Dreaming where I walk

An Indian writer becomes an American citizen — and finds herself.

 

When I took my oath of American citizenship, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services realized I was an author and a filmmaker, so I was invited to be the guest speaker for the ceremony. A few hundred people packed the South Broadway Cultural Center in Albuquerque that September morning last year, as 80 people from 12 countries — including Bolivia, Germany, India, Mexico and Russia — took the oath. This is an excerpt from my talk.

When I was a child in India, I was told that Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru kept on his desk this verse from the American poet Robert Frost:

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep.

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

My family moved from India to Canada when I was a teenager, and I came to America as a graduate student. The film school at the University of Southern California was supposedly the best of its kind, and soon I was up to my neck in coursework. Still, the images that stick with me from those years are of a tree-lined campus where I could walk and think about life, and of long drives to Northern California that sometimes ended in hiking and camping in Yosemite. I can’t say exactly when it happened, but I began to fall in love with this country. At 21, of course, it’s easy to fall in love.

But many years later, despite the challenges I’ve faced as an artist, I still feel the same way. My position has nothing to do with politics.

Recently, I got to visit Robert Frost’s cabin in Ripton, Vermont. As I gazed at his bookshelves, his Modern Library editions, I pinched myself; it felt like a dream. The solitary cabin and a glorious field that stretched out past it echoed the aspect of Frost’s work that appeals to me most — his fusion of the isolation and exhilaration of the road “less travelled.”

For me, America is a country where I can dream. This is a place where I can fail and try again. It’s a place where I’ve been able to grow.

The author resting at the Summit of Cloud’s Rest in Yosemite National Park.
Courtesy Priyanka Kumar

I’ve grown partly because of my experience of American wilderness — its mountains, rivers, national parks, even its visitor centers. In Yosemite, on the knife’s edge of Clouds Rest, I realized that one wrong move could mean death. Still, over the years, I kept returning. On a trail in Kings Canyon National Park, I encountered a mother bear with three cubs; I turned around, only to startle another bear off the trail. At that point, I began to run. In such moments, I’ve felt like I was pushing my physical limits, but looking back, I think I was stretching my sense of who I am and who I can be.

In nature, it’s still possible to have that rare thing: an original experience. The experience of deep wilderness is rarer still: In Europe, it’s almost nonexistent; in India, though there are still some wild places, a lone woman hiking — even a woman with a companion — faces scrutiny, if not harassment.

I visit the American Museum of Natural History and its scrumptious bookstore whenever I can. During one of my first visits, I picked up biographies of John James Audubon and Theodore Roosevelt. I drank up Roosevelt’s story: how he became a birder; how he was Mr. Vitality. I read about his creation of the U.S. Forest Service, and his vision for the national parks. Because of people like Roosevelt, I can now drive 10 minutes from where I live in Santa Fe and be in a national forest with my husband and our toddler.

I was delighted to discover that Roosevelt combined reading, writing and the outdoors, something I like to do as well. He didn’t believe in wasting time: In 1886, while chasing boat thieves down a river thick with ice in the North Dakota Badlands, he read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Much later, on his Brazilian voyage down the Rio da Dúvida, the swarms of mosquitoes and unbelievable hardships did not stop him from being a scientific explorer and an almost pathological diarist.

Though I am still rooted in my origins — I am fascinated by the Indian storytelling tradition, which is ancient and rich and deep — these days I’m dreaming more about where I live now. Many of the stories I’m writing are set here in America, and the characters in them are people like you and me — the new citizens in this auditorium.

I still have many miles to go, but now I feel that where I’m coming from is right here. I think this moment will change the way I tell stories. I hope that, as I try to interpret America’s wild spaces, I will make the ghosts of Teddy Roosevelt and Robert Frost smile.

The author taking a break in Big Basin Redwoods State Park.
Courtesy Priyanka Kumar

Priyanka Kumar is the author of the novel Take Wing and Fly Here, and she is the writer/director/producer of the feature documentary The Song of the Little Road, starring Martin Scorsese and Peter Rainier.

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