I Rediscovered Who My Grandfather Was by Reading His Book
To know him beyond the frail, serious man who struggled to speak to his family was such a rare and incredible gift.
Dear Kirthana, with love and good wishes
This was at the forefront of my mind as I developed what became my debut novel, Dava Shastri’s Last Day. In it, a wealthy and legacy-obsessed philanthropist named Dava learns she has a terminal illness, and decides to end her life with the help of medical assistance. But before she does so, she allows news of her death to leak early so she could read her obituaries and see how the world perceives her. This decision backfires when news coverage unearths two major secrets Dava had kept hidden from everyone, including her adult children. As they reconcile their idea of their mother with recent shocking revelations, Dava tries to make peace with her children, as well as her choices, with the limited time she has left.
While drafting my manuscript, I became a detective in my own family, quizzing my parents about their lives while growing up in India and after they moved to the States. My father went into his archives and shared old letters between family members. I even put together a list of questions for my parents and grandmother to answer, ranging from favorite books and movies to most cherished childhood memories. I wanted to find a way to record their stories for my siblings, my cousins, my niece, and myself.
In ruminating about Thatha and his book, while also at work on my own, I realized we were deeply connected. My grandfather started writing because he wanted to chronicle his journey to the States, which had been prompted by my impending birth. His book became the very first one that held sway over me, leading me to fall in love with books, and eventually inspire me to become a writer. More than forty years after grandfather had dedicated his book to me, I was able to reciprocate. My debut novel is dedicated to “my parents—and their parents.”
In Thatha’s book, there is one more underlined section, in which Thatha chronicled his and Avva’s last day in the US, three months after my birth. He sweetly described me as having a “million dollar smile,” which he illustrated with a photo I had never seen before, one of Avva holding me as I laugh in her arms, my smile so enormous it takes up most of my face. And while Thatha said he was sad to leave his daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren, at the same time, he noted, “one couldn’t complain; for life will always be so; we have to part sooner or later.”
In Dava Shastri’s Last Day, Dava’s children learn how little they truly knew about their mother, and find themselves wanting to figure out who she is beyond their own notions of her as her days draw to an end. After losing Thatha, I didn’t want to find myself in a mad scramble trying to better understand the people most important to me. While I do not think I’ll ever feel that I’ve learned enough, I’ll always keep trying, even when it feels like plunging my hands into sand and trying to keep all the grains in my grasp.
Especially because time is ticking away. We have to part sooner or later. Life will always be so.
Kirthana Ramisetti has a master’s degree in creative writing from Emerson College, and her work has been published in the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Entertainment Weekly, The Atlantic, and elsewhere. Dava Shastri’s Last Day is her debut novel, and she lives in New York City.