Mountains In Her Eyes
by Kavita Das
Akhila is trailing behind Karthik as they enter the Denver International Airport. He slows down hoping she will catch up and she responds by bolting ahead of him towards the passenger arrival area. Now he is left trailing. This is how it has been for the past two weeks. Karthik tried apologizing for his outburst that night over dinner, telling Akhila they would discuss her interest in the ski team over the Holidays during her Dadi’s visit, and she responded by asking, “but what about driving? I’m going to need to drive myself to practices and meets and you won’t even let me buy a used car with the money I’ve saved up from working.” Though he knew he sounded like a stuck record he found himself repeating yet again, “not now, Akhila – when Dadi comes.” She huffed. “Dadi lives in Delhi and she has Mohan to drive her everywhere. What does she know about driving or skiing?!”
They wait shoulder to shoulder in silence behind the barriers. Karthik watches as families waiting on the other side of the aisle engage in the same game of waiting. Directly across from them is a young Asian American man holding his youngest daughter, who is about two, and standing at his side is his older daughter, who is about five. In her hand, she holds a colorful crayon drawing on pale pink paper. Even from where he stands, Karthik can make out a line of stick figures of different sizes. Across the top are some words in awkward letters that don’t quite join up at their junctures and below that is a rainbow over jagged peaks of snowcapped mountains. No doubt, within its arc, the rainbow holds the members of her family, including those who are on the other side of the electric doors, spilling passengers out in spurts.
He remembers coming to the airport with Akhila when she was about five, to pick up Maji and Babaji. Meghna would stay back to prepare an Indian feast, whose aromas greeted them when they walked through the door. She made Babaji’s favorite dishes – chicken biryani, baigan bhartha, aloo gobi, and kali dal – they soon became Akhila’s favorites too. And then just to pull Meghna’s leg, upon entering the house, Babaji would exclaim loudly, “Ah, I’ve waited so long to have some good American pizza!” winking at Akhila, who was thrilled to be in on the joke.
The automatic doors suddenly jump open and a batch of Indian passengers come through, bedraggled from their journey. Their eyes scan the crowds on either side of the aisle, in search of loved ones. A few minutes later, a new batch appears, and amongst them is Annapurna. Her usual perfectly coiffed hair is a bit askew and the lines on her face look deeper, especially the ones at the edges of her wide-set eyes and those running along either side of her nose, but otherwise, she is her regal self. Even after a twenty-four-hour journey, her simple yet bold blue sari is only minimally crumpled. She has draped her warmest coat over both shoulders. That isn’t going to do at all in this weather, Karthik thinks. He makes a mental note to take his mother to the mall the next day to buy a proper winter jacket, one that can withstand a Denver winter.
Both Akhila and Karthik make exaggerated waves. Annapurna takes notice of her son and granddaughter, and they make their way to the end of the aisle. Karthik hugs his mother. He feels her falter and lean into him. She feels more fragile to him than a year ago. When he lets go, she holds his face and kisses his cheek. Then, Annapurna turns to Akhila and before she can move to hug her, Annapurna grabs both of her granddaughter’s arms and pushes her back, her wide-set eyes searching for, and then finding their match in Akhila’s face.
“Let me look at you! So tall and with your mother’s gorgeous curly hair. How did you manage to grow even more beautiful in one year?!” Meghna had been in awe of Annapurna’s meticulous appearance and Annapurna in turn affectionately referred to Meghna as ‘a careless beauty.’ Akhila blushes and smiles radiantly. Karthik feels a lump form in his throat when he realizes how long it’s been since he’s seen his daughter smile that way. Then Annapurna envelops her in a tight hug, and this time it is Akhila who leans into her.
Evening falls and the final sunlight reflects off the snow-covered ground. Akhila is up in her room reading, strains of pop and R & B emanating from her laptop. Karthik is grading end-of-semester exams in his office off the kitchen. He hears some shuffling of feet and the creak and tap of cabinets opening and closing. When he enters the kitchen, he is surprised to find Annapurna charging around the kitchen pulling out pots and pans and herbs and spices. On his trips to India, he normally spent the first twenty-four hours sleeping off his jet lag punctuated only by brief bathroom and snack breaks. Just a few hours ago, he had settled his mother and her suitcases into the guest bedroom urging her to get some rest, yet here she is, fresh from a shower, dressed not in a housedress but a starched cotton sari, like the ones she wears to preside over her high school. He smiles inwardly as he thinks of how this is her standard uniform for taking charge, even if she’s just taking charge of an American suburban kitchen.
“When did you get the time to make rotis, Maji?” he asks, spying two tall stacks in clear plastic packages piled on the kitchen counter.
“Ah, Karthik. I didn’t want to bother you – I know you’re busy with final exams. Oh beta, I didn’t make these rotis. I’ve been getting them made fresh-fresh from Mr. Bhatkande, the grocer – his wife makes them. They’re whole wheat, but they’re quite good. We’ll eat some now and I’ll keep some in the freezer so you and Akhi can have them some other time. Now tell me where is the cooking oil?”
“It’ll be nice to have one of your home-cooked meals,” Karthik says after retrieving the oil from one of the bottom cabinets. “I only learned a few things from Meghna. And Akhi and I are sick of eating that and take-out.”
“I didn’t give you any cooking lessons. I always thought there’d be time for that. And then you left for America,” she says wistfully. But then, shaking off the regret she asks, “do you want aloo gobi or baigan bhartha?”
“Akhi loves baigan bhartha.”
“And you’ve always loved, aloo gobi. Acha, I’ll make both,” she says and with that turns her attention to chopping onions, eggplants, potatoes, and cauliflower.
Karthik brings his laptop and stacks of exam papers to the kitchen table and soon the enticing aromas of garlic, garam masala, and jeera reach Akhila upstairs and she quietly comes down and takes a seat at the opposite end of the table, opening up her own laptop. They work to the sounds of Annapurna cooking and intermittently humming a Hindi film song.
When they finally sit down to eat, Karthik and Akhila protest the enormous stack of rotis Annapurna sets down on the table. But just a half hour later, they’ve been devoured along with much of the two subjis she made. And then, the temporary spell of domestic bliss cast by Annapurna’s cooking is broken.
“Baba, you said we would talk about ski team and driving when Dadi got here. So, can we talk about it?” Akhila asks in a quiet but resolute voice.
“She just arrived, she’s tired. There’ll be plenty of time to talk about all that,” Karthik says turning to his mother.
“Actually, Karthik, why not figure it out now? Akhi, what’s the problem?” Annapurna inquires.
“May I make a suggestion?” Annapurna asks, after Akhila’s explanation, in what Karthik has come to regard as his mother’s headmistress tone.
“Sure,” Karthik answers, feeling anything but.
“Well, I need a winter coat and if I remember correctly, isn’t the shopping mall close by? Perhaps Akhi can take me to pick one up?”
“I’m happy to,” Akhila quips. “The roads are clear and it’s not supposed to snow any more this week so, Baba is that OK with you?”
“I guess so,” Karthik says reluctantly, looking from Akhila to Annapurna , wondering how this all happened so quickly. “I suppose I can walk to the university in the morning and you two can pick me up on your way back from the mall.”
“Excellent, I’m looking forward to getting bundled up in a new warm winter coat so Akhi can finally teach me how to ski cross country.”
“Yeah! You’re going to be great at cross-country skiing, Dadi,” Akhi exclaims.
Karthik is even more taken aback than a minute ago. “Wait, do you really think that’s a good idea at your age?”
“Probably not, but we, of all people, know that careful or not, things happen,” Annapurna responds somberly.
He feels a flash of resentment but he can’t argue with her since both of them lost their other halves in unpredictable ways; he lost Meghna one night a year ago when her car skid off a nearby icy road on her way back from the local community college, and Annapurna lost Kishore three years ago when he was struck by a speeding truck on his way back from the local market, just weeks before he retired. They’d had such plans. Meghna was finishing her Masters in Child Psychology, as Akhila was older, and planned to open a neighborhood practice. Meanwhile, upon his retirement, Kishore and Annapurna planned to travel the world. The school board had already begun to look for someone to fill her big shoes. But after losing Kishore, Annapurna decided to stay on as principal – finding solace in the very order and opportunity she created in the lives of the girls who attended her school, many of whom were the first girls in their families to receive a secondary education. Annapurna, Karthik, and Akhila finish dinner in awkward silence and retire for the night, each to their own corner of the house.
Akhila and Annapurna more than accomplish their shopping mission – picking up not only a sporty white, down coat but also a red knit hat, a pair of gloves, a scarf, a black velour track suit, and a t-shirt that declares “Grandma’s Rock” with a picture of a grandmother in a rocking chair wearing massive headphones. They slide into a booth at Akhila’s favorite diner to grab lunch before heading to pick up Karthik on their way home. Akhila orders them both grilled cheese sandwiches with tomato soup and a plate of fries to share.
As they nibble on the fries, Annapurna asks, “so, why do you love to ski so much?
“Oh, Dadhi, it’s hard to explain but there’s nothing like it. When I ski I feel like I’m flying. But really, what I love most is being up on a mountain. It feels like I’m on top of the world. It’s weird, but I feel like it’s where I belong,” Akhila gushes.
“It’s actually not weird at all,” says Annapurna and then after a moment’s pause, she asks, “Akhi, has your father ever told you where your name comes from?”
“Um, he said it came from you – I thought you suggested it because it means strength.”
“Well, yes and no. It did come from me. But I didn’t suggest it. You see, before I became Annapurna, I was called by another name. And before I spent my life in Delhi, I lived a very different one in a faraway place.”
“Wait, I’m so confused. I don’t understand,” Akhila says with a fry held midway between the platter and her mouth.
“Right. Let me see how I can explain this.” Annapurna gathers herself together as she considers what the right starting point is and then asks, “have you heard of the Kumbh Mela?
At that moment their grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soups arrive. After a few oozy mouthfuls of grilled cheese and spoonfuls of tomato soup, Annapurna begins to relay the tale she has traveled so far to tell.
“The Kumbh Mela is a large religious pilgrimage and festival that takes place every few years on the banks of the Ganges. Hundreds upon hundreds of faithful Hindu worshippers come to the holy site in Haridwar to bathe in the Ganges during this auspicious time because it is thought that during this holy month, the rivers flow with the nectar of immortality.
Anyways, many, many years ago, in 1954, a young couple made a pilgrimage to Haridwar from somewhere in the foothills of the Himalayas in hope of receiving darshan, or blessings. This Kumbh Mela seemed even more auspicious because it was the first one since India gained independence from the British in 1947.
They were seeking blessings not so much for themselves but for their two-year old daughter, who had been born with a cleft lip, leaving her top lip with a jagged peak. They knew she needed surgery but they didn’t have the money to provide it. They hoped by making this pilgrimage, God would bless them with the means to get their little girl the operation she so needed to live a normal life. Though she was adorable, sharing her mother’s wide set eyes and dimpled cheeks, people’s pitiful gaze always went to her mouth.
Coming from a small village in the mountains, I imagine they were overwhelmed by the crowds – chaos in every direction, cacophony filling the air. Perhaps the mother put the toddler down to get snacks from a roadside vendor and when she turned back, the toddler was nowhere to be found. She must have called out ’til her voice went hoarse, ’til her panic turned to anguish. Given their modest means, she probably had no photo to give the police, just a verbal description and her heartfelt plea for help.
She must have replayed the scene of her child’s disappearance over and over in her mind, thinking about the cruel fate of losing their dearest love, the very reason they made this arduous pilgrimage. They might have wanted to curse the Gods even as they continued to pray for their lost little girl, holding out hope they would somehow reunite.
Meanwhile, the toddler girl with the cleft lip had wandered off and was sucking her fist, trying to keep tears at bay, when a husband and wife walked by. The wife tugged at her husband’s sleeve and exclaimed with concern, “Look at that child. I think she’s lost. Where are her parents?” Her husband agreed that the child indeed looked lost but then added, “She must have gotten temporarily separated from them. I’m sure they’ll find her. We should go if we want to take a dip and receive darshan before it gets dark.” Saying she couldn’t leave the crying child alone for fear she would be trampled on or snatched by some unsavory person, she told her husband to go on without her.
He thought it was ironic she would forgo receiving blessings when this pilgrimage had been her idea – a final appeal to the Divine, since both doctors and holy men had failed to help her bear a child. He had only begrudgingly agreed to this pilgrimage as a way to pull her out of her great sadness, hoping when they returned home, she would put this chapter of their life behind her. But ultimately, he relented, and taking note of the nearby stall selling spiritual items as a landmark, he said he would return to this very spot within two hours after visiting the Mela site.
The child, who had kohl-rimmed eyes and a black spot on her cheek to ward off nazar, shrunk away when she was approached, so, the wife just waited by her side. After an hour, she finally coaxed her to drink some water, eat a small banana, and stand beneath her vast black umbrella, given the relentless late afternoon sun bearing down on them. And by the time, her husband returned, the child was asleep on the ground with the wife’s purse under her head. Amidst the commotion that surrounded them, the wife looked at her husband and said, “nobody has come looking for her. We’ll keep searching for her parents but we must take her with us.” The natural inclination of the husband, a successful trial lawyer, was to argue that while the child’s situation was certainly sad, it was not for them to fix it. She touched his hand and he saw the resolve in her eyes, and they carried the sleeping child through the crushing crowds, back to the small inn at which they were staying.”
“So, that woman is my Dadima and she adopted you,” Akhila interjected, slowly putting the puzzle pieces together to form a new reality.
“But what about your birth parents? Did they ever find them?”
“Well, when they got back to the inn, the innkeeper’s wife warned them not to go to the police because during each Kumbh Mela, invariably some poor children were separated from their parents and fell prey to crooked police officers, who were in cahoots with local factory bosses. The factory bosses would bring a fake couple to pretend they were the lost child’s parents. The fake parents would act very kind and relieved, and cajole the children with candy and trinkets, but then the children would be taken away to labor in factories. So, for the next few days, your Dadima stayed with me at the inn and Dadaji spent each day traversing the festival grounds, searching for organizers who might have leads on missing children.
On their last day in Haridwar, he returned early in a deeply harried state. She asked why he was back so soon. And he said, “it’s just awful, I don’t know why we came here. There’s been a horrible stampede – they’re saying that dozens of people have been killed because some Sadhu Holy Man tossed out some gold coins. I didn’t even make it to the Mela site. There were police barricades everywhere. So, I finally stopped to talk to an officer and he told me, ‘You’ll never find anyone in this mess!’ So, they decided to take me back with them to Delhi and stayed in touch with the innkeeper’s wife, in case she heard of a couple in search of their lost child.
“But what about your name?” Akhila asks, perplexed by this tale.
“Oh yes, that’s a big part of my story. And your story too. So, on the train ride back to Delhi, the reality of what they were doing set in for Dadaji. He said, ‘We don’t even know her name, or how old she is. On top of all this, she has this big gap in her lips and we don’t know the first thing about how to go about fixing it.’ Dadima, who was entranced by this little girl sleeping in her lap, responded, ‘Well, your cousin brother is a doctor, he will advise us on what to do. And she looks to be the same age as Nirmala’s daughter, so I’m guessing she’s about two years old. She studied the sleeping child’s wide set eyes and high cheekbones, and said, ‘I think she’s from the mountains. So, let’s name her Annapurna. May she be as strong and beautiful as that peak in the Himalayas.’ Once they got me home, your Dadima finally gave me a proper bath. Until then she had just been giving me towel baths. She pried open my iron arm band and discovered that inscribed within it in tiny letters was the name ‘Akhila.’
Akhila stares at Annapurna, trying to take it all in.
“Your Dadima and Dadaji saved my life that day. Thanks to them I’ve had such a good life. And I treasure all three of my keepsakes from that moment in my life. That tiny iron armband bearing my original name sits in a vault in the bank. And then I have this scar from the surgery they lovingly provided for me,” Annapurna says pointing to a faded scar running from the top of her lip to the base of her nostril. Akhila leans in to inspect and then leans back.
“But Dadhi, what if …,” Akhila begins but then says, “actually, forget it.”
“What is it Akhi? You can ask me.”
“Well, it’s just, how do you know your parents lost you? How do you know they didn’t …” Akhila begins but then trails off.
“I just do. I can’t explain it. I know it the way I know I will see my beloved Kishore and dearest Meghna again someday, somewhere. And that’s enough for me. Does that make sense?”
Akhila nods then cocks her head and asks, “but wait, what is the third thing? You said you have three keepsakes?”
“You! Because in you, the name I was born with lives on, along with my wide-set eyes. And my love of the mountains. Just as so many things about your mother also live on in you.” Akhila smiled and looked out the diner window, catching a glimpse of the tips of the Rockies.
“You know, it was actually your mother who decided to name you Akhila. She was so moved by my story that when she got pregnant right after she and Karthik moved to Denver she said she hoped for a baby girl so she could name her Akhila, in memory of my birthmother … My dear, dear Meghna.”
“I miss her so much, Dadi,” Akhila says, her eyes brimming with tears.
“I know beti. I know,” Annapurna responds, her own eyes filled with tears.
Before they venture back into the cold, Akhila orders them hot chocolate topped with a big, fluffy marshmallow. Annapurna is delighted by the ooey-gooey novelty of marshmallows and when they pull their coats back on, she jokes that with her white coat and white hair, she resembles one, making Akhila giggle.
Despite the frigid temperature, the morning sun is shining, making the snow-covered grounds of the Stone Mountain Ski Resort glisten. Hoots of laughter are coming from Akhila and Annapurna, as Akhila helps her once again uncross her cross-country skis and pick up her poles, which have fallen for the umpteenth time. Karthik has been hanging back, finding the prospect of watching his mother take on cross-country skiing at her age more daunting than inspiring.
After an hour, with Akhila at her side, Annapurna gets the hang of it and manages to ski some distance in a straight line, leaving behind a trail of two parallel lines in the snow as evidence of her progress. By the time Karthik catches up with them, they are tapping their poles together in the air, in a high-five.
“Did you see that Baba? I told you Dadi could cross-country ski!”
“Maji, that was great! It took me days to learn how to ski.”
“It’s all because of Akhi – she’s a great coach,” Annapurna says beaming with pride. “OK, let’s see if I can make my way back to the start, so that Akhi can hit the slopes – did I say it right?”
“Yup,” Akhila affirms.
They make their way, side by side, across a wide field of snow, six parallel lines trailing behind them.
Kavita Das worked in social change for fifteen years on issues ranging from homelessness, to public health disparities, to racial justice, and now focuses on writing about culture, race, feminism, social change, and their intersections. Nominated for a 2016 Pushcart Prize, Kavita’s work has been published in Longreads, The Atlantic, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Washington Post, Kenyon Review, NBC News Asian America, Guernica, Quartz, McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, Colorlines, and elsewhere. Her first book, Poignant Song: The Life and Music of Lakshmi Shankar (Harper Collins India, Fall 2018), is a biography about the Grammy-nominated Hindustani singer, who played a pivotal role in bringing Indian music to the West. Connect with Kavita on Twitter @kavitamix