I’m grateful I could return to India before more changes take hold

The devastation of the pandemic and lockdown only heightened the feeling that we don’t get to see our loved ones overseas enough, and left us wondering if flying to India would ever be possible again.

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The sun setting last month in Banauli, the village in Bihar, India where the author’s father was born.

The sun setting last month in Banauli, the village in Bihar, India where the author’s father was born.

Rummana Hussain

I told my husband he had to practice crouching down for future bathroom breaks, and warned him of gazes so intrusive they’d make a stare-down before a boxing match seem like a cursory glance.

It turned out I was a bit off the mark when prepping him for his first trip to India — and my first in over a decade.

The country’s transformations rendered some of my guidance obsolete.

I’ve been visiting my parents’ hometowns in the state of Bihar every few years since I was a child. When I traveled there last month, I found that my relatives had replaced their squat latrines with Western-style toilets, and the presence of an obvious foreigner is no longer the crowd-inducing novelty it may have been in the past.

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Mick did have to learn how to take a bucket bath, and I probably should have handed him a paper bag before he stepped into a car. It took seconds for me, my mom and younger sister, Almas, to readjust to the chaos of Indian traffic. My freaked-out husband, however, kept resorting to taking deep breaths to calm his nerves whenever the driver — usually a cousin — veered into oncoming traffic, weaving around livestock, pedestrians and families of five riding on motorcycles.

I assured Mick repeatedly that he had it easy.

The 1½- to 2-hour ride between my mother and father’s birthplaces used to take nearly six hours on the then-rubbly route.

Improvements in infrastructure also translated to steady electricity for Mick’s initial South Asian experience — a stark contrast to the blackouts my siblings and I would mope through in the old days.

Communication with our friends in America back then was also limited to handwritten letters that took weeks to arrive. During our latest jaunt, we often had access to Wi-Fi, which meant Mick could check college basketball scores and exchange texts with his buddies about some big to-do upset.

I am not going to lie. I wanted the struggle to be a bit more real for the white boy. I also hoped I’d be spared details about Northwestern sports for at least a few days. Wishful thinking.

Joking aside, I am grateful we were able to go to India before more changes take hold, further fraying the bonds that may be cemented by blood but have been tested by time and distance.

The interludes between my trips to India have grown longer and the duration of my stays more compact. The devastation of the pandemic and lockdown only heightened the feeling that we don’t get to see our loved ones overseas enough, and left us wondering if flying to India would ever be possible again.

Of my father’s six siblings, only one remains. My mom and my only America-based aunt, now both widows, have two brothers left in India.

Mick, who has always expressed an interest in the country and its history, couldn’t wait to glimpse the sights in Bihar and neighboring Uttar Pradesh. But once our visas were confirmed, we were just as motivated to meet as many people as we could and honor those who were no longer alive.

The author’s younger sister, Almas Hussain, by the Taj Mahal in Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India.

The author’s younger sister, Almas Hussain, by the Taj Mahal in Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India.

Rummana Hussain

We were able to pay our graveside respects to my relatives on my maternal side.

But the doors to the cemetery where my Dadi and Dada — my paternal grandparents — were laid to rest were locked the day we stopped by Banauli, my father’s village.

I also couldn’t show Mick my mom’s ancestral home in the city of Aurangabad, as it was recently demolished to make room for updated living quarters for two of my cousins.

My father’s home in Banauli still stands, but is a deteriorating shell of the space where my mom gave birth to my older sister and where we stayed as children.

Mick Dumke and Rummana Hussain on the open-air roof of Hussain’s father’s old home in Banauli, a village in Bihar, India.

Mick Dumke and Rummana Hussain on the open-air roof of Hussain’s father’s old home in Banauli, a village in Bihar, India.

Almas Hussain

The path leading to the original entrance was wet and muddy, so we went inside from the back to climb the stairs to the open-air roof where I took some of my first pictures in India as a 3-year-old.

The sun was setting as we stood there for a few moments. Looking at the broken concrete and a square opening where we could see the aged well below, I wondered if the structure that held so many memories would exist if I ever came back — or would give way like the old roads that led us here in the first place.

Rummana Hussain is a columnist and member of the Sun-Times Editorial Board.

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