Kerala, my ancestral state, is a place full of noise and silence. The kind of noise from the bustle of unregulated life that’s comforting, the sort of home I didn’t know I needed. At the same time, it’s filled with the quiet of the unspoken that I can’t will myself to break. Especially of people who are no longer there that I can’t mourn, especially my grandfathers. Simply because I don’t have enough memories of them to bring up any sort of emotion.
There’s an ocean between me and grief that I can’t get myself to cross. Maybe because being the child of an immigrant made me adept at putting an emotional distance between my two homes, as well as a physical one. I have yet to figure out my relationship with mourning, but I’m starting to accept that everyone has the right to mourn differently.
One visit to India from 6 years ago still stays in my mind because of its finality. In Trivandrum, my grandmother’s and my aunt’s houses are across the street from each other. Then, it was still my grandparents’, but reminiscences are always colored by what is to come more than what is. The gate evoked the smell of rusted metal with the word Vinubhavan inscribed on the surface. The tiny yard contains the echoing barks of a dog, Julie, in a cage. A dog that was later sold, with the cage transported elsewhere. I never had any particular love for the dog, but it filled the house with sound. Later, the silence filled the house like a veil.
What sticks with me from that visit is the echoes. The echoes of my grandfather’s voice, loud and firm, and a vague echo of blue ink on my wrist. Perhaps his voice itself is imagined because I can’t even recall his voice in my mind. My grandfather had bought me cheap, blue bangles from a stand, and the blue ink had stained my wrist almost like blood from a spider’s veins. I missed the bangles greatly, yet not my grandfather. One of the few concrete memories I have left of my grandfather, except photographs around our house.
One of him with a stern, grim face with a blue vignette background. Another one of little me, holding a blue stuffed dog, and my toddler brother.
A gray alarm clock with printed superheroes on it in my brother’s room. I pull open a tiny trapdoor on the rectangular base and feel for the graininess of aged rupees gifted by my grandfather. Now, they’re just money that we’re reluctant to throw away. It evokes nothing but a ghost of something that should be there. Instead, it’s filled with the silence of what was and what I can no longer find in any corner of my heart. When I was told of his death, I recalled a cold sense of something being missing. At the age of 10, I didn’t quite understand what grief meant or how to grieve in the first place.
My father tells me that my grandfather was a land surveyor, who was the go-to for any conflicts over property borders and always carried a measuring tape. He loved to exercise by walking up and down the 30-degree slope on the nearby road. I do remember that he was a skilled mathematician, who could multiply large numbers with ease. He would take my brother and me on autorickshaw rides that we loved for the sheer chaos of it all. He was a constant traveler who went to nearly every part of Kerala. These tiny details revitalize the ghosts in my mind and ring small bells in my subconscious. Not just the serious photo in our altar, but someone with talents and flaws, a three-dimensional human.
My maternal grandmother’s house is also occupied by a lost soul. Muthassan is a constant presence in photographs. One of him with my mom and uncle as a child. A collage of him with my grandmother on their wedding day, among others. A photo of him in a hidden album that I peered at multiple times, perhaps out of morbid curiosity. He’s almost like God to me, someone I’ve prayed to all my life yet don’t really know. Often, I mourn that I never knew him, but that’s too distant to be called mourning. My mind is tormented by those photographs; casual reminders of my inability to feel anything.
I was told he died in a car crash before I was born, and my whole life has been punctuated by his stories. But in some ways, the stories are like ghosts. Science experiments, helping to count money, and my absolute favorite: the pink curry story. One day, my grandmother made this pink curry that my mother refused to eat. So my grandfather said if she didn’t like it after one taste, she didn’t have to eat it anymore. The curry turned out to be surprisingly delicious. Still, she furiously insisted that it was the worst curry ever. So I know him with the lesson to always try something new willingly. But I can’t quite convince myself that it counts, no matter how many times I hear the story.
Last year, I found out something even more intriguing: that he and my grandmother had been childhood friends, even falling in love, and had written letters to each other. And that my mother’s first plane ride had been an emergency journey from the Taj Mahal to Kerala, her home, after her father’s death. I was completely surprised by these stories, making me realize how little I knew about people I saw all the time. The realization was almost comforting. I was finally able to start to reconcile my inability to grieve. You can only grieve if there’s something to grieve. And stories only do so much.
The only change in my life after my paternal grandfather’s death was a new photograph on the altar in our California home. Now, their portraits of my Muthassan and Appupa, or maternal and paternal grandfather, rest on our altar. Somehow, elevating people to deities may make it harder to connect with them on any tangible level.
Yet I’ve started to realize the fact that without significant memories, it’s hard to recognize what’s missing. But confronting this blindspot has taught me about the people I have lost and to appreciate the people I still have. To form meaningful memories with them and learn their stories while they’re here in full color rather than bare echoes.
And I march on, carrying the ghosts and echoes of my split world with me, toward a blur of my quotidian existence. Only hit by nostalgia as I wander through my house and see photographs tucked into a corner. Transporting me back into a moment that I have never seen nor remember, but forming a picture frame in my head nonetheless. For what I’ve lost and yet I still have through the silence and the stories that speak of home and love in every word.