My mother watches me put my tea back in the microwave after it’s grown cold–a disgusting habit to her mind.
“Well, you come by it honestly,” she shrugs. “Your father will make a cup of tea and sit down in his study, playing on his computer, and he’ll pick up the tea an hour later and take it through to the kitchen to reheat it. Then he’ll do it again. By the third time, the mug just stands up, says, ‘thanks, mate, I know the way myself,’ and carries itself off to the microwave.”
This is about on par for my mother’s storytelling. My father used to correct details in her stories but got tired of the refrain, “yeah, but it’s BETTER the way I tell it.”
There’s something punchy and blunt about my mother’s story telling, and usually funny. And only if you can read Scots communication do you pick up the fondness underneath the jab, but it’s there. And if you’re too sensitive to catch it, you’re not really Scots then, are you?
My father’s stories are more romantic and poignant. He remembers, village born and innocent, getting cheated out of money at the ball-under-the-cup game on a sidewalk on his first trip to Calcutta. He mournfully shares the story of walking miles and miles from one village to another, hot and thirsty, and being offered water by a woman whose offer he declines when he learns she is Muslim, because that was the way things were in those days. His stories have the same rhythm of other stories I hear from my family when I visit India. One cousin tells me that when she was little, she asked her mother why my father (the youngest) was so much lighter skinned than her mother (the middle child) or our uncle (the eldest sibling). “Ah,” my aunt told her daughter, “when your Kaku (younger uncle) was a baby, your grandmother dipped him in milk.” When I asked another cousin if our grandmother was an only child, she said, “no; she had a brother, who would have inherited their land. Someone else wanted it, and they poisoned him when he was still a boy. The reason our great grandmother could not see is because she cried herself blind from mourning.” From the picture I’ve seen of my great grandmother, she had cataracts. But our family doesn’t correct the narrative (although I now have two cousins-in-law and a cousin who are all doctors) because it tells a deeper truth about love and grief and family. These family stories are incredibly Bengali (the region of India my family is from is known since partition as West Bengal). They are almost literary, poetic, and deeply reflective. If you have seen any of the Apu Trilogy by Satyajit Ray or read the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore, you have witnessed the best of Bengali art, but it is a part of the fabric of family lore, too.
I’m currently writing a book on a complicated subject: race and faith in contemporary America. Within minutes of being approached about writing it, I immediately said, “I can’t do the book justice through only my own lens.” I’m sharing stories of friends’ journeys with race as the launching point for each chapter. And yet, it will inevitably be through my own lens, too, and my own lens is shaped very much by the storytelling styles of my parents and the cultures that shaped both of them.
While my parents’ storytelling styles are very different, there is something that binds them together: they both root themselves in the value of the community and ultimately of family. Bengalis, and particularly Bengalis within their castes and subcastes, can be a bit clannish. (When my cousin said she was posting a matrimonial ad for Bengali Brahmins although she lives in Delhi, I said, “How broadminded,” sarcastically, and she nodded in agreement. I had forgotten that we are specifically Mithali Brahmin and she had in fact cast her net far wider than I was acknowledging.) The Scots may not have invented clans, but they’re known for them.
So as I tackle this book, sometimes the poignant self-reflection of my father shows up in my writing. Sometimes the pithy sharp-wittedness of my mother pops up. But in all cases, every story leads to community and to family. In this case, it leads to God’s family, which includes everyone who acknowledges that it includes everyone. Right now, that’s a pretty big limiting factor.
And as I write, I also try to remain humble, something embedded also in both my father’s personal stories and my mother’s family stories.
My mother tells of a cousin Cissy Cooper who once thought she had arrived in the world, become a bit posh, and had decided to do some genealogy, probably to see in what way we were related to Robert the Bruce. She asked greatgranny Caldwell how far back she could remember the family history. “Ow aye,” said gran, stroking her chin. “Aye, a’ course there were ole Jack O’Mullen, the tatty howker.” By means of translation, Granny Caldwell was telling her great niece that our family origins started with an IRISH (gasp) potato digger rather than uniter and protector of the nation of Scotland (picture an undocumented farm worker). The point of the story, my mother explained, was “Some people forget they were born up a close.” (A close being the entry hall.)
Cousin Cissy stopped her genealogy project right then and there.
I treasure this story because I am a long way from a village without electricity in post-partition India and a long way from a close in Glasgow. I work on my own humility as part of building up God’s community and value it deeply in others.
I was going to check with my mother to make sure I got the details of that family story right, but it sounds better the way I tell it.