A thin, glossy slip of cardstock was all that stood between Babu and the fabled land of America. He sat in the gate of the Cochin airport, intently studying the swaying motions of the coconut trees. The sun had revealed herself in all her glory during a brief break from the torrential monsoon rains; light streamed in through the frames of glass, and with it came an invisible warmth. The air was suspended, humidity palpable.
He shifted in his chair, unsure if it was the result of the heat or his anxiety, and checked the ticket information against the boarding screen again. Nothing had changed—he was scheduled to board his flight in a few short moments.
His eyes drifted towards the windows once more, drawn to the inescapable expanse of green. Somehow, it appeared to him as equally barren as it was enticing. Babu had been submerged in the rolling emerald since his birth, nestled in trees of palm and tamarind and mango. He was constantly enveloped in the perfumed air of acrid, rotting jackfruit; sharp, briny canal water; and bitter, pungent cow dung fertilizer. After so many years, his body was comprised wholly of his environment. He, just as everyone else around him, was another extension of the land itself.
There was nothing left for him in India. His wife had died two years ago, leaving him a widower. He missed her in the way that anyone else would another being they had lived with for years—flesh one moment, and then cold and unforgiving bone the next. Babu could not say if he loved her or not. They had taken care of one another, as was customary. They had felt the natural companionship that springs from an arranged match, the symbiosis that must occur for daily life to persist. His generation could not afford the luxury of complaints.
But also, along with her, he lost some of his purpose. There was no one to provide for, no one to impress, no one to pester with petty arguments. His remarks about the weather or the increase in the price of milk would simply linger in the air for a few seconds before sinking to the marble floor, the solitary echo of his voice reminding him again of her permanent absence. This emptiness of his was not perpetuated by romance or longing, but rather the unanticipated intensity of sheer noiselessness. It was simply the fact that he had grown used to another body breathing in the same space as him. Even if no words were ever exchanged, Babu never realized his dependence on the sound of her every movement. Like a shruti underlying Carnatic music, the rise and fall of her chest had exerted an undeniable cadence that disseminated throughout their home. Without her, he was too aware of the pressure of stillness on his own heart. She was gone. Truly.
After her death, life had moved in natural, fluid motions. He adhered to the Syrian Orthodox Church’s prescriptions for grieving, respecting his wife’s wishes; Babu marked the third, ninth, and fortieth day; the sixth month; and one year. He had avoided all social gatherings and any celebrations, as tradition dictated. Even after the mourning period was completed, he continued to avoid invitations from his friends to join them for tea. It felt wrong, the way they carried themselves as if nothing had happened. They had done their part, cooking food for him—that was always his wife’s job—and checking in periodically, but she no longer existed to them. Yes, she still clung to her life in the confines of their minds, but she would no longer be a tangible being to them. His friends could always choose to ignore the memory of his wife; he would have to live with reminders of her for eternity. In that way, he envied them, as they would never have to grapple with discovering the forgotten sari silk stowed away in the cabinet, the occasional note she had left inside a book, her flowing script perfect— she refused to leave him. His friends were living on a plane altogether alienated from his own. Or perhaps, he was the one isolated from them.
In truth, his ticket to America was one-way. This was his grand exit, his eventual escape from his wife. It would be a fresh start; save for a few photographs he was taking with him. Few possessions were left, with most trivial objects being gifted away to people he would likely never have to see again. Their house remained, still haunted by the irremovable presence of her, but that would all be bequeathed to his son. It felt more of a mausoleum than a home at this point, with every fixture of furniture frozen in time. He was fairly certain the clocks had stilled at the moment of her death. Babu had emptied the space and rendered it spotless after her passing, giving away her clothes, interring her wedding gold at the bank, and discarding most of her other items. The kitchen, her dominion, was completely purged. Still, he could not bring himself to take care of her garden, to set foot in it, to try and coax life out of the same Earth she was buried in. It was not his place. He would allow Nature to decide the fate of his wife’s work.
Babu was planning on staying with his son, who had settled safely in New Jersey years ago. He had just been anointed a grandfather: his first grandchild, a girl. According to his son, she had the same eyes as his late wife— her late grandmother.
The intercom interrupted his thoughts and signaled the boarding of his row, fruity Malayalam followed by the flat tones of English. He felt his chest tighten as he began suffocating in the humidity of the walkway. The air was almost too thick to breathe and unbearably hot. Babu thought of his carry-on luggage by his side: a toothbrush, a small tube of toothpaste, a change of clothes, his prayer book. Was this all that his seventy-three years would lend him? After so much borrowed time, his belongings fit neatly into a fifty-five by thirty-centimeter briefcase.
He thought back to just a few hours earlier. His final morning in his motherland had moved slower than most others, taking time to think through what had been his routine for fifty years. There was a strange quality to performing tasks he had done for every day of his life for the last time; they ceased to be mechanical actions. Instead, Babu was increasingly attentive.
Every fleck in his bathroom mirror was discernible, each one provoking thought. Though he had ironed them himself the night before with generous helpings of rice water, the scratch of his stiff linen shirt against his bare skin startled him. Babu noticed the way the silvery milk dispersed in his boiling tea, quieting the aggressive bubbles. He dismissed the dull soreness in his stomach as hunger and focused on the intense ochre hue of his steamed plantain breakfast instead. It all seemed strangely new.
Chai in hand, he lingered on his front porch for a few moments. The plaintive notes of fajr prayer extended across the still-dark sky, nearby mosques projecting the call out from loudspeakers attached to their roofs. Though he did not practice Islam, the prayer calls had an oddly comforting structure to them, recited at the same breaks each day. The imam's voice would sprawl over the town and into his home, and Babu would find himself taken aback by the wistful tones.
He rinsed out the mug and returned to a cabinet, where he figured it would likely sit for years to come. As his car to the airport crunched the gravel on his driveway, he paused for a few moments before locking his front door, taking in the intricate carvings on the entryway for one last time. He had built this house with his wife. He had built this house for her.
Gently rumbling, the airplane pulled away from the gates, resting on the tarmac for a few moments. Babu was unexpectedly aware of the beating of his own heart, frenetic enough to match the mounting hum of the plane engines.
The longing in his stomach grew stronger; he could barely hear his heart against the roar of ascension. God’s own country fell away under his feet, the aircraft embracing the atmosphere instead. He watched through the tiny window as his home, his love, his wife gently disappeared from view. Everything he had ever known, everyone he had ever met, was fading away with each gain in altitude. Instantaneously, he felt the seizing in his chest, the pain slicing through him as a butcher’s knife does flesh. Sharp and erratic, every breath became the most difficult task of his life. He clutched his chest and heaved as he felt himself go limp, motions that, if soundless, may have appeared to the outside observer as a lonely, old man falling over.
Though his heart failed to make his blood flow, all Babu could imagine was gazing at his wife’s eyes—amber now bestowed upon his granddaughter.