My words…30 years later

4-year old J was up and about this past Sunday morning, and we, his parents, were dozing and trying to catch just a few more minutes of sleep.
J pulled an envelope out of the drawer in my nightstand and handed it to me, asking “What’s this?”
I had no idea, and I opened my eyes to look.
“Oh, it’s a letter that I got a long time ago from my aunt Olwen.”

It is dated “Sept 27”, and says (if you can’t decipher my aunt’s scrawl

“Dearest Janaki, I found this in Mom’s tacky old handbag & thought you should have it

    Much Love, Olwen”

There is no year, but it must have been just after my grandmother died, in 1996.   I’d forgotten what “this” was…I pulled it out.

The included letter is a one-page tattered sheet of air letter paper – that thin stuff we used to write on to reduce the cost of an airmail letter. I was taught to always wrote on both sides in very small writing to maximize the number of characters and words I could squeeze into a letter to my overseas relatives. I wrote, 30 years ago (the … are where the an inkspot, or the crease in the page renders the script illegible):

19 September, 1982

Dearest Grandma,

Things don’t seem to be going well for me.  My father is dead.  It appears that he was finally doing OK, and … for himself.   He had built his boat, and it was … a success – the dept of fisheries [in Sri Lanka] was making offers … was going to get a lot of publicity.  He was planning … building himself a house and bringing us out … visit.  He was out on his boat when it hit a …[rock] … he fell overboard.

… spoke with Mom last night.  She sounded fairly … although depressed.  She hadn’t gone to work that day.  She spoke kindly of him, and … understanding and forgiveness for him.  She may have acted that way solely for my benefit, but I think it was genuine.  He deserves much more than to be hated.  I don’t even want to feel pity for him, it is best just to give him understanding.

Death is a strange thing.  At first, one simply can’t believe it.  It is the one … in life which is final and unchanging, and for that reason it stands apart from reality.  As the realization penetrates, one feels pain, but that is short-lived, and once it has gone, one is left with an awful numbness.  I felt the same when Pithu [my paternal grandfather] died last year only then it didn’t seem so completely unfair and I didn’t experience quite so much the numbing I feel now. P[ithu] at least had achieved much wisdom and done things.  He had been a kind, strong, generous man whom many could praise.  My father was only just entering into a happy period of his life.  He was so lost in and empty in America; it really seemed good for him to go back home.  According to Mom, he was depressed in November 1981, so it is clear that now was really the very beginning of his success.  With every new occurrence, I grow more and more confused about Life and Truth and Justice.  I think I must be very naive to even believe in the existence of those things.

Poor Nalini [my sister] was very upset.  She cried a great deal on the phone last night.  I couldn’t think of anything appropriate to say.  I felt cold and insensitive and strangely unnatural or abnormal.  It was only when I ran John [my then husband] that I broke down and allowed myslef to feel sorrow.  I find it odd the way emotions com and go with such rapicity and apparently without reason;  their randomness almost voids them of meaning and makes them seem false.  I begin to lose hope of ever understanding all these conflicts and questions.  For one thing, there doesn’t seem to be much point in it.  Also one’s answer to philosophy never can stand the test of time.  Someone always comes on the scene to prove you wrong.

I am presently reading Dostoevsky – Crime and Punishment. [I was reading this aloud, and my husband commented “Not a great choice”.] The book definitely does not help to clear one’s thoughts.  As I read I feel as psychotic as Rodion, just as confused and lonely and irritable.  [here follows a bit of a rant about my college roommate of that time, which I will exclude]

As of this moment, I have returned to my work/study job in the computer lab at the New School.  At least I have something to do which will earn me money.  I also hope to sit in on classes during February.  I don’t think anyone will mind and I must keep myself occupoed or I’ll go mad.  Chrishanthi [my daughter, who was born about 3 months earlier, and was still in the neonatal ICU at St. Vincent’s Hospital in NYC at the time] is doing well but she has not gained [weight] substantially for two weeks now.  I hope she can leave the hospital by the first week of March.  This situation gets more difficult for me to bear as the weeks pass. I am not a patient woman!

Despite all this mess, I am doing quite well.  I am sewing curtains for our new apartment and making big pillows.  I plan to knit a blanket or two for C. and look into practical things like undershirts and diapers.  John is buying a VW bus in DC because Sparky [our ’65 VW bug that brought us from California to the East Coast] finally chugged his last (his brakes and gas pedal are completely inoperable.  We hope to seel his engine which is still in good condition). He has fixed up our apt which is quite nice for the money.  The address is: xxx

I will reamin at the dorm in NYC as long as I can and Jenn Cecil has offered me a bed for two weeks if I need it.  After that I may have to finish the wait for C in VA with John, especially since I am enrolled in a couple of continuing education classes at Georgetown.

Give my regards to all.  I hope you are well. The weather here is absolutely dreadful.  I hope it is not bothering you too much there.

All my love,


I was reading this aloud to my husband, R, and by the time I finished, I was opening weeping.  The letter brought me back to that extraordinary time of struggle and confusion.  But, it also let me into a view of my poor grandmother, reading this in England, powerless to help me – and she had this in her purse 14 years later.  I feel badly for the pain I must have caused her by sending this, but I also know that she was such a source of strength for me, that it was she that I turned to when I was feeling so completely defeated by life.

Happily, Chrishanthi (aka Shanthi) came home and thrived, and we all went on to build a strong future.  I suppose the lesson is, no matter how bad things look, never give up.

I think there are a few other lessons there as well, but I don’t have the clarity right now to specify them.  So much to think about…

2 thoughts on “My words…30 years later

  1. Roberta says:

    I am speechless reading your note. You were so strong under those circumstances. As a roommate and outside observer I was in awe. I remember those curtains.

    1. Janaki says:

      Roberta – I have often wondered what you all must have thought of this strange girl from California, showing up at the dorm in Union Square four months pregnant!! And then the whole adventure of S coming so early… You guys were tremendously tolerant and supportive. And, it's funny – I have no recollection of the curtains at all!

      Thank you, many years late.

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