Neema Avashia is a Civics teacher in the Boston Public Schools, where she has taught for the last 15 years. She writes about her experiences growing up in a very small Indian community in West Virginia, and the ways in which that experience continues to shape her identity today. She has previously been published in the Hong Kong Review and Still: The Journal.
The idea for plunging a coconut into the ocean came after we’d already decided to drive out to Zuma Beach. It was the summer of 2018, and my partner Laura and I were on the tail end of a West Coast adventure that had started in Oregon, and ended in Los Angeles.
After brunch at utterly hipster, utterly delicious Sqirl, with its crispy rice and lacto-fermented hot sauce, we walked up and down North Virgil in search of a coconut. Sqirl was the anomaly on this edge of Silver Lake, a 10-dollar-avocado-toast outpost marking the beginning of gentrification in an otherwise heavily Latino, heavily working-class enclave. On a block dotted with driving schools, auto repair shops, storefront churches, and a taxi company, we found a carniceria—the only other source of sustenance besides Sqirl in an interminable food desert.
Laura looked at me skeptically. Having been raised in a household that was both Hindu and vegetarian, I get squeamish just walking past the butcher’s counter in the grocery store. As age 40 approaches, I can still visualize every sinew, every tendon, every striation of fat on the skinned deer I once encountered hanging from a hook in a high school friend’s garage.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” she asked.
“I’m sure,” I said. “Zuma is where Sam would have wanted his ashes scattered. We don’t have his ashes, but we can at least do this for him.”
We entered the butcher shop, full of Latino customers and workers, duranguense blaring on the loudspeaker, and rapidly made our way to the small produce section, me working hard to avoid eye contact with the slabs of meat that seemed to appear in every corner.
I approached a man stocking produce and asked in Spanish, “Perdon, señor. Estoy buscando coco. Lo tienes aqui?”
He led me to another aisle where a small stack of white coconuts rested beside prickly green nopal paddles. I grabbed the one on top of the pile, hurried to the cash register, paid two dollars for my coconut, and headed back out into the blazing California sun.
“That’s all we need?” Laura asked.
I looked at the coconut. Sam’s mom would be horrified to know its source. A coconut from a butcher shop could only be less holy if it were actually covered in cow’s blood. But we were going to Zuma, and I needed a coconut to throw into the ocean. I needed another attempt at finding closure for my cousin’s death.
The last time I threw a coconut into water, I stood on a metal bridge over the Poca River with my mother. It was 2003, and her mother, my grandmother, had just died in India. 7,933 miles away in West Virginia, we performed a prayer at the altar in our kitchen, offering the coconut as prasad, a gift for the gods. We adorned it with vermillion powder, then took it to a bridge above the muddy, swirling river a few miles from our house, dropped it into the water, and watched it float away.
It is not customary to throw coconuts into water after someone’s death, though Hindus often use coconuts as offerings in rituals, and putting them into the water is considered the only appropriate way to dispose of them afterwards. What comes from the earth gets returned to the earth, the theory goes. But the usual rituals where coconuts come into play are joyful ones: Weddings, fertility ceremonies, festivals honoring the relationship between siblings. It is only in my mind that coconuts have come to be associated with death. Only in my mind that throwing them into water is a way of honoring the soul of the departed, and manifesting the grief of those left living.
My grandmother wished that we commemorate her death this way. She wanted us to be able to feel a connection to her passing even from a distance. And for my mother, this coconut was the only ritual that would make her grief manifest—take the pain that existed within her body and put it out into the West Virginian world of our day to day, where no one spoke our language or shared our faith. Where no one knew my grandmother. Where no one driving by on the winding rural road understood why we had parked our car beside the bright orange river, stained with red West Virginia clay, and stood crying in a rainstorm on a bridge with a coconut in our hands.
When I first visited LA in 2013, I met Sam for dinner in Westwood at an Indonesian restaurant a few blocks from his apartment. Laura dropped me there and went to visit her family. Though Sam and I had been very close as children, whiling away months of summer vacation together in our respective hometowns in the Rust Belt, adulthood had taken us to different coasts, and radically different lifestyles—mine as a public school teacher, his as a chemical engineer turned marketing manager. There was much that Sam didn’t know about my life, and certainly an equal amount, if not more, that I didn’t know about his. I decided to keep my relationship with Laura from him until I had a better sense of who “adult Sam” turned out to be.
Sam was in graduate school at UCLA at the time. Over plates of gado gado and nasi goreng, he eagerly told me about his upcoming business school trip to Japan, where he was most excited about eating a 20-course, $300 omakase at Jiro’s sushi shop. He talked about the research he was doing into buying a new car, and about the places he was thinking about working after graduation. His search only included big-name corporations in the Los Angeles area. Why? I had asked him. The weather, he explained. He wanted to live somewhere where the sun shone all the time. This detail didn’t strike me as odd when he said it, but is one I have returned to often in trying to make sense of Sam’s death.
When I asked him for suggestions on places I should explore in his sunny city, his most emphatic recommendation was for Zuma Beach, about an hour north of LA on Highway 1.
Laura and I drove up to Zuma the following day. In February, the Zuma winds carried a chill, leaving the beach completely empty except for the two of us. The glaring reflection of sun on sand made it difficult for me to keep my eyes open. Rough waves, more suited for surfers than swimmers, crashed on the shoreline. A few seals’ heads bobbed in the water. That my fairly conventional cousin loved a place so wild surprised me. Cheerful Malibu, I would have understood. Barren, uninhabited Zuma did not match his style.
I texted him a picture from Zuma, with a short message. “Thanks for the rec. It’s truly beautiful here.”
He responded. “It’s my favorite place out here. I’m so glad you’ve seen it now.”
As a Hindu living in majority-Christian, majority-Caucasian West Virginia, everything I knew about my faith came from my mom, not from any formal religious community. Our community’s “temple” popped up in local middle schools, churches, or community centers once a month. Spirituality did not come from a faith community for me; my mother’s love served as my embodiment of spirituality. After leaving home, most elements of that spirituality fell away, save my vegetarianism, my need to utter a Hindu prayer every time my plane takes off, and my love of celebrating the Hindu festivals of Navratri and Diwali. For the most part, “high holidays” Hinduism is sufficient. But in moments of inexplicable grief, when my rational mind fails me, I still turn back to my mother’s faith, her rituals, as the only paces I can put my mind and body through to assuage my pain.
In the months and years after Sam took his own life in 2015, I tried all of the rituals I’d participated in with my mother after her mother’s death. I held pujas in my living room, lit incense, listened to Hindu bhajans. I placed a photo of us together as children beside the altar in my pantry. I donated food to a local food bank on the anniversary of his death. I donated money in his name to charities whose missions I knew he would have cared about. And while these rituals sometimes allowed a slight release of pressure off my overactive brain, the relief was never more than temporary.
Writing, too, brought brief respite. Though not a form of ritual practiced by my family, telling the story again and again, in overly-emotional essays too mawkish for public view, served as a kind of catharsis. I could say things in my writing about Sam’s death that I could never say out loud to anyone besides Laura and my sister.
But grief, even when it wasn’t pushing hard on the backs of my eyeballs, never went dormant. Our 2018 trip to LA three years after Sam’s death was one I found myself dreading, despite the fact that we were going to visit old friends, and I was going to meet Laura’s family there for the first time.
I couldn’t articulate my dread until we arrived, when the sensory stimuli—sunshine, traffic, saltwater—triggered an onslaught of memories of Sam. A year before his death, we gathered for a family reunion in Austin over 4th of July weekend. Sam was present, but also not. When he played with our nieces and nephews, he was as funny and vibrant as ever. My last sweet memory of him involves him wearing a bright orange t-shirt, doing push-ups on my sister’s living room floor with at least two children sitting on his back. But he often went missing, sleeping in for long hours, and taking extended breaks away from the family. During this absences, I sometimes exchanged a quizzical glance with my sister, or questioned my mom quietly, but they didn’t know any more than I did. None of us did until it was too late.
On one of our first traffic-impeded drives through the city, I finally confessed to Laura: I didn’t want to be in LA because LA had come to signify the place where life became so unbearable for Sam that he no longer wanted to keep living. I couldn’t even pretend to enjoy our time in the city without finding a way to honor his memory first.
This is how we ended up driving across LA, first on city streets, then up the Pacific Coast Highway, on a Friday afternoon with a coconut rolling around in the trunk. Sam, for at least part of his time there, had loved this city. Yet his parents had decided to scatter his ashes in India, at the triveni sangam—the place where three rivers meet. As Hindus raised in India, this seemed a fitting ritual for them, but it was a decision that I, the Americanized cousin, struggled with. India represented their past, and their cultural ties. India didn’t necessarily represent Sam’s idea of home. For starters, Sam’s name was Sam. The only cousin of our generation to have an American name. And my cousin was even more Americanized than I, in many ways. He enjoyed eating meat, drinking alcohol, spending time in Vegas, dating freely—all habits that his conservative mom struggled to accept.
Sam’s hurried cremation in Los Angeles occurred as soon as the coroner’s report was complete; his hasty memorial service planned by friends and family all operating in a state of shock. It all happened so quickly that I wasn’t even able to attend.
Weeks later, I spoke of Sam’s smile, his infectious laugh, his enduring love of movies like “My Cousin Vinny” and “Mrs. Doubtfire”, at a Hindu ceremony in a small temple in Maryland, to a room full of mourners who did not make the trip to Los Angeles. I wrote the speech in bits and pieces while on hold with credit card companies and banks so I could close out Sam’s accounts, or in between Google searches about how to inform the Social Security Office of a person’s passing, or how to close the Facebook accounts of the deceased. In trying to ease the burden that the unexpected death of their only child placed on his grieving parents, I left no space for my own grief. Thus, the speech and the ceremony brought no sense of closure.
Zuma. The coconut. This was the goodbye I wanted to give Sam.
Zuma Beach in August, we learned upon arrival, is a far cry from Zuma Beach in February. Every space in the parking lot housed a car. Blankets and umbrellas dotted the beach, leaving more sand visible than at Malibu, but far less than we’d seen during our previous visit. The wild waves carried surfers to shore and back out again.
In the lead up to this moment, I had imagined a solitary scene: Me wading out into the blue water alone, casting the coconut out past the breakers, then watching it float out into open water. Instead, I stood with Laura on the shoreline under an unforgiving sun, awkwardly holding a prickly coconut, trying to find an opportune moment to throw the coconut out into the water.
Laura kept lookout, scanning the beach for lifeguards, in pursuit of the perfect moment when the water was free of people, the lifeguards looking in other directions, and the waves receding. Multiple times, I geared up to throw the coconut, only to have her say, “Wait! Not yet.”
Finally, in a tiny moment of calm, she encouraged me to throw the coconut. I uttered a quiet, “This is for you, Sam,” then threw the coconut as far as I could manage.
The coconut landed on top of the water with a resounding splat. Instead of sinking, or floating out to sea, it bobbled in the waves, then rushed back to shore when the next big wave came in, swirling in the sandy water before landing directly at my feet.
I tried again, the coconut returned to me.
Laura tried, thinking her arm might be stronger than mine. Still, the coconut returned. There is a reason, it would seem, that Hindus submerge their coconuts in rivers, and not oceans. A reason that had escaped me until this moment.
For the next hour, we endeavored to cast the coconut out to sea. When we felt beachgoers’ sidelong glances turn into brazen stares, we took the coconut back to our towels, waited for people to get distracted, then headed back to the water. Each time, we waded further out, our clothes growing heavy with saltwater and sand. Each time, no matter how far we threw the coconut, it inevitably landed back on the shore. What began as holy ritual had morphed into a frustrating game of catch that only the ocean seemed to want to play.
The sun dropped low on the horizon. We planned to meet a friend for dinner on the other side of LA at seven o’clock, and it was already close to five. Given LA’s notorious crosstown traffic, we had to leave soon if we were going to make it on time.
Laura prodded me gently, as she had done multiple times over the past hour. “I think you may just have to leave it, love. The tide will take it out eventually.”
I struggled to abandon the coconut. What if people walking by picked it up, thought it a toy? What if they kicked it? Touching sacred objects, even unholy carniceria coconuts, with the feet is a sign of major disrespect for Hindus. It was bad enough that my coconut came from a butcher shop. Would I leave it now to be desecrated by beachcombers’ feet? I threw the coconut out one more time, willing it to take flight, land past the pull of the tide’s ebb and flow.
It returned to the beach once more, and settled on the sand just above the tideline. I watched from a distance as people walked past it, looking quizzically at this non-native species inhabiting their beach. A man touched it with his toe. My blood pressure spiked. A child ran up and poked it gingerly with her finger. Another spike.
“We have to go now,” I said. “Otherwise I’m never going to be able to leave this coconut. I’ll be here ‘til midnight throwing it out into the water again and again.”
I took a picture of the coconut sitting on the beach, texted it to my sister and cousins. “Tried to put a coconut in the water at Zuma today for Sam. Despite our best efforts, the coconut refused to leave the beach. In a weird way, I think Sam would have loved this.”
My cousin Anant responded immediately with a string of heart emojis, followed by this: “I go to the beach every year on his birthday for the same reason. You’re right—he definitely would have loved it.”
We packed up our towels, trudged through the sand to our car. I took one last look at the coconut on the sand, water droplets clinging to its fibers, both of our forms facing the setting sun and the shining waters of the Pacific, before getting into the car and driving away.
Was it a sign, I wondered, that this coconut refused to float off into the sunset? Lord Varuna, god of the oceans, rejecting my unholy coconut? My half-hearted, haphazard Hinduism failing me in one of the few moments in my life when I really needed it to work? Or was it just science—the coconut too light, the saltwater too buoyant, the tide too strong?
This wasn’t the way the ritual was supposed to happen. Hell, this wasn’t even a real ritual, according to any practicing Hindu. But for a small moment as we pulled out of the parking lot, the pressure on my brain eased a little, and I laughed at the thought of my cousin, who loved this beach so much that his coconut refused to leave its shore.