Strong and Clear and True
I was planning on writing about Krishnajanmashtami today. But I've got probability and memory on my mind, and I found an author who laid bare my soul in her second novel. I am being compelled to write this instead.
Today is move-in day at the College of William & Mary. Next week will be Convocation Day, when students and staff gather at the Sir Christopher Wren Building to mark the beginning of a new year. They will belt out the Alma Mater and welcome the new students as they walk through the Wren Building.
Every year, move-in day marks the day when I met Bertel. Convocation Day marks the day when we decided to take a chance with each other as more than just friends. I don't know that date - I could easily look it up, but I never bothered. It wasn't the date that was important, but the occasion. Convocation marks not only the beginning of my college career but the beginning of my journey with my person.
He's been by my side for eleven years, so it's easy to fall into platitudes of love at first sight and inevitability and happily-ever-after. But the truth is, a confluence of improbable events - some mundane and some incredible - resulted in us walking into each others' lives.
I was born in Bihar but rooted in Andhra Pradesh. I grew up in Singapore, and then moved to Visakhapatnam. Southern Illinois. Richmond.
At a netcafe in Vizag on the day I turned 17, I read an email with an invitation to apply to the College of William & Mary and signed up for the optional interview. When filling out my room preferences survey as an admitted student, I went against my dad's insistence that I sign up for the campus's only girls-only dorm because it didn't come with air conditioning and I like simple luxuries. That year, the College decided the basement of Jefferson Hall would house freshman, and that I would be one of those freshman.
A few counties and a million worlds away, Bertel also chose to attend William & Mary. He was also assigned to Jefferson hall. We met move-in day. Stubbornness, evolution, and countless conversations kept us together (and continues to do so).
This summer has been nostalgic in more ways than I could put into words. I returned to India after twelve years and wondered about the lives I could be living in the multiverses that could exist alongside our own. As I spent time with people from different times (eras? memories?) of my life, I conducted thought experiments. What if we never left Singapore? What if we stayed in Vizag? What if I had gone to a different high school? What if I went to betrayed every instinct in me urging me to go to William & Mary before I even set foot on campus? What if, what if, what if...
The what-if game seems silly at times, as I'm burrowed in my comfortable existence of work and dance, family and friends, weekly board game nights and domesticity. But not when I'm forced to reckon with art.
I read The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon this evening. I relived the first hours, days, and weeks when I dared think about a possibility of allowing this strange new boy into my life. Then, it seemed improbable that a happy future was possible for us, that I would not have to choose between my head and heart, between art and science.
The book also brought the specter of the immigration system that cast a heavy shadow over every decision I made or avoided in those years. There exists many parallel universes out there where my family and I ended up leaving the United States. In at least one of those universes, this emigration occurs after the 2008 Convocation. I do not want to contemplate the paths my life and his take after that point in that timeline.
During the early months of our relationship, we would stroll around campus under the stars, and a particular song would play in my mind incessantly. Mastergaru's dance drama Srinivasa Kalyanam has an incredible meet-cute where Srinivasa and Padmavati set eyes on each other. After her handmaidens lead her away and proceed to interrogate Srinivasa, he sings about her eyes, her lips, and how many yugas it has been since he has seen her last. I would get angry at myself for fixating on that song, cursing my subconscious for comparing our nascent relationship with such a divine bond so masterfully captured in those lyrics and choreography.
I would fear that choosing Bertel meant betraying and abandoning my family, my heritage, my Indian identity. But not choosing him also meant betraying myself. A decade ago, I could never have imagined that in any universe, I could have an existence where he and my family and dance (and the very precocious little being we've been blessed with).
For the first six years of our marriage, I went by my maiden name. It was partly to prove to myself that I wasn't giving up my Indianness, betraying my family's journey, and leaving behind the work I had done as Ameya Jammi. It was partly because the immigration system terrifies me and I was reluctant to venture into the paperwork such a thing as a name-change may entail.
I did not know I would be taking my husband's family name until I did. I certainly had not planned on it. But I have walked the world for nearly seven years as his wife, and I have come to accept two things: Firstly, being in an interracial, interfaith marriage doesn't make me any less worthy a member of the Hindu Indian diaspora. Secondly, I am able to wholly embrace the Indian side of me because his unconditional love and encouragement.
I don't know what the future holds for Bertel or for me or for the little family we've started. I know I want a life of art. Of words and dance and peace and hard work and accomplishments earned with blood, sweat, and tears. I am doing my damn best to build that life.
I am so grateful.
P.S. In case you’re wondering, the title of the post is from our Alma Mater, and the photograph was taken by my freshman year roommate at Convocation. In that moment, I had no idea I would be taking a leap that evening that would determine my path in life.