Moments from a Far-off World

Shannie Rao


When I was one-and-a-half years old, my dad had to attend a work conference in San Francisco for a weekend, all the way across the country from the little one-bedroom apartment my family lived in, tucked away in the suburbs of Massachusetts. When he came back, he brought me a huge (at least, it seemed huge to me at the time) stuffed tiger that I promptly named “Big Tiger.”  From then on, I was obsessed with tigers, and every person in my dad’s family grabbed onto that for all it was worth: I received tigers for every birthday, holiday, and, sometimes, for no reason at all.  I’m not sure if he meant to allude to the story his father always told, but my grandfather seemed to think so, taking every opportunity to tell it even more often.

“It was looking at me with its huge yellow eyes.  It was watching me, and I just watched it back until it turned around and walked away,” he told me as we sat on the couch at his house in New Jersey—the one with the big backyard that I thought looked like a football field.  

“Were there lots of tigers back in India, Taata?” I’d ask him each time, knowing the answer but still wanting to hear him say it again. I loved hearing his deep voice and thick accent; it oozed sweetly like the mango lassis we made at his house for a special treat.

“Mostly they did not come out,” he told me, his stories getting somehow more elaborate every time he told them, “but that one time I saw it, it was right there.  I think it would have ate me and my brother,” and he gestured toward his brother in the other room, “if I hadn’t scared it away.  We were out hunting bears when I saw it.”  And so the story went on and on. I was endlessly entertained by his painting of magical pictures of India, where tigers and bears roamed, and my grandfather was the greatest hero of them all.  

His family had come to America in the 1960s and 1970s, one by one, carrying little with them but their dreams and hard work.  They’d had to flee their city and hide out, saving until they each had enough money to cross the ocean.  My great-grandfather had been a politician, chased out of power in an uprising and forced to take shelter elsewhere.  Sometimes, when my grandfather tired of telling me stories of tigers and bears, he’d tell me about how they had to pack up all their things in the night after his father’s friends told them that men with knives and guns were coming.  He was the oldest living child, and he’d understood most of what was happening, but his youngest sister was only five at the time.  I couldn’t imagine it.  The first time he told me, it felt as if my magical India was crashing to the ground, destroyed by truth and war just like everything else people talked about those days. 

My grandfather was one of the first to leave.  He attended a small college in New Jersey and found a job as an electrical engineer, bringing his wife over from India to join him. They had three children: my father was the middle child.    

My father rarely spoke to me about his childhood.  His mother died not long after I was born, and he became quieter then, preferring to leave the talking about family and India to the rest of the family.  I can only remember one story he told me.  I was about seven years old, and it was the evening, sometime between when I was supposed to go to bed and when I actually did go to bed.  

“You look like my mother,” he told me, smiling sadly to himself. 

I didn’t know what to say; he’d never spoken about her.  To me, she was as mysterious as India itself: we didn’t keep any pictures of her, and I could barely remember talking to her when I was really little.

He told me the story of when he was one year old in India. His mother had left him with his uncle to watch him at the edge of the woods.  The uncle had, apparently, gotten distracted by some other people talking and turned his back, and my dad saw a dog in the woods, and ran off to chase it. When his mother came back, she was furious, and it took the family nearly an hour to find him again.  I tried to imagine my father as a little boy and his mother as a young woman.  I tried to imagine his father as a young man, too.  I tucked it away, safe with all the other India stories from another world.  

I remember bits of ceremonies I took part in growing up—one when I was just a baby that someone recorded on a video camera that turned everything green.  I remember I chose something to represent what I would value in life, but I don’t remember what I chose, only that, once I found it, I crawled right to my grandmother’s arms.  She was beautiful, even in the poor-quality green footage, made more magical by the mystery that surrounded her.  She’d died of brain cancer when I was two, and I used to put my stuffed tigers in her hospital bed when she was sick.  

When I think back to those childhood times, they’re cloaked in sunlight and spices, vignetting in my mind.  Now, of course, I know more about where and what India is.  I understand the exaggerations of my grandfather’s stories and the reality of my grandmother’s illness.  But, back then, everything was made of magic and warmth and beautiful stories.  

I grew up in a rift, in the crevice between two worlds, lost and found.  I grew up an American, learning the ways of the country, fully a part of the place I was, but I also grew up with a piece of me missing, lost in a country I’d never been to, dreaming that maybe, someday, it could be found—that someday I’d go back and find the tigers and the bears and the dogs at the edge of the woods and my lost grandmother and my father as a little boy—left behind in India, in a far-off world I’d never known.