India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont
It was the day before Thanksgiving. The CEO and his family began their four-hour trek from Palo Alto to Sea Ranch. A year ago, with the liquidity event of his previous company, he purchased a second home to signal his arrival. But he didn’t want this home to make him seem ostentatious; he told his wife that he wanted the home to remind the world of his humble desert origins. A venture capitalist friend had gifted his wife a whalebone pendant and shown them a framed copy of the original 1963 Sea Ranch sales brochure: “The terrain is rugged, the surf treacherous, the ocean cold.” He had convinced himself that the sea was his new desert, a way of going back to nature and keeping things simple. So he purchased that vacation home within walking distance from the ocean.
Had this modern-day, Indian-American Captain Ahab asked my opinion, I would have cautioned that the frigid water is a warning against hubris.
The family piled into the rented luxury SUV that comfortably seated seven. It was 6:15 in the morning. He prided himself as being a morning person, the early bird gets the worm, and all that. Highway 280 was empty except for a few other holiday travelers. Heavy fog shrouded the Crystal Springs Reservoir, but the evergreen ridge of the Santa Cruz Mountains was visible in the light of the full moon. In between rounds of morning bhajans, everyone in the car was sharing their gratitude; everyone except him.
Slouched in the driver’s seat, he snapped on earbuds to listen to Cat Stevens’ “Morning Has Broken,” and to excuse himself from the family fun. Like a lone eagle nesting above a family of chattering quail, he thought he was entitled to his aloof kingdom. His new nanotechnology startup was failing, and he wanted to be back in the office to right the ship. But he knew his familial duty, so he had asked his executive assistant to schedule the vacation; he had also requested that she pay for the car’s rent with a company credit card. Perched behind the wheel, he regretted missing the daily standup Zoom call with his Bangalore team; he was grateful that India didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving. He thought about the values printed on posters in the office: Follow-the-sun operations; 7×24 development cycle; Always on; Think global, act local.
Sitting next to him, his wife asked for the family camera to take a picture of the moonlit fog. Work anxiety had caused him to forget his SLR Nikon; his wife pointed to her cell-phone’s camera icon to mollify him, but this simply caused him to sulk further away from her, their two adult children, and the children’s spouses, and their little blessing. As the fog rolled onto the highway and obscured vision beyond a hundred yards, he stared hard at the road and turned up the volume as Cat belted out “Moonshadow.”
The smallest member of his family – a four-year-old granddaughter – sang about “Baby Beluga in the Deep Blue Sea” and drew fruits on thank-you cards to express her appreciation. One card for each person in the car. Seven in total because safely buckled in her toddler’s seat, she knew she was not above it all. Her drawing colors were remembered from the Eric Carle books she had absorbed since birth; her subjects were blueberries, apples, oranges, bananas, persimmons, pears, and figs … everything that a hungry caterpillar would surely consider a holiday feast. Cocking her head so that she could see her grumpy grandfather, she added to her card collection a fading yellow lemon, a lemon drawn with a sour face. The child was feeling nauseous so they stopped at the rest area where the statue of Father Junipero Serra pointed west to me, Varuna, the Lord of the Oceans. After emptying her breakfast on the once-hallowed ground, she gave the frowning citrus card to her sourpuss grandfather and told him, “Please turn it upside down so that you can smile.” He forced a laugh before excusing himself to freshen up.
The cold, restroom water washed away the frown from his stubbled face. His granddaughter asked her mother for one more card, which she used to draw a beaming sun. He asked the child, “What do your fruits need in order to be big like you?”
She pointed to her mud-encrusted Crocs and said. “Dirt.”
He said, “What else?”
She took a sip from her spill-proof thermos, pointed to the Pacific Ocean, and said, “Water,” and looked expectantly toward the rest of the botany lesson.
The rest of the family had heard this didactic routine before and carried on with their music, crossword puzzles, and Wordle competition. But he was game and exclaimed, “Good. And what’s the last thing the seeds need to grow into trees to give us their fruit?”
This time she had a trick up her sleeve. “You!”
He was confused and looked through the rearview mirror to see what his granddaughter meant. “Me?” he asked.
A sneaky smile spread across her twinkling face. “You, you, you! You’re the smiling sun.” She passed her sunny thank-you card to the front of the vehicle; he returned a look through the rearview mirror, grinning from ear to ear.
The grin stretched the length of the sun-kissed Golden Gate Bridge; the car crossed the San Francisco Bay into Marin County. Ochre rays streaked across the sky as the globe of fire rose and the supermoon began to set. King tides smashed against the base of the bridge.
The grandfather’s smile seemed like it would never stop, even through the twisting, treacherous stretch of Highway 1. The CEO had finally left his startup behind in Silicon Valley’s jungle of Snakes and Ladders. He began daydreaming of a different version of gyan chaupar, the game of knowledge that he played growing up in Rajasthan’s desert. That carefree stage of life was a long time ago: before he topped the IIT entrance exam; before he earned a Ph.D. in materials engineering from MIT; before his marriage, his mortgage, his material world.
There was a hairpin bend in the road. He snapped out of his reverie before making a hard, hold-on-to-your-seatbelt-and-your-breakfast turn. He looked into the rearview mirror to make sure the little one was okay. She was fast asleep. He wondered what it would be like to be his grandchild, to be a child again. He saw a lone bicyclist pumping up the steep grade and thought to himself dharma, karma, the cycle of life, and all that.
When the SUV crunched over the gravel driveway of the gray, ocean-front Sea Ranch house that was to be their home for the next five days, I, Varuna, contemplated playing my own game of Snakes and Ladders: a tsunami could engulf this paradox of an abundant, minimalist, coastal utopia.
The grandfather saw the froth of the killer waves emerge over the bluff. He hurried out of the car and frantically asked his daughter to unbuckle his granddaughter. The old man lovingly cradled the sleepy toddler. Before unlocking the door of the house, his shaking hands clutched the child to his heaving chest. With terror, he looked over his shoulder at the rising ocean and prayed: Lord, if you must, take me but not this innocent. I decided my tsunami would wait at least another Thanksgiving.
RCO dedicates this fable to Maureen and Tad and their Sea Ranch generosity.
Photo by VD Photography on Unsplash