Flicking his cigarette into the water at the base of the rocks, Krishan stood up slowly and stretched out his arms and legs. He’d planned to be gone just a short amount of time, since he didn’t have his phone and knew that his mother might return his call, but wanting to remain outside a little longer he crossed the tracks, made his way down to the pavement, and resumed his earlier path, watching as the vehicles to his left accelerated and decelerated in spurts, as the walkers and joggers on the pavement pursued their destinations intently in both directions. The section of Marine Drive along which he was walking had changed little since the end of the war, still comprised of the same modest houses and flats, the only additions a few small cafés and restaurants that had sprung up here and there, mostly to cater to the influx of Tamils who’d begun visiting from abroad and wanted to stay near relatives. Among the various signboards Krishan saw the red cross of the small pharmacy he’d frequented in the past to buy medications for Rani, an establishment he hadn’t entered in several months now and which, he realized, he’d hardly even noticed on his recent walks. He remembered the slight awkwardness with which he would slip Rani’s prescription across the counter, the quiet, composed manner with which the thin, dignified pharmacist would read the long list and begin retrieving the items from the shelves. The pharmacy always had all the items on the prescription – the antidepressants, the antianxiety medication, the sleeping pills, blood pressure tablets, and liver medication – and usually they stocked multiple brands of both the antidepressants and the antianxiety medication, suggesting a much wider demand for these medicines than he would otherwise have suspected. He’d often wondered after his visits how many other people in the area took medications for psychological issues or mental illness, whether there was anyone else nearby who came to the pharmacy in need of a similarly diverse assortment of drugs, and he wondered now whether there was anyone else who’d moved to the area from the northeast after experiencing a catastrophe like Rani’s. He continued making his way down Marine Drive, his movement stiff and somewhat forced, and it was only when looking up after a while, seeing that he was nearing the mouth of the Kirulapone Canal, that he felt his body beginning to loosen. The canal was the union of several smaller canals that moved silently through the inland parts of the city, the culmination of a centuries-old drainage system that collected the city’s rainwater, channeled it toward the coast, and cast it out to sea. Its dark green water was calm and leisurely, its motion invisible except around the tips of the ferns that dropped down from the stone walls, pricking its otherwise smooth surface, and making his way along the walkway Krishan felt his quick steps giving way to a longer, more composed stride. Listening to its gentle gurgle during the lulls in traffic, he imagined the quietly profound meeting of waters that was taking place beneath the pavement, the slow, placid water of the city giving itself up to the deep, heavy, undulating water of the sea, and it occurred to him that it was perhaps this sense of an invisible but constant renewal taking place below that was the source of the reassurance he so often felt while crossing the canal, the intimation that subterranean processes might be occurring deep inside him too, even when, on the surface of his life, everything remained exactly the same.
Resuming his way along the unpaved path on the other side, Krishan’s thoughts returned not to Rani, exactly, but to the trip to London his grandmother had made two years before, the ill-advised journey from which she’d returned in a state of almost total collapse, the ill-fated journey that had been responsible, eventually, for Rani’s entry into their lives. The trip had not actually been his grandmother’s first time abroad, for unlike his mother and him, who’d only been to the UK once in their lives, on an extended trip several years before that took them first to London and then to Toronto, Appamma had actually visited London four or five times over the previous twenty years, each time as the guest of her youngest brother. Her brother, who was actually her half brother and eighteen years her junior, had been raised by Appamma for several years in Jaffna, and despite their different personalities and trajectories the two siblings had remained close, speaking on the phone at least once a month ever since they’d moved to different places. Her brother had joined one of the smaller separatist organizations operating in Jaffna in his twenties and had been forced to leave the country in 1986, traveling first to India and then to Europe before ending up finally with asylum in the UK. He’d already been well into his thirties when he arrived in London, had never finished his schooling and spoke hardly any English, but was handsome and charismatic and had ended up managing a supermarket not far from where he lived. Unable to return to Sri Lanka on account of his former activities, having no wife or children that he needed to provide for, he would buy return tickets for his eldest sister every few years, so she could come and stay with him in London for five or six weeks. Appamma had always looked forward to these visits, in part because of the prestige of flying, the sense of power they gave her, in part because of the reassurance they provided that she wasn’t completely dependent on her daughter-in-law, that there was someone else in the world who wanted to see her and spend time with her. Her brother had none of the scruples her daughter-in-law had, was more than happy to let her wander into the small back garden of his house or spend afternoons in the kitchen preparing lunch, dinner, and various greasy desserts, and the prospect of being in a foreign environment – even if she seldom left the house – was a perennial source of invigoration for her. The idea of traveling abroad broke the monotony of life confined to her room by giving her something to look forward to, an event in the future around which to organize the otherwise shapeless passage of the months, a longer-term correlate of what her TV programs did for each day and what her Sunday baths did for each week, coming, over the years, to be indispensable to her manipulation of time.
Her brother would buy her tickets six months ahead of her departure in order to get the best price possible, and from the moment Appamma was informed of their purchase, the abstract notion of going abroad becoming tied to a concrete date, she would begin anticipating the journey ahead with a kind of slow, sweeping pleasure. Her preparations began a full two months in advance of her departure, with the chili powder she always took for her brother and other relatives, a process she would spread out over a couple of weeks, first leaving the curry leaves and chili out to dry in the sun, then having them ground together with coriander, turmeric, fennel, and cumin, sealing the resulting powder in airtight plastic bags so it was ready to be packed for international travel. The chili powder done, she would begin taking out the various items of clothing she’d kept stored in her armoire since her previous trip, mostly some nice saris and a few sweaters and socks she had no use for in Colombo, washing and folding them then laying them neatly aside. She would start pressing her daughter-in-law to begin the visa process, to buy the supply of heart and pressure medications she would need during her time abroad, would begin looking through her drawers for the various miscellaneous items, safety pins, rubber bands, pens, and batteries, that would come in handy during her stay. Finally, three weeks before the trip, she would order Krishan or his brother to bring out the two battered suitcases that were stored under their beds, leaving them open in a corner of her room, partitioning them into different compartments, and carefully filling them with the things she’d gotten ready. She would finish all her packing at least a week in advance of her departure, would spend the remaining days visualizing her daily routine in London to make sure there was nothing she was forgetting, making small additions and modifications to her bags, taking pleasure in their order and fullness, in the fact that she was prepared for any outcome or eventuality, so that when the day of her flight finally came all that was left was for her body and her suitcases to be flown to London, her mind having settled serenely in the spare room of her brother’s house long in advance.
When her brother had called three years before to suggest she make her next visit the following June, proposing they use the occasion to celebrate her eighty-fifth birthday in style, inviting not just their relatives in London but those who could come from Europe as well, Appamma had, needless to say, been flattered by the suggestion. Despite her attempts at nonchalance she was visibly gratified by the notion of going to London to celebrate her health and longevity, by the thought of having all eyes on her, the old but still vigorous matriarch of the family, the fulcrum around which the members of their dispersed family were brought together. Krishan and his mother had been a little more hesitant, for though Appamma’s trip four years before had been without any issue, her health had been declining steadily in the time since. Her body had become frailer, especially her legs, as a result of which she’d abandoned her trips downstairs, and her bladder had become less reliable, so that sometimes she went to the bathroom once every two or three hours, which in turn affected her ability to sleep. Her hearing too had gotten weaker, though she refused to use the hearing aids she’d been prescribed, making conversations more difficult to sustain and even her regular TV shows harder to follow. Increasingly forlorn as a result of her deepening isolation, the idea of a birthday party in London struck Appamma as precisely the intervention needed, energizing her so dramatically that neither Krishan nor his mother had the heart to air their reservations. In the weeks that followed she began exercising more, practiced moving without her walker over short distances; she became vigilant about what she ate and obsessed about her appearance, applying a cream with clinical regularity to the rash that had begun spreading across the back of her neck. Her initial excitement about going abroad, it soon became evident, was turning into anxiety about how she would perform on the trip and above all at the party, about whether she would be able to impress their relatives with her mental and physical vitality, and it was this anxiety perhaps that was responsible, as her departure drew nearer, for the unforeseen further decline in her condition, her loss of weight, her forgetfulness and repetitiveness in conversation, the increasing time she spent in bed.
By the time the trip was two months away both Krishan and his mother had begun to doubt it was safe for her to go at all, and his mother decided at last to broach the subject with her, suggesting that maybe the flight should be postponed or that maybe it was better for her not to go. Appamma shrugged the suggestion off lightly at first, but when it became apparent that her daughter-in-law was serious she responded with uncharacteristic rage. She would be able to handle the long flight perfectly well, she stammered in fury, there would be attendants to wheel her through the airport, and during the journey all she had to do was stay seated. It would be a complete waste of her brother’s money to change plans now that tickets had already been bought, and if her daughter-in-law was tempted it could only have been out of jealousy that she herself didn’t have the chance to travel abroad. Krishan’s mother replied that she didn’t care about going abroad, that it was only concern for her mother-in-law that was prompting her to intervene – how could Appamma hope to fly halfway across the world, she asked, when she couldn’t even make it down the stairs? Appamma had turned away angrily, and after the exchange they were both cautiously taciturn, each acting as though it were obvious the other would soon concede. The issue came to a head six weeks before the flight, when Appamma asked Krishan’s mother why she hadn’t begun the visa application, whose outcome couldn’t be taken for granted and which in the past she would have initiated much earlier. His mother ignored the question, and Appamma responded not with argument or accusation but a profound silence, refusing to eat or to speak a word, rising from the chair in her room only to go to the bathroom or when it was time to sleep. Krishan’s mother pretended to ignore what she saw, hoping her mother-in-law would soon give in, but Appamma held firm in her fast and vow of silence till two days later, fearful she would collapse, his mother was forced to concede, informing Appamma through Krishan that she would apply for the visa, that she didn’t want to cause anyone such misery and that if going to London was so important then she might as well go. Appamma’s condition improved in response to the victory, and by the time the visa arrived Krishan and his mother both felt less nervous about the trip. Watching through the glass divider a few weeks later as an attendant whisked her through check-in they felt confident that nothing disastrous would happen, that the flight would go smoothly and that she would be handed over without issue to her brother on the other side, so that waving goodbye as she was wheeled off toward immigration neither of them could suppress their anticipation for the six weeks they would be able to spend by themselves.
They received a call from Appamma’s brother in London the next day, informing them she’d arrived safely. She was tired from the flight and hadn’t wanted to eat, her brother had said cheerfully, but she was jet-lagged and would be better after she slept. He called again the next day, some alarm in his voice, to say that Appamma still wasn’t eating. She had trouble moving, wasn’t really talking, and didn’t seem herself somehow, though what was different he couldn’t really say. He called each of the following days, repeating each time that he wasn’t sure what to do and that he was worried she would get worse, and then on the eighth day called to say he thought it best to send her back as soon as she was well. Appamma was eating now and had gotten a little better, he told them, she still wasn’t quite herself mentally, but would very likely keep improving in the coming days. She would soon be fit enough to travel, he felt, and though it would be expensive to change her ticket it was probably a good idea for her to return sooner rather than later, just in case her condition deteriorated again. They’d have a small gathering for her the following Saturday instead of a birthday party, would take her the day after to the airport so she could board a direct flight to Colombo. It wouldn’t quite be the party they’d planned, since their relatives from Europe wouldn’t have arrived, but there was, in his opinion, no other sensible option given the circumstances. Krishan’s mother hadn’t objected, knowing it would be hard for Appamma’s brother to look after her in London if she did become unwell. A week later she and Krishan left once more for the airport, sitting beside each other in nervous silence the whole journey and arriving an hour in advance of the flight. They sat down in the cavernous hall for arrivals, their gazes shifting between the notifications board that hung from the ceiling and the automatic doors through which newly arrived passengers emerged, most of them tourists from Europe, Russia, and North America, large, oblivious-looking people who’d begun flocking to the country ever since the end of the war. Appamma’s brother had already called twice to ask whether Appamma had arrived, his impatience betraying real concern about how she would fare on the flight back, and they sat there in a state of tension till finally the arrival of the flight was announced. They kept their eyes pinned to the automatic doors, scanning each new wave of passengers several times over, trying to determine whether they matched the demographics they expected of a direct flight from London, or whether they were likely to have come from elsewhere. Half an hour passed without any sign of Appamma, and unable to remain sitting Krishan’s mother got up and elbowed her way to the crowd standing up front. Leaning on the railing between tour operators holding up their signs she rotated her phone anxiously in her hands, her eyes darting to the sides of the hall as though there might be an entrance she was unaware of. Another half an hour passed and then another, they began to feel sure something had happened, that they needed to find an official to speak to, and just as they were about to abandon their positions they saw the door slide open and a wheelchair being pushed slowly into the hall.
It took a moment to register that the person being wheeled out was the same person they’d said goodbye to eleven days earlier, for Appamma had lost so much weight that her sari gathered in folds around her body. Her blouse was falling loosely over her right shoulder, her bra strap visible over her skin; her cheeks were slightly hollowed and there was a glazed, uncomprehending quality in her eyes as she looked in disorientation at the wide, high-walled hall. Krishan and his mother signaled to the man pushing the wheelchair and quickly ran toward her, but seeing them Appamma only clutched her handbag and gave them a look devoid of recognition, the black of her pupils completely dissolved in the indistinct brown-gray of her irises. They repeated her name several times, heedless of the obstruction they were creating and all the people watching, and though something seemed to resolve in Appamma’s eyes each time her name was pronounced they dissolved back quickly into indistinctness, glistening like drops of oil behind the soft, drooping folds of skin that enclosed them. It was only when Krishan’s mother took her hands and introduced herself, slowly and loudly, as if to a child, that a partial clarity emerged in Appamma’s face, her features drawing together in recognition, and watching her during this brief moment of awareness, which couldn’t have lasted more than a couple of seconds, Krishan felt sure he could see a glimmer of embarrassment or shame in his grandmother’s eyes, as if she’d understood, in that brief moment, everything that had happened, the fact that all her hopes and plans for the trip had gone astray, that she’d come away having won not admiration from their relatives but pity. She mumbled something about her brother, her birthday party, and how time either had or hadn’t come around, repeated the latter several times before lapsing, once more, into a state of confusion. It was a condition she remained submerged in during the long days and weeks that followed, days and weeks in which she was unable to string words into coherent sentences, unable to feed or wash herself, urinating and sometimes even defecating on her bed, and thinking of that moment at the airport now as he continued making his way down Marine Drive, Krishan couldn’t help feeling that his grandmother had chosen to abandon her lucidity on purpose upon recognizing them that day, that she’d sensed in that moment that remaining conscious would mean accepting the powerlessness of her situation and decided, in some interior part of herself, that it was preferable from then on to be absent.