In it, he was a child again, holding his older brother Surya’s hand as they climbed a steep, brush-covered hill. As they ascended, the moon above them loomed large and bright. Patches of snow flanked the ground and decorated the tops of bushes. Surya looked down at Ramesh and smiled. Suddenly, gun shots rang out behind them, stunning their ears. Surya tugged firmly at Ramesh’s arm and led him straggling back down the hill. Ramesh’s thin legs gathered both momentum and scratches as he scraped against outstretched branches. When Ramesh finally reached the bottom of the hill, he realized with dread that Surya was gone and the moonlit face of the child was no longer his own, but that of his son, Kumar.
The image of his stranded son jolted Ramesh out of bed at 2 a.m. Off-balanced and bleary-eyed, he descended the stairs and entered the luxurious comfort of his custom-designed study. Typically on Sunday mornings, he would be awake by seven, upright in his padded leather office chair. He would sip on Nescafe Bru and analyze research in the Journal of Cosmetic Surgery or compare ads from competing local plastic surgeons in the Laguna Beach Weekly. But now he gravitated toward the mahogany bookcase, which covered the entire back wall of his study, and brushed his fingers over a set of limited edition Charles Dickens novels and a copy of the Upanishads. He stopped at a stack of photo albums, where ever-changing scenes of his life lay, trapped and bound together.
Ramesh pulled out a rectangular album with brass spiral binding and gently opened it. Leaves of translucent tissue paper buffered pages filled with black and white photos. His young newlywed parents, weighed down by heavy garlands, soberly stared up at him. His school-aged cousin-brothers, dressed down to their underwear, swam in a local river and he could hear the faint echoes of their laughter. Ramesh flipped quickly past photos of his medical college classmates, posing at a tea plantation, giddy with holiday freedom in the hill station of Ooty.
He stopped when he came to a single photo, pasted onto the center of a page. It was Surya, handsomely attired in the khaki of his Indian military uniform, the beret on his head tilted to one side. Ramesh was too young to remember his deceased father, so Surya was all he knew of a father figure. Even now, Ramesh recalled his brother’s powerful physical presence. Surya had been over six feet tall, and Ramesh would have to strain his neck to look up at him. When other children teased Ramesh, Surya would only have to stride towards them, and they would scatter like seeds in a windstorm. Though he was 11 years older, Surya made time to play with his frail and often sickly younger brother. At times, he would bend down and straighten out a single muscular arm, to which Ramesh would hang on tightly. Slowly Surya would rise, and Ramesh would feel his feet lift off the ground as he swung like a baby monkey on a tree branch. Airborne, Ramesh felt Surya’s strength had been transferred to him, and he imagined he was Rama, fighting victoriously against the powerful Ravana.
Ramesh lay the photo album open on his desk and walked into his spacious sun-roofed kitchen. He opened the refrigerator door and took out a yellow pot, half-filled with the rasmalai Lalitha had made earlier. The sweetened ricotta balls sat steeping in thick cream, giving off the aroma of cardamom. Ramesh retrieved a small glass bowl and spooned in a single plump ball. When he shut the refrigerator door, his eyes met a photo magnet of Kumar. Kumar was only nine years old in that picture, his smile showing a visible chip in his front tooth from a bicycle accident. That was the same year that Kumar had asked to visit Ramesh at the clinic, in order to interview him for his fourth-grade project. Ramesh had been so proud, introducing Kumar to everyone at the office. He couldn’t let him meet any patients, of course, but he showed him before-and-after photos of cosmetic procedures he had performed, and a desk top model of the musculature of the human head. For a moment, Ramesh entertained the highly satisfying notion of having a joint practice with Kumar one day: “Dr. Ramesh Raman and Son.”
At the end of the visit, Stephanie, his medical assistant asked, “So do you want to be a doctor like your daddy, Kumar?”
“No, surgery is kind of gross,” he said. That was the last time Kumar had ever shown interest in his father’s career.
Kumar performed fairly in school, with a particular talent in math, and Ramesh comforted himself with the thought that he would pursue engineering or computer science. As Kumar grew, his passion did become apparent—a passion for sports. He excelled in track in junior high and dominated the field in high school football as a wide receiver. Ramesh was unfamiliar with this affinity for athletic competition. He appreciated his son’s talents, but could not correlate them with a successful future.
Seated in his office, Ramesh bit into the moist dessert, comforted by its spongy sweetness. He thought of the ways Kumar reminded him of Surya—his height, his physical stamina. They could both lighten the mood in any room. One afternoon, Surya had bought threaded jasmine from a little girl selling flowers on the street. He came home and pinned it onto their mother’s hair.
“You know widows cannot wear flowers,” their mother protested, waving away the fragrant white buds.
“Widows cannot wear them for their husbands, that is true. But a great Amma can wear them for her two great sons!” he teased.
She laughed and relented, wearing them inside the home for a few hours.
Not long after their father’s death, as funds ran low, Amma resorted to selling portions of family land and her jewelry. She tried not to gaze too longingly at the bangles or the braided gold chains, for each one carried a memory that might convince her to keep them locked in her almirah for good.
An uncle, using his government connections, secured an opening for Surya in the Indian army, where he would receive training to become an officer. Amma’s protests fell on deaf ears.
“We don’t have the money for my education,” Surya said, “but I will be responsible for you and for Ramesh’s education.”
In 1962, the Indian government sent Surya’s battalion to the high-altitudes of the Chinese-Indian border. They supplied them with cotton uniforms and a single blanket to battle the frigid cold and provided equally inadequate weaponry against the enemy. The Chinese infantry was well-equipped and prepared for high elevation combat. In late November of that year, Ramesh came home from school to find his mother surrounded by relatives, weeping. She held a telegram in her hand and cried out Surya’s name over and over again. Ramesh knew she would never wear flowers again.
Ramesh peered into his empty bowl. He wondered how the rasmalai could simultaneously satisfy him and leave him craving more. On his second visit to the refrigerator, he scooped two sweets out of the pot. He was usually highly regimented about his diet, but he and Kumar both had a weakness for Lalitha’s homemade sweets.
Sitting on a stool by the granite-topped kitchen island, he thought of how alarmed he had grown during the winter of Kumar’s junior year, as Kumar focused only on his friends and football. Ramesh talked to other parents and knew that many of his son’s peers were researching colleges and narrowing down the majors they would pursue. Others were studying diligently in SAT prep courses. All the while, Kumar was spending more and more time at football practice.
One night, he had invited a colleague’s son over for dinner, a talented young man, who had been working as a computer consultant for an international telecommunications company. He was sure that his success would spark an interest in Kumar and make him consider the possibilities of his future more seriously.
“He was cool, Dad. But I don’t want to do what he does. I’d get bored,” he said.
Ramesh was losing patience. He dragged his son to open houses at Stanford and Caltech, but when they approached professors, Ramesh found himself doing all the talking about academics. Kumar’s few questions revolved around their sports programs.
Kumar came home from school one spring day, talking excitedly about a recruiter he had met.
“A recruiter?” thought Ramesh. He pictured a college football recruiter, holding up a sports jersey and promising him the world. Football would take precedence over academics, even in college. And what good would that do? Why couldn’t Kumar be practical about his future? The stream of anxious thoughts continued until he saw the look of shock on Lalitha’s face. Only then he listened long enough to realize that Kumar was talking about a military recruiter. Ramesh’s anxious thoughts froze and were replaced by a wordless panic, as if a muted whirling siren had taken up residence in his brain.
The month that followed was a haze of arguing, admonishing, even threatening. With all the options that Kumar had, why would he risk his life in the military? The country had just commenced the war in Iraq, and chances were high that Kumar would be called to serve on the ground. But Kumar insisted that his mind was made up. He saw his best friend’s older brother deployed to Afghanistan. Two childhood friends were in training at Camp Pendleton.
“They are doing something real with their lives. Something meaningful,” Kumar argued. “You wouldn’t understand, Dad. Your whole life revolves around convincing patients they aren’t good enough as they are and then carving them up so they believe they are somehow better. Where is the meaning in that?”
After that conversation, Ramesh and Kumar had passed by each other in stony silence for weeks. Ramesh thought about this “meaning and purpose” his son was searching for. As far back as Ramesh remembered, meaning and purpose were not something he had to seek, but were, rather, thrust into his life. Surya’s sense of purpose had been so unwavering that he risked his life for his family. His life and death had made Ramesh’s own purpose crystal clear: to grasp every opportunity afforded to him in life and fulfill his brother’s desires. From studying endlessly, to earn a coveted seat in medical college, to uprooting to a foreign country to provide his family security, Ramesh felt life’s meaning as naturally as his own breathing, although Kumar was clearly unaware of this.
Sitting in the kitchen, Ramesh wondered if, in his attempt to blanket Kumar with total security, he was somehow responsible for his son’s blind search for meaning. The sound of footsteps descending the stairs interrupted his thoughts, and he knew it was Kumar. They had been avoiding each other for weeks, but Ramesh resisted the urge to return to his study before Kumar could see him.
“Sorry dad, I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t know you were …” Kumar turned to go back upstairs.
“It’s all right, Kumar. Come. Come sit with me.” The gathering light from the kitchen’s bay window illuminated his son’s face, and at once Ramesh saw both a child and a man. A raw sensation of love and fear burned within his throat. He blinked back the stinging in his eyes and cleared his throat.
“I have never spoken much about your uncle, Surya,” said Ramesh, as Kumar grabbed a bowl and spoon, and pulled up a stool beside him.
A full hour after the sun rose, Lalitha came downstairs, and was astonished to find father and son, deep in conversation, an empty yellow pot and an album of black and white photos between them.
Ranjini Richards is a Reading Consultant, instructor, and part-time writer based in Los Angeles, Calif.