Prologue 2: Loss
I remember it distinctly, clearly. A cold day with a strong, damp chill. As usual, work had been uninteresting, and I’d walked home rather than take the subway, letting the air cleanse my lungs as I walked from Maryland across the border into Washington, DC.
Due to the cold, and a pound of ground beef that would soon spoil, I decided to make chili. I ground some tomatoes and jalapenos in the blender, cooked the sauce in a frying pan, and added the browned meat and beans. Soon, I had a pot simmering, the delicate smell of oregano and bay leaf permeating the entire house.
Right then, I felt a vibration in my left pocket. My phone was ringing, and I correctly guessed that it was my dad. Excited, I answered, eager to talk about my travel plans.
“Hello?” I answered.
“Hi Nithin,” my dad said, as he typically did whenever he called.
“Hey, Dad, I was thinking, I’m probably gonna finish working on the 28th and head back by the first or the second.”
There was a pause. Long, awkward, and unnatural.
“That sounds good. Hey, mom needs to talk to you.”
My dad never handed the phone to my mom so quickly.
“Okay,” I said, a little surprised. My stomach grumbled. That chili sure would be delicious.
“Nithin.” Her voice was cracking, high toned. She was distraught. My pulse raced. Something was wrong.
“Mom, is everything okay?”
“It’s Amama. She had a heart attack, she’s in the hospital.”
Amama. My grandma. The chili, the world trip, my appetite, my job, everything around me sank.
She was traveling to India with my uncle and had overexerted herself, wanting to meet all the family she hadn’t seen in years. Last night she had sharp pains in her chest before collapsing, and was rushed to the hospital where she was now under intensive care.
Somehow I knew. Although it was just a heart attack, although she was still alive at that moment, and even though I tried to reassure my mom that she might survive, I knew. I would never see her again.
My life had completely changed.
A month earlier than expected, I packed to travel even farther than Italy—all the way across the world to India. My mom and I stepped off the plane, the city dark and muggy, and we were greeted by a group of teary-eyed relatives. In Hyderabad, Amama’s hometown, uncles, aunts, nieces, and nephews were mourning her death after having seen her for the first time in years. Stories of love abound as we learned about her last days and the unexpected tragedy that had taken her from all of us.
The Amama they described—gregarious, social, beloved—seemed so different from the grandma I remembered. Images of her sitting quietly by the window in the living room, on a regular dining table chair, observing the weather. Or her on the sofa, waiting for the next episode of All My Children, the soap that she followed even though she couldn’t understand what anyone was saying. When my parents were around she was quiet, but if it were just my brother and I, she was animated, friendly, and comfortable, but still, language and our vastly different upbringings were barriers.
She left me a reputation. Of all her grandchildren, she’d spoken more about her eldest grandson, living in Washington, DC, a world traveler, smart, handsome, and who would grow up to be famous.
“Oh, your Grandma told us so much about you,” said one of her nieces, my mother’s age, who doted over me.
“Nithin. You’re her most loved,” said another.
I never thought of myself like that. Sure, we never tattled on her when she made a mistake, giving her freedom at home. But she was the same with us to our parents, keeping our secrets and never letting us get punished. What that must have meant to her. We were her companions, and I was one of the few people in America whom she could trust, so far from the country of her birth.
She was, I realized, the same for me.
Amama had been with me since I was two months old, when my mom first infected me with the travel bug by bringing me to see her in India. As the first in her family to be born outside India, Amama became the bridge to my heritage. She came to America shortly thereafter to help raise me, her eldest grandson, after my mom returned to work.
Was it because of her presence that I became aware of the larger world? Perhaps the seeds of my future travels were planted right then, learning about India through her stories about our family.
Stories I could barely remember, and would never hear again.
Throughout the sleepless week, going from relative’s house to relative’s house, visiting temples to pray for her soul, my mind kept returning to the happy memories we had together. How, as I child, I would wrap myself up in her long, flowing saris. How she took me to the park near our house. Playing doctor by putting gobs of lotion onto her always dry, aged feet. We communicated in my sparse Telugu, less with word than with actions. When I was little, she was taller than I, but it wasn’t long until my rapid growth eclipsed her. But one thing never changed on her short, chubby body: the big, happy smile.
Though she appreciated whenever I tried to help her, I could tell that she was happier when she was able to do something for us. Her greatest fear in life was being useless; she had no interest in being a burden to anyone. She wanted to be active, whether it was helping out in the garden or being a good host to her friends and family, whom she treasured, or being a grandma to us. I understood, I also wanted to do something with my life, and care for those around me. Laziness was no virtue to me either.
And her bravery. Living in America, where she didn’t speak the language, unable to get around on her own, utterly dependent on us for anything. Yet she made friends with our neighbors and learned to adapt to a new way of life. For someone who never got the chance to finish elementary school, she knew an incredible amount about life. So much that she could have taught me.
Maybe, just maybe, she still can.
Soon, I would be in her footsteps, going to places where I didn’t know the language or the customs, but did I have her bravery? I would be too scared to talk to my neighbors, too fearful to depend on anyone else.
My future journey and her life journey—how much did they match? From Amama’s birth in Maharashtra, to her marriage at the age of 20. Raising three kids mostly on her own, while my grandpa worked for the Indian railroads far away, to taking care of her grandchildren in America—it was far more epic and difficult than what I was going to do.
Thank god, I thought, that I was traveling with my friends. My emotions were too distraught to be on my own. Then, I remembered. I was departing three weeks before they were.
I’ll do it. Three weeks alone to learn about myself, and also about her.
A week later, back in my DC apartment, the chili still in the freezer, but those boring days from just a week ago seemed like a long-ago dream. The trip no longer held any awe.
To try to recapture the hope of the trip, I did as I had done nearly every day: I walked a few blocks from my office to the bookstore, aiming for the back corner—the travel section. How the bold white country names on the spines had once drawn me in. I had memorized which books were where, what countries stood out in my mind, immersing myself in reading about the places I hoped to go—Spain, Nepal, Turkey, Thailand—and imagined myself in the glossy, overexposed photos of pristine beaches, drunken parties, and cultural wonders.
How could I regain that spirit, the energy and hope of travel? Amama, I knew, wouldn’t want me to mourn her and suffer, she would want me to move on. I could make her most proud by continuing, with renewed fervor.
The country guides seemed dull, so this time I picked up some travel memoirs—books of adventures. Experiences. Most were cliche, but some rekindled that spark. A tale of a woman traveling alone, on a slow boat along the Mekong, and entering the majestic city of Luang Prabang in Laos, finding a place where time seemed to flow more slowly, where few tourists had ever been. I imagined myself on that boat, entering the great unknown.
The best was Rolf Pott’s Vagabonding, a book not of travel stories, but more about the philosophy of travel. It was meant for people like me—young, independent, on a low budget, looking for long-term travel as an adventure of discovery and meaning. I sat there until closing time, devouring anecdotes of famous travelers such as Henry David Thoreau and Annie Dillard, and copied down the tips on how to make traveling worthwhile.
I bought the book, and, in the last weeks to my trip, read a chapter at a time, taking in a deep breath of air, inhaling the possibilities. Hope slowly returned, but in a different form than before. To travel consciously, and dedicate the trip to Amama.
As the days passed, my mind returned to India and how much Amama believed in me. With that strength, I would go forward and make her prophecy true: I would grow into a better man. My new light of hope.