Garuda, the Hindu god of birds, is also the king of bird poop. When he brings finches and nuthatches to our feeders, the droppings fertilize the soil. So he’s also the god of new grass. He flies direct from India to Seattle, and it doesn’t matter that the airports have been closed for a week since the planes hit the Twin Towers.
Garuda has the wings of an eagle.
My grandfather Bapu prays to all the gods and goddesses, but he’s silent as we trek into the woods to search for barred owls. Bapu marches ahead and I copy his strides, stepping into his giant bootprints in the soil. I’m Anu the Boy Explorer, star of National Geographic, bringing my backpack and birdseed to feed the chickadees.
“Quiet, Shona,” Bapu whispers. He still uses my Bengali baby nickname, which means “golden,” although I’m already eight and three-quarters.
I try to be quiet, but my jeans swish and my breathing disturbs the leaves. The air smells of fall—of dampness and leaves. Afternoon sunlight filters through the treetops, and a breeze lifts my hair. No biplanes or helicopters buzz overhead. The sky sleeps in a strange silence.
Bapu makes many turns, tramples far off the path and finally stops in a clearing. We’re far from the house; I can’t see the moss-covered roof.
I sit next to Bapu, so close that his warmth radiates into my leg. His clove and sweet pipe smell mixes with the cotton laundry scent of his shirt.
My heart beats fast.
“Soon, Anu, soon,” he says.
I check every shadow, watch for an owl blending in against a tree trunk. The barred owl hunts by night but also by day, Bapu says. He knows everything. He can name birds by their calls, and he knew it would rain today. The sky clouds over and drizzle spits down. We wait and watch until my legs cramp and then we pull on our ponchos and we’re two yellow mushrooms sprouting from the ground. The drizzle turns to rain, and Bapu takes a folded umbrella from his pocket, pops it open above our heads. His fingers quiver.
If my best friend, Unger, were here, he would complain about the rain streaking up his glasses. The only birds he watches are the plastic ones you use to play badminton.
“How long do we wait?” I whisper, tapping my foot. I pick up a pebble, drop it, pick it up, drop it.
Bapu presses a finger to his lips and nods his head in the Indian style, halfway between no and yes. “Patience, Shona. Like the sadhus of India, nah? They meditate for many years in caves without complaint.”
I tap my fingers in the damp moss. “Don’t they get bored?”
“They leave all thoughts and feelings behind. They strive for that which is unknowable to the human mind.”
“If it’s unknowable, why do they waste their time striving?”
“Striving is the whole point. They pursue their own inner light.” He points to my chest. “You have inner light.”
I have my own built-in lightbulb? Like the dome light that goes on when you open the car door? All I can feel is my heartbeat. “Do the birds have inner light too?”
Bapu waves an arm in a sweeping motion. “The light is everywhere, part of the Absolute, shimmering in everything.”
His words swirl out and sparkle like magic dust. I try to imagine the inner lightbulbs glowing in the raindrops, in the leaves, in the dirt beneath my fingernails. “I can’t see the special light, Bapu. Is there a switch?”
He chuckles and pats my head. “Ah, Shona. You’ll see. Perhaps you’ll have to meditate for a full twelve years as the holy men do!”
“Twelve years?” I’m not even nine. “I could never wait that long.”
“When your heart aches, you’re willing to wait.” Bapu presses a hand to his chest. “I waited two years for your Amma, until her father gave his permission for the marriage—”
“A whole two years?” I picture Bapu meditating day after day, not even getting up to eat or pee while he waits for Amma. I never got to meet her. She died before I was born.
“Two years is but a moment in the large scheme of time, Shona.”
“I’m just over four moments old, then. Two times four equals eight.”
“Your life is a god’s hiccup, but an important hiccup.”
I imagine the bird-god, Garuda, hiccupping me up, and I glance at the sky, in case he swoops down to swallow me.
“Bhalo, enough for today, Shona, nah?”
We get up and hike back through the woods. No owl today. We made too much noise, but I like talking to Bapu. He holds all the knowledge of the universe in his enormous, ancient brain.
He’s walking so slowly that I bump into him, and then he stumbles and falls on his face. The umbrella goes flying and lands with a thump. He must have tripped over a root. I wait for him to get up.
“Bapu, you okay? Let’s go.”
He doesn’t reply. “Bapu?”
I kneel beside him.
“Bapu?” His fingers aren’t trembling anymore, but he’s breathing. His lips are turning blue the way my lips get when I’m cold. Bapu’s cold, way too cold. Why won’t he talk to me? Why won’t he move? My stomach does a somersault. Something terrible is happening.
I drop my pack and run.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Looking For Bapu by Anjali Banerjee. Copyright © 2006 by Anjali Banerjee. Excerpted by permission of Wendy Lamb Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.