Willow for her wonderful prompt and for catering to our muses.
If someone had told me that I would one day be sitting in a hotel restaurant in Mumbai, India, waiting to meet the first man that my grandmother had ever loved, I’d have told them they were insane.
Yet here I am.
“Can I get you something else to drink?”
The waiter has been exceedingly patient, as I’ve been sitting here for well over three quarters of an hour, awaiting the arrival of my guest. I came down from my room early for fear I would miss him, but my table has an excellent view of the entrance from the lobby. I decline the offer for a beverage and return my gaze to the doorway, holding my breath every time a shadow approaches.
I’m rather nervous.
Actually, I’m not sure nervous even begins to cover my current state. I’ve never traveled this far from home alone, and have certainly never been given such a bittersweet task. I drum my fingers on the lid of the shoebox I have hidden on my lap, the secrets contained within placing a heavy burden on my heart.
My Gran, my mother’s mother, had been in failing health for several years, but her mind and her spirit remained strong. She was by far my favorite relative and I loved visiting her because she always shared such lively stories of her childhood in India. My great-grandfather had been appointed to serve in India at the personal request of Lord Irwin, and was, until the transfer of power in 1947, one of the Governor-in-Council of Bombay’s most trusted aides.
My Gran was born in 1931 in Bombay, and lived there until she was fifteen. She often talked about growing up in the city; about her ayah who took care of her and in whom she confided far more than her mother; about spending months at the sprawling house in the hill country because the heat in the city was so oppressive; about the fun she and her brother had playing with the Indian children and how mortified her mother would be every time she spoke Hindustani.
It was two months ago when Gran reintroduced me to the shoebox which housed her few treasures from her life in India: some letters tied with a piece of sky blue silk, a beautiful gold bangle bracelet, a veil, a carved ivory elephant, and a photograph. I remembered wearing the jewelry and dancing with the veil as a little girl, while Indian music played on the stereo. As an adult, I was more fascinated by the intricacy of the elephant, and by the clarity of the faces staring back at me from the photo.
Gran had taken the photo from my hands. “This slip of a girl is me, just before my father was told he was being recalled to England. The boy standing with me is Sajiva. I called him my Saji. He was supposed to be a companion for my brother, but Georgie didn’t like hunting salamanders or catching snakes, so Saji and I spent most of our time together. Of course, as I got older I no longer wanted to play with snakes, but Saji and I would go for walks or play card games. We were tutored together, so I’d help him with his lessons. Right around the time I turned fifteen, I came to the rather startling realization that my Saji was a truly beautiful boy. He had the bluest eyes I’d ever seen, with long, black lashes that kissed his cheeks when he blinked. God help me, but I was in love, or as in love as a fifteen-year-old can be.” She smiled at the photo, lost in thought.
“Did he love you, too?” I asked, curious that my Gran had experienced such passionate stirrings long before she’d every met my grandfather.
She shrugged her shoulders. “We’d held hands on several occasions, so I’d like to think he did, although we never spoke of it. Oh, my own father was rather progressive, a bit ahead of his time. He wouldn’t have minded if I cared for a Hindu, but Saji’s parents would likely have disowned him had they known.” Her voice grew soft as she sank further into her memories. “My last full day in Bombay, Saji brought me a gift, that little ivory elephant. He said he never wanted me to forget him, as he would never forget me. And then I did something impossibly bold.”
“You kissed him.”
She chuckled heartily. “However did you guess? Yes, child, I kissed him. It was clumsy and quick and took us both completely by surprise. Of course, once he recovered he didn’t mind kissing me good and proper.” Her smile faded. “And in that moment I realized I didn’t want to leave him. But he couldn’t ask me to stay.” I noticed a tear trickling down her cheek and reached over to take her hand.
She gave my hand a squeeze, then suddenly became all-business. “Elizabeth, I must impose on you. I have a wretched favor to ask you, and if you agree, I will make adequate financial provision for you to complete the task …”
Gran lived another three weeks before succumbing to pneumonia, and in those three weeks she found time to ring her solicitor and alter her will to include this trip to India, where I will spread her ashes over the hills she loved.
But first, I have a message to deliver.
As I glance at the doorway once again, I see a white-haired man, stooped with age, shuffling slowly towards my table, with a cane in one hand and being supported tenderly on the other side by much younger man. He’s wearing a finely embroidered red kurta and white yoga pants, but it’s his eyes, peering at me from behind round John Lennon glasses, which affirm what everyone has always told me: I look very much like my Gran.
The elderly man places his hands together and bows before me. I stand and repeat the gesture. “Namaste, Mr. Dubashi. I am honored to meet you.”
“Namaste. Please, call me Saji. This is my grandson, Jaival.”
The young man looks up and I’m startled to see the same eyes, the same cheekbones, the same chin as the young Saji in the photograph. Jaival smiles at me and I’m captivated by his deep blue eyes. I have immediate empathy for my Gran’s youthful plight and it’s all I can do to force myself to focus on the elder Dubashi.
After we have made ourselves comfortable, I slide the photograph across the table to Saji and spend the next hour telling him of my Gran, of her family, and of her limitless passion for life. He speaks of his life, as well, and I see Jaival’s eyebrows raise several times over the course of the conversation as he learns new things about his grandfather. As we reminisce, Saji and I laugh, we damn near cry, and then we toast someone we both loved.
As I lower my glass, I remember there’s one more thing I have to do. “Saji, Gran asked me to deliver a message to you.” I lift the elephant out of the box. “She wanted you to know that she never forgot you.” As I hand it across the table to him, I see his eyes fill with tears.
He takes the elephant, smoothing his fingertips along its back and drawing his thumbnail down the ridges of its trunk. “Did she tell you she kissed me when I gave this to her?”
I laugh and nod.
“It was the first time I had ever kissed a girl. How I wished she could have stayed.” After a moment, he hands the elephant back to me. “You keep it, Elizabeth. In that way, may you never forget your Gran. A remarkable woman. I only wish I could have said goodbye.”
I can easily see why my Gran fell in love with him. I clear my throat. “I’m travelling tomorrow to the lake, to scatter Gran’s ashes. It’s what she wanted.”
Saji shakes his head sadly. “The estate house is no longer there. It was purchased by a developer years ago and is now a golf course and resort.”
“That’s all right. Gran understood progress.”
Jaival has said nothing while Saji and I shared our memories. Now he leans closer and asks, “Would you like Nana and I to accompany you?”
His gaze holds mine, and something inside me desperately wants to agree. “I can’t ask you to …”
Jaival interrupts. His accent is elegant, his English is cultured and nearly perfect. “You’re not asking. We’re offering.” He glances at Saji, who nods his agreement. “You need not do this alone, And we would consider it a privilege to join you in sending your dadi on her journey to her next life.”
We rise and I follow them to the lobby where we arrange to meet early in the morning. As I watch Jaival guide Saji outside to a waiting car, I consider myself extremely fortunate to have known my Gran and to have inherited some of her uninhibited tendencies. I only hope that, when I ask Jaival to show me around Mumbai, it will be an experience neither of us will ever forget.
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