What is Kismuth?…
Kismuth is an eBook memoir. It’s divided into four volumes set over the span of 1985 to 2006.
It’s partly a travelogue, too: scenes are set in the places I’ve lived. Durham, North Carolina. West Cork, Ireland. Seattle. A long circle of India, culminating in the Himalayan foothills’ small city of Manali, comes up, too.
The theme is destiny, and the stories are about: falling in love, measuring the delicacy of life, taking a giant risk that calls into question wholesale Western thought, and how one act of terrorism changed everything for a little girl. In Hindi, which is the native language of my parents, “kismuth” (Hindi: क़िस्मत) means “destiny.”
The one-minute summary…
A brilliant moment of insight at the top of a Himalayan cliff. A dark, politically-motivated tragedy that happened almost three decades ago that no one could explain, and still to this day, remains a mystery. A child-to-be in the womb, very much wanted, but poorly diagnosed, and the heartwreching choice that followed. And: an elopement, sparked by parental struggles that meant choosing between a life of obedience or one that was more rocky, less certain, but wilfully chosen. These are the stories within Kismuth.
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Who would like Kismuth?…
Who’d like to read the stories of Kismuth?
This one’s for the dreamers.
The people who wonder, out loud, how things might be if we had more poetry in our lives. For nothing makes us appreciate more honestly the beauty there is in life than its opposite: death.
All of us experience loss, through different stages of our lives. But sometimes, things happen that aren’t supposed to. The recent shootings in Connecticut, for example. Breaking every ounce of trust in humanity are the heinous acts that ruin our faith in hope. Because when children are murdered, hope is, too.
More than sixty children died in the airplane tragedy of Air India Flight 182, which happened in 1985 when a terrorist bomb in the underbelly of that plane created a nightmare just off the southwest coast of Ireland.
Today, in a place called Ath na Cista, a seaside village of the Beara Peninsula, there stands a lovely, tastefully designed memorial for the 329 victims of the tragedy, and one can visit that place, and see the lovingly rendered listing of these many names.
I know this because I was there. Nothing compares to doing the hard thing in person, and I’d needed to make myself look at that place, and fine one name, in particular. It’s a name I’ve thought of every day since that terrible June of 1985.
And there it was.
And that’s when, quite honestly, the gestation of this book began.
I lived in the section of Ireland the locals there proudly call West Cork, and even when they say it you can almost feel the capitalization of the “W.” I had to really keep myself from doing that when I got Stateside again, because people would edit that to the “w” that is more technically correct. Still, West Cork is West Cork, and that’s where I found myself an expat, 15 years after the Air India tragedy, completely by chance. The story of how I got there is part of Kismuth, too.
“Small shoes and childrens’ dolls floated in from the sea for days,” a local gard told me, tears welling in his eyes, when I asked him to tell me what he remembered. In Ireland, the keepers of the peace don’t carry guns. They’re illegal. Children are allowed in pubs. Children are integrated into everyday life in a way I haven’t ever experienced, even in so-called progressive Seattle.
RAMPING UP TO THE COURAGE
Then one day, I was ready. To go up the Beara peninsula, about a one-and-a-half hour drive from our farmhouse in Skibbereen. My husband, Akira, had read about it in a magazine, and saved that for me to see. It took me almost a year to get ready for it.
Then, I was. I needed to see the memorial for myself.
My heart didn’t want to look, but immediately, my fingers began to trace the letters. Softly at first, then more desperately. I needed to find her again.
And there it was.
The name of my childhood best friend, who left for India on a trip in 1985 aboard that plane. She never got there. And of course, she never came back.
No one talked about that with me, and puzzled to this day, I’m writing to ask the big questions. What about if it had been different? What about destiny, fate, coincidence? Why is it I’m still here, breathing, and what is my responsibility now, to myself, to the unliving, and to bigger things, too?
In the raindrizzle that I’d become accustomed to after more than a year in Ireland, I often thought about that journey to the Beara. I went back, too. I stopped at Good Things Cafe in Durrus on the way home, and that was almost two years later, when I was driving on my own, confident, even if I did still have just an “L” permit, I was maneuvering with a stick shift freely about those hills.
I felt, later, somehow lighter. After Ireland, I mean. I could say to the fifth grader still within me all the things she wanted to know. What she’d been questioning but hadn’t given voice to, for a very long time. Until the visit, she got to really see what was only on television and in newspapers. Did that really happen?
It was a final answer. Yes.
Then, she wanted to know the next most obvious question a little kid would have:
And no one knows.
Even today, there’s no real clarity.
I looked at old newspaper articles on film at the Cork library. I talked to people who also experienced the tragedy, but from the side of this land, and as hosts to those who came, like me, to ask their questions and to grieve. To mourn, to look at the water, to think about nothing but space and the big empty. Water is a recurring motif in my series. Space is, too.
I’m spending a little time here, telling you about this moment, because it’s the central story of the book. There are several other books by other authors that you can read to discover what happened with Kanishka, the name of the aircraft, and the politics that surrounded the incident. But my story is different.
My story is Kismuth. It’s about what it was like being a little kid at the time, wondering all your life, “What about if things had been different? What, then?” Not until I journeyed solo to India, the subject of one of the volumes in this series, did I meet Indian people who, like those in Ireland, had also experienced the Air India disaster—but from the perspective of people who were hurt by the political motivations therein. For them, as for me, talking through the feelings helped us all come to better see something. What that “something” was is the heart and soul of this four-volume sequence.
FROM NEWS REPORTING TO MEMOIR
Kismuth, then, is about love, loss, risk, and chance. But ultimately, it’s about the thing that matters most at the end of all of this. Hope. It’s about the thing that we can look to, when the deepest of miseries beset us. “Kismuth” means “destiny” in Hindi.
Even though I worked as a newsreporter for two years in Seattle, and as a features editor for an Irish startup newsweekly, the kind of writing I like most is the kind you’re reading here. Straight-up, no frills, and not trying to sound all smart or stuffy.
The reason I feel this way is because of a quote that I still have, that’s taped up on a black piece of construction paper and is right on my wall here in my little writing nook. It says:
Do not be tricked into believing that modern decor must be slick or psychedelic, or “natural” or “modern art,” or “plants” or anything else that current taste-makers claim. It is most beautiful when it comes straight from your life—the things you car for, the things that tell your story.
I must have been about 15 when I found it in a book, and made a xerox, and cut out the paragraph.
I was always into writing. The same year of the tragedy that took my friend, I wrote an earnest essay against alcoholism. Why would you lose control over your car, and put other people’s lives at risk?, I wrote, staying up til well past 10 o’clock to rewrite, polish, and recopy the piece. Why would you do that, if you had a choice in the matter, if you could actually help it? I still remember staying up “really late,” and my father checking in on me, and asking what I was doing. “Writing,” I said, serious from the start. He saw that, and let me.
Essays won me college grants and scholarships, but my first published travel writing was in the Durham newsmagazine, The Urban Hiker, in 1999. ‘Midmorning Lakeshimmer’ was about the journey to Rajasthan and back to America, coming to terms with some of the disconnects between what I’d imagined India to be like from her parents’ stories and what I saw with my own eyes on the ground.
I’ve published about solo train travels around Japan, and a piece about the oldest man in Ireland, too. As I’ve mentioned already, I interviewed dozens of people in Ireland as part of an editorship at a newsweekly, then joined a trade newspaper daily in Seattle as a staff reporter. Earning chops as an observer of people, and hearing with new ears what they say between the lines—that’s how I’ve come around to writing the stories that are there between us all, that connect us. The ones about life. And death.
Knowing this and recalling the “things that I care for, the things that tell my story,” as my reminder tells me to do, I’ve come back to writing first-person essay. Memoir, the most personal of all writing, is my favorite.
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