indefinite shape. My grandmother came to me in that form. She was also struggling with the loss of her body. Her care could no longer leave a physical imprint. The first time it happened, I did not breathe for ten seconds. I did not believe that it was real. Then I remembered Gia and her uncle, and I allowed myself to breathe. I became her body, and her spirit took the form of my quest. I began migrating from myself, but somehow, that journey only took me deeper into the person I could be, the person I was not allowing myself to be.
When the email came from the University asking us to return, I felt even more glued to my grandmother’s deathbed. You don’t understand, I wanted to say, you don’t understand what it means for me to leave this bed. To leave it right now.
Everyone noticed the change when I returned. I have come back slightly later than the rest, on grounds of bereavement. Daryl says he’s sorry I went through such a rough time. He clasps my shoulder tightly and says, how are you holding up, pal? This time, I decide to trust him and soften my body into him as I say, I’m okay. He instinctively releases my shoulder and replaces it with a kind smile. Some of the Indian students didn’t return. They had to take up jobs after the pandemic claimed lives in their family. Gia is back with her new kitten. I ask her how she looks at me now after our brief separation. She inspects me thoughtfully and says, you’re going to be one of the stragglers, aren’t you? Already, I feel multiple spirits brimming inside you, those that are gone, those yet to come.
I am learning to live anew. I start writing my essay, aware that the autonomy I had clung to desperately has begun to lose its form. I open with something the writer Nuruddin Farah once wrote: you become a community when you are away from home, the communal mind, remembering. Many great writers and poets have romanticized exile as the nucleus of a prodigious creativity. The roots separate from the tree but the tree cannot separate itself from referring to its severed roots. I do not know yet if my life will be spent shuttling between these two coordinates. I am not sure I believe in the concept of multiple homes. I am here, again, almost against my will. All I know is that my grandmother’s spirit is a memory I do not yet possess, a remembrance trapped deep within my bones that I will need to release someday. Will that lead me home? It is going to be a difficult path, and already, I feel quite alone.
Gia rescues me from the spiral I have gone into. Come, she says, leading me gently by the hand—we need to go to our workshop now. Our professor has arranged this as the last session of our course. Gia has coordinated with the instructors who are leading this session; they are community healers, working with marginalized groups in the city. Our professor has managed to siphon off some funds set aside for public engagement by branding our workshop a community-oriented event. The instructors practice a method which they are calling ancestorcraft. Through guided meditations, they aim to create spiritual atmospheres which simulate the touch and feel of places, people, and circumstances that are irrevocably lost. They call this a transnational exercise without borders. A movement that momentarily transforms the space simultaneously into a simulation of the lost home as well as the creation of a new, shared home. We connect with any land through our ancestors, no matter where they might be resting.
The room darkens and I am initiated.
Close your eyes, and imagine the feel of their skin.
Warm, slightly musty.
Think of what they would say to you in this moment.
Feel centered in their presence, which continues beyond the realm of the perceptible.
When I think of you, I feel less alone.
Think of them watching over you, protecting you.
I think of you as a great big whale, and I mourn your silent journey through the seas.
It goes on like this for several minutes. As the room fills with light, I feel pulled upwards. My body feels like a spiral. Pulsing at the centre is the consciousness that anchors me to my thinking self. The dot that starts it all. It begins to vibrate, releasing itself from its concentrated grip. It starts to unravel, and I feel my mind circling bend upon bend, riding the waves of my grandmother’s black hair, winding and twisting like her braid.
You are free, the voice says.
Who are you? I ask, again and again.
You didn’t think I would leave you alone, did you? Who do you think is speaking to you right now?