A Shield

by thanklemons

When my grandmother died, I was living in Dublin. I wandered the city aimlessly day after day, but never so directionless as the day I received the news. Even the impossibly green grass and the castle-like buildings seemed dull, all of a sudden unimpressive. Life was in slow motion: I was underwater, The Graduate, The Stranger, deaf to the meaningless world.

I couldn’t cry. My grandmother was the last of my grandparents, the only solid connection I had to a time and a legacy before my parents, a place outside the US, a culture I was alienated from but wanted desperately to stay a part of . I spent an hour looking out my window at the empty quad, and I felt all the miles between myself and any familiar place. I was a husk, shriveled and empty, and there were no tears to shed. My room felt exposed and vulnerable as the wind rushed past the window, drafting in through the cracks.
“Tyaan rakh le, beta,”  my grandmother once told me, seriously. We were preparing to leave the flat for a few days, my parents and I, to travel south and see other family. As I hauled out the last of my bags, my grandmother caught me to say goodbye.

“Tyaan, Biji?” I asked, confused, my kindergarten-level Hindi failing me.

“Haan. Tyaan rakh le,” she repeated. Her expression gave away nothing.

“It means care,” explained my mother, party to the whole exchange.

Take care — look out for yourself. My mind wrapped itself around the meaning. Biji was quiet, satisfied that I had understood. Things are dangerous outside these four walls, beyond the courtyard, outside the borders of this neighborhood. Take care, she warned me, as if the rest of the world would swallow me once I left her. Under her roof, the world was small and simple and safe, and when I was there, things fell into place. There was a system, separate from the chaos of Delhi streets outside, insulating. My grandmother’s eyes were watchful, aware, and the meaning of her gaze clear: we are protected here.
Ireland is a Catholic country. I had no idea what this meant at the time. My only lessons in religion were from studying the Old Testament in high school English. It was the first time I had ever opened a bible, and it felt strange, like trespassing on someone else’s history. I read about Creation and Eden and the flaws of the human race, and I thought it seemed very poetic. We read about God’s light, and I wondered if contrast was always as stark as dark and light, black and white, evil and good. When we read about Cain and Abel, I was afraid of the evil that manifests in every person. Allies betray us, surely, but we also betray ourselves. Nothing seems safe anymore when you think about that.

To learn about the fall from grace, we wrote about our own loss of innocence — the moment we realized the world was frightening and jarring and cruel, when idealism dissipated. I understood the concept only in theory; I think I wrote a paper on a character from a book. That’s how I thought about it, all one step removed, detached from my life.  In memory, I can barely recall the details of my own schoolwork, but what I strangely remember is a line that a friend wrote: Did this many people always die?

… It haunts me. Through every encounter with death, illness, and loss, it haunts me. There are heavy things that permeate any space they touch, weighing it down in leaden memories. The world is full of death on repeat; like a broken record playing the same chord, the sound becomes white noise if you listen too long. Once you see or know terrible things, the world absorbs them. When you look out, when you go anywhere, you can feel their pervasive heaviness and it renders you powerless.

Sometimes, in Ireland, I would think about a place I could go without any ghosts to weigh it down, somewhere untouched. But as I learned, there’s memory that weighs down any place. Some oppression seeps through, some great controversy, some thread of tradition. I knew that I was not at home, that I was walking into someone else’s story and I would have to leave eventually. I used to dream of somewhere colorless and empty, where history and legacy couldn’t touch anyone– a catch-all kind of shelter for the cultural misfits.

But then again, maybe emptiness can’t heal. Maybe we need something to counter the heaviness.

These days, I try to think of somewhere very old, very personal, full of life and light that could shield me. A place I’m entitled to be. I think about crawling inside and being protected, having the world as I know it protected. It’s a dreamy kind of notion that floats between my ears on occasion, unanswered, a question like an empty shell.
It took a year, but my mother and I made it to Delhi to clean up the flat. It was a familiar scooter ride through the streets into my grandparents’ neighborhood, and I marveled at the ease with which life carried on here. In my mind, time was frozen, silent, faded in black and white — a cliche photo in a frame on memory’s wall, static and untouched.

We spent two days organizing files, papers, and clothes and all the knickknacks my grandmother had accumulated over the years; they seemed too small to be the remnants of a life fully lived. We remembered every piece of that house as we deconstructed it, unraveling a decades-old tapestry of colors and lights and company. This space was many things to many people, and none of them would see it again. 

Standing in the living room for the last time, I was tempted never to move. I thought of how easily I could stay there, chasing lizards up the wall and hiding from winter’s chill and summer’s suffocating heat, and I traced my fingers over tables and chairs, scanning the room, memorizing it. When I turned toward the back door, I found it open. In the yard, my cousins had built a fire for Lohri, and everyone gathered around it. The fire was loud, and my thoughts were drowned out. Smoke slipped off, over the courtyard fence and away. Mysterious. Elusive.