Image by Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi
When my father passed away, I was in Jaisalmer, and the shock of the news was so grave I decided I would never return. But resolving anything in a crisis is useless because, invariably, you change your mind. Two years passed from my father’s death when I went back to Jaisalmer, and on this trip, I visited Kuldhara, a cursed village, a dusty knot of empty abandoned homes. The magnificent hotel I always stay at, Suryagarh had set up a picnic in the desert. But we’d gone too far out while birding–there had been harriers, falcons and teal–and the jeep now stranded in crusty grey mud. Waiting for a rescue vehicle, I wandered the arid landscape, stopping under an acacia from whose shade I sighted in the distance a row of camels performing their weirdly elegant bobbing gait. The winter breeze at noon reminded me of these lines from Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient:
There are other, less constant winds that change direction, that can knock down horse and rider and realign themselves anticlockwise. The bist roz leaps into Afghanistan for 170 days–burying villages. There is the hot, dry ghibli from Tunis, which rolls and rolls and produces a nervous condition.
As the driver of the rescue car showed up–we gave him a hero’s welcome–we left for our secret picnic location and I thought of how camels can shut their eyes while walking through a dust storm. Everyone learns to cope. Local musicians sang at the picnic; red sherbet in glass decanters and clusters of wild flowers on a table in the middle of a great nowhere beautiful. Certain cultures such as the Native Americans believe the spirits of our ancestors visit us as birds; others imagine fond ghosts communicate with us through winds. Later that day, from the privacy of my suite at Suryagarh, I drank in a landscape of such exquisite barrenness that it might only ever be itself. Without the distraction of a trimmed hedge, a pollarded tree or the distant promontory, the land here was true, and exactly as itself. I wanted to bring this same bare quality to my book, Loss, and I wrote a part of it–extracted below–after I returned to my home in Goa. Walking in the storm with eyes shut is possible because invisible hands lead us along our way.
Read an excerpt below from Loss written by Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi and published by HarperCollins India.
Evening light in Jaisalmer has a classical golden hue with amethyst undertones. Rain had left a sheen on the flag-stoning that led me away from the hotel and on the dirt track that took me into the desert. Before my walk, I had been watching a segment of the American sitcom 30 Rock in my room. In a Christmas special, the airy, authoritarian television executive Jack Donaghy–essayed by Alec Baldwin–turns to his deliciously curmudgeonly mother, Colleen (Elaine Stritch is wicked magic) before Christmas and, in a rare outburst of sentimentality, says that he loves her and that he doesn’t ever want her to die. Locking her cold eyes with his, Colleen responds almost as if it were a threat: And I’m never going to. This is what I needed to hear–an assurance that my parents were never going to die even when they would, and long after they had. Although the task was physically impossible, I see what Colleen might have meant–our folks will always be around.
Why I had returned to Jaisalmer, I had no idea; but what I got out of that trip is something you might know already: that you will go on. My father’s death was an insurmountable truth. But with time, its terror had paled to become what it was: a fact, but not the truth. On my stroll at sunset, a memory of my childhood returned. As children, after dinner, my father would insist that my sisters and I walk the long straight length of the compound in our house–to us as kids these walks were deathly dull, although later I would come to see walking as a way of thinking, of airing the mind. On these walks, my father told us stories–Once upon a time, he started, in a magical kingdom, there lived… Those early stories of animals in the jungle, of escape artists and runaway princesses, of witches and dwarves, were a powerful introduction to story-listening, and a prelude to reading. The cultural historian Marina Warner discovered that in Arabic the root for the word watering–raawa–is the same as for a storyteller (raawi) and implied that ‘narration is irrigation’. My father was out every night, walking his wards, telling them stories, making sure that his garden would one day bloom.
Thank you, Papa, I get that now. I get you now. I hope it’s not too late.