THE PURPOSE OF THE TRIP was to see my mother’s father one last time, but on the way in we stopped for a day in Mumbai to stretch our legs. I’d drawn a whole map for myself on the plane and now was following my dotted line through various markets and bakeries, culminating in a visit to the CSMVS, the city’s largest art museum. As with many other of India’s cultural institutions, the price for admission varies for local visitors and international tourists, and as I thumbed through my wallet in the queue, I realized that I’d overspent at the underground zine fest and only had enough cash left to cover the local rate. I don’t speak Hindi, but I thought, if I kept my mouth shut, I might look the part—I had no American flags on my shirt, anyway—but when I got to the front and wordlessly held out my several dozen rupees, the guard saw right through me and pointed to the tourist rate on the sign. Too embarrassed to explain myself or double down on the ruse, I turned around and headed across the yard to the gift shop, where I thought I’d buy a postcard, something to prove I’d been here at least and seen this site with my own eyes. The shopkeeper, perhaps smelling the tourist on me, asked if I needed any help. “No, thanks,” I said, “I’m just looking.”
A few days later we took a driving tour through Mahabalipuram, the highlight of which was a visit to the seashell museum, if only because I managed actually to step inside. The collection is sourced entirely from the spoils of a single curator, who arranged everything by size, shape, and color and hand-wrote the exhibit labels on folded cards of watercolor paper. world’s smallest pearl, one label reads, and, passing it, I had a vision of the fine tweezers in his wrinkled hands. On the way back to the hotel, we passed a boulder at the edge of a shallow cliff that was said to have stayed there, inexplicably static, for as long as anyone could remember. It’s known as Krishna’s Butterball. People Instagram their lunches downslope from the boulder or try to push it off its weird angle, our driver explained. He took a photo of me watching the scene from a distance and then clapped my shoulder. “Now you can tell everyone you saw this,” he said, “and they’ll believe you.”
If art is, as Klimt says, a line around our thoughts, then a museum is a cartography of longing. I saw this, the walls cry, and with every frame we pass, we’re besieged to affirm the tiny impossible chance that we see it too, that a world once encountered could ever be a world now recognized. With everything that’s lost in the process of depiction—narrowing the landscape to a periphery, rendering it piece by piece on the eye’s account, hoping the hand hears clearly the mind’s voice, and rummaging for whatever ink and brush we find in the clearance bin—it’s a miracle that anything comes through at all. And yet we aspire, time after time, to re-create what’s before us, despite knowing that its essence can never be transferred, that what survives our depiction is never the thing itself, not even a shadow of it. Perhaps what’s actually before us, beyond the sky and water, is the hope that we’re not the last or only to behold this world, or the despairing certainty that no one else sees what we see, which drives us to such spectacular ritual.
That trip did turn out to be the last time I saw my mother’s father, inches from a view I hardly noticed. Earlier that day, inspired by the museum, I’d scoured the shore for seashells and had washed them clean in the ocean. The two of us now sat before a demanding view of the uncertain future, an unobstructed expanse of belligerent clouds and restless waves. It was clear that, in what little time together we had left, I’d been given a moment in which to lose myself, but in truth all I could focus on was the smell of my thumb. I must have wiped some soured mollusk flesh from one of the shells, and I couldn’t bring myself to stop worrying it through the sand to try to dull the smell of death. It wasn’t until he tapped my elbow and pointed toward the water that I finally put my hand to rest and looked up.