My youngest uncle once lived in a town called Richardson, TX. It was a town I knew of, for those days I’d read a lot. Stuff that everyone considered weird, of little interest, and not helpful academically. I was a fan especially of sports magazines like Sportstar with its glossy photographs of sportspeople, and Sportsworld which had entertaining write-ups. On the radio, I’d tune into the BBC and follow sports like tennis and cricket. I did a bit of long-distance running as well, those days.
We lived then in a series of small towns across eastern India, and only men played tennis in clubs that dated from British times. And cricket was a game that girls never played. It was only unfeminine girls like me, I thought, who showed an interest in it. The year Martina Navratilova won at Wimbledon beating Chris Evert in the final, I read, maybe in the Sportstar, that she had made her home in Richardson soon after leaving her home country of Czechoslovakia.
Some months later I learnt my youngest uncle no longer lived there but had moved to a different town.
Of all the angry men in my family, Youngest Uncle, as I called him, was the angriest. Unlike the others—and I have a list based on their propensity to anger—who had their good moods and could be happy on occasion, youngest uncle was always angry. At one time, he had been my favorite uncle; he was great fun then and found ways of making us laugh.
Some months ago, my uncle had a terrible falling out with his daughter. The news spread fast across continents, time zones, and popped into our phones, all of us on the family WhatsApp group. First, my cousin, Youngest Uncle’s daughter, exited the group, and shortly after, our respective phone screens filled up with his short, truncated sentences, marked by careless abbreviations, and fulsome emojis.
For moments, we remained suspended in silence. Then someone ventured a series of question marks, in response to uncle, to which he countered with question marks of his own. More half-questions on our part, such as ‘what happened?‘ or ‘is everything okay?’ only drew more emojis from him, then an ‘I don’t know,‘ followed by, ‘how should I know?’, and last a shrug emoji, that is, the figure with palms upraised. Finally, when someone persisted with a ‘why did she leave?‘ Uncle delivered a paragraph-long response, equivalent to someone throwing things, banging the door, and bawling in sheer rage.
AFAIK, this is a free country. Everyone here is free to make their decisions. 21 is the legal age, right? Don’t ask me anything. Why am I being asked?
Depending on how we felt about Uncle, and the state of our mood then, our phones throbbed, quivered, or, as happened in a couple of cases, the screens froze up. But no matter the state of our phones, Uncle’s anger hovered like a giant cyber cloud over everyone in the extended family.
In the time when letters were exchanged more often, stories of his anger took days to travel. Now time had been compressed, and his anger moved quickly and stung fast. All of us were now scattered across continents and met infrequently. But WhatsApp had made us lifelike to each other. We were like big cardboard cutouts, with our unchecked raw emotions, and emojis in free display. When Uncle flew into one of his towering rages, he became far bigger than his five-foot self. His anger spilled out of him like lava, divided his family, and brought some occasional excitement into our normal humdrum WhatsApp exchanges.
Still, we never figured out what had happened between Youngest Uncle and his daughter.
We knew she had promised never to talk to him again. They already lived in different cities, a distance of several hours and miles apart. That didn’t mean much. Sriya was insistent about not visiting her parents again. Not even at Thanksgiving time and Christmas, which in the new traditions we had accumulated and made over, symbolized a getting together of families, of bonding with loved ones over a meal or two. These were occasions that all of us, now spread over the world, followed, with zeal and desperation, as we made our lives anew. Getting together held up our illusions that as a family, we were still the same, that we were only adapting new ways, customs, and rituals to keep up in a new land.
The anger between Uncle and his daughter built walls of silence. Like the border walls that came up not very far from where uncle stayed. Nothing more of this was mentioned in our text messages, but the elaborate silence, the pauses between comments, ellipses, spaces and emojis, told their own story – the rift between Youngest Uncle and his daughter was too big to heal, the divide too high to scale.
Youngest Uncle never came to know when Sriya had her baby. She never sent photos, the kind that fond grandparents framed for display on their mantelpieces.
And we didn’t share the YouTube video of Uncle’s latest recital when he sang at the Greater Hindu temple in Fort Worth. He was there every October during the festival of Durga, enchanting everyone—the diaspora, old and young—when he sang the old Bengali songs that they had all grown up with, and never forgotten.
It was hard then to reconcile the man with the soft mellifluous voice with the simmering anger that enmeshed him like a prison, that tied him to a past he could never quite break off.
But really, he hadn’t always been like that. He was someone who had slowly been converted into an angry man. With time, and all the places that he traveled, far away from his childhood hometown. A place that had seen three divisions in his lifetime and that of his parents. His hometown had first been part of British India; it had become part of East Pakistan in 1947, and then, a town in Bangladesh, a country created by the war of 1971.
I was six when I first met Youngest Uncle. He came to stay with us for a few days, in our apartment in Delhi. It was his stepping stone to the momentous journey he would soon make. From Delhi, he would fly to the United States to join his older brother, where, like him, Youngest Uncle too would study to become an engineer. The family, as I understood only later, was relieved by this event. Finally, Youngest Uncle was going to do something useful in life. Everyone hoped that in time he would become as brilliant as his older brothers.
He fussed over me a lot that time. I remember the annoyed look on my mother’s face when I insisted uncle would decide the frock I’d wear once I had changed out of my school uniform. My mother thankfully doesn’t remember this, otherwise I’d be very embarrassed. I cringe with shame now. About the fuss I made, clad only in my panties, standing arms akimbo, refusing to listen to mother. There was a pink round collared dress I was fond of then, and I wore it almost every day. That afternoon I wanted to wear it again. Mother gave in, she threw the dress at me, and its press buttons hit me on the bare skin. The pinprick of pain I felt then, I feel even now, just as I can recall my mother’s face clearly. The frown on her face, her nose scrunched up in disgust. I’d won the round this time, but I lost in so many other ways. Uncle had only laughed, telling my mother not to mind so much.
Five years later, I met Youngest Uncle again. He had flown to India for his marriage had been arranged. He had selected the girl himself from all the matrimonial advertisements placed on his behalf in two of Calcutta’s leading English dailies.
At five feet and a half, I was then just as tall as my youngest uncle. People around me were always expressing surprise at my height as if it compensated for everything else wrong with me. I always felt fat, growing as much sideways as vertically, and my complexion made my mother and my other aunts, despair.
I didn’t think Youngest Uncle was short. On his part, he didn’t mind anything about me at all. Not even the fact that for all his efforts one afternoon, I persistently sang off-key. But it was fun, and he was fun too. He made me laugh because he would consistently correct our pronunciation. He had already become, as the older relatives said, too ‘American’. For instance, he threw his head back and laughed when we asked him how many years he had been away; ‘I thought you meant “ears,”’ he chortled, pulling his own as he did so.
Nor did he care much about tradition, or the rules he was supposed to follow just before marriage. On his wedding day, he took some of us cousins to lunch at a fancy place though he was supposed to fast.
There were fierce arguments he had with his father about the girl he had decided to marry. ‘It’s my marriage,’ he told him, ‘you aren’t going to get married at your age, are you?’ All the other grown-ups looked stunned at his effrontery, but we youngsters giggled. Great Uncle, that is, Youngest Uncle’s father was always too stiff and formal and his ears reddened at his son’s words. ‘You are arrogant,’ my father said mildly enough, but still, we children found him funny.
When I think about how anger builds up over time, I remember a time in the early 1980s. The scores of young men walking down the streets of the town I lived in then. All with matted locks pulled up into a thick topknot. The way the God Shiva wore his hair.
According to Hindu myth, Shiva’s locks lay thick, tangled, and matted on his shoulders, catching the free-spirited, willful river Ganga as she flowed down from heaven on the entreaties of a young prince. The river’s tumultuous fall gentled as her waters flowed through Shiva’s hair before she came down to the earth gracefully, more docile than ever before.
The young men were on a mission. They were devotees of Shiva too. A wooden pole across their shoulders held two urns of water drawn from the river Ganga, which they were transporting to Shiva temples across India. All along the way, the many roads and highways they covered, walking in groups, they chanted Shiva’s name and sang bhajans, and we could hear their humming a long way off. A musical chanting in rhythm to their anklets and the castanets they carried. As they neared, and we could hear them over the walls of our house, my brother and I rushed to the tall grilled gate to catch a glimpse of them.
They walked fast, with mincing steps, the pole balanced perfectly on their shoulders. They looked straight ahead, with a look of fierce resolution, and determination in their eyes. Their hair lay, thick coils on their shoulders, and in their hands, or across their necks, they wore the beaded stoned necklaces, dear to Shiva. Otherwise, they were dressed rather shabbily, with a vest and a knee-length wraparound orange or saffron robe; some were even bare-chested. My brother and I would look at them long after they had passed our house, taking the road that led past the newspaper office, the triangular park dedicated to the freedom fighters, till they became small stick-like figures, lost in the palm trees that loomed all over the town.
This routine played out the same way the two summers we lived in that town in the east, two hours away from the sea. We heard the hum of their low singing in the distance and rushed to the gate. We watched them pass, wraith-like, with that look of intense-focused concentration on their faces, the matted locks bouncing on their lean shoulders, and the pitchers of water bouncing gently at every step. To me, they seemed timeless, like the starving sages of old, who undertook long journeys, and underwent long hours of penance, to find out many things: how to appease and propitiate the ever-remote gods, or just to find the secret to life.
At that time, I did think a bit about such questions. I thought of such deep and silly matters and longed to run away, to walk so lightly on earth that no trace of my presence would appear anywhere. I longed to be free like that.
The sages of old, I also remember, had the wisdom and power to grant boons, to make things happen, and for wishes to come true. And they were quick to anger too, bestowing curses on those hapless mortals who had displeased them. Anger that made thunder sound in the skies, broke the earth up into cracks and ridges, and kingdoms to crumble and perish. To me, the most powerful men always seemed the angriest. But with Youngest Uncle, it was different.
After he came to America, Youngest Uncle never lasted in one job. He was laid off many times. This had him moving to different small towns in Texas, all in or around the Dallas area. I often helped my grandmother who was a tireless letter writer. Via letters, she kept in touch with her relatives, her sisters-in-law, nephews, and nieces all around the world. She’d write in her careful neat Bangla, and I’d write the addresses in English on the front flap of the rectangular airmail envelopes.
Every year, my youngest uncle would have a different address. Richardson, Fort Worth, Forest Hill, Plano, Garland. No matter where he went though, every fall, during the Durga Puja, when the Indian community gathered at the temple in Fort Worth, Youngest Uncle would be there, part of the cultural program. His singing got him many admirers, though he also lost a few over the years—his abrasiveness rubbed off on everyone—but at least, as the organizers once told his older brother, Youngest Uncle could be counted on to provide entertainment, to liven up these festive evenings. Other singers were unreliable, always dropping off the program at the last minute, on some pretext or another.
Some of Youngest Uncle’s videos are still up on YouTube. And uncle looks as much as I remember him. He sits on the dais, cross-legged, playing his harmonium, singing with his face lifted, his eyes closed, oblivious to the audience and even his own self.
In December 1992, I read of the mosque being destroyed in the north of India. The pictures appeared in the newspapers some days later. I studied then at a college in a town that was immediately placed under curfew, and the newspapers reached us days late. We updated ourselves with news from the radio.
Men egged on by right-wing politicians ran amok towards a disputed mosque – that many believed was the birthplace of Rama, the hero of the epic Ramayana that was centuries old. The mosque in turn had been built in the 16th century by a general of the Mughal army. The rumors spread in abandon, stories flowed, built up on hearsay, strengthened by innuendo, and new versions of history. The only thing that grew was hate.
The young men appeared in all the grainy black-and-white newspaper photos of the time. Pictures I can still see if I search online for these old newspapers from thirty years ago. Pictures that even today symbolize the rise of “right-wing political mobilization” in India, as sociologists labeled it. The young men standing with tridents held high, all dressed in orange, some holding up orange triangular flags as well. In every picture I saw, I sensed this too: How raucous they were in their “victory.” They were chortling in glee at their triumph. At the ease with which they had destroyed a 400-year-old structure, a matter that was still in dispute before the courts. And what was most noticeable was the intensity in their eyes.
It reminded me of the young men who had walked past our house a decade and more ago. Walking in groups, their eyes, fixed on the road straight ahead, lit up with a fervent intensity, an unwavering focus, a steely determination. In the space of some years, all this had somehow changed to an indescribable anger, a cacophony of sound and laughter, that crackled through the newspaper pages and made me shudder. It was anger riffled up by rabble-rousing politicians, a fury that could only fuel hatred, and for the young men, who thought they had the power to destroy something, reduce something that had stood for four hundred years or even older, to rubble, such anger could only promise an inchoate, uncertain future.
Sometimes, I think Youngest Uncle’s anger is something like that. An anger that showed he was in control; when, in truth, there was very little in his control. For men like my uncle, politics of that time moved silently, inexorably, and brutally, forcing them to change plans, prompting them to alter their destinies, move through life in a way that at first appeared acceptable, but in the end, turned out, something else altogether. Their inchoate anger came from their inability to understand the world and their deep fear that this world would not, and would never, understand them. That the world they were in had made it impossible to understand themselves.
For my uncle, the war of 1971, that tore apart his homeland, that led to the creation of a new country called Bangladesh, changed his life in unexpected, unthinkable ways. He could boast about it, the new direction his life had taken from then on, taken him all the way to the US. He had been luckier than most of his peers. Inside though, it left him hollowed, and embittered, and terribly angry.
When life changes, or when you take a plunge into something new and alien, there is nothing of the old you can take with you. The new might sound attractive, like a fabled and magical new world one is lucky to enter, but the old world is now forever behind. For those who could not understand it, or failed to look such truths in the face, all it left was a bitter, uncontrollable anger.
Youngest Uncle’s ire was first directed towards his oldest sister-in-law, the British woman who had married his oldest brother. We found his rage and his insinuations comical at first: She had lured him, enticed him into marriage, her porcelain skin, her fixed smile masking her real intentions, and in the end, his older brother’s ambitions had been thwarted. And he had been such a promising scientist.
He also picked a quarrel with third uncle’s wife. He thought his brother, that is, third uncle, had turned too mild and submissive post his marriage. What particularly irked my youngest uncle was his impression that no one believed him and took his sister-in-law, my third aunt’s side.
‘You believe her more,’ he said once to my father before slamming the phone down. The third aunt was also less abrasive than he was. Not one to mince her words, she thought Youngest Uncle hadn’t been grateful enough. For everything his brothers had done for him.
It was a time of civil war, those days of 1971, we all knew the stories of those dark days when Youngest Uncle and his parents had to flee across the border to India. Youngest Uncle, then caught up in politics, a supporter of the party fighting for independence from Pakistan, would have been picked up by the military, and made to disappear, had the war not ended when it did. A fifteen-day war, when India intervened to help the party seeking independence, ended in Pakistan accepting defeat. Youngest Uncle had then crossed the border to India, a refugee with his parents. Four years later, his life took a different turn when he left for the United States. Third Uncle sponsored his trip and later paid for his college education.
Youngest Uncle couldn’t bear having to be grateful all his life for something he came to regret. Forced to move to a new country—for all the attractions it offered—made him a different person. At first, confused about all that he had had to leave behind, he was increasingly angry: an insignificant new person in a land where he would always be an outsider.
Maybe Youngest Uncle never really wanted to be brilliant like his older brothers. He contested the fact that he had been saved, that he had a narrow escape in those conflict-ridden days of 1971.
‘Things would have gone back to normal soon,’ he always said.
What he loved most was music and his singing. Maybe he really just wanted to be a singer. To roam the streets of his small hometown, his harmonium slung around his neck, unambitious, never brilliant, but happy.
‘There are my friends who are still there,’ he once told my father during a visit to India.
‘And what kind of future do they have?’
Youngest Uncle stomped out of the room in a huff. For the remainder of his stay, I remember, he and my father didn’t exchange another word.