“‘Mankind errs here.’” After letting us into my mother’s childhood home, Ravi lights the oil lamps one by one. “‘By folly, darkening knowledge. But, for whom that darkness of the soul is chased by light, splendid and clear shines manifest the truth. As if a sun of wisdom sprang to shed its beams of dawn.’”
“That’s beautiful. I’ve never heard it before.” Though I yearn to ask him about my grandfather’s death, I bide my time until he’s ready.
“From the Gita. Some call it a book of poetry.” He points to the lamps. “Used in time of celebration and mourning.”
“My uncles—did they come?” I ask, though I know Paresh’s letter said they wouldn’t.
His face gives me the answer before he does. “No one.”
“I’m sorry.” The apology sounds hollow to my own ears. “My mother—she said she couldn’t.” Since he is a stranger, I don’t confide in him what my mother told me.
“Your grandfather knew this, but he hoped nonetheless. I think it kept him alive until his body accepted what his mind couldn’t.”
As he continues to light the lamps, I walk around the small room, running my hand gingerly over the antique furniture. An intricately carved, dark marble chair sits in the corner of the room, alongside a gold-painted urn. The walls are painted a warm ivory color, and the floor is covered with an expensive rug. Ravi’s dog follows him loyally as he finishes the last lamp.
“What’s his name?” I ask.
“I call him Rokie. He seems to like it, so we are in agreement.” He matches my smile, then motions me toward a large Rajasthan swing adorned with precious stones that sits in the middle of the room. “Please, sit.”
“Thank you.” I settle into the soft velvet cushions, tired after the long trip. “You speak English well.”
“I grew up in a time when the British insisted we learn their language. It seemed a waste, but now”—he motions toward me—“I am grateful.”
“How did he die?” I finally ask. I don’t mourn a man I never knew, but given the long line of losses, it feels unfair to have another one. And now, with his death, I will never find the answer I came searching for.
“Peacefully.” He rubs the top of Rokie’s head, and the dog barks in approval before settling down.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t in time.”
“Maybe you still are.”
I start to ask him what he means, when he grabs a larger cushion from a sofa and lays it on the floor before settling atop it. Ashamed by his being on the floor while I’m on the settee, I quickly jump up. “No, please, you sit here.”
“Your grandmother, Amisha, always said to me, ‘Ravi, when you are next to the earth, you can hear her secrets.’ Then she would laugh, climb onto the very seat you are on, and say, ‘So please tell me what you find out.’” He signals for me to take my seat again as he settles comfortably into his own.
“You knew my grandmother?” She was a woman rarely mentioned. She died young, so her mention felt like a dark cloud that was always threatening. When my uncles spoke of her on their visits, it was in hushed tones and with few specifics. A veil would fall over my mother’s face, and they would immediately change the subject. Soon enough she was never spoken of again. “I know she died many years ago.”
“She did, though at times it feels like yesterday.” Ravi fumbles for a pair of glasses from his shirt pocket and then cleans the lenses with his shirttail. “My grandson insists they are superior to the eyes that have served me for more than eighty years.” He slips them on and blinks to get focus. “When suddenly I am able to see clearly, I fear he may be right.”
“What was she like?” He had called for her earlier, as if she were still alive instead of a memory. “Amisha?”
“Her face was kind, and her heart was strong. When I heard you, I thought it was her voice carried by the wind.” He closes his eyes. “I was sure she was standing behind me, but when you called again, I knew I was mistaken.” He opens his eyes and winks at me. “I began to follow for fear you would lose your voice with the bellowing.”
“I’ve only seen one picture of her,” I admit.
I found the photo as a child. It was stored in a shoe box, buried beneath old receipts and clipped coupons. The image showed a woman seeking something in the distance, her eyes guarded against the glare of the flash. When I asked my mother about it, she took it without a word and returned to her room. I never saw the picture again.
“Your grandmother believed photographs hid the truth about a person, offering only an illusion instead.” He pauses before adding, “I am sure she would have thought differently if she had known a picture was all that would be left to remember her by.” Rokie growls at a passing bird outside the dust-laden window. We watch as he rushes out the open door. “How is your mother?”
There is desperation in his question that I don’t understand. Unwilling to share too much with someone unfamiliar, I give him the answer that he seems to want. “Happy.”
Joy flashes across Ravi’s face. “Your grandmother would be pleased to know that.”
“You were a friend of hers?” I ask, curious.
“I was a servant in the home, but your grandmother’s heart was benevolent enough to call me a friend.” His voice cracks like a man tormented. He averts his eyes, refusing to meet my stare. He swallows repeatedly and curls his fingers inward. The blood seems to drain from his face, leaving it haunted.
“Is everything all right?” He is hiding something, I am sure, but when I search his gaze, a mask falls over his face.
“Yes,” he whispers. He gathers his emotions and finds his voice. “It was one of her many gifts, seeing past the circumstances of one’s life and embracing the person.” His body tightens as he lowers his head in shame. “I am a Dalit.” He says it as if it were a sentence he is asking to be commuted.
He nods. “We are often believed to be less than human in the Hindu caste system. Many times beaten or abused for minor reasons.” I swallow my gasp, the journalist in me trained to listen without reaction. “Often conceived by accident, many of my people die before passing through childhood.”
In history class via textbook pages and photos, I learned how the caste system defined generations of Hindus. Each person was slotted into a predetermined position of value based on his birth. The untouchables were on the lowest rung and were often considered worthless.
Furious at a system I didn’t understand, I questioned first my teacher and then my father. He gave me the only answer he could—that history proved time and again it was difficult to change what people believed as truth. I argued in theory about the unfairness of it. Now, hearing Ravi’s words, I am shamed by my naïveté and for not fully understanding the truth behind the practice.
“I’m sorry.” The words sound inadequate even as I speak them.
“Do not be,” he returns, surprising me. “It was because I was unwanted, dismissed as a burden on society, that I met your grandmother.” His face softens at the mention of her. “For that I would live a hundred times as an untouchable.” He sees the compassion in my eyes and smiles. “Your grandmother was a woman ahead of her time. Head of this house, she brought in my family members to work. She was a savior to us.”
He speaks of her with reverence, with warmth that turns cold when he mentions my grandfather. I notice the contrast and wonder at the reason behind the difference. Before I can ask him to elaborate, he rises off the pillow and motions for me to follow.
“Come, I will show you her palace.”
Ravi gives me a tour of the remainder of the house, proudly exclaiming that it was one of the first fitted for electricity—a luxury I have always taken for granted. The home is barely the equivalent of a large cottage in America. With every step, I try to imagine my mother playing in the halls, eating in the kitchen, and sleeping in the house. I wonder how she felt the night before her marriage, and if she mourned leaving her childhood home. I try to visualize and fail to understand how my mother would have felt when her father demanded she never return home after her wedding.
In the last room, Ravi presents the bed—a thin mattress atop metal springs—like a king’s ransom. He hands me a set of rusted keys and promises to return in the morning. Though I booked a hotel in the neighboring town, I’m glad to be staying in my mother’s childhood home to get a glimpse of the part of her she refuses to share.
As exhaustion creeps in, I lie in bed and stare through the protective mosquito net at the four bare walls, but thoughts of my mother keep me tossing and turning into the night. My gaze locked on the darkness, I wait for the mystery of her childhood to reveal itself. Minutes turn to hours, and I fall asleep with my questions unanswered.
At the first hint of sunrise, a rooster begins to crow. I slip one hand out from beneath the cover and search fruitlessly for an alarm clock before realizing the noise comes from a live animal. With a pained whimper, I cover my head with a thin pillow, but the rooster is relentless.
Ravi enters the room after a quick knock. “You do not care for the songs of our animals?” The rooster continues to crow in the background—insistent on waking even the dead. Ravi balances a tray with a cup and plate of food. “I could hear your protests from the living room.” He toes the door open for Rokie. “I would ask if you are clothed, but since I am nearly blind, I believe it does not matter.”
“I was too tired to change.” I slip through the opening in the mosquito netting and reach for the tray. I inhale the fragrance wafting off the food. “You didn’t have to bring me anything, but it smells wonderful. Thank you.”
“You are her granddaughter,” Ravi says as if no further explanation were necessary. “Chai and ghatiya—a proper breakfast.” Yellow twists of fried flour lie next to a cup of foam-covered chai.
“I’ve never had it before.” I cautiously take a sip. The rich concoction of fresh ginger and milk warms my mouth. “It’s delicious.” I nearly hum my approval.
“You may thank our goat for the milk.” Ravi smiles when I raise an eyebrow in question. “In the field behind the house. She delivered it early this morning.”
I glance curiously at the frothy mixture before taking another sip. “I look forward to the introductions.”
“Your grandmother insisted it was the only way to start the morning.” Ravi rests a hand on the old stone chair that matches the desk. “Finish your breakfast, and then I will show you where to shower. You don’t want to frighten the goat when you make her acquaintance,” he teases. “Later, we will talk.”
I watch him leave before taking a small bite of food. The rooster finally stops crowing. In the stillness, I imagine telling Patrick about what I’ve seen so far. When we first met, I was quiet and reserved—a habit I learned from my mother. Patrick helped to bring me out, listening with interest when I spoke. He was the person I told everything to—good or bad—until there was nothing good left to tell. We were brutally tossed around in a cyclone of hope and hurt. To share my sorrow meant reliving the past with the one person who had already experienced it. I was too weak to carry his grief atop mine, so it seemed safer to stop sharing.
The memories of the past circle around me—a reminder of a time when my marriage was stronger than circumstance. I pass through the years like snippets of a film reel until I am moments away from the day he told me about Stacey. With the recollection, the pain comes flooding back.
I push away the plate of food and walk toward the window, where the sound of children starting a game wafts through the opening. After wiping the dust off the ledge, I push against the latch until it loosens. I slide it open and gaze at the children as they kick a barely inflated ball in a dirt field. Around them are fields with scattered vegetation and homes similar to this one. Their small voices become large with laughter.
I quickly shut the window and latch it closed. My back against the wall, I breathe deeply. For all of my surety about coming, I now wonder what I was thinking. I am all alone in a place that holds nothing for me and no one to care.
“This is the shower?” I ask, staring at the archaic bath.
Red clay bricks are stacked atop one another, forming makeshift walls. The branches of a broad-leafed tree provide camouflage as a roof. A small drain sits in the middle of the outdoor bath. From corner to corner, there’s barely enough room for one person.
“Here are your three buckets of water.” Ravi points to the two buckets on the far end of the wall. “They are for soaping but are very hot, so take caution.” The third, he explains, is lukewarm for rinsing off. He hands me a small bar of soap. “It’s sandalwood. Good for body and hair.” Ravi starts to take his leave before pausing. “I nearly forgot. The geckos can be curious, so watch for them.”
“Wait, what? Geckos?”
“Yes.” He shields his eyes and scans the tree above the bath. “We have many here, and they seem to lose their fear when someone is bathing.” He smiles at my astonishment. “Some have fallen on this old head, though they may think it is a nest. Enjoy.”
I keep an eye out for wayward reptiles while I bathe quickly. I run the soap over my arms and then my stomach, tracing the faint stretch lines that formed with the last pregnancy. I never imagined one broken track could lead to an entire train falling off. Now I feel foolish for having believed otherwise.
Instead of washing my hair, I let warm water run through it to help relax the tension in my neck. Once finished, I dry myself with the thin towel. I slip on my flowered sundress and pull my wet hair up into a ponytail.
“There’s a hotel in the next village that I booked before my trip.” I swing idly on the hammock tied to the porch, while sipping the lemon sherbet Ravi made from fresh-squeezed lemons for me. The ice cubes start to melt in the heat.
Ravi uses a metal knife to carve the edge of a small twig. He whittles the wood with the edge of a knife until the ends are shaved into fine bristles. Once finished, he hands me the stick. “To clean your teeth.”
I turn the piece of wood over in my hand as I inspect it. It’s as long and wide as a straw, and the bristles at the end look like the end of a broom. There is no way I am putting it in my mouth. “Thank you, but I have a toothbrush with me.”
He refuses when I try to hand it back to him. “This is much better. You will see.” When I continue to hold it out, he says, “I made it myself for you, and I am nearly blind.”
Not wanting to hurt his feelings, I lay it down next to me. His lips curl into a small smile, and I know I’ve been played. “What’s the best way to call a rickshaw?” I ask, hoping to get to the hotel by the afternoon.
“There is no need.” He picks up another twig and starts the process again. “This is your home.”
“I can’t impose.”
“This was her home, and now, for as long as you wish, this is your home.” Ravi’s choked voice falls low. He faces me and starts to speak, when something behind me catches his eye. I turn to see, but there’s only the wall.
“Ravi?” I prompt when I see his mouth turn down. Sadness fills his eyes. “Is everything all right?”
“There are times when I am sure I see her,” he says quietly. “She’s standing on the porch, teasing me for not having done the chores properly. Of course, many were her chores, but she was always busy writing. She had a unique light in her eyes when she told a story. She came alive.” He raises his hands and demonstrates. “She would gesture wildly as she spun her tales. Made you listen even if you had no time.” He shakes his head and seems to pull himself back to the present. “You came very far for the mutterings of an old man.”
“She was a storyteller?” In an instant, I feel a connection to her I’ve never felt with my mother. I always wondered where my love of words came from.
“Yes.” His fingers curl into a fist. “She was young, and death seemed powerless to touch her. She would write for hours and days. In her tales, she found happiness.” He rubs his thumb over the palm of his other hand. He closes his eyes and shakes his head. “My apologies. In my old age, I seem to prefer the days of the past to those of the present.”
“Do you have any of her writing?” I think about the letter that brought me here. “My uncle wrote that my grandfather had something for my mother. Was it the stories?” I hold my breath, waiting for him to say yes. To tell me he can give me something of the woman I will never know. When he shakes his head, I swallow my disappointment.
“They are all gone.” He releases the knife he was using. It clatters to his feet and then onto the next step. Rokie barks at the sound. “She gave them all away. After that, she promised to never write again.”
“They were her prized possessions and all she had left to give.” He talks in riddles without explanation.
“Then do you know what my grandfather wanted to give my mother?”
“Yes.” His face clouds over, and the warmth is replaced with detachment. “I do. But for me to tell you, first you must listen to a story.”
“One your grandmother repeated to me in detail in the months before her death. It is the story of her, your grandfather, and your mother.” He takes a deep breath, and his eyes fill with pain. “It is the story I have had to keep secret until now.”
“Why now?” I ask, confused by his reaction.
“Because your grandfather has died.” He hesitates, careful with his words. His bowed body leans back, making distance between him and his pronouncement.
“He made my mother promise never to return to India,” I reveal, alert to his reaction. Ravi’s eyes widen in shock and then lower with despair. “She said it was the price she had to pay for being born.”
“I did not know.” Ravi goes cold, and his lips flatten with fury. “Though it was best for her to never return to the place that hurt her, it was not his promise to exact.”
“Hurt her how?” I ask quietly. The ache in his words is a warning to me. My instincts caution me to run, to refuse his offer, and let my mother’s secrets stay safe. But the part of me that is broken, that yearns for something other than my relentless pain, demands the truth.
“The story will answer all of your questions,” he says slowly. “But you must stay to hear it.”
I remember what I left back home—pieces of a life that lay in ruin. “I will stay.”
Relief covers his face. “Good. This was her home and your mother’s. It is your birthright.”
Ravi stands and motions for me to follow. We walk slowly past some mud houses mixed between bungalows similar to my grandmother’s. The road shifts from dirt to asphalt. Large swaths of land are filled with vegetation, while others lie brown and unproductive. Burned leaves on trees lie still in the dry air. Fruit riddled with bird bites hangs off the lower branches. We pass a defunct windmill, and then the town becomes more modern with shops and open markets brimming with customers.
Ravi is quiet except for a few murmurs to Rokie, who follows loyally at his feet. I linger behind as my nervousness wars with anticipation about finally hearing my mother’s story. In hopes of tempering both, I focus on the sights and sounds of this village where the villagers watch me warily, seeing me for the stranger that I am.
Ravi leads us toward an abandoned low-rise brownstone building that stands in the far distance. A smaller cottage, similar in design, sits to the side. With a key, he unlocks a gate and signals for me to follow. Once inside, he watches, waiting for my reaction.
Just inside the threshold, I stop and stare. “A garden?” Awed by the beauty, I stroll between the rows of diverse and fragrant flowers. I bend down and inhale the scent from a white flower with a yellow halo around a black center. “It’s breathtaking.”
“White alders, I believe,” Ravi says. “Your grandmother was relentless in teaching me. After so many years, my mind is fearful of forgetting.”
I point to a cluster of flowers next to the row of alders. “Red cassias in early bloom.”
“You know your flowers,” Ravi says as I inhale the powerful fragrance the pink blossoms exude.
“Mom liked to garden, and sometimes I helped her.” They were some of the few times she allowed me in. We would work silently side by side, planting and trimming plants and bushes. “This is amazing.” I gesture toward the array of plants and flowers, some still budding. The dusty village we walked through would give few allowances for such a garden to exist within its boundaries.
“It is your grandmother’s from another time,” Ravi says. “Come.” He leads us to a bench beneath a beech tree. The leafy branches hover over us, providing shade from the relentless sun.
“Sit, and I shall tell you her story.”