— Asha Thanki
Ma always had a thing for bringing home small creatures: baby birds whose mothers had been captured by the neighbor’s cat, bunnies found beneath the rose bush in our front yard. When she was seventeen or eighteen, she tried to hide a Pomeranian puppy in her family’s two-room apartment after she found out the owner was prepared to drown the litter. As my sister and I grew older, the habit waned, Ma growing weary of our collective inability to mend a broken wing or nurse a rabbit to adulthood.
But some vestige of it returned when Ma stumbled across a small turtle in the middle of traffic. She remembered, from some lesson long ago, that turtles—કાચબો, kācabō—are lucky, that they’re soft bundles of blessings protected by porcelain. That this kācabō had landed serendipitously in that gap between car tires—in a city where broken raccoons and deer were casually strewn on the side of the road—meant something to her. She pulled her car over and coaxed the creature into a cardboard box. When she came back home, the long-unused jacuzzi became the kācabō’s first terrarium.
The scaly green thing with skeptical eyes reminded my mother of my grandmother. We named the turtle after her, Diwaliben, a name of good light and good fortune.
Ma said she brought the kācabō home because she saw a manifestation of something lucky, auspicious—divine even. I don’t know if that’s the truth.
We were never a devout family, only casually spiritual, but the idea of auspicious items came through our door as easily as anything. Dogs were good luck, Ma said, because dog was the step in reincarnation before human and purity like theirs had to be from god. Naming a dog after god was bad luck, however—when the dog would pass away, you would have to say, at least in words even if not in sentiment, that that named god had left your house. Keeping flowers in the house was bad luck because they were always destined to die, and Ma didn’t want that energy in her house.
The kācabō, and all those we had at any given point in time, were destined to die, too; we just refused to see it. We were no better skilled at feeding or maintaining wild animals than the next family over. When Wali, as she became known, laid an unfertilized egg several years into our time with her, Ma cried most of the day. She hadn’t considered that the kācabō might have been a mother before we’d brought her home, that we had separated her from her family, her nest. Ma said we would never bring another turtle into the house after that.
Ma left her family when she was nineteen, the youngest of the daughters, the last to be arranged. When she landed in St. Louis, she did not know there was an abundance of small, wild creatures to bring home. I don’t know if that first kācabō was the first she had seen, but I imagine, whichever the first one was, she was immediately in awe. You don’t love a species the way Ma loves kācabō without feeling some type of kindred connection.
She passed it along to me. When I was little, I always saw her with the same qualities she vested in kācabō. Wise, patient, tolerant. She spoke as thoughtfully and purposefully as kācabō moved. In our home, she was an ardent observer, as though soaking in everyone else’s actions and reactions, as though somehow they never once fazed her.
They have more in common than that, though. Kācabō carry their homes on their backs even when they leave their nests. Even when they leave the woods, even when they touch reptilian claw to steaming concrete, even when scooped up unwittingly and carried to a new and foreign place.
Green sea turtles who call the Indian Ocean home have nesting grounds just over twelve miles southwest of Karachi. Their shells are shaped like teardrops. They nibble on the tips of seagrass blades, a symbiotic feeding method that keeps the grass healthy while still providing the turtle with necessary sustenance. They can live up to eighty years in the wild and are unafraid to migrate thousands of miles between feeding and nesting sites.
The distance from Karachi to Porbandar is nowhere near thousands of miles. It is only 290 port to port. You can see how simple of a journey it is on a map; a line that barely curves, that passes both a wildlife sanctuary and Dwarka, the seaside city that, according to myth, claimed Krishna as its governor. A kācabō would find this journey easy, a prelude to the thousands of miles it will travel toward its normal feeding grounds.
Ma’s father, my nanabapu, made this journey in 1947, after boys in his neighborhood were killed for religious affiliation. He was fifteen years old. If he were in good shape, if he had rowed that boat on his own, it would have taken him upwards of seventy hours to get from Karachi to Porbandar. It would take him just those three days to row his way from the place he called home to the place he would live out most of his life. He would never return to Karachi; he would never know what happened to the temple his uncle had led or to the friends and family that were left behind.
It takes 8,720 miles to get from Mumbai to Anaheim, a journey over five times that of the longest migrations made by green sea turtles. My grandfather made the journey once, one way. He brought with him his Singer sewing machine that attached to its own desk, blouses that he had tailored for my mother, and an early-stage infection of tuberculosis that would take his life just two years later.
It’s not clear how long green sea turtles live in captivity. They’re so endangered that there are not enough fully raised in captivity to know. They’re always released back into the ocean once their wounds heal.
When my grandfather was cremated, we did not take him back to his original ocean. We compromised; we traded the confluence at Triveni Sangam for that of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. Sometimes I think to myself: We did what we could. We found the best substitute for a place so far away it might as well be mythical. Other times, I think, there is only one fact to face: There are no green sea turtles here.
Did you know that kācabō return to the beaches they were born on to lay their eggs? Sometimes I think about that moment when they return—after a migration back and again. I’m sure there are kācabō making that same journey as Ma’s father, my nana.
They know what it’s like to leave home, their most precious thing on their back, to find somewhere new to call home and lay their eggs. Or rather, to find somewhere old, a place that they have never known but where they were born, a place that belonged to a mother, or which belonged to her mother before her, and hers before again.
Does it feel familiar to them, when they press their flippers into that sand, the way the grains gather warmly beneath their stomachs? Does it feel like memory incarnate?
Does it feel like the journey was worth it, like they would make it over, again and again, filled with the knowledge that this is the place, this here, is where their young should return too?
There is nothing more divine.
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