- The Elephant God
Naomi wore headphones on the plane. Her hair was stained black from the dye she’d applied a few days before, and in the beam of the overhead light it glowed an iridescent blue. Every few moments she extracted a notepad, contorted her body around it, and scribbled in private.
She was at the age of experimental fashion and funereal music. I wasn’t alarmed by this but could see it for what it was: a positive and healthy time of transition. My daughter was starting down the craggy road of self-discovery. She took after me, I believed—a serious girl, a thinker and a feeler, concerned with the fate of humanity. At seventeen, she was halfheartedly applying to colleges, disdainful toward the marching of worn paths. There was mention of a gap year, volunteering at soup kitchens, food pantries. Her mother, I’m afraid, was less tolerant of our dark poet, but I sympathized with Naomi’s resistance. I felt that I understood her unquiet spirit, her lofty, amorphous ambitions. Even her scornful pouts and contemptuous comments gave me a flicker of pride.
Nicholas was a more conventional boy, at home in the suburbs, enamored with Xbox and baseball. Now, in the airplane, he watched an animated fish strum a banjo inside his seat-back screen. His lap held the only book about India we could persuade him to open—a history of Mughal invasions, protracted and bloody.
I simmered with excitement to set foot on the Subcontinent. The heat whipped us as we exited through customs into Delhi, its sweet and fetid odors braided too tightly to identify. As we picked our way through the rubbled parking lot to our driver’s car, Jillian held Nicholas by the hand, and I walked beside Naomi who silently gaped at dust-caked children sleeping layered upon a wagon.
We stayed two days in the capital, daytripping to Agra for a dizzying turn round the Taj Mahal. There, in full view of the tourist crowds, Nicholas flew into a raw sprint of joy down the path between the two fountain pools. A bolt of elation, a sharp light in my chest, stamped the moment—my wife and children, that beautiful bulb of a building, the mirrored water and colorful jostle of visitors—into my heart. I try to keep that moment fresh. When other memories intercede, I plump up the Taj in my mind to balance the downward pull.
When we had children, Jillian and I agreed we wouldn’t let them change us. We swore to guard our essential selves, our outward view of the world, to resist the compulsion to make a nest and shrink into it. We vowed to travel, keep traveling, [End Page 131] with children in tow or without, and to travel as far and hard as we could.
To most residents of our town, travel means Vermont or Nantucket. Each summer we watch neighbors load cars with beach chairs and coolers, set home alarm systems, and drive blithely toward the horizon. We understand that not everyone thinks of travel as we do. Holidays, for some, are just that: a brief truce with daily rigors, a time to be cushioned in the known and the mild. We’ve been lucky, Jillian and I, to find ideal partners in one another, who share an abhorrence of leisure. We go nowhere without our passports. When Naomi was born, we bundled her over the ocean to Scotland and Greece; when Nicholas joined us, we raided Portugal.
I like to think that this young introduction to travel advantaged our children over their peers. They learned the breadth of the world early and gained context for their own local privileges. Still, we were cautious with them for many years, electing destinations of relative comfort, and I was itching to dirty my socks, to break out of the hemisphere. When the kids started seventh and eleventh grades—old enough to travel as fellow adults—we took out the battered atlas and rifled its pages. We surveyed Russia and Thailand before landing squarely, with mutual frisson, on India.
We started preparations early. Jillian...