I was almost six — I desperately wanted to taste India again.
The bottle of gripe tonic water sat next to Dad’s 4711 Cologne on top of the large tansu (Japanese/bureau) in mom and dad’s bedroom. I stared at it. The tonic was very precious, it was the only thing that calmed my baby brother’s colic. It came from England, and Granny sent it to us from India. I loved the taste, like rosewater.
It was what was left of my Bombay, where I belonged. I was out of place here, in Ashiya-gawa, Japan, where I was stared at like a monkey in a zoo.
I wanted my old world back. I drove my mother crazy with my crying. “Chalas! (finished, end of story, enough)”! She yelled in Arabic. “There is no going back!” she repeated as I wailed.
One afternoon, crazy with homesickness I craved the tonic. I needed it, I wanted it, and I didn’t stop myself.
Maybe I was mad she loved my brother Elliot more than me, I don’t know. I was mad about everything, mad and sad—desperate to taste, to ingest, India again. It was the only direct experience left of my old life.
I eyed the tonic sitting on the tansu. I felt abandoned. I hurt. I missed India too much. I reached for the bottle, unscrewed the cap, and drank it down. Mild and smooth the liquid went into me, mediating the ache in my heart. For a moment I was Home.
I knew I had done the unthinkable.
Mom walked in and saw the empty bottle. She lost it. What would she do when Elliot’s stomach “cried”? What was wrong with me? “You are a bad seed!” she yelled.
“Why,” I asked her years later, “why no empathy? No mirroring my pain and fear, no ‘I know, I know you want to go back, this must be so hard for you.’”
“I was afraid to encourage you,” she explained, “we were struggling. Your father had no work, we were trying to survive, to adjust. You refused.”
I refused. I wanted my courtyard and brown skinned friends in Hazarat Court on Arthur Bundar Lane in Bombay. I wanted my balcony overlooking the wildly chaotic street below. I hated this isolated suburb known all over Japan for its elegant beauty. I didn’t care about our “beautiful view”, with the mountain on one side and the sea on the other. I longed for Bombay’s noise, dust and dirt. Its colors, smells, the warm people. It was alive.
“It was filthy and cruel” mom said.
I begged and pleaded, as she dragged me up the stairs threatening to lock me up in the empty room “once and for all.” She shut the door behind her. The room was being converted into a western style room, the paper and wood sliding shoji doors were already replaced by a “real (western style) door.” I stared at the brass doorknob. I didn’t know it didn’t have a lock.
Trapped in my fear and panic, I needed a plan. I had to get out.
I stared out of the second story window overlooking the sloping smooth ebony tiles of our Japanese roof. I opened the window. As I fixed my eyes on the clothesline below. I slid open the window.I had a plan.
There were only two possible outcomes. One, I would grab the clothesline and be safe, or I would miss and die. Mom would be sorry. Either way, I would be free.
She was facing the window, chopping vegetables, when she saw me fall on my butt onto the concrete, right in front of her eyes.
“You scared the life out of me” she said later.
I don’t remember the landing. I must have been in shock. I don’t remember being sore. I was free.“It’s a miracle you didn’t break your neck or your back”, she said. Shocked and relieved she held me.
For a moment, I forgot India.