An extract from The Things That We Lost, the debut novel by Jyoti Patel, published by Merky Books / Penguin Random House in January 2023
Avani stares across the River Ganga, trying her best to put what she’s seeing into words. Water. Sky. Trees. Locals. Tourists. Bells. Orange. Green. Blue. This is something she has always struggled with – trying to summon words when she feels overwhelmed.
Years ago, when her husband died, she told her father that she couldn’t find the right words simply because there were too many languages in her head: Gujarati, a pinch of Swahili from her parents’ time in Kenya, some French from school, English, of course. When she’s drained, the words from each language blend together. When distracted, she becomes very literal, referring to the sky as ‘upstairs’ or the tyres on her car as simply ‘feet’. When nervous, the words jump and skip over each other, and she can’t immediately tell which language they belong to. She told her father how, when she was sixteen, she kept saying ndio instead of oui during a French oral exam. The languages, she told her father, they mix and blend. It must be because I think in feelings, not words. But that was only part of the truth. The other part is that what happened to her words when her husband died wasn’t at all the same as when she had exam nerves, nor was it the same as thinking about the sky as upstairs or wheels as feet. The silent truth was that she was paralysed by what had happened, frozen. The guilt she felt slammed shut her right to communicate with others, like a hot, angry gale. The words didn’t fall between the gaps of one language and another. They simply disappeared.
Her thoughts ebb towards her son beside her and to the eulogy he gave at her father’s cremation back home. It was beautiful and reminded her of how he, unlike her, has always had such a way with words. Hearing her father described through the prism of her son’s devotion to him had nudged something inside of her, clearing space for a love that she didn’t think could grow any bigger. But today he’s barely said a word. There are dark circles around his eyes and the beard she still hasn’t got used to grows surprisingly evenly around his face. She worries for him, so deeply that she feels herself shuddering slightly, like an old car on the brink of stalling. More than anything, she worries about how he will face this next chapter of his life, if he will be able to heal from this loss before he leaves home, before he’s faced with the project of becoming. She’d had her husband, then just her boyfriend, with her every step of the way through university. Their son, on the other hand, will be walking away from home and into the unknown more alone than he’s ever been.
She glances at him once more. He’s staring across the river, deep in thought, unblinking. She wants to ask him what he’s feeling. What he’s thinking. If he’s afraid, too. She wants to hold him, tight, in the way she couldn’t when he was a newborn. She opens her mouth, but the words do not come. Now is not the time.
It devastates her that this is his first taste of India – the country that they belong to but in which they have no living relatives or friends. She thinks about how it felt coming to India for the first time herself. It wasn’t the four-week tour from Kochi to Amritsar that her husband had secretly planned as a celebration for their third wedding anniversary, which she’d only discovered after his death. No, her first time in India, her supposed motherland, was as a shaken, seven-stone, twenty-six-year-old widow, here to pour her husband’s ashes in the very river that dances before her now. She remembers her mother telling her not to open her mouth as she haggled with rickshaw drivers on their way to the river, Avani clutching her husband’s ashes in a dark blue urn. They’ll hear your accent and charge us more for being foreigners, her mother had said. Of course, Avani hadn’t seen any of the sights her husband had planned for them, not the Golden Temple nor the Taj Mahal nor the elephants and tigers in Bandipur Forest. Instead, India came to her in a warp of humidity, jet lag and grief. She realises, the thought trapped painfully in her throat, that her son is experiencing his first taste of India the same way she did.
She came back sooner than she’d expected after that first visit, just six weeks later, still unaware of the life growing silently inside her, to scatter her mother’s ashes in the same spot as her husband’s. It was a stroke that claimed her mother, the woman that Avani thought would live forever, a force so strong that nothing could shake her. Avani had asked her brother if they could please go to another part of the river to scatter their mother’s ashes, but he wouldn’t have it. She didn’t want her mother near Elliot. She wanted her husband to rest peacefully. As she’d watched her brother pouring their mother’s ashes into the river, there had been a moment where she had felt something that made her skin crawl. It was relief, sitting quietly at the very centre of her grief. A seed from which she could rebuild herself and the things her mother had taken from her.
Earlier today, she broke tradition to stand with her son and scatter her father’s ashes in the same spot. She thinks about this – about her husband, her mother, her father, all in the river before her, a river so far from home. The thought of another relative, one she never met, one who may well have already been lain to rest, rises in her. He comes to her, from time to time, the one they tried so hard to find. She doesn’t often allow herself to think of him, to sit with the uncertainty of what became of him, so the thought makes her feel cold, despite the humidity of July in India, and she watches the smooth skin on her arms surrender to an army of goose bumps, as though tiny javelins are piercing her. She shivers and brings to mind the people she still has around her – friends, extended family, loved ones – to draw strength from. She closes her eyes, takes a deep breath, and the face that waits for her is Paul’s.
She recalls, a wash of heat falling over her, the embarrassment she felt when she had got in touch to inform him of her father’s death. He must have recognised her number, or perhaps still had it saved after all this time, because he answered with a jovial: There she is! It’s been years, Av. How are you?
His warmth had taken Avani aback and she’d found herself frozen, emotion collecting inside her, unable to respond.
Are you there? . . . Avani? . . . Hello?
She tried to speak. Nothing came. He hung up.
So she made a cup of peppermint tea, curled up on the sofa for a cry, and tried again half an hour later.
Hey, Av. I think you just pocket-dialled me. Silence. Avani?
Then she’d mustered a husky sorry and felt the shade of his silence change.
Av. Talk to me. What’s happened? Is it Nik?
Dad, was all she could manage.
It had felt healing, even though she hates to admit it, to reconnect with someone who knew her so fully, who saw her so clearly, like her father had. She still can’t pin down why she’d asked him to come. It had been an automatic response, almost absentminded, instinctive, like rubbing an aching temple. But seeing Paul at the cremation left a strange taste in her mouth. He hasn’t been in touch since. This surprises her, disappoints her, even. But there is something else underneath the surface of this disappointment, another feeling – one she finds herself turning away from, one she does not hold space for.
Avani opens her eyes and pulls herself back to her surroundings, seated among hundreds on the steps of the river. Her son has risen to his feet, a hand outstretched to help her up. She takes it and notices ripples in the crowd as others stand, like a slow and unsynchronised Mexican wave. There is a call from across the river. It is about to begin. She feels people jostling past her, speaking in Gujarati, Kannada, Punjabi, other dialects she can’t even take a guess at. She succumbs to the movement of the crowd, taking comfort in the feeling of shoulders, elbows, occasionally knees, brushing against her.
Everyone is facing forward now, watching the priests prepare for the aarti, except for a little girl with beautiful brown eyes, seated in the dip of her mother’s hip, who has swivelled round to face Avani. She has marigolds plaited through her hair and blushes when Avani returns her smile. And then, it starts. The woman in front of them gasps and lifts her chundri over her head. The girl looks back towards the river. The crowd sings. Thousands of tourists tucked between mourners press the record button on their smartphones. Clanging bells move with the beat of tabla – the latter has always reminded Avani of the sound of horseshoes clacking on concrete, like a mix of India and Britain. Men clothed in white stand on the banks of the river and wave divas that dance a metre high towards the heavens. A sea of flowers begins to float gently up the current, divas nestled between them. Avani finds that her lips move along with the aarti she didn’t realise she knew. The words come to her and it doesn’t bother her that she has no idea what she is singing, no idea what the Sanskrit means.
She is mesmerised by the movement of the flames that defy gravity, roaring up to the sky, and she realises that she has never really appreciated the colour orange until now. Bright. Light. Beautiful. She is totally focused on the movement of those mighty orange flames, dancing in circles to the sound of the aarti and the tabla and the bells and the crowd. But as the aarti flows into its final verse, she blinks away a film of tears to realise that it’s not the divas themselves she’s most entranced by, but their reflections in the water.