Not the Last Time

“Pass the pani, please,” I bugged my sister, who tossed me a bottle of chilled water, a refreshing coolant in the scorching blaze of Indian heat. In the back of the cab, my thighs glued together from the sultry air, and my fingers frequently tangled as my skin grew sweatier and sweatier.

I did not dare unclutch my hands from the handlebar; whenever the driver swiveled sharply amongst the disarray of the hectic road, I felt certain we would run into a cow. Contrasting the humid air, my eyes seared with dry pain from the dusty air. Jetlag stuck me hard at this hour, but the never-ending rush of rickshaws and motorcyclists withheld my eyes from closing shut.

Apart from the headache from the boisterous sirens of the produce trucks, another thought overwhelmed my mind. Had fate rolled its dice slightly differently, possibly landing on a three instead of a five, I could have called this very place my home. Eagerly, I examined through the clouds of filthy haze for signs of comfort and belonging, but I remained fruitless.

Didi, my sister, sat relaxedly beside me, somehow lulled by the reckless rocking of the cab.

“You know something? When I’m older, I want to move here.”

“Why’s that?” I asked, still on the edge of my seat.

“I don’t know. I guess I can’t help but remember when we were younger, and Nana would teach me Hindi out on the veranda and would read me parts of his scriptures. I’ve never met a man as wise as him.”

I scanned my brain hard for such moments like this with my grandfather, but only his calm yet cracking voice over the telephone replayed in my mind. He would speak to me in Hindi, and I would reply back in English.

I released my grip on the handlebar at last when we approached the house. Though tainted with smears of dirt and some of the wood chipped away, my grandparent’s home still stood with great grandeur in contrast to the cluttered streets, crowded with beggars dressed in nothing more than battered rags. To my right, delicate, blush pink lotus flowers and towering guava trees filled the lush green garden.

We stepped inside the doorway, the rich smell of spices rushing to my nose. Instantly we were greeted by my aunt, grandmother, and cousins.

“Oh, how tall you have grown!” my grandmother said, her sari infused with the smell of masala. Didi wrapped her arms around her, exclaiming, “Good to see you, Nani!”. From the sounds of laughter and excitement, a heard a faint voice approaching.

“Beti,” he whispered. My head turned instantaneously, the deafening drum of my heartbeat vibrating through my ears now. Tottering towards me was my Nana, his legs as skinny as sticks and his face pale as winter frost. The wrinkles that blemished his face sagged as to stretch his gossamer skin so it hung past his chin. While his head remained completely bare, fine white hair still grew like a jungle in his large ears.

He took my hands in his, and I could feel his frail arm shaking uncontrollably. When he spoke he repeated his words once or twice, forgetting that he had already said them. I felt tears building up in the back of my eyes, a sea waiting to be released. My stomach lurked with a fierce stab of regret.

I stood before a man whom I should feel is apart of me, a man whose wisdom I could have soaked up like a sponge. Here he slumped, so wearied and brittle, almost as if he were to crumble into thousands of pieces in a matter of seconds. A gulp in my throat formed as I thought how I barely knew him at all.

Truly, though, it was near the end of my journey in India when this regret ignited in my thoughts. As we approached the doorway, once again, this time for goodbyes, I heard my father say, “Well, this may be the last time we ever come here.” He hinted that the next time we visited, we would be throwing my Nana’s ashes into the river. These words stung my skin and left a hefty bruise.

The cab ride to the airport left my sleeves soaked in snot and tears. You failed, I thought. You will never know what it’s like to be an Indian. I glanced out of the window and saw a family bathing themselves in the holy river water, and thought to myself, The only thing you have in common with them is the color of your skin.

I did not desire this meeting to be the end. What I wanted most, was to found a connection with the dense Indian culture and the people of my motherland. But how could I, if I did not speak their tongue and they did not speak mine? I thought about my own children, and how they would be completely clueless to the magnificent wonders that is this subcontinent. The glorious mandirs that adorned the littered streets had me itching to join the mass of men and women who filled every square inch of space. I rolled up my wet sleeve and promised myself that I would return, to join and pray with them.

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