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As the train sped past the Indian capital of New Dehli, I opened the old envelope and took out the rough folded paper that had gradually turned yellow over time. I sat on an overcrowded seat, jammed between different people so that the stench of sweat and dust swept over me with every intake of breath. I slowly and carefully unfolded this paper that seemed ancient and fragile in my forgetful hands, and I saw his writing. His small intricate writing that danced across every line and the entire page. I read through the last letter he had ever written before his death, and ran my fingers over all the curves and patterns that his writing had created. This letter was addressed to my mother…His emotions, the happiness that was still flowing strongly in these words brought tears to my eyes as I tried to discover more about what kind of person my grandfather had been, for he was a mystery to me. A mystery that was not spoken much among the members of my many family members.
As I continued to be absorbed in my emotional state that this letter brought, I noticed that I was being watched. She was an old woman, sitting a across from me only a few feet away. Her head and face were mostly covered with the remaining length of the filthy, tattered sari she wore, which revealed small patches of her bruised and wrinkled skin. She was barefoot, her feet rough and calloused. The delicate lines in her face and her eyes revealed the fact that she had once been a beautiful woman in her younger years. From a distance she looked like a defeated woman wandering around hopelessly with her sorrows, yet what startled me was her eyes which were an electric purple, which seemed as if they were still humming with energy and were fully alert. And these eyes were concentrated right on me, unblinking, making me uncomfortable. At first I looked away, trying to distract myself by looking out of the vast rectangular windows of the train as we passed bazaars and streets bursting with cows with their sharp horns, their long tails flicking back and forth to keep the flies from their bodies, cars constantly honking at each other trying to get to their destination, and swarms of people trying to get through their daily shopping and jobs. Yet these sights were no match for the woman’s gaze, her electric purple eyes pierced into me and I found myself slowly turning in my seat, and my eyes slowly raising to meet hers. I looked right into those eyes and I realized that my body had become rigid and I could not move. Then the woman got up on her old creaky knees and hobbled over to me with an old tree branch, as a makeshift cane, looking as if it would snap in half at any moment. She never once removed her eyes from mine, and I felt a bit scared. What was she going to do? As soon as she was standing right in front of me, she looked away, at my nanaji’s letter in my hand, and in that moment a huge feeling of relief came upon me, as if a weight had come off of my shoulders. I took in a deep breath and then she spoke.
“That’s your nanaji’s letter isn’t it?”
I stared up at her face, completely startled and shocked, not sure how she knew this. I looked at the paper in my hands and I hesitantly looked at her again, not knowing how to respond. And then I slowly nodded, my eyes wide. Out of the blue, she reached within the folds of her paper thin sari and took out a handwoven basket big enough to fit in a small toaster, and placed it in my now shaking hands.
“This is for all of your letters, you will be getting more soon.” Those were the last words I ever heard coming out of her mouth, because she disappeared after that, and I never saw her again.
The train jerked to a halt, and I snapped awake, wiping away the drool that had come out of my mouth with the a corner of my shawl that I had used as a pillow. I groggily sat up and rubbed the sleep out of my eyes and stifled a yawn, and I saw that others were starting to gather their belongings and bags, while others were still sound asleep, with their heads leaned against the crooks of the windows, their mouths fully open and rattling with their snores. Jetlag started to overcome me once more, and nothing sounded better than a nice warm bed, but I shook myself out of it. Shiju mami was probably outside waiting for me, and I knew that my parents and sisters would be anxiously awaiting my arrival. As I stood up to stretch my legs and gather my belongings, something fell off of my lap and onto the floor of the train, and when I looked down at it, I saw that it was the basket that the mysterious woman had given me. I looked at it in wonder, not sure if it had all been a dream or not. I could still picture the woman clearly in my mind and it seemed like those purple eyes would haunt me forever. I shook my head once again,and realized that the train was almost empty. I stuffed my grandfather’s letter and my shawl, into the basket, grabbed my big duffel bag and stepped outside to the lovely smells of the vendors selling hot samosas and sweet potato, and blistering heat, to the side to avoid being sucked in by the dangerous current of people trying to get on. I placed my duffel bag next to me as it was too heavy for my shoulders to carry and within a minute I saw my aunt waving her hands at me, and smiling. As soon as we reached my Uncle’s house, I was swarmed by family and friends, wanting to hear of my trip, however at this point my jetlagged body couldn’t handle much and I managed to put my belongings in a room and stumble onto a bed before I fell into a deep sleep.
Over the next few weeks, I settled into the craziness of the household as the wedding preparations were being made. My mom and my aunts made a hundred phone calls a day, searching for caterers, looking for a band to play at the barat(a wedding procession), and my sisters, cousins, and I were dragged into the long excruciating trips to the bazaar to buy saris, jewelry, and shoes to wear at the wedding and reception and the other ceremonies that would be carried out during the wedding week. We turned onto this street and that, trying to push through the traffic of human bodies, along with cows and stray pigs and dogs packed together so tightly, at times we couldn’t see where we were stepping and an unfortunate someone would put a foot in cow dung or human waste itself. Back at home, while my sisters played with our cousin’s pug, Ginger, who was probably the smelliest dog on the planet, I took to the quietness and peace of the back yard and relaxed in the swing from the tree, and listened to the sighs of the potted flowers and them singing their sweet melodies in perfect harmony as they swayed back and forth in the gentle breeze that swept around. I would listen and I would read more of my nanaji’s letters. He wrote about the different places he was posted while in the army. He described the lush green hills of Kashmir with its gushing beautiful rivers and streams of sparkling water, the tall and steep mountains of Jammu that were very dangerous and difficult to climb, and the bustling city of Agra, the home to the magnificent Taj mahal with its vibrant rose gardens and clear pools. His letters were so detailed and so full of life, I wished so many times that I could have known him. Each letter was headed by a date in the corner, many of them were from the 1960’s, and as I read these letters, my head became filled with so many questions, I decided to to write a reply to each of his letters that my mom gave me. It was only a small stack, but I read through each several times, trying to savor the magic in each word. I felt good when I wrote back to him, even though I knew it was ridiculous, but when I did this, it somehow felt like he was there right next to me, reading every word. I wrote what life was like, what was going on around me. I described our days in the bazaar, trying to swat swarming mosquitos away so that we wouldn’t have large red welts covering every inch of our bodies. I described all of my cousins, all the grandchildren he never knew he had, what they liked to do, what they looked like. I told him about his own children, my mom, my aunts and uncle, and how their lives had turned out to be. I wrote and wrote, more than I’d ever written in my life, filling up entire pages of new discoveries, wedding arrangements, life back home in America, and much more. I took each letter that I had written and I put them each in the envelope of a letter he had written. After a reply for each one had been finished , I created a now large stack in the corner of my special basket.
As the wedding drew closer, I got less and less time to read his letters, as I had to help out my family with cleaning the house from top to bottom. Only until everything was shining did we stop to rest. A week before the wedding, when everyone stopped to rest, and have a snack of chai and biscuits, I went out to the backyard with my basket and the pug, Ginger in my other arm, because honestly that little guy loved to be carried out rather than walk. This time when I opened the envelope at the top of the stack, I saw that my reply letter was gone. I opened one, and it was nanaji’s letter. I set that one on \my lap and opened the other and it was also his. This puzzled me. Had I put two in one envelope by accident? Then my eye’s caught on the date in the top right hand corner of the paper. It read a date that made my heart skip a beat. 12/27/14. It was a date of that very day. Just to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating, I went to my mom. She looked at me quizzically, and read the date just as I saw it. 12/27/14. I stared at the date. I didn’t know what to think. My eyes sneaked down to the words on the page, and I gasped when I saw the first couple words.
“ My dear granddaughter,...” I read a few more words
“I am very happy that you have written to me.”
I read a few more, and my eyes swept across every line, clinging to the existence of every word.
“..I know that me currently writing will come as a big shock for you, but there are many things I want to explain. I made a huge mistake and it was one cost me my life. Because of it, I have not been able to see my children, see what they have done with their lives, their successes, their failures. I haven’t been able to console them or support them in times of need. I wish I could have helped raise all of you, my dear grandchildren. I would just like it if you kept telling me about this wedding that is going on, and whatever is dwelling in your imagination. I am very sorry that I was never there for you, but I will be here for you in my letters and I hope you can find comfort in them when you need it…” I sat on the swing, with Ginger licking my hand, not sure what to comprehend, a million questions swirling through my head. How? Just how?
I looked through the rest of the envelope’s but my replies were still all there. I remained shaken as I took in the moment that had occurred. I began checking the envelopes every day, and as the week sped by I began to get accustomed to his replies. He continued to write to me, and I began to write back. My basket started to become heavier and heavier, and I would get strange looks as I wandered around the house with my basket. I started to anxiously await his letters and updated him about the wedding.
Before I knew it the day of the wedding came, and we all celebrated our way to the temple, dancing to the beats of the drums and instruments of the band barat, around the horse that carried our cousin, our hands covered in the beautiful patterns of henna designs, and our faces ornamented with heavy jewelry that dragged down our ears. Our cousin rode on that horse bouncing uncomfortably, his hair wrapped in a pink turban and his face covered by a veil of jasmine and other flowers.
After the marriage ceremony was completed, I looked at all of my family members going to congratulate the newlyweds, and thought how nice it would be if nanaji could have been here to see his eldest grandchild and grandson getting married, and when we all returned home later that day, I wrote to him describing the beautiful marriage ceremony as the bride and groom garlanded one another, all the beautiful clothing the family wore, and how I wished he could have been here to witness the beauty of it all. The next night as my sisters and I entered the reception area after a long 5 hours in the salon getting our hair curled and pinned into fancy hairstyles, everything seemed so magical. Small fairies glowing with shimmering light danced around me, lighting up my path as I lifted my heavy skirt to climb the stairs leading to the large reception room and dance floor, and I danced the night away with the people I loved, yet I still wished that my nanaji could have been there to celebrate with everyone else. On the way back home, when the midnight sky was jet black dark, and everyone one slumped with exhaustion, there seemed to be a certain stillness in the air. As we stuffed ourselves into the different cars lined up outside, large droplets of rain began to splatter on top of our heads, and the sky began to brighten with sudden flashes of lightning. Although lightning and pouring rain were quite common here, I felt a nagging sensation inside myself, something tugging at my soul to somehow bring me awake to a warning, but I couldn’t figure it out. The rain started to beat down harder, pounding its fists with huge booms against all sides of our taxi. As I looked out the window, the lightning flashed right in front of my eyes, and I knew that it was giving me my final warning. I leaned my head against the headrest of my seat and closed my eyes, trying to ignore the headache that was starting to form at my temples. I didn’t see the bright headlights of the car coming from the opposite direction. I didn’t see the car hydroplaning across the soaking slippery street, or it coming closer and closer. I didn’t hear the screams of my sisters and cousin, when that car with its bright headlights still on zoomed towards us and made a perfect collision into the left side of the taxi, making us flip over. The taxi driver had been the first one to free himself of the wreckage and he was amazed to see that he wasn’t hurt, save small cuts and bruises. He went to the other doors of the car and saw my sisters and cousin trying to come out, as they weren’t badly hurt either. Everyone was out except for me. Me? I was unconscious, as that car had rammed directly into my side. The rain slowed down, until only a light sprinkle was left to fall from the clouds. I never heard the wailing of the ambulance and police cars, never heard my sisters weeping over my body. I never heard any of it. I did hear one sound. At first it was only a small sound, and as they lifted me onto a stretcher, and put me in an ambulance, I heard it again, a low murmurr, a loving voice that whispered into my ear. It told me to keep holding on, that I was going to be all right. And I knew that it was the voice of my grandfather. He spoke to me very briefly, and then his voice disappeared.
A hand touched my cheek and my eyes flew open. I was in a hospital bed, but I didn’t have any pain, and I had no bandages or any injury. That hand, my eyes snapped up to the eyes of a stranger, and yet I knew him.
Nanaji smiled at me, a slow sad smile. I smiled back at him, and opened my mouth to talk, but I realized that didn’t have a voice. Nanaji saw me in this state, and he gave me his sad smile again, and then he spoke.
“ It’s not your time to go beta, you have a whole life ahead of you, and I want you to make the best of this blessed life god has given to you. Have fun and study hard in school, go to a college that you love, make new friends. Life becomes short and sweet only if you choose to make it that way. Don’t make the same mistake I did. I made the wrong choice, and everyone suffered from it.You can go back. They need you to be there in their lives.”
I knew he was right, and I knew that he would always be there watching over me, even though I would never be able to see him again, and with these comforting thoughts, I let myself relax onto my pillow and closed my eyes, and soon enough I was on another train back home to the world of reality, and I knew that I would never forget him.
Manhattan, New York
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
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