Kilimanjaro

May 4, 2020

No, this is not fiction. This is how it happened. It is my own itihasa. He died in 2003, on the summer solstice, the last day of Uttarayanam. And today is his birthday.

Kilimanjaro

By Rajeev Srinivasan

“I used to keep all your letters because I thought you’d become famous,” my father said to me once, “but one day I realized you wouldn’t.” That was the most hurtful thing my father ever said to me, and he didn’t even say it with spite. It was simply matter of fact, and that hurt more than anything else because it was the brutal truth. I thought of the pile of letters from my parents that I have saved, old blue aerograms bundled together with rubber bands. And of the ten years in my life that have passed, unrecorded and unmourned, while I waited, and I missed the starting gun.

When I was a child, my father never punished me, but once. I cannot remember what I did, but I was about eight. I ran, hoping to outrun him, but he chased me around our old house, the one that we later sold to the timber merchant. He struck me, once or twice. But then he was remorseful and took me out and bought me comic books.

But mostly I could speak to him as a friend. Not like my mother, who was the disciplinarian in the family, and who commanded respect and a certain distance. And he would talk at length about his favorite liberal causes, and socialism, and Gandhism. My class teacher once said to me when I was a teenager, “You are lucky to have such an enlightened father.” My father had just come and spoken at my school, I can’t remember the topic, but it was probably something to do with Gandhism.

I said to friends when I first came to America that my letters to my parents were so very different, the one to my mother formal and informative and respectful, the one to my father more chatty and more like something I would write to a favorite uncle. It didn’t occur to me until later that my mother and I do have much in common, but that she simply did not have the time to pay attention. She had to work and look after my father, and she had no time for her children, as she said to me ruefully, years later.

When I was a very small child, my father bought a radio for me, “so you could listen to music.” We had that ancient GEC radio for many years, big and boxy with old-fashioned, glowing electron tubes, and it must have cost him a princely sum in those days. It had little slots in the back for air to come in to cool the tubes. I used to worry about the geckos that would casually squeeze themselves in and out of the slots: would they fry themselves and destroy the radio? Last year, when I went home, I found that old radio was gone. I missed it; I remembered watching the green magic eye and trying to tune in the BBC and Radio Moscow and the Voice of America.

Our house has always been awash with books and my father was constantly reading, and writing. He wrote fiction when I was little, and he translated books into Malayalam. I read novels from his bookshelf, voraciously, and without plan: man-eaters of Kumaon, the story of Genji, Marcel Pagnol’s childhood.

I wished he would write heartbreaking stories, of poor laborers and brave communists and feudal landlords, but he would not. He preferred to write essays, and he read boring, arcane journals. Once, when I was upset, I told my father that he was a “mere reactionary”. I didn’t actually know what a reactionary was, I just knew it was a bad thing to be.

Much later, I begged him to write a novel about his ancestral village; the one with the predatory old women and the silent, gentle old men. About his uncle, the nationalist; about his great-uncle, the journalist. Every year when I visit he tells me about yet another of his old relatives who has passed away. I say: “It’s their memories you must capture-you can’t just let them die! I’ll come with you and I’ll bring a tape recorder and record what they remember!” But we never do. I think he is afraid of fiction now. Or maybe he is just lazy. Fiction is so much harder to write.

Sometimes my father and I drove up to the prosperous rubber town, so he could attend a meeting of the writer’s co-operative he was a director of. We stopped at a roadside tea stall. I wanted a batter-fried banana. The piping-hot treat was delicious, golden-brown, slightly caramelized at the edges, with a sprinkling of sugar, and I liked the smoky interiors of the little thatched lean-tos. They served tea, frothy, cooled dexterously in a yard-long stream between two metal tumblers. I was not to tell my mother, who did not trust such places. “Our little secret,” my father said, conspiratorially.

My father has a keen sense of smell; and he would embarrass me sometimes when I came down for breakfast. He would look up, take a sniff or two with his large, fleshy nostrils, and then ask me suspiciously, “Did you brush your teeth today?” I would protest, innocence bruised. And when the jackfruit or mangos get ripe in the yard, he is always the first to know about it.

My father used to like photography, with his Yashica, which his wealthy uncle from Singapore had given him. He was patient, and he demanded patience of his models. He would look down through the lens of the old double-lens camera, adjust our poses and the camera angle, and fiddle around interminably before he finally clicked. I realized later that it was an act of self-affirmation. He remembered his youth, when he was poor, and he wanted to record his rise to the middle class. As a youngster, he worked in the Railways, in sweltering Tamil Nadu towns, and when we traveled by train, he always chatted with the ticket examiner, to inquire after old acquaintances. He saved enough money to put himself through college, he was a journalist too; and he was a good orator and became head of the student union. But it didn’t interest him much, and he resigned over a matter of principle; and he never took advantage of his contacts.

When I was in high school, my father had to get me out of trouble with the police. I violated a simple rule, that of riding my bicycle with no lights on; but when questioned by the police, I lost my head. I gave them a false address, and, on further questioning, it was obvious that I had no idea about the neighborhood I mentioned. They took me to the station, and I waited, ashamed. I was a good child in general, and I was mortified. But my father didn’t say much when he came to get me. The inspector was an acquaintance of his, perhaps one of his old students, so it was a double humiliation for him.

But he didn’t say anything at all. It was as though this were normal – bailing his errant son out of trouble. No histrionics, no recriminations. I waited for the other shoe to drop, but it never did. Maybe he realized the humiliation was enough to teach me a lesson. I never got into trouble again with the police.

One warm summer day when I was a teenager, I lost his Rayban sunglasses. They were his pride and joy. Some friend of his had brought them from London. I lost them somewhere; I think they were stolen. Later, when I moved to America, I brought him back expensive sunglasses. But somehow they were never as good as the old pair I lost. After all, he had been a younger man then, and had cared more for these little vanities.

Father used to indulge in a couple of other small luxuries – tennis and an occasional drink. I would always bring him tennis gear, clothes and racquets and shoes; single-malt whisky, and sometimes cognac. It is easy to buy gifts for him, because he always tells me exactly what he wants – men’s toiletries or a book by Noam Chomsky or a typewriter. Now he has given up his tennis, but he still likes an occasional drink. He gets expansive when he drinks too much, and he tends to repeat himself. It is a shame he is not playing tennis anymore: he looked smart in his whites, bounding about with enthusiasm. He had an eye for my good T-shirts.

I kept asking him to come visit me. I picked him up at the airport in Boston the first time he came to America. He seemed smaller than I remembered, a middle-aged man in a not-so-fashionable beige safari suit. Gray hair thinning on the crown. Clean-shaven. Heavy-rimmed, professorial glasses. A brown man of average height, small compared to all those towering white people; somewhat apprehensive of this strange country, holding on nervously to his briefcase and walking out from immigration, pushing his luggage trolley and looking around for me. And then when he left, looking back and waving again and again as he disappeared down that long tunnel.

He used to think all Americans were literary-minded, for he had only met scholars amongst them before, and he had taught American literature for years. He liked Cambridge, and later, Stanford; but he really preferred Britain. He found America too brash. He felt more comfortable when my uncle in Britain took him to see the Lake District and Shakespeare’s home. Once I took him to see Stonehenge, and he was not impressed. “Why, there are more interesting piles of rocks in Kerala,” he said.

As my stay in America grew longer, my father started asking questions: when would I come back? After five years, I said. Then it was ten. I drifted along, aimless. Then came the question of marriage. He wanted me to marry someone who would be kind to me, he said. Not having much of a reason to say no, I agreed.

So he found someone. She was rich, too. And it was a complete disaster. We got divorced. It took all of us years to recover from the recriminations and the allegations. I realized we never really talked, not as father and son, except in exchanging pleasantries as though we were polite strangers. We were afraid to tell the whole truth, and we assumed things about each other.

I hadn’t been able to tell my father about my need to be free, to be on my own, self-reliant, self-sufficient and self-absorbed. I dreamt pleasant dreams about the Serengeti, about the thundering herds of wildebeest; but most of all, about towering Kilimanjaro, standing alone, in splendid isolation, a solitary peak in the middle of a vast, flat continent. I couldn’t express my need to be by myself, to be free. I wanted to tell him about being a loner, about the Steppenwolf, but he didn’t want to listen.

And he has never understood. My mother did, though; I discovered that I had more in common with her than I had thought. She retired from her college and she and I would talk about history, which she had taught for many years.

I have returned to Kerala, dutifully, at least once a year, and mostly in the winter like all the other Indians, saving up those two weeks. One year, I fell ill at home; and my precious vacation was ruined. But all of a sudden, lying there under a stuffy mosquito net, it occurred to me that time was passing me by. That I was no longer a carefree youth. And that I needed to be home again: I was weary of my travels. I wanted to be with my parents.

I remembered the time I went on pilgrimage to Sabarimala, years ago, when I was a teenager. I trekked up the steep hill, peaceful during June showers, and it was quiet because it was out of season. I walked alone, barefoot, up trails through heavy forest, and the pebbles were sharp underfoot. Now and then a fellow-pilgrim, bearded and black-clad, came down the path, and we smiled as we passed each other by; some said, “Swami saranam!”.

The rain, drizzle really, felt cool on my skin: I was glad because it made the climb less tiring. But I had to watch for leeches: you wouldn’t know if they attached themselves to your legs and stuck on, fattening on your blood until you applied salt to them to force them to let go. From far off came the sound of a waterfall. Now and then, the cry of a howler monkey echoed through the canopy, and there was an occasional bird, but otherwise it was still. I remembered the tigers and elephants that punish non-observant pilgrims. There was the heavy scent of wet earth and of vegetation: the forest’s breath, amplified by the rain.

And then I reached the sanctum, at dusk. I climbed the eighteen steps of gold. The tiny sanctum sanctorum, the garbha-grha, was much smaller than I expected. The image of the Lord, that I had seen a thousand pictures of, was small, too: serene, unusual, seated, and surrounded by the flickering light of oil lamps. Incense and the smell of coconut-oil wafted through the air. Bodies pressed up against me; I had to brace myself to not lose my footing. The praises of the Lord echoed in the air. The tall, bearded priest distributed prasadam, and it was sweet and tangy on my tongue. 

And then, quite unexpectedly, I caught a fleeting, shattering, inexpressible glimpse of something – of a doorway opening in the heavens, of God’s Grace, of Infinity. Of indescribable Bliss, sat-chid-ananda. I thought to myself, I want to die now, I want to die in this moment, for I fear I shall never experience this ecstasy again.

I stood paralyzed. But the moment passed. I rationalized it. Perhaps it was the exhaustion from the long and difficult trek. Perhaps it was a self-fulfilling expectation, the stories of sanctity that I had heard from my elders. Maybe it was the vratam, the penance of forty-one days. I found a hundred rational reasons for that feeling I could not quite put into words. Faith made me uncomfortable. Living in America, I had become dismissive of the gods of my ancestors.

But now, lying in my sick-bed, it came back to me, that vision of wonder, that instant when I had had a tantalizing vision of something much greater than myself, that marvel that I had experienced. I just knew that the Lord of Sabarimala was calling me, and I had to respond.

Slowly, I rediscovered my faith; religion and motherland began to be intertwined in my mind. I read Sri Aurobindo, and he spoke for me: nationalism is the defense of the sanatana dharma. I understood that I missed India with a fierce passion. And that I cared deeply about Indian history. I began to see that I was an exile, and that America no longer excited me. I used to think this was God’s own country, once upon a time.

I wanted to tell my father about my rediscovery of my identity. But he would not listen, because for him religion is anathema. And my self-definition involved me being an Indian and a Hindu. We argue and shout now, whenever we talk about this: he, former leftist, agnostic, and cynical; and me, zealous, theist, believer. So we prefer to talk about what we agree on: an intense nationalism.

And then I saw the film “Piravi” (The Birth), at the San Francisco Film Festival. It was about an old man, a teacher, searching for his son, who disappeared while in police custody. I noticed with amazement that in his hostel room, the son had a huge, enlarged portrait of his father. I too have huge portraits that I took myself: of my father, mother and sister, filling a wall in my study.

Later, the old man realizes his son would never return; going home, he slips and falls in the rain; he has no son to help him up, and so a kind stranger, the ferryman, helps him up and back to his home. Tears streamed down my face, for my father too has no son to help him: I am in America. I have never wept at a film before or after that. I am a film buff, I have seen hundreds of moving films, but this one, alone, spoke to me.

I saw the film again. It begins with an invocation from the Kaushitaki Upanishad; a dying man bequeaths his life to his son. The son accepts each of his gifts.

“My speech in you I would place”. “Your speech in me I take.”
“My sight in you I would place.” “Your sight in me I take.”
“My mind in you I would place.” “Your mind in me I take.”
“My deeds in you I would place.” “Your deeds in me I take.”
“My vital breath in you I would place”. “Your vital breath in me I take.”
“May glory, luster and fame delight in you.” “Heaven and desires may you obtain.”

And from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, “Whatever wrong has been done by him, his son frees him from it all… By his son, a father stands firm in this world.”

I cried again at the film.

My father is so much a part of me, I thought, even though we refuse to communicate. And even though we are matrilineal. I tried to tell him how I felt, but I could not find the words. He has never seen the film himself and even if he did, it might not resonate with him as it did with me.

I understood that my Kilimanjaro is borrowed from him. My sister once said to my mother, “Father thinks of nobody at all; and my brother only thinks of himself.” She didn’t say it with rancor. Perhaps she was right.

I go home as often as I can. My father is in his seventies. “I am living on borrowed time,” he says. “Why don’t you come back here and live with us?”

I try to explain that there I would not be able to do anything that I am trained for. I would have to go live in Bombay or some place far off like that. There is so little I could possibly do at home; I would have to do nothing at all. But he says, “You have worked long enough. Can’t you live on your savings? We have this house, you can just live with us.”

I cannot make him understand that I would love to, dearly, to be back there, and that the hot summers don’t bother me any more; nor would I complain about the mosquitoes, nor about the self-important officials. But I can’t live there and not work, I can’t pretend to be a teenager living with his parents. My mother understands, but my father cannot.

“Come to San Francisco,” I say to him. “You know how pleasant it is. You can go to Stanford and Palo Alto and Berkeley and the bookstores and the libraries. I will take you to Monterey to see Steinbeck country. I can continue to work there, do what I have been trained to do and earn a living.”

“I can’t”, he says. “I’d miss my routine. And everything I am familiar with. I am too old to change now.” He is right, and we both know it.

Sometimes he says, “I have nothing to live for now. All I want is to see you and your sister and her little girl happy. I can die any day now.”

I want to tell him, “Father, I shall return. Just give me time. And no, I will not be coming back for you, but for myself. Because India means so much to me.” He does not know how much I miss the old Krishna temple. And the rain; the sibilant, sinuous, sinister rains of June. 

I want to shout at him, “Shall I tell you of my dreams? I used to dream of America. Now all I dream of is a little village in Kerala. Where my ancestors lived. Where there is a pond, and cashew trees, and paddy fields, and grandfather’s house, and our family temple. And in the month of Aquarius, a festival at the Devi temple.”

I want to tell him about Kilimanjaro. About the Serengeti. About how I feel about America, alone amongst the thundering herds of wildebeest. About how I wish to go on pilgrimage, to Sabarimala, to Chidambaram, to Benares, to Rishikesh, to Manasarovar.

Instead I say nothing. I talk to him agreeably about world affairs and the weather. But one of these days, I must tell him the only thing I want from him. Father, I want you to live until I come back. I want to be there for you when you fall.

And I must quote Dylan Thomas to him:
“Do not go gentle into that good night…
Rage, rage, against the dying of the light…”

3500 words, January 1997

Winner, Honorable Mention, Katha Fiction Contest, India Currents, California. 1997