Varkala Beach, Kerala
There it is, flagging in my mind’s eye. 1993. As though it bore more weight than the years that came before or after, as if all time weren’t equally fleeting and its passage—already twenty-five years—impartial. 1993. The year of my mother’s death, four short years after my father was taken from us. And yet the year 1989 does not appear to me similarly marked, disfigured by his loss. I was perhaps too young, but it is more than this. Just as it was more than my mother’s death that marks 1993.
I am thirty-three years old, an age that should feel young, except I am older now than my birth mother ever became. You’ll want to hear about the day she died. People always do. But I can’t tell you about that without also telling you about the months that followed. My mother left a sister behind as well, her twin, my aunt Nayana. And in 1993 I should have gone to my aunt and her husband, Ramesh, my only surviving family, where they lived in London. Instead, with a few strokes of my pen, I rewrote our story without knowing it, changing our lives, and the lives of others, forever.
It turns out I was authoring original stories after all, even then. I know I’ve been responsible for unhappiness as a result, and not only for my aunt; there is always more than one life at stake. But it is also true that joy occasionally stems from the most fateful chain of events, and I suppose I have been responsible for that as well. Still, I’ve not always been immune to tracing the ghost of the life that might have been, not a better or worse one, but very different to be sure. Why is the fact that things are as they are never enough to help us to let go of what might have been?
I was eight years old, in grade 3, at a private school almost an hour by bus from our house in Varkala, the village just up the road from the place where I am now, returned a tourist after twenty-five years. I loved school back then, second only to my mother. If she was my galaxy, then school was my sun, and my life revolved around it. Though I wasn’t able to articulate the idea at the time, I grasped from a young age the importance of success in school, what it would eventually mean for my mother and me. How it had already changed my aunt’s life, bringing her to England on a scholarship. I believed my education had the power to reunite my mother with her sister. And because I knew my mother wanted this most of all, I wanted it, too.
My last class of the day was English. My mother told me often how much I was like her sister; we both delighted in memorizing new vocabulary and diagramming English sentences, reading English books. My teacher was Mr. Mon, and his English was exquisite to my eager ears. Naturally, I was pleased when he asked me—just me—to remain after the final bell rang that day. I stood at the sound, making sure the back of my shirt was tucked into my trousers. Painfully aware of the stain on my shirt from lunch, I approached Mr. Mon’s desk cautiously. As the other students filed out of the room without a single glance in my direction, I grew worried that I’d somehow disappointed my teacher and that I was about to be punished. But I couldn’t think of anything I might have done that day, and the week before, we had been on holiday to celebrate Diwali, the festival of lights, the most important holiday in India, which marks the triumph of good over evil, inner light over spiritual darkness.
At his metal desk, Mr. Mon was thumbing through the reports he’d assigned over the break: a family history. But he did not pick mine out from the pile. He pushed the reports aside and studied me over his glasses, which he then removed and cleaned with a handkerchief from his pocket.
“I won’t keep you long, Birendra,” he said. “I know you have a bus to catch.”
I suddenly doubted my abilities despite how much I loved to speak in English, even in those years—it was at my insistence that my mother and I had begun using English almost exclusively at home. And yet I remained silent in front of Mr. Mon until he continued.
“I’ve been watching you these past months. I watch all the children, of course, and I’ve been impressed with your work. But that is not why I’ve asked you today. I’d like to commend you.” He stopped and eyed me seriously. I began to sweat. “Do you know what that means?”
“No, sir,” I said, though I felt certain it must mean “to punish,” and I struggled not to look away with shame. I wrung my clammy hands together behind my back and anticipated a reprimand.
“It means to praise.”
My hands sprang forward and almost clapped, so great was my relief. Then I thought better of it. “Oh, thank you, sir,” I said.
“But I haven’t said what I wish to commend you for,” Mr. Mon continued, laughing a little at my relief.
I felt myself flush with embarrassment and wanted to be dismissed even more than I wanted to learn why I was being praised. I wasn’t in trouble, and that was what mattered. That and keeping Mr. Mon’s good opinion of me.
“Yes, I see in you a potential leader, Birendra,” he said. Though I was filled with joy upon hearing this, he must have sensed my general discomfort and changed the subject. As much a question as a statement, he said, “You are eight years old.”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“Well, you’re off to a good start, Birendra. It so happens I’ve had an idea over the break and thought of you. How would you like to help me organize our very first English-language reading club?”
There was nothing I would have liked more. I nodded enthusiastically, but again I stood there mute, and again I was disappointed with myself. Mr. Mon rose to his feet and smiled down at me.
“I look forward to learning about your family,” he added, taking the stack of reports in hand, and then he dismissed me.
I was so proud of that family report. As I ran to my bus, I couldn’t help but smile at the thought of him reading it. I’d worked hard the week of Diwali, writing and rewriting each paragraph. I was already an inquisitive child, and the report was my chance to ask innumerable questions of my mother. Kind was the English word she used for my uncle Ramesh, and this, in turn, was how I described him in my report. My aunt Nayana, she said, was clever. And she’d specified that they lived in West London, which made it more real in my mind because I knew my geography and directions. I included a map of England with my report and placed a star just to the left of London. My uncle and aunt were also generous; it was thanks to them, my mother reminded me, that I attended a private school and was able to write that report for Mr. Mon at all.
The bus lurched forward, and I remembered I’d forgotten to return the library books I’d checked out before the holiday break. I determined to return them the following day, unaware that my world was already spiraling out of orbit. On the ride home, I imagined my mother detailing my triumph at school in her next letter to my aunt. This reminded me that I had to get off the bus at Varkala Junction to post the letter she’d written the night before.
Every year, on the last day of Diwali, instead of reading to my mother from a book at bedtime, as I usually did, my mother told me the story of Lord Yama and his twin sister, Yami. I was lying on her bed as I had every night that week. I remember the fading ocher design of the mehndi decorating her palms for the holiday. I traced them with my finger and listened to the familiar tale. I could see Yama arrive at Yami’s door bearing gifts for his sister, who led his way with her lanterns and song. “That’s why siblings exchange gifts on the last day of Diwali,” she said, and then she told me about a time when she and her sister were small and my aunt Nayana asked my grandparents if she could give my mother a present because they were twins and she, Nayana, was older by thirteen minutes, a fact I also included in my report. She closed my hand in hers and gave it a little shake. It was time for bed, I knew, but I didn’t want to go to my room, so I pretended to sleep. She took out her notepad, on which she would write her monthly letter to my aunt, resting it on her knees and leaning against the wall beside the lamp. Every month, I personalized the back of the envelope in some way, and whenever we went to the village kiosk to call my aunt, she told me how much she loved receiving my notes and drawings, which she called special. She said she’d saved every one. This month, I would send her Diwali greetings.
I opened my eyes to test the waters. My mother was smiling down at me the way I loved. She asked what news she should send on my behalf. In my excitement, I mixed Hindi and English and told her she should tell my aunt and uncle I’d written about them in my family report. “Good idea,” she said. “Now off to bed. It’s back to school tomorrow.” I pleaded with her to let me sleep with her one more night. She ran her hands through my hair, and I knew she’d let me stay. I turned over quickly and closed my eyes again, breathing quietly so I could hear the sound of her pen brushing against the paper, a sound that has always brought me peace.
Sometimes you do the most mundane thing—mailing a letter, for instance—without knowing that your life has already come undone. I got off the bus at Varkala Junction and walked in the direction of the post office, my bag heavy behind me. I remember there was a lot of smoke in the air. In the days after Diwali, there were always men making small roadside piles to burn, remnants of the week’s celebration. Some of the big white stars and strings of colorful lights were left to hang from houses and trees. The few Christian families in the village would soon add their decorations, and their children would dry grass for nativity scenes they built to hold their strangely ordinary gods and saints, who looked just like humans, even their little baby savior.
Our local post office was really only a window at the front of a one-room structure. It always seemed miraculous that a single envelope, passed through this modest window, should find its intended destination across oceans and continents, yet my aunt’s letters arrived every month like clockwork, and this indicated that ours reached her as well. I could hear the postal worker’s firm voice telling the old man in front of me that he would have to come back with the complete address. I wanted him to leave, so I crowded in, eager to pass my mother’s letter, with news of my report, through the window, where it would begin its journey.
With my task complete, I began to walk home from the junction, a ten-minute trip that would have been easier if my bag weren’t still heavy with library books. Our home was on a narrow dirt road where there were nearly a dozen houses, each within calling distance of the next. It’s still there. In fact, many of the streets haven’t changed much in Varkala Town, as they now call it to distinguish it from what has become, in my absence, Varkala Beach. My mother and I used to have to walk through coconut groves to get to Benji’s shop once a month. The shop was really just a bit of tarp hanging from four posts along the cliff, which, at the time, had a few ramshackle places to stay. My mother made these little patchwork animals, and Benji, our neighbor’s nephew, sold them to the few tourists who’d found their way to Varkala. The trees have mostly been razed to build resorts and restaurants, shops with real walls. But when you retreat from the cliff, it’s as if time has left the village mostly alone. Our house has been painted and feels disappointingly, though perhaps also mercifully, unfamiliar. It once belonged to my father’s parents, but they left Varkala to take my father and his brother to Delhi for school. It was there he met my mother and they fell in love. Every summer before they met, he returned to Varkala with his family. During those visits my father continued to develop his passion for Kathakali theater, a stylized classical dance that incorporates Keralan martial arts. It features extravagant costumes and makeup, and the stories are told largely through gestures and expressions. I still have a photograph of my father in Kathakali costume, his face painted green and white, his eyes wild and framed by a golden headdress. My mother surprised him one day, arranging for his friend to come from the temple and prepare my father for this portrait, allowing him to act out his childhood dream of becoming a Kathakali performer, a dream that played a part in eventually leading them back to Varkala. I once told my mother that I remembered the day the photograph was taken, but she said I was too young. I was three. I can still feel the day, whether that’s a memory or not. I even forget what my father looked like out of that costume.
After college, my parents left Delhi and returned to Kerala, where my father had secured a post as a PhD candidate in history. My mother said it was his love of Kathakali more than anything that brought them there. The year they met, he claimed at the last minute to have forgotten about a final exam and promised his parents and brother he would be along in a few days for their annual return to Varkala. The truth was that he had a date with my mother. That weekend, they met and ate mango ice cream, his favorite, while on a walk through Lodhi Garden. My father’s parents and brother were killed in a wreck just outside Hyderabad the same weekend. My mother often told me that the gods saved him on that day so she and my father could eventually make me. But she said that no one could escape death forever. That was why, when I was four, they came to take him all the same.
The Nairs were our nearest neighbors, an older couple whose daughters had long since married and left the area. I believe they were already in their seventies back then. In any case, they’re gone now, too. My mother thought it was nice to have them for neighbors, like grandparents for me, because I had none, even though the Nairs were older than my grandparents would have been. My mother’s parents, too, had both died, while she was pregnant with me. First, my grandmother, after a stroke. Then, just days later, my grandfather, in his sleep. He died of missing her, my mother told me. She also often said we were unlucky to have such a small family—she used to call ours “the smallest family in India”—but she also assured me there was no shortage of love, that she was merely the keeper of all the love my father and grandparents would have had for me. I asked how she could hold it all, since she was just one person. She said love wasn’t something like our flesh, with physical limitations. Love could take on any shape. The smallest amount, if pure, could fill us up, yet it would always make room for more.
Mrs. Nair was a garrulous woman with a hearty laugh and a broad smile and silver hair she always wore in a loose bun. I often came home from school to find her sitting in our living room, gossiping while my mother sewed her patchwork animals. Even though my mother had lived in Varkala for years, she never spoke the local language, Malayalam, very well. Still, Mrs. Nair provided endless updates about families who were moving to or from Varkala, land that was being divided near the cliff, and marriages that would unite various families. Sometimes my mother would have me translate a word or phrase for her, but mostly she would listen to Mrs. Nair, rarely asking questions, pretending to understand more than she did.
It was Mrs. Nair who found my mother that day. As I turned onto our road, I saw the strange white vehicle in front of our homes. And two men in uniforms standing in the road. Mrs. Nair was there, with one hand pressed to her head. She appeared to have lost something. I feared for Mr. Nair. When she noticed me approaching, her expression changed, not as though she’d found what was lost but rather as though she’d remembered something, something awful. She hurried to meet me, almost running the half dozen meters despite her age. Suddenly I was in her grasp, unable to move. My backpack slid easily to the ground under the weight of my books. I was stiff in her fleshy arms, my face consumed by the soap-scented fabric gathered at her chest.
Her embrace grew tighter as she prayed to Ram, repeating the name over and over again, pleadingly, in my ear. One of the uniformed men said something about “the son” to the other, and I was drawn away from Mrs. Nair and propelled in the direction of my home. There were other neighbors gathered on the street as well, and now it was Mr. Nair preparing to intercept me. At a slow pace, he approached until he was standing before me. Then he wouldn’t let me pass by. I heard one neighbor say to another: It was her heart, but when I turned to see who had spoken, it could have been any one of a handful of people, all eyeing me solemnly. I understood what Mr. Nair was going to say and that nothing I did would stop him from uttering the words, from changing what was now true. Still, I wanted to delay his speech. I wanted to tell him that the neighbor had been mistaken. I wanted to ask why anyone would say such a thing about my mother. Didn’t I know her heart better than anyone?