by Adi Thatai
Let me tell you how we arrived here. Let me tell you our story.
My great-uncle, my Chacha-ji, sat softly on the other side of the table, his legs crossed.
He looked elegant as he spoke, even atop the gaudy pink and orange chairs of my cousin’s wedding. I leaned forward, listening as drunk dancers stomped some distance away, prismatic blue and green spots swirling under the hazy midnight sky of the Delhi outskirts.
Do you know how we arrived here? Do you know our story?
The story would be good, I could tell. My great-uncle wore the same wide smile that his older brother, my grandfather, wore in my favorite memories. I saw the same mischievous twinkle play around the same excited eyes, the same long wrinkles running like train tracks across my great-uncle’s mahogany skin. A remembrance of things passed. My Chacha-ji spoke to me in Hindi, the colorful sounds of his language flowing from his mouth, floating to join the brilliant streamers strung above our heads in celebration.
Let me tell you how we arrived here. Your grandfather would have wanted to tell you this story, but now, he is gone. God has kept me here, and now it is my responsibility.
We were like most under the British: a poor Indian family, uneducated. My father ran a small shop, made a couple of rupees a day, and gambled and drank it away at night. He never graduated the second grade, and he never planned for his children to either. We would have ended up the same – we all should have ended up the same – but something got in the way.
Something always gets in the way with us, doesn’t it?
I had an uncle, not too much older than I, with whom your grandfather and I were very close. He must be what, your great-great-uncle? Uncle was not so different from us, aimless, content with having nothing, settled being no one. That was, until he met her. I remember the day when I knew things were going to change. Uncle came home and told us that she had eyes like the night and skin like a perfect cup of chai. At that moment, I knew the rest was decided. They did what any sensible Hindus know not to do – they fell in love.
They should have married. Their love was as sweet as a jasmine flower and as colorful as a peacock’s feather. They could have had a happy life with each other. But something got in the way. She was of a high caste. We aren’t. Their love was forbidden. We all knew their fate was decided, but Uncle, heartbroken and foolish, believed that if he went to school, he could convince her family that he could be the elegant and wealthy husband they wanted for their daughter. Two PhDs later, and it was still forbidden. बेचारा. He never stopped hoping.
Her family arranged her marriage to some prince type, but Uncle refused to accept anyone else’s hand. She had children, but Uncle never did. When her husband passed and she fell ill, Uncle took care of her home and her family, and when she died, Uncle adopted her children as his own. Uncle passed many years ago. He kept it to himself, but everyone knew he was in love to his last day.
He was a good man. While this was happening, Uncle never forgot about us, your grandfather and I. He made us go to school. He took us to Dhanbad to become supervisors in the coal mines. That’s how it all changed. That’s how we got out of the village. That’s how your grandfather sent your father to school, and how your father was able to leave and move to America. That’s how you were born in the States. That’s how we arrived here.
My Chacha-ji’s finished his story, hugged me goodbye, and left the table to congratulate the bride and groom. I sat at the table alone as the party dwindled and cars drove away, astonished at the story I had been told. Around 3 in the morning, my family came to collect me, and we left. I stared out the car window as we drove through the city, unable to take my eyes from the people inhabiting the moonlit landscape. Children, some my age, some much younger, wandered the dirt roads without shoes or shirt, in groups or sometimes alone. As we took a turn, I found my window particularly close to a rowdy group of young boys, and I made eye contact with a one of them through the glass. He was skinny and covered in dirt. His eyes were bloodshot, and he had a deep scar that trickled from his collarbone to his ribcage. He couldn’t have been more than 12. He waved at me, and our car sped off.
We took off from the Delhi International Airport the next day. 20 hours later, we touched down, back home in Boston. Driving in our big car to our comfortable home in our wooded American suburb, I couldn’t stop thinking about the young boy. What separated us so much?
One distant, lovestruck ancestor? Dumb luck and two generations of school? I imagined what could be if our lives were switched. I imagined what it might feel like to wave hello to a forgettable boy in a car window on an Indian street at 3 in the morning.
Now, let me tell you how I arrived here. Let me tell you my story.
I’m visiting India again now. This time, not for any wedding. It’s late February, and my senior-year-of-high-school, last-year-at-home, go-back-to-the-motherland road trip through South India with my mother is coming to a close. We’re making our way to the airport. We’re on the night train. I’m on my way back home, to America.
We always take the night train. We have to. My mother is from South India and my father is from North India, so when we come back, we have to visit both sides, and flights have never arrived near Kochi, where my mother’s sister lives. We usually arrive in the north, in Delhi, spend time with my father’s family, and take the long train down south. In my mind, the night train still takes three days and two nights, but that was only true when I was much younger. The trains get faster every year, and now it only takes two days and one night. I miss the day in the middle. It was always the strangest – sunrise to sunset spent lazing in the flimsy bunk beds of the warm train cabin, watching the landscape between stations crawl by. A day, pure, spent in transience.
My mother is currently snoring in the bed below mine. It’s late – midnight, I think. I’m on the top bunk, and I can’t sleep. Thick chapters of The Lord of the Rings sit between my eyes and the graying plastic ceiling, thin pages illuminated by the small, fluorescent light behind my head. I turn and shift my body weight on the synthetic blue leather, looking warily over the edge of my book at the chains that suspend the bed within the cramped cabin. I catch a glimpse of the strange woman in the train cabin with us – she’s on the bottom bunk on the other side, sleeping, across from my mother. That’s another thing I miss about how the night train used to be. We used to talk to the strangers. Some of them were like us – visiting their homelands for a week or two. Some would be students travelling home, and others were visiting friends or partners. Now, the trip is shorter and they’re usually on their phones. Now, we leave our memories untold, and we leave their stories unheard.
My eyes pass over the pages in front of me. Blurry fantasies of snow-capped mountains and fair-skinned elves assemble and dissolve in my sleepless mind. I usually can’t pull my nose out of a fantasy book, but tonight, I haven’t been able to focus. I turn onto my side, and my attention wanders to the cabin’s one, small window. Metal bars welded across the plastic stripe
the dim, orange images of choking trees and aluminum ghettos that slide slowly by. Images of a land that I call my own, a land that I have never truly known.
I try again to read, but it doesn’t work.
I’ve been dwelling on that memory of my Chacha-ji for some time now, that memory I just recounted. I’m frustrated. I remember his image perfectly, but I’ve lost his words. The story he told comes to me whenever I call for it, but he speaks differently every time; against my will, details appear and evaporate around the oral ghosts of my ancestors. It’s strange. I can see the story – even those details which I know my mind must have invented. I can see my great-great uncle falling in love, and I can see the woman’s chai-colored skin. I can see them meeting unexpectedly in a market, and I can feel their hearts break when their parents discovered their love. But I can’t hear my Chacha-ji’s words. Why does my imagination feel so real? The story has consumed reality, and I think it has stolen my memory forever.
The train used to take longer, my mother said. My mind wanders to a new memory, this one, from a few days ago.
My mother sat in front of me, in the middle row of the minivan that we had been travelling in. I sat in the far back, looking ahead at her reflection in the vibrating rearview mirror, the whole car shuddering over the unpaved dirt roads of India. Beside my mother sat her older sister, my aunt, Prema, whom we had just picked up from her home in Kochi. They looked identical – sitting tall with their shoulders held low. Long, coarse, curly black hair fell over the seats in front of me like twin waterfalls. I watched their sequined salwar kameezzes shimmer in time as the setting Indian sun caught their clothing through the wide car windows. I smiled quietly to myself – they looked just like my two sisters.
Ahead of my mother and aunt, the car’s windshield opened up to the chaos of Indian traffic. The thin, lane-less road overflowed with travelers in an indistinguishable industrial mass. In the dead center was a two-way passing lane – yes, a two-way passing lane. People hear plenty about the insanity of Indian traffic, but nobody ever imagines hurtling at eighty kilometers per hour directly at honking busses with cars on the right and left locking you in, just slipping into traffic as the bus barrels by your side mirror. We trusted the man driving the rental car – known well and employed frequently by my aunt – but my mom kept her hands balled into fists the entire time. Oddly, I felt at peace being yanked around through cyclists and pedestrians and trucks. I’m not sure why. I guess I had never heard of anybody I knew in India getting into a car crash. Just didn’t feel possible.
Next to the driver, in the passenger seat, sat my uncle, Alex. A few days prior, just as our arriving flight dipped downwards towards the low lights of Delhi, my mom stretched her hand across the armrest and placed it gently on mine. She said to me, in Hindi, Be nice to Alex. He sees so much of himself in you. We all do. He never does anything like this. His bipolar disorder dragged him back home when he was twenty and he has lived by himself there since, through our parent’s death and my immigration. He’s lonely. Give him some attention. You remind him of himself. I watched my uncle Alex in the front. My sisters and I had affectionately nicknamed him हाथी, or elephant, because of his prolific height and width. I looked at my uncle, now precisely my height, fill up the front seat, swaying as the car wrenched back and forth, holding the handle above him and peering out of the left window at the shifting landscape. We picked him up earlier that morning at my mother’s old family estate, which Alex now runs (poorly, my mother would say). As he got ready to leave, I wandered the clay floors of the old home, fascinated by everything I saw. I noticed my grandfather’s handwriting in his musty books. I didn’t remember my grandfather, as he passed right after I turned one, but his handwriting was nearly identical to mine. I flipped through old photos of my aunt with her famous pet jaguar. I had heard so much about it from my mom, but the cat was much cuter than I could have imagined. I roamed through the sun-soaked rubber trees my mother grew up playing in, watching cows graze peacefully among the shrubbery. I had never known a place like this. Our family home. I looked around, trying to capture everything, so I could remember this place properly. 50 acres of grounded history in a lineage of transience.
Now, behind my uncle Alex wobbling comfortably in the car, cross-legged, my mom began to tell me a story that I knew well.
The train used to take longer. After finishing each year of medical school, I would take the train from Punjab to Kerala to go home, and it took almost a week. A week on the train! I had so many adventures.
My mother turned to look at me over her shoulder, a rare excitement in her voice, and I nodded my head in performed surprise to keep her talking – I knew these stories like I knew myself. My mother had been telling them to me since I was a child. My first memory of a night train isn’t even mine, it’s hers. I recounted it to her once – a clear image of an army of hundreds of cockroaches scuttling on the train walls from the front to the back and my sisters burying their heads in my mother’s lap in fear and disgust. She dismissed it – That happened to me. You weren’t even born; you must have heard that from your sisters. In a small deflation of childlike innocence, I realized then that India was a memory for my mother. It’s just stories for me.
As she looked back at me in the car, her eyes sparkled with that small exhilaration of being reunited with your siblings, and I pretended like I didn’t remember any of her stories to keep her talking.
Once, in one of my first years at college, when I was about your age, I took the train back home, alone, when my spring term ended. In India, everybody locks their luggage when traveling, or else you run the risk of having your things stolen. But at that point, I was young, and I was arrogant. I brought a large, hot pink rolling suitcase with me, and I didn’t lock it. On the fourth night of the train, the passengers aboard woke up unexpectedly to loud sounds at midnight – bandits, stealing our luggage. They were on top of the train, slashing open suitcases with machetes and stealing valuables inside. They stopped the train, and the bandits ran off, holding bags of jewelry over their shoulders. The passengers climbed onto the train roof with lanterns, and we saw empty suitcases with clothes strewn everywhere. Since the bags had been locked, the thieves used swords to cut them open, throwing most of the things not worth stealing off the side of the train to be lost forever. But when I went up, I saw my hot pink suitcase, open, almost untouched, everything just as I had kept it in there. Since they didn’t have to cut it open, they unzipped it, saw only a college girl’s clothes inside, and let it be. I zipped the bag up, brought it down, and completed my journey home in peace. Since then, I have never locked my suitcase. I let out a laugh – I love that story.
My mother began to talk again – Wait, have I told you the story about how I made your father wear rosaries and learn Christian prayers to trick terrorists looking for Hindus? I began to lie and say that I hadn’t, but my uncle rumbled in his scratchy, under-used voice before she could continue. Lata, tell the story later, we’ve arrived.
The driver turned onto a busy street, stopping in front of a short building with a white clay façade, slatted brown window shutters splayed open across the front – our hotel. We got out of the car, inhaled the humid evening air, and walked through crowds of people to the wide doorframe, hobbling and groaning as we stretched our out rigid limbs. As we entered, a small, easily excitable bald man with wrinkled dark chocolate skin greeted us jovially. He hugged my aunt and my mother and exchanged awkward handshakes with my uncle before coming to me. How long I have waited to meet you! Welcome, welcome. I arched my eyebrows in surprise as the unfamiliar man hugged me. My mother noticed and nudged me, Our second cousins’ brother-in-law. Family. In a moment, I began to smile to myself. Standing there awkwardly in
the small arms of an unfamiliar uncle, I think I realized for the first time that, perhaps, the land of my ancestors, this land built among my fantasies, remembers me, even if I don’t remember it.
My mother and I parted from her siblings and settled into our room quickly, keeping our things packed tightly in our unlocked suitcases. Night fell, and warm orange streetlamps turned on outside our hotel window. We stayed up for some hours, discussing our plan for the next day and reading in adjacent twin beds, the pale light of a small lamp bridging the space between us. We fell asleep quickly.
This country is dying. At least, it is to me. That’s why I’m here, on this train, after all.
Death tour. Those were my mom’s exact words a few weeks ago, when she sprung this trip on me without asking me. I had begun to protest, thinking about all of the snowed-in movie nights I had planned with my friends for February break, but she interrupted. We’re visiting my old relatives before they die. A road trip through my ancestral lands with my siblings. She paused. This might be one of the last times we are all together.
I hadn’t thought about that. That India will die for me. But it’s true. The only reason I visit India is to see my old relatives, and one day, they will die, and with them, my connection to this physical place will dissolve into memory and story. During my last trip to India, my sister cried in the car to the airport. Once our grandmother dies, we will have no reason to come back to this, she said. I didn’t understand it then – I was too young. Now, as the night train pulls me home, I think I understand her.
Five days ago, my mother, my aunt, my uncle, and I arrived at our first stop. I can’t remember who we were visiting. I think it may have been my mother’s aunt or great aunt or her uncle or great uncle. I don’t remember their names. We pulled into a neighborhood of tall clay and marble homes, separated by low brick walls, green and brown brush peppering the sides of the dirt road. Stepping over the threshold into the house, I heard my mother gasp in front of me. Ahead of us stood her aunt and uncle. Her uncle, who she bragged was once the tallest man in Trivandrum, stood deflated, wrinkled skin falling over his long face, his old eyes empty, his memory clearly fading. Her aunt stood with pain, her ankles unable to support her weight after a failed joint surgery. Just to walk, she had to slowly shuffle her gnarled feet centimeters at a time, dragging her own body across the floor like a fraying rag doll. They looked crushed, small under their tall ceilings.
Our conversation was short. They spoke only in Malayalam, my mother’s native tongue. I don’t speak or understand any Malayalam. I sat beside my mother with a camera in my hand, letting familiar noises wash over me as I quietly snapped photos. My mother’s uncle said nothing, and her aunt cried, embarrassed of being pitied. As we drove off, the old couple waving silently behind us from their doorway, my mother began to cry. I grew up under these people, she said. Look at them now. They’re barely alive. She then translated for me what the couple had said to her. I listened as hard as I could. I hate that I can’t remember any of it anymore.
Later that day, an old male relative cried as he spoke about his son, his chest heaving and collapsing with strained breaths. My mother told me later he said his son hadn’t talked to him in years. I took photos of him sitting in front of a picture of his late wife. He spoke in Malayalam except for one English phrase: I feel lonely. I realized quickly that each stop would be short. We spent far more time on the road than we did with these people.
Visits continued for the week in a similar fashion. My mother and her sister cried visiting the homes they grew up in, and my uncle stood aside quietly, watching the old wood beams rotting and the lizards crawling over old portraits of their lost ancestors. Relatives I had never met spoke to me in a language I have never known, and I took distant photos of them, finding it less painful to look at them through the small viewfinder.
Yesterday, our last day on the road, we drove past a sign that I will never forget. Kochi International Airport – Arriving 2020. Next time I came to India, airplanes would now take me to my mother’s family. This would likely be my last time on the night train, I realized. I understood why my mom brought me on this trip. For us, for me, this country is dying.
I sit up quickly, putting Lord of the Rings down as my head nearly hits the train’s ceiling. My emotions, anxieties, and memories are swirling together in my mind and stomach as I reflect on the trip and the past. It feels like the fluorescent walls are shrinking around me. I have to move.
I clamber off the top bunk, trying to not wake my mother or the stranger. I manage to land quietly on the cool ground, slipping my sandals on. I glance back at my mom sleeping peacefully, and I slip through our room’s curtains into the aisle, her quiet snores fading as I walk down towards the back of the train. Dim lights bleed from the cabins on either side of me, the long hallway dark with stagnant air. I walk lightly to the end of the cabin and the world opens beside me. There are no walls between the train cars. A midnight India rushes around me. A restlessness grows in my stomach. I walk towards the opening. The restlessness grows more, reaching up through my torso and into my chest. Low grasses spread aside the train, lit gray by the hazy crescent moon high in the sky. I poke my head outside of the train, squinting my eyes in the slow wind around the rolling train. A singular choking star floats alone among the brown clouds. The restlessness has reached my mind now. Without thought, I grab the pole at the train door and pull my torso out.
I hold myself here, one thought overwhelming me. What if I jumped? I see a subsequent reality. I see myself jumping. I see myself falling into the grass, tumbling to break my fall. I see an image of the moon and its lone star from below, as if I were laying in the grass, looking upward. I see myself getting up and realizing that I have no cell phone, no knowledge of the local language, no addresses, and no numbers. What would I do? How would I get back? Could I get back? Fear rushes through my mind. The foundation of all my fantasies dissolves. I begin to realize, only now, the reality of this vibrant land. If I jump, I will be lost, hopelessly, in the middle of India. I consider taking the jump. If I land on the ground, that will prove that this living land exists completely outside of my imagination. Before my thoughts continue, I hear my mother.
Come back. Go to sleep. My mother’s sleepy voice brings me back to reality. I pull myself into the train car. She had gotten up and walked to the end of the train car. I’m expecting her to be upset or confused, but she seems to have noticed nothing out of the ordinary. She tells me again to go back to our cabin and walks into the bathroom. I don’t move, but rather wait there for her, standing, sneaking looks outside at the unforgettable landscape slipping by.
My mom walks out of the bathroom, and we return to the compartment. I clamber up into bed and put Lord of the Rings away in my bag. I whisper a goodnight, get under the covers, and fall fast asleep.
The next morning, I will reach the airport and fly home safely. In a few months, I will finish my senior year of high school and leave home to attend college. In that time, three of my ancestors pass away – three of the old relatives we visited on the road. In that time, I look back at this strange memory with wonder. The time I thought about jumping off the side of a train. I think more and more about the country I’m held so far from, and I don’t find a satisfying answer for what has separated me from the billion that live there. I think more and more seriously of living in India after college for some time, perhaps in family home with my uncle, reading my unknown grandfather’s old books and roaming amongst the rubber trees alongside the peaceful cows. In this time, they put an airport in Kochi. They have direct flights from London to Kochi, and I suspect that we will never take the night train again. I will attempt to make a photo album for my mother and lose half of the pictures forever in a silly mis-click. My memories from this trip will collapse and condense into images and stories. I will try to remember them with care.