Epiphany - A Memoir in Honor of My Cousin

October 5, 2020 / Shreya Chari

A smile.

That is how I remember his face. On the days when I feel desolate, or simply nostalgic, I forage for long-buried memories. I dig around, and his memory is back there, waiting. When I seek it out, I picture his smile.

What a unique smile he had. It never seemed to reach his ears, but his eyes offset it perfectly. They would scrunch up so tightly that you couldn’t tell if they were radiating happiness or squeezing out pain. I like to think it was the former. He gave the impression of someone so ecstatic, so overflowing with emotion that they couldn’t keep their eyes open.

There was one thing in particular that brought out that smile: music.

The radio in the living room sang out and like a breeze in the Chennai heat, the music brought with it a sense of sweet relief. Balaji’s face would say it all. The croon of the voices lulled his pain, brought him someplace where he was no longer riddled with the burden he carried. He was suddenly something much more innocent, much more childlike.

Maybe he was a baby duck, running and leaping from lily pad to lily pad as fast as his little feet could carry him. Ignorant of the difficulties he faced, while at the same time overcoming every obstacle in his path. Ignorant of the importance his little footprints left on us as he dashed around, running. The entire pond at his feet, nothing holding him back anymore.

Or perhaps he had his head in the sky, wondering what it would be like to stand on fluffy clouds. Maybe he imagined laying on the soft balls of cotton, the only taste of freedom he had from this life.

Wherever Balaji’s imagination drove him, it was certainly an escape from the reality that tormented him. Music temporarily filled the large void that this world left on his life.

Amidst the hardships, his love for music and the happiness it brought him are etched into my mind forever. There are many other moments I could remember him by, but I learned the most from him when he was happy.

I learned how to let imagination take you far from reality.

How to love something so deep that it erased your pain, however temporary.

How to smile so brightly that it was etched into memory.

But most importantly, what I learned from years of observing my cousin was how to be everyone’s rock, when they were supposed to be yours. He was the baby duck that never followed the group, but instead waded its own way through the murky water.

It wasn’t until he passed last March that I realized how deeply he impacted my life. Seemingly mundane things-- such as how he would proudly call out my name in the form of greeting and recognition, or how he would enthusiastically clap his hands together - were all ways in which he created a sense of home for me.

Living across the planet from my family, we were separated in what seemed like two different words. Therefore, the depth of my ties to them seemed shallow. I love them with my heart and more, but it took losing one for the realization to snap into place: I needed them. 

They showed me a side of life that could only be experienced over short summer vacations. They showered me with my favorite local delicacies, fine silk dresses, rounds of chozhi ( a game played with 4 shells, taught to me by my paternal grandmother), and endless laughter. Everything I learned from them, I carry to this day. My life may be centered here, but they made me whole.

The small moments I spent with each relative that completed me,

Added to small parts of my identity,

Allowed me to develop into the person I am today.

I have not felt whole since March 25, 2019. The pond remains lifeless and washed up, waiting for the day its waters will ripple with lily pads and innocence once more.

What I’ve been missing since that day isn’t another silk lehenga or half sari, or local food. It’s not even more games of dice.

I miss his smile.

The sweltering heat and loud cranking of the radio were a lethal combination-- but what I would give to be sitting there, reliving it all again.■

This article was written as a part of Spark Writing’s first annual summer workshop series, Words With Friends: A Spark Writer’s Summer!

Graphic By:
Jennifer Jimenez
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