Issue #54, Lost Truths & Family Legends

Visiting the Past

Sejal H. Patel

Visiting the Past

“Cows are very smart,” my mom bragged. “You know, they can find their way home.” 

She paused. “It’s true.” 

I didn’t believe her at first. And then, walking through my father’s birth village in western India last December, I witnessed it. At exactly 4 pm, a herd of some fifteen cows walked down the main village road, which branched out into side streets lined with residences and stables. The cows trotted through cool mud patches on the road, their tails dancing from side to side. One by one, they turned onto their respective streets to go home.

“Cow never forgets home,” my mom sang. 

We hadn’t forgotten our home either, even though my father had not been there for more than fifty years.

The trip to India almost didn’t happen. Six months earlier, I had pleaded with my dad over the phone. “We have to go to India. I can’t write a book about your life without seeing it with you and mom.” 

“But why?” he asked. “There is nothing to see there.” My father couldn’t understand what I could possibly gain by seeing where he grew up, except maybe a stomach bug from eating tempting street food. I responded, apologetically, that I see the world through the eyes of a lawyer. To reconstruct a past event, I need to visit a scene, interview people, and gather evidence. 

“Even if everything has changed all these years later?” he asked.

“Even then.” 

I had realized that to understand my father—and myself—I had to learn more about my family’s past. I was a year into divinity school studies then and kept seeing Simone Weil quoted in my readings: “To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.” 

At that point in my life, my soul needed rooting.

A year earlier, I was a member of a four-person trial team, defending a man charged with federal terrorism crimes. We believed that our client was innocent, but the jury came back with seven guilty verdicts. He would serve most of his seventeen-and-a-half-year sentence in solitary confinement. After the trial, I desperately needed a break. I suspended my law practice of twelve years to bury myself in books in divinity school.

I treated my graduate studies as a blissful release from my lawyering life—a nerd spa.  Reading, thinking, and writing about ethics, democracy, and philosophy were a salve that eased the stress of being a criminal defense lawyer. Slowly, events and emotions from my life started to take shape. Had I inherited my sense of duty and fairness from my father? I had been proud of these qualities, but after the trial, they felt like a burden. I believed that something in my father’s life echoed in mine, something that might help me heal. But to find this elusive “something,” I had to inhabit my father’s past, to walk it with him. Hearing about his life wasn’t enough.

Finding time for a trip to India was tough. My dad still saw more than a hundred patients a week in his Houston-based gastroenterology practice while I had a demanding graduate school workload and two daughters. Our calendars were full.

Then, in August, I visited Houston with my husband and daughters. I watched my mom wince in pain from her lower back. I saw my dad’s once black eyes glitter translucent. I knew my window for taking them on a twenty-four-hour flight and across pockmarked Indian roads was shrinking. One evening, I cornered my dad as he entered the house and sat down to untie his orthopedic shoes. I insisted that we buy the tickets right then.

As I prepared for the trip, I looked to storytellers who had also retraced their ancestors’ footsteps. Born in a refugee camp in Thailand and raised in Texas, filmmaker Socheata Poeuv did just that. She knew that her parents, two sisters, and brother had survived the horrific Khmer Rouge genocide that took nearly two million lives in Cambodia. But then Poeuv’s mother revealed the truth: Poeuv’s sisters were actually her cousins, her brother was her half-brother, and her mother had been married to a man who was killed in the genocide. Dubbed “the lucky one,” as an adult Poeuv traveled to Cambodia with her parents to put the broken pieces of her family history back together, a journey that resulted in the documentary film New Year Baby.

The Korean-American writer Helie Lee’s memoir Still Life with Rice was also motivated by the author’s feeling that she needed to walk through her family’s past. Her tongue-clicking grandmother and her melodramatic mother commanded Lee to be proud of her Korean heritage and to marry soon lest she become “rotten fruit.” While they clung to their Korean identities, Lee rebelled and ached to conceal her Koreanness. Confused as to who she really was, she traveled back to Korea and discovered how her grandmother and mother had survived the Japanese occupation of Korea and the brutal Korean civil war. She came back and asked them long-ignored questions about who they were and, by extension, who she was, too.

The actor Alan Cumming wanted desperately to know what became of his maternal grandfather, who had served in the Scottish Army during World War II and then died in Malaysia. Cumming didn’t know how his grandfather had ended up so far away from home or why he never returned to his family in Scotland. He signed on to Who Do You Think You Are?—a popular BBC show that investigated celebrity genealogies—to find out what happened. The show became a catalyst for Cumming to confront his abusive father, who then claimed that Cumming’s mother had had an affair and that Cumming was not his son. Cumming traveled to Scotland to confront his father and then made a pilgrimage to Malaysia to learn about his grandfather’s heroism and suicide, a riveting story he tells in his memoir, Not My Father’s Son

Like Poeuv, Lee, and Cumming, I knew little about my family’s past. Five words could sum up what I knew: India, poor, farmer, doctor, America. Before our trip, I tried to interview my dad, never succeeding for more than a few minutes. Smartphones, two cute granddaughters, a swimming pool, and work demands constantly interrupted us. And then one day, for reasons I can’t remember, I handed him a digital recorder. 

“Can you take this and dictate your life story for me?” I asked. 

This, he did. From the comfort of his home office, my father dictated nearly eight hours of audio over five days. This feat, for my father, was astonishing. My dad speaks little, usually drifting quietly through the house. Phone calls with him last about thirty seconds, and he ends them by forgetting to say good-bye. Maybe because he is a physician and was used to dictation, or maybe because there was something freeing about telling a machine his story, the recorder enabled my father to tell me more about his life than he had ever shared before.

I transcribed his dictation into more than a hundred pages of notes—almost 34,000 words to add to those first five. I read the dictation notes clinically, mining for details as if I were reading a trial transcript. I had never before heard my father mention a village named Karmal. I plugged it into Google Maps and saw a vast beige space enclosed by three roads in western India. My father was born in Karmal, he told me, and he had not been back to visit since he was a child. I discovered that the life of a poor person was untraceable. With no aid from church or school records, no map, no photographs, no diaries or letters or any other historic information that a researcher might use to document a past, my dad and I worked together to create exhibits of his life. We created diagrams of rooms and homes, and drawings of mango trees and rivers. He sketched a family tree and drew maps of towns, marking sugar cane fields, shoe repair shops, and nearby temples, mosques, and churches. I illustrated places and events on a storyboard, with dainty cartoon doodles. My task ended up being as creative as trial preparation was, like solving a mystery step-by-step, with very few clues. 

And then came the scary part: would the pieces I had assembled become a story, and would the story help me make sense of who I am?  Or, more simply put, would others like what I had to say? Would I? Sucheata Poeuv, Helie Lee, and Alan Cumming each told moving stories while also finding catharsis. 

I looked to other great writers, like Cheryl Strayed and Aleksander Hemon, for help. Strayed wrote a beautiful memoir, Wild, about how she channeled her grief over losing her mother by hiking the grueling Pacific Crest Trail. “From lost to found” is how she describes both her hike and the writing of her memoir. Hemon, too, told a moving story and healed by telling it. In his New Yorker essay, “The Aquarium: A Child’s Isolating Illness,” he writes about the heartbreaking ordeal he and his wife endured when their nine-month-old daughter was diagnosed with a rare brain tumor that ultimately took her life. As one daughter was dying, their three-year-old was growing, creating imaginary friends to substitute for the baby sister who went missing from her life.  Hemon’s story was gripping and accessible, and narrative imagination helped him and his daughter survive the pain of loss.

While I looked to these memoirs, essays, and films, I also encountered Joan Didion’s words over and over again in my readings for school: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” 

In December, while my husband and in-laws watched the girls, my parents and I boarded the long flight together from Houston to Ahmedabad, India. We navigated the bumpy two-hour drive from the big city of Vadodara to little Karmal by sticking our heads out the windows of the car every few minutes to ask a farmer if we were going the right way. A small hand-painted sign in Gujarati script finally marked the town entrance. I saw cows loitering around there, lots of them. We beep-beeped our way around the herd and exited the van, with my mother and father in stitches over how their too-American, delicate daughter reacted to the mooing and cow “surprises” on the dirt footpath. 

“Welcome to your dad’s India!” my dad laughed.

I felt utter serenity in my dad’s birth village. I could hear my steps on the ground as I walked. I saw exotic birds of every color fly from shoddy windowsills to the two or three wires overhead that brought electricity to the village. Chickens, dogs, cows, and children shared the road, and my mom, dad, and I walked through sugar cane fields together. I had nothing to do but just be there, and I remembered that life could feel elegantly simple. 

I also witnessed marks of my father’s poverty, like the reed mats the villagers still sleep on, the outdoor firepits where they prepare their food, and the walls of his school, which even now the children attend only sporadically and barefoot. I learned about the abuse he endured in his childhood. I understood why he was embarrassed to tell me these stories and why he was so loyal to those who had helped him move to America. It made sense to me why his duties as a physician were so important to him and why he gave his children access to whatever opportunities they sought, opportunities he never had growing up. He had never told me these things, and he didn’t say them to me quite this way even on our trip.

But together, we walked through his lost and incomplete stories, and together, we finished them.

 

* Illustration by Anna Hall


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Author Bio

Sejal H. Patel

Sejal H. Patel is a San Francisco-based writer and criminal defense lawyer. A former federal prosecutor, she is a graduate of Northwestern... read more

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