When I was a little girl, I once read a review of a book called A Ship of Fools in the local newspaper in Nagpur. I can’t remember if it was in the English language newspaper Nagpur Times or in the Marathi newspaper Tarun Bharat (Young India). But the title left an indelible impression on me. I think the book was supposed to be an allegory about life.
And now I think of that book. The words, a “ship of fools,” run over and over in my head. Life, I am realizing, is nothing but a journey on a ship; a voyage in which one gets to know one’s fellow-travelers ever so slightly before they get off the boat. And before you know it, you yourself are close to the end of your journey, and all you can do is look back and take a fleeting look at the scenery that passed you by so very quickly.
For us immigrants, this realization perhaps comes more intensely. I think of my father, the hero of my childhood, the man I could once scarcely live without, the person I spent years trying to impress. My father now lies in his bed in Nagpur, India, suffering from simple old age—he is after all in his late 80s. And I think about how very little of him I have seen in the last quarter century. And I look at my children, who were little babies in a double-stroller only yesterday, it seems, and who will soon fly out of the nest, and I think how fleeting life is. I feel sad then for all the anger and disappointments and resentments that I might have ever wasted time on, for time runs on and on, regardless of whether you are happy or unhappy.
And yet during a visit to Nagpur recently, I saw my relatives harboring the same grievances that they have been harboring all their lives. Perhaps we immigrants appreciate how precious life is because we have all been “born again” in our adopted countries. Separated from the milieu we grew up in, we value it more. We learn to forgive and forget and to move on because that is what we learned to do when we first arrived in a new country.
I look back and realize how precious certain people and places once were to me, and how far removed I am from them now. I cleaned out my garage the other day and threw out a lot of junk that I knew I would never need, like old reports from my previous job and old bank statements from New Zealand and Hawaii where I once lived. But it is hard to get rid of these things, simply because they represent a slice of my life. It is the only slice I now possess of that period of my life besides old photographs and memories, which too are fading away. I know that in another 10 years, I will be ready to let go of the records of old addresses I once lived in and phone numbers of friends I will never call.
When I come to the end of my journey, perhaps all I will remember is a fleeting glimpse of a beautiful bay in Auckland, New Zealand on a summer’s evening, glowing in the orange light of sunset, as Ponga ferns sway in the breeze. All you remember in the end are some passing moments of sheer joy and those moments come not because you were successful in your career or had the exact 2.5 kids that you always wanted or because everything in your life worked out just the way you had imagined but because you were simply a traveler on this planet experiencing the miracle of life.
When I went to Nagpur last December, I brought with me a diamond from Zale’s Jewelers for my mother. It wasn’t very expensive but my mother was moved by it. I realized then that what she was moved by wasn’t this piece of rock that represents such a status symbol in the West; she was moved by the realization that she had never quite known the independent, unconventional, adventurous, daring, maverick of a daughter that she had raised. And she was wistful because she knew that it might be too late now. We had traveled together but our journey had been so very short.
I hope I will never feel that way about my sons. When I say “bye” to them as they leave for school every morning, I feel a pang of parting, as if I am seeing them for the last time. I feel this way because I know that this phase of my life too shall pass, that I will not be waving “bye” to them one day, and I feel wistful.
So all I wish is that I will have no regrets at the end of my journey like my mother does. I think of an essay I once read as a child in one of my father’s books, about reflections in a graveyard. The author was thinking of the generations that had passed away and of the generations that were to follow, and of how phony the tombstones sounded as if written by immortals.
Life is a voyage on a ship, so let’s go to the ball this evening, for who knows what mishaps the night might bring.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED.