In November, I wrote about mentally preparing to visit to my father’s family in India. I’ve been back three mornings.
I told myself I would keep a record of things that happened as they happened while I was in Mumbai, but I kept pushing off writing it down. Instead, I spent my down time taking afternoon naps, skimming a couple books by the cousin who took me around Mumbai, eagerly but distractedly progressing through James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain.
I felt there were things still unfolding and I wanted my record to be not a haphazard list of anecdotes told here and there, but a cohesive chronological narrative that would flow together once I had a pen in my hand. Contemplating my neglected journal, I looked over the attempts to document the significant moments of the past four years. I have a fairly complete record from freshman year at Calvin of how my more enduring relationships came about, but after that, it is mostly fitful starts that hastily try to sum up the interlude and explicate the events that have motivated me to return to writing. Though I often resolve to try to write a sentence about each day, I’ve never even started that narrative effort. And thus the days are lost.
On the journey home, I slipped into the outside-of-time mindlessness of hours of travel by plane: sleeping in starts, eating precisely portioned meals, clicking through the small screen in front of me for a movie to waste a couple hours with.
During my layover in Abu Dhabi, I started a timeline of what we did. I know I drank a lot of Kingfisher beer and milky tea. We ate at the historic Leopold Café, visited Jehangir Art Gallery, walked along the seaside, rang in the new year with coconut cake and the synthiest Hillsong tracks at my aunt’s church. My cousin and I explored the stillness of Kanheri, Buddhist caves carved out of basalt in a pocket of forest preserved as a national park. I wandered uncertainly the curving streets of the colony where my aunt lives, with black and yellow auto rickshaws zipping past and an abundance of Christmas lights overhead.
More than checking off a list of sights to see, I went to listen. I talked very little about myself and probed the layers of family history, getting detailed accounts to expand my canon of fragmented, thirdhand knowledge. I started to find my way around as I begin to learn the streets of my aunt’s colony, but I don’t know my place in the mythology. The night I stayed up until 5 a.m. with the two cousins I had just met, one remarked that to be a Daniels was a fraught but tremendous honor. It is an unconventional and unhappy and creative and fierce legacy. But could I count myself among them? I felt I was making sense of myself from their stories, but the influences they spoke of had not directly shaped me. Could I don them now, just like that? Were these stories I could make my own?
When I met my uncle, his voice gravelly from radiation for throat cancer but his eyes hauntingly like my father’s, he extended his hand and said, “I used to take your father out to eat when he was here. Let’s continue the tradition.” When he wasn’t preoccupied with a Facebook status censuring the BJP party or exhausted from his cancer treatment, he made a point of asking me directly what I remembered of my father and what it was like to come here. He told me stories of my father, and of himself. He gave me a piercing stare, then asked why I spoke so softly, trailing off my sentences at the end.
He gave of himself, and I fear I failed to give back. I strove to be polite and unobtrusive and if not intelligent then at least not stupid. I fear I failed to let him know me, because I did not know myself.
An ex-boyfriend once observed, in computing terms, that I am always inputting, inputting, inputting, and that I needed to output more. I watch and listen and ask questions, but often, especially in times of conflict, I only grow more silent. I hold on to this as one of the clearer truths anyone has ever shown me about myself. I retreat into the swamp of my own thoughts and get stuck in the muck.
To write is to output, and I know that it is when I write words that I begin to make sense. I am more balanced, patient, and kind when I’ve gone to the trouble of writing things down. I am more willing to open myself up to conversation. Yet I so often resist this meaning-making. I resist until something impersonal like a post calvin deadline confronts me.
Astoundingly, my uncle did not know the details of my father’s death. He had not come into contact with anyone who could tell it to him firsthand, and he had not been interested in a secondhand account.
My uncle speaks of my father as the cultured, engaging, elder brother in tailored suits who made a life for himself as a neurologist in America. I knew that father, but the story I carry deepest within me is of him at his lowest and most alone, his head resting in a puddle of blood on the kitchen tiles, vodka on the counter, five days dead.
This is not a story I often tell to others. It burdens them. But it is the story I have told myself the most.
I told it dispassionately, my voice firm.
It felt elemental, but it was what I had to give. It was a burden he was waiting for, willing to bear.
India Daniels (’17) studied English literature and history at Calvin. She is serving a year as an Americorps VISTA curriculum development specialist for Turning the Page, a nonprofit promoting literacy and parental engagement in Chicago’s North Lawndale schools.