Tiny Heroes

Sunday, February 16, 2014

When you're a kid, you cherry-pick the best stories about your family to make them seem grand.

I'm still seduced by the tales of immediate family having hijacked trains and defected from the army, given the first contraception lessons in the village or immigrating across multiple continents. As a result, some of my own life goals are patterned in the same way. Fascination with mastering practical skills? There. Calling to work in crisis management? Check. Pressure to learn more than three languages? On the list. (My sister, on the other hand, prefers to sleep.)

Despite my best efforts, I am still a macro-planner at heart. To use Zadie Smith's metaphors, I do not build a narrative linearly, and that includes the narrative of my life. When I unravel and cast on yet another string of words, I can see this constructed family is a holdover from learning about them relatively late. As an adoptee, I only had the benefit of hearing these stories far after they had become legend. And I have been writing about them ever since. Sometimes they come as ghosts and narrators in my fiction, but most of the time they come as incomplete thoughts in my journals that I never get around to fleshing out.

What are we to do with these pieces of our stories that do not knit up tightly? My father has always talked to me about the shape of things: you have the contours, so the details will fill themselves in. This goes for everything from filing taxes to building a writing career. His own immigration story embodies this - there were no certainties but for the shape of "coming to America." Only in retrospect does it look like a smooth transition from the "First Boy" in the village to the expatriate Bangladeshi man on the far side of the United States. Taking his example as I pass through this transitional time post-grad, I can also see that some things will eventually get smoothed out in the re-telling.

Instead of heroics, I've lately been performing skillful surgery on bell peppers and embarrassing myself in front of teenagers. Most of my heroism is exhibited in providing a listening ear and a plate of food. I remember how quiet and undervalued this work has become. How the best part of my family's stories are not always the grandest ones, but the ones that continue to unfold. My Amma acting as matriarch of the family, finely dicing onions on the bhoti. My cousin celebrating a new baby. These are the mundane triumphs that set me to my pen each day writing and re-writing stories about caregivers and South Asian women - groups of tiny heroes that in my life often overlap.