We've casually used the phrase "once in a lifetime" to describe much of this entire extended honeymoon trip, but going with my dad to visit his family home in Changa, Gujarat really was such an experience. In the 45 years since my dad immigrated to the U.S., he has been back to India only two times, and traveling with him on the 2nd of those two visits will always be one of those memories that glow a little brighter than the others in my mind's eye. My father and his four siblings were born and raised in Mumbai (then Bombay), and they spent summers in Changa where my grandfather's family had lived for generations. Before my grandfather died several years ago, he donated the family home and land in Changa to the Swaminarayan Hindu community there, and the house has since been converted into a Hindu temple. I grew up hearing occasional anecdotes from my dad about how he'd herded cows with his uncle on visits to the family farm in Changa, and how he played tag with my uncles in the branches of banyan trees 10 feet off the ground.
As my dad's American daughter, I comprehended these stories as artifacts of his former life. There was little in them that I could mentally grasp at as congruent with the life of the father I knew, whom I had never once seen interact with livestock, and whose arthritis prevented him from participating in most sports, let alone tree climbing. His India stories seemed like the black-and-white memories of a version my dad who I had never met. Slowly over the course of our stay in India, and finally during our brief visit to Changa, my dad's past gained some color and shape and realness. I don't know how well we can ever claim to know our parents, given the lifetimes they lived before we were born, but for me, seeing and experiencing places that formed my father decades ago on the other side of the world filled in some gaps.
We set out for Changa with Sanjay, Grishma, and the kids, and my dad pointed out landmarks he remembered: the lake where water had been collected for cooking and bathing; a central square marked by a large banyan tree and a few inert cows; a long building that once served as a guest house for visiting family. The neighborhood surrounding the house has the look of dusty neglect, and the house itself, now a temple, rises from the dirt road in freshly-painted contrast. My dad got out of the car and stared up at the house for a long time, and eventually pointed out a plaque near the door etched with Gujarati characters. The plaque acknowledges some donors unrelated to us, who recently paid for the temple renovations. There is no mention of my grandfather or of my father's family who donated the building itself. This was disappointing, but my dad said that his father would not have wanted to advertise his good deeds.
We toured the house. The temple takes up most of the ground floor, and we stopped there to pay respects before climbing stairs to the second floor, where there is an outdoor courtyard and rooms now used for temple administration. Though the inhabitants have changed, the upstairs portion of the house is largely unaltered, and we stood in the upper courtyard in the sun for a long time. My dad had not been back to Changa in 50 years, and though he didn't say much during the tour, his face radiated memory. Among our little delegation of Patels, with my dad as the oldest and five-year-old Suhani as the youngest, we represented three generations. We were the past, present, and future standing where our ancestors had stood.