“Cookie,” he said sitting in my lap.
“What did you say, Shiv?” I asked him. I must have scared him with my over-pitched excitement because he blinked cluelessly and looked away.
“Driver kaka, did you hear it too?” I asked nervously.
The driver, who had seen me grow from a young, outgoing girl to an anxious mother now, said reassuringly, “He said ‘cookie’”. We both smiled. I cried too. When I called my husband as soon as I was home, we were both shaking with relief and happiness. For the next two days, we prompted our son to repeat what he had said and he obliged a few times too.
I know I sound like a young mother trying enthusiastically to explain her son’s every first step for the first five years and prove how special her child is. You aren’t entirely wrong actually. I was a young mother then and yes, my child was “special”. He was eight years old when this incident took place and “cookie” was the first sensible word he had spoken in those eight years.
“Did he undergo therapy in India?” Shiv’s teachers in LA would ask us after our every India visit. “How come he understands and processes better, every time he is back from India?”
Being parents to a lovely autistic son, we were used to all kinds of questions but this always left us stumped.
I think I might be a little incoherent with my ramblings here. So let me start from the beginning. When I was in college, I was introduced to a handsome guy by a common friend. But it was 1990 and expressing feelings in the first few meetings wasn’t a done thing even by my bold standards.
However, after a month of hi’s and hello’s, one day he asked me out. I had always liked him but my priorities were very clear. So, I simply said, “I will go out with you but you will have to marry me first!”
After a few familial hiccups, we got married and soon shifted to the US thereafter.
Living in foreign shores actually brought us closer. Every year, we would try to attend the parade on August 15 arranged by the Indian diaspora, tell each other that the day went well but by the end of the day, we would eventually confess that it wasn’t that great after all. Something was missing in the air, and in the samosas they served there! We missed the camaraderie of home but as they say, “life goes on”. So did ours.
The first few years saw us flying, falling, failing, becoming parents of a beautiful boy and finding out about his autism. We learnt that being a parent to Shiv meant that we had to be stronger and patient. A few years after Shiv, Neal was born. And we were now complete as a family.
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Even though we were well settled and adjusted in America, a part of us was still rooted back home. But since coming back wasn’t an option we ever thought about, we didn’t talk about it either. And then one evening in 2008, my husband came back from office and pulled his chair beside mine. Nothing unusual, one would say, but I knew from our marriage of 25 years that there was a storm churning within him. I could sense it.
“Will you be OK if I say that I want us to move back to India?” he asked.
All I could manage was, “If I could leave my family, my house and follow you to the US, would I not go back home if you want?”
He smiled. We hugged. We were scared. We were hopeful.
While it was going to be a welcome change for Shiv, we were worried about our younger son Neal who was eight and very happy with the way things were. I always felt guilty but my husband always promised me that India would cast its spell on him too. Like always, I trusted in his trust and waited.
It has been six years since we shifted back. Today, my quiet Shiv has turned into his happier and more confident self and has blossomed amidst the love, care and warmth of his Indian family that includes everyone from relatives to the staff who take care of him. Till last week, both I and my husband would still wonder if we did the right thing in changing Neal’s life so drastically. But he put all my doubts to rest recently. He is in Chicago for a summer workshop right now and last week, he messaged me, “Mom, I am missing all of you. Everyone. I am missing home.”
India, finally, cast its spell on him too.
(As told to Swaty Prakash by Ulupi and Niraj Parikh)