Chapter 16
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An Insignificant Balcony

Perhaps history is anything that is found in the past and repeated in the future

The humid July air drifts through the open windows, leaving fragrant footprints on the cold tiles. There’s no such thing as summer here; it’s monsoon season. The rain comes in droves like the murder of crows perched on the colorful awnings of the market. The city’s littered with sundry sounds, from street peddlers to wives hanging up clotheslines and sloshing rickshaw wheels on slippery mud. All this, accompanied by the horns of passing bicycles, creates a symphony of vibrancy that’s difficult to forget. This is home.

I’ve seen limitless wonders from this insignificant balcony, played I Spy with Grandpa from the fourth floor, and counted cars until I ran out of fingers and toes. This crooked foundation has held the weight of my childhood, from Popsicles to school uniforms. Yet here I am now, a million miles away, disconnected from the very idea of a simple visit to Grandma’s.

Grandma is a busy woman. Her unfailing energy never ceases to amaze me. She runs around the apartment drawing work to her wrinkled fingers, fussing over specks of dust and my wide-eyed abandon. Her laughter runs through my blood, and her eyes overflow with wisdom and years of love she couldn’t give out. And no one dares to say a word when she cries.

Grandpa is a curious man, and at the end of every phone call he tells me to keep laughing because it keeps people young; his toothless grin is living proof. His fascination with crossword puzzles keeps us busy defining archaic words, never missing a single one. Sometimes, he spends hours reading newspapers to stay busy, even if they all say the same things.

I escaped them. Put the history lesson on hold, suffered through airplane food and screaming children, to finally breathe in the land of the free and the home of the brave. But it puzzles me to this day how the bravest people I know live a thousand airport terminals and departure gates away, from Kolkata to Amsterdam and New York to Nashville. These big people, similar to a Napoleon surrendering at Waterloo or a Hitler committing suicide to drown out what he couldn’t bear to see or feel or understand. Could my grandparents have become historical fiction novels and voices on the other side of a long-distance call? Did I ever really know them at all?

I visit them every other year, equipped with a cumbersome carry-on and a dozen tubes of sunscreen. The first thing that always gets me is the slight taste of wind and the glow of the city, hours after sunset, reminding me that nothing’s permanent. The streets are an orderly chaos, with the smell of fried food, the jingle of bangles, and flashes of red and orange fabric from billowing saris. Men and women walk through the fragile rubble and paper-stained roads writing love letters with their minds and their brown coffee eyes. And I’m back where I started.

The steps to our little balcony seem narrower each time, my hands tracing the delicate staircase. I forget the feeling of cool metal under my fingertips and dust that covers every millimeter of space until I have made it to the top, realizing what I’ve missed all along. There stand my grandparents in the doorframe with stolen time in their skin and longing in their veins. I run to them half out of breath, half out of words, and all out of my mind; it’s the same every time. Though they can’t understand everything I say, Grandma sits me down on one knee, Grandpa tells me stories, and they teach me things I could never learn in books. And we stay, making history, collecting fingerprints, and finding treasure in our little two-bedroom apartment.

I guess history is anything that is found in the past and repeated in the future. I think it’s everything we learn from when the war’s over and the soldiers return home. But I’ve learned that the little piece of history that really matters is the one left untold, the one missing from history books and dusty encyclopedias, the one no one talks about behind closed doors and stuffy library shelves. Real history is what we can feel in the room, what never leaves, what inspires and haunts us when the timing is right and the stars align. This history is the one found in the people we love and the homes we share, and unfortunately or fortunately for us, it’s always there.

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