Cosmonauts Avenue

Once, our apartment had a view of the East River. At night, we’d sit in the living room and marvel at the lights that blinked on the other shore (Queens? Brooklyn? Manhattan snobs, we had no idea), the barges and ships that floated past. Winter mornings, my sister and I gauged the cold by the chunks of ice that floated by. This was a long time ago.

Now my mother is in the kitchen, and my father is in the living room, and shades are drawn to keep out the sun and hide the building across the street, a building that blocks our once expansive view of the river.

I’m happy to see my parents, to be back in our apartment, getting ready to have a cup of tea with them at the familiar dining table that impedes easy passage from the kitchen to the living room. Before the teacup can touch my lips, however, I find myself apologizing to my mother. We shouldn’t have put the apartment up for sale. They told us you were cremated in India. I’m sorry, I say to my father, in his billowy white pajamas. We thought you died seven months after Mom. We were misinformed. But now you have to pay rent. The apartment has been sold.

As dreams go, this one is literal and to the point. My parents died, one followed by the other, and then my sister and I sold the apartment we’d grown up in and called home. Over the next ten years, I will wake regularly and announce to my husband, “I just dreamed about my parents. In the apartment.” Sometimes, I can’t tell them we sold it. Other times, they know but refuse to pack. Once, I wandered into their bedroom and found my father crying on his side of the bed.

My mother was born in a stone cold three-story house in Hoshiarpur, a city of 10,000¹ in the Punjab. This was 1928. She was born on the second floor; the big room on the first floor was for the cow the family kept. She lived her formative years in Lahore, a city that became part of Pakistan after the Partition in 1947.

My mother married at age 33, very late for an Indian woman, and give birth to me at 34. I was born at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. Two years earlier, the 1960 census recorded fewer than 8,000 people of Indian Asian descent living in the city. The only Indian doctor attending my birth was my father.

From an interview with my mother.
GK: So your home is Lahore.
MNK: No. My home is New Delhi. Even though I’ve never lived there.

My first remembered home: a cardboard box in a bedroom high above First Avenue. I was three, and the box had windows and doors and my favorite thing was to sit in it. We’d just moved, from a one-bedroom apartment on Lexington where I slept in the living room to this new three-bedroom apartment across the street from the city morgue and NYU Hospital, ten blocks south of the United Nations where my mother worked, and fifteen blocks north of my nursery school, where I was the youngest child. My mother was pregnant with my sister. “Geeta must learn how to share,” my report card said, which my parents must have read as a warning.

In between the two apartments, I lived in a house in Maine, where my father studied for his license to practice psychiatry in the U.S.

I had no way of understanding these transitions, no language to process the shifts around me. When my parents moved on a cold, sunny day in February, I spent the day with my godparents in their apartment on York Avenue. In later years, so absolutely sure of our godmother’s love for us, my sister and I would threaten to run away to her apartment. This apartment on 64th and York, with the goldfish in a tiled pool in the lobby and its view of the PepsiCo sign across the East River, felt as familiar as our own.

Three generations lived in that three-story house in Hoshiarpur. The house bordered a town square, Kanak Mandi, which meant “wheat market” though my mother never saw wheat sold in the square or in any of the shops surrounding it, many of them operated and owned by relatives, including her grandfather and his brother. Large trees shadowed the square, where people sat all day selling their goods, which included hay, for my mother’s family was not the only one to keep a cow in the house.

“We ran wild,” my mother said, about herself and her youngest aunt, a year older, more sister than aunt. “We fought all the time.” Once, while they argued, two bickering sparrows fell into my mother’s hair. That shut them up quickly. Another time, they tried to carry each other down a flight of stairs.

“Did you break anything?”

My mother laughed. “We got a beating. For being so bad.”

Unlike my younger sister, who stated her reluctance to move right from the beginning when she presented as a breech birth, I seemed able to make myself at home anywhere. This is the impression I gave. Easy going. Adaptable.

In Maine, I passed my days on the beach with my mother or in the care of a tall blonde girl, possibly named Debbie, whom my parents spoke of with great fondness every time we came across of a photo of the two of us. Apart from those photos, apart from a single vague memory of playing with sand on the beach, I have no memory of that summer.

I do remember the cardboard box. I remember sitting it in with my dolly, Pinky, a gift from my Czech godmother, who lived in Germany, not to be confused with my Swiss godmother, who lived in the apartment on York Avenue. I remember the coziness of the box, how it sat in the middle of my new bedroom, lined with three floor-to-ceiling windows facing east and two facing south. The room must have felt as vast and empty as the cho, the alluvial plain my mother used to cross with her grandfather in the morning. They had a garden on the far side, a plot of vegetables framed by mulberry trees, and when she got tired, her grandfather carried her on his shoulders.

When my mother first mentioned the cho, she called it a desert, and I thought she was talking about the empty tract of land across the street from my grandfather’s house in New Delhi, a vast undeveloped acreage of sand on which we sometimes played. New post-Partition construction, white stucco single-story homes, lined up across the street, yet to me, it seemed they’d always been there. When my mother talked about carrying her aunt down the stairs, I imagined them flying down the steps in my grandfather’s house, the steps leading from the back of the first floor up to the flat roof on which we played cricket with our cousins and watched buffalo and vegetable sellers walk the street below. On the landing that looked into the kitchen, the two bedrooms, and the living room, where my sister and I slept on charpoys that magically appeared from the storeroom every evening, where we huddled under thick cotton rezais and in the morning listened to the sound of our grandmother in the kitchen, our grandfather brushing his teeth in the tiny sink at the foot of our beds, on this landing I imagined my mother and Ansueya sleeping. The landing opened up to one more area, not quite a room, not quite a hallway, leading to the back of the house. My grandmother slept on a bed here and through the open skylight, sparrows flew in and out all day.

“Was this where the sparrows fell into your hair?”

After all. She called it home. Even though she’d never lived there.

For years, I missed that box, with its simple cut out windows, its lopsided walls. My parents forgot about it long before I did. I eventually grew into my bedroom, the size of it reduced by the suitcases and trunks my parents stored there, always in a state of being packed or unpacked, as if putting them away would make us forget to go to India. For this is what we lived our days and weeks and months for, that day when we’d board a plane and return. The place where we never lived. The place we called home.

At night, I lay in bed and watched the moon over the East River, barges floating by, the blinking industrial lights on the opposite shore. Legs of light walked across my ceiling as traffic moved along First Avenue. I imagined the legs belonged to tall men who looked and dressed like Abraham Lincoln, and I scrunched my eyes closed because if I watched them too closely they might see me and take me away.

Along with suitcases and trunks, for eight, nine, ten years we lived with my father’s temporary status, my father who had no visa and lived under the threat of deportation. Every year, we waited for the renewal of my mother’s G-4 visa. Without her job, there’d be no reason to stay in New York, no way to stay.

The tall men who came to my room at night would take us away.

I have stood outside the house where the sparrows fell into my mother’s hair, the house where she and Ansueya carried each other down the stairs, the house where my mother and her sisters were born, the house where she lived for nine years, but if we returned to Hoshiarpur today, to Kanak Mandi, and you asked me to point it out, I wouldn’t be able to. Not without my uncle, the only sibling not born in that house. He was born in Lahore, pre-Partition, in a house that no longer exists.

What can I tell you about her home in Lahore? Only what she told me:

We lost everything.

What does everything mean to a girl growing up in midtown Manhattan? At breakfast, I’d report my dreams: the elevator getting stuck between floors or traveling horizontally, never landing on 11. In my favorite recurring dream, the FDR Drive turned into a beach. The buildings blocking access disappeared, and I emerged from ocean green water onto a smooth expanse of sand.

My mother never used the phrase, “Last night I dreamed…” She acted like someone who never had dreams. Like someone whose body could forget an entire decade. She spoke about Lahore in terms of achievement: learning English, winning awards, prizes, and a scholarship to university. One of her childhood friends who also lost everything told me how my mother completed her knitting homework for her. “She pulled my ears for knitting the collar so badly. It looked like dog’s ears,” the friend said. My mother, sitting across from her, smiled and later, when I asked for more, claimed to have no memory of the incident.

When our building began the process of converting to a condominium, my parents attended all the meetings to protest. In a few years, my mother would retire and the UN would pay for her repatriation. What would my parents do with an apartment in New York? With one daughter in college, the other about to go, how could they afford a mortgage?

In the end they bought the apartment. “This is the only home your father’s known,” my mother said. She didn’t say where her home was. Her parents were still alive, and although she no longer stayed with them, their house having become their son’s house, a house his wife and children filled, my mother still kept some clothes and an envelope of money on a shelf in her sister’s closet there.

She didn’t dream about the East River turning into an ocean or of tall men coming to remove her from the apartment, but she never stopped packing her suitcases. Any day now, she’d be going home. The place she was from, her native country.

Our building didn’t have a thirteenth floor. The elevator skipped from 12 to 14. I didn’t understand how we could say the building was 21-floors when one was missing.

Among my parents’ photos is a series of me, at eighteen months, on a couch, typing. The typewriter is plastic and small and framed between my small legs. I’m wearing a dress, and my feet are flexed in exactly the same way I flex them now, sometimes in my sleep. When I wake in the middle of the night, my toes feel stiff from pushing against the bed or the quilt.

My hair is glossy; my mother was still putting coconut oil in it, so that it lay flat on my scalp, then exploded into curls—not obedient Shirley Temple ringlets, but random, haphazard waves and curls, very much like my father’s hair. When we woke up in the morning, we both looked like mad professors, black-haired Einsteins.

I am looking at the typewriter with great concentration, using a finger to tap out my words, which I don’t have yet. I walked early, talked late, and then according to my father, never stopped. Among my first phrases, “Daddy’s typewriter, not a toy.”

But this is not my father’s typewriter.

For many years, I thought these photos, a series of ten or so, were taken by my father in our first apartment on Lexington Avenue, where I slept in a crib in the living room. But when I look closely at the background, I can see the wooden edge of the cabinet in the white plaster wall behind me, and when I look at my old passport and the stamp marking my first visit to India, I understand this photo was not taken in New York. It wasn’t taken at my grandparents’ house in Greater Kailash either, but in their home in Kalkaji, another Delhi neighborhood, a temporary home like the home in Karnal that they moved to right after the Partition. I have no memory of this place, and it’s only recently that I realized I’d conflated all my mother’s homes: Hoshiarpur and Lahore, Kalkaji and Greater Kailash. The way foreigners erase distinctions between Indians from different regions, so I had erased the differences between locality and structure. All homes became one, all memories neatly housed in one place.

I sat at my grandfather’s typewriter, on the divan in his living room, likely the same divan that would become part of the Greater Kailash living room a few years later. It’s a fitting photo not because I became a writer in my grandfather’s house—I didn’t—but because I became a reader in his house, and this eventually led to me becoming a writer.

Home: “the place where one lives permanently, especially as a member of a family or household.”²

Home: “the place in which one’s domestic affections are centered.”³

Home: “a person’s native place or own country.”4

My grandparents died, first my grandfather, then my grandmother several years later. I accompanied my mother to New Delhi for the four-year anniversary of my grandmother’s death. Every evening, we sat by ourselves at our hotel remembering how things used to be—my grandfather coming home on his bicycle, my grandmother sunning herself on the verandah, evenings full of conversation and laughter. One night, my mother said, “As long as my mother was alive, I had a home.”

When my mother left Lahore in May 1947 with her siblings, she thought they’d return at the end of the summer, as they always did. They took only what they needed for their summer holiday in Hoshiarpur with their grandparents. She didn’t think twice about leaving behind her precious red Raleigh bicycle, her books, her prize-winning artwork, including a vase she had painted for her aunt’s wedding. It was so beautiful, her mother wouldn’t let her give it away.

What mixed feelings my mother must have had on August 15, when Independence celebrations lit up the town with firecrackers and sparklers. Did she take a vow while listening to the cheering in the street to never look back, to ignore the sounds and smells and sights that triggered any longing for what proved to be as ephemeral as a cardboard box? She would never talk about the friends she left behind, of the neighborhood where she grew from child to adult, of the house where she painted her prize-winning poster depicting communal harmony. In May, when she boarded that eastbound train she didn’t realize this vision of Lahore, a city of gurdwaras, temples, churches and mosques, was already a dream.

When my father said he wanted to die at home, he meant the apartment he’d lived in for forty years. He meant our home, the one we’d shared. He meant the center of his domestic affection. When he talked about home, he meant us, the four of us.

My mother declared to her friend, the one whose homework she completed, “I will not die in this country,” meaning the country she had lived in since she was twenty-two, when she boarded a plane headed to the U.S.

Buried in my files is a newspaper clipping with a photo of an elderly woman feeding papers and photographs into a burning trashcan. Behind her, the house abandoned by a family fleeing the Serbs, the kitchen table a still life of the meal they abandoned: a half eaten loaf of bread, cups of water, a slab of cheese. The old woman and her family, like cuckoos, occupy the nest, destroying what they can’t use. Her face betrays no apology, no second thoughts as she adds the faces of strangers to the flames.

In Lahore, there were once 300 Hindu temples; today, two remain functional, but the 35 Hindu families who live in the city live there “under disguise.”

If I’d shown my mother that photo of the woman with the trashcan, she would have looked away.

My mother died in New Delhi, in a hospital, alone. My father died seven months later, in our apartment, alone. Technically, they both died at home.

When I returned to the apartment two months after my father’s death, each room, exactly as it had been when he died–my bedroom, his bedroom, the room between them, once my sister’s bedroom but now an office–echoed with his absence. The wind whistled through the slightly open windows, a sound I’d never heard there before. As I sat on the edge of the couch, like an uninvited guest, I understood that when my father said home, he meant my mother. And I felt a great sadness that she couldn’t return the feeling.

For the fifteen years I’d been living in Pittsburgh, I still called New York home. I adapted to the distance by keeping a toothbrush in the bathroom I used as a child, clothes in my old closet, current papers in my desk drawer. I slept in my old bed, and in the afternoon, as my mother woke from her nap, I’d stretch out on the bed next to her, and we’d talk quietly while my father put the kettle on for tea.

After my father died, I stood in my kitchen in Pittsburgh with my husband, immobilized by loss. “I feel like I don’t have a home anymore,” I said, echoing my mother, word for word.

“You do have a home. With me. With Tufty. Here.” He took me in his arms and the dog, hearing her nickname, thumped her tail against the floor. He sounded alarmed, which was rare for him. I wanted to argue, but all I had was an apartment in New York filled with forty years of papers, books, photos. I’d experienced its emptiness and found no solace in the things that remained: the painting of the mango in the middle of white canvas that my mother bought in a gallery in New Delhi; the king-sized bed where we had our afternoon talks; the round dining table my father made when he was unemployed, around which we had endless cups of tea; my mother’s collection of 78 rpm records, old shellac recordings of Indian artists.

I was forty-four years old. I had a husband, I had a dog. I had a job, I had friends. My parents had been gone for two years. My sister and I had emptied the apartment, remodeled it, and now we had to decide what do.

When my mother said New Delhi was her home, when she said that she no longer had a home, I had to wonder: what was New York? What was our apartment on First Avenue? Where were her domestic affections when she sat with us in the living room, reading the newspaper? Or when she came into my room in the middle of the night because I was crying in my sleep from the growing pains in my legs?

None of this occurred to me that evening she and I sat outside, listening to dusk fall, the sound of crickets and frogs filling the air. I should have challenged her, encouraged her to travel with me, to Rajasthan, to Kerala, to Darjeeling–places she hadn’t been but wanted to see. But habit of calling Delhi home had its hold on both of us, and her regret became my regret rather than our opportunity.

My father wanted us to keep the apartment–as an investment to manage from a distance? As a vehicle to acquire more apartments, borrowing and borrowing until we would either declare bankruptcy or explode with money? He’d said we could move in, my sister and I, as we were both still single, without lives of our own. We didn’t know how he expected us to carry on as if nothing had changed. He didn’t understand that without them, the place fell into limbo, an invisible thirteenth floor, a ghost stripped of its identity. When we finally sold the apartment (“You’ll never live in New York again,” a friend said), I felt great relief and sadness.

These days, I store my suitcases in a closet on the third floor of my house. I travel to New York infrequently, the city having loosened its hold on me as well as my sister, who now lives in California. The dreams of my parents persist, with less intensity. I wake and forget the details. I miss seeing them, miss having the chance to explain that I couldn’t live my life with my heart in two places, that in the end, I had to choose the living–the husband, the dog, the friends–over the dead.

The places we live are little more than cardboard boxes except in our memories.

Perhaps this was why my mother never talked about what they lost in the Partition. They had their lives, after all. And although the family moved from one place to the next as my grandfather struggled to find financial footing, and although it is likely that the Partition and its losses propelled my mother to take the exam for the UN, the exam she passed and that sent her, improbably, unimaginably, farther away from home than anyone in her family had ever gone, she never talked about the life she might have had.

She tried so hard, but when she returned to India and got sick (having concealed her illness from my father, my sister and me), I felt like she’d chosen this ghost life. By the time she realized she’d picked an empty box, it was too late. I arrived in New Delhi four days after her cremation. I didn’t even see her ashes.

One night, I stood on the corner of Thirtieth and First and counted up the windows of our building up to the eleventh floor and wondered who was sleeping my old bedroom. Light seeped out from the sides of the shades or maybe there were curtains. From the ground, I couldn’t tell.

In 11L, we’d been a family. My father died there, exactly as he’d wanted, at home. The night he died, he spoke to me on the phone, he spoke to my sister and told her not to come over, and within the hour, he closed his eyes and didn’t open them again. When my sister found him the next morning, in his chair, with the TV on, he looked peaceful, his medicines tucked beside him, his head resting against the backrest. The TV was on. He’d died between Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune.

I’d heard the new people ripped out the kitchen my sister so carefully designed, and that they planned to tear down the wall between my bedroom and the living room. They’d have five windows facing east, looking into the hospital building across the street. The view of the river my parents and friends exclaimed over whenever they walked into our living room had been reduced to a bare sliver.

My husband stood next to me. We didn’t linger, for it was gone and we were late.


[1] This is an estimate based on the 1901 census, which recorded 6400 people.


[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid


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