On a sun drenched Boston day my parents died in a car crash. A driver hopped up on crack and alcohol, was texting and driving, and jumped his pickup truck over the divider. I would have killed him but he too died in the crash. Who was the bastard texting? God? To say he was on his way? Sara tried to console me: ‘At least your parents died a quick and painless death.’
We buried my parents. Ancient Hindu traditions and beliefs decree cremation after death. My father’s choice of a Christian burial was defiance against his family’s and culture’s dogma.
My parents emigrated to US thirty years ago. They were escaping ostracism by their orthodox parents’ culture. As a new start they decided to forget what was ingrained and comfortable. They set about taking on an American skin with fervour – new Christian names, new food habits –meat eating and alcohol, celebrating Thanksgiving and Christmas, and night school to learn English with the correct American accent.
When he saw that my mother was reluctant to go along with his latest decision he threatened to put it in his will. ‘I offer to be a BigMac for worms; cremation is a waste,’ he would declare. My mother acquiesced: death and its propitiation were not a priority for her.
At the burial ground it was raining lightly as Sara and I stood in a small gathering of friends and colleagues. Sara had suggested we hire a Hindu priest too. “Just to be safe; Death is a black box,” she said, “let’s not risk the unknown.” Pandeji, the Hindu priest I found on Google was at first astonished at my request to do a prayer in a Christian cemetery. Hindus are never buried, he said firmly. Only an assurance that my parents were of Hindu ancestry, but had decided to be buried for personal reasons that were not disrespectful, convinced him. As an afterthought he did ask me if I was a Hindu and I said I was born one, which seemed to satisfy him: relieved the instructions came from a live Hindu. He confided that he was an accountant by day and worked as a Hindu priest in his spare time. “Helping the Boston Hindus go to heaven,” he said with a twinkle in his eye.
Dressed in a striking priestly robe Pandeji stood beside Father Brown and recited prayers in Sanskrit; two separate holy incantations in two languages urging the Almighty peace for the souls. At the end of the funeral Pandeji took a clump of fresh earth and put it in a small transparent box he had brought with him and handed it to me. “These are the ‘ashes’,” he said and put a vermilion blessing mark on the box. I took the urn.
We returned to my parents’ apartment for the night– the roads were icy and we did not want to risk the drive to Harvard University. Ben our five year old son asked to sleep on the living room sofa; my mother had informed us one day that Ben had declared he would be sleeping on the sofa: he was now a tough cowboy not afraid to sleep rough in the open. My parents doted on him and whenever would stay over regale him with stories: Indian mythological tales from my mother and the American cowboy/ western drama from my father who, with his dramatic style with gesticulating arms and a booming voice made the cowboy drama real.
“Jim I have been thinking,” Sara said. “You should locate your grandparents and inform them. I know it will take some doing but we should try.”
“I think there is an address somewhere. I’ll look for it.”
“It is a tragedy for them too even if they don’t know it yet. Let them know. Your father was their only child.”
I wasn’t so sure about informing them. There had been no contact with my grandparents for more than two decades– it was as if that relationship had never existed. The trouble began when my father announced that he was in love and wanted to marry. My grandfather, the head priest of the local village temple and a man steeped in tradition and proud of his bloodline as a high caste Brahmin, wanted his son to inherit his exalted position one day. Being born into a high caste was a sign from God, he would say. The news that my father’s intended bride was a low caste woman drove him into apoplexy and he felt betrayed. My father was asked to abandon the idea and when instead he went ahead and married his fiancée, my grandfather tried to get the marriage annulled. My father did not acquiesce and said the caste system was wrong and cruel and outdated. My grandfather, with his lifelong dream for his son now in tatters, was livid. He disowned my father and asked him to leave home and never to return, and to break all contact with his mother. A glacial age descended on our families. My father, defiant, took his bride away from the village, first to a city, and when the opportunity came up he put an ocean between him and his father. My grandfather did not relent for years certain that he was in the right, and the separation was solidly cast in stone and impossible to undo.
“It’s all so ancient. They screwed up big time and don’t deserve the courtesy. After all, for my father they did not exist. He forbade my mother to write or speak to them. Don’t emotions atrophy until there is nothing left? Will they even care now?”
“Parents never stop caring. You can’t excise the bond like a tumour.”
“Do you think my father would have wanted them to know?”
“We’ll never know. I am sure your mother would have agreed. Let’s try to keep a family together,” she said. “Let some healing take place.”
I agreed reluctantly to inform them.
Until I moved out to a dorm, the apartment was my ring-side seat to my parents’ gradual transformation from village Indians to city Americans; struggling with: language, food, money, public display of affection, and the monetizing of everything. It was wrenching time for them and the bitter break from family gnawed at their souls. My mother the indefatigable trier, willing to forget the insults heaped on her, tried to undo the father-son damage anger had caused, but failed.
I arranged the urn in my father’s study next to a recent studio family photograph taken a few months ago. The study wall was covered with photographs. One could not escape my father’s passion for documenting life in images – photos everywhere: in living room, bedrooms and even the laundry room. The walls were my father’s diary in sepia – my childhood, my teen years, my college graduation with the corner hats, Sara, Ben, mother. There were no photos of my grandparents.
My grandfather wrote back immediately asking if they could come to US to ‘pay their last respects.’ I had expected a condolence message, or a telephone call. To now say no would perpetuate the chill. I said yes, and arranged tickets and other papers. Anxieties bubbled up soon. Should I have agreed, or just sent them some recent pictures of my parents? Their small village in India was a long way from an airport and they would have to travel by a bus on rough roads for hours. At their age, the journey from India would be very taxing. First time ever to leave India or even to fly, advanced age, and tragic news could turn out to be a punishment.
With a placard in my hand at Boston arrivals I tried to examine my feelings about meeting my grandparents; given the history, and given our recent loss? In the throng of arriving passengers I saw a grey haired woman in a sari who I guessed was my grandmother. She spotted the placard and smiled. Short, slightly built, walking briskly, she made for me. The man trailing was tall, gaunt, walked with some difficulty and had a deep frown. My grandmother came up to me and looked up at my face – I am five eleven – and then grabbed my arms with a surety of ownership. Drawing down my head she planted a kiss on my forehead that felt like a blessing. She examined me like a Ming vase, looking me up and down and turning me back to front. Her verdict was unequivocal: “Tall, handsome, looks exactly like Krishna.” Keith, my father, was Krishna before the American makeover. My grandfather said formally, “So you are Krishna’s son,” and shook my hand and said, “How do you do?”
The drive from the airport was wordless; jet lag, fatigue and age taking their toll. It was very cold outside and I had tucked them in with blankets and put the car-heater on full tilt. The part of India they lived in did not have winters.
I took them to my parents’ apartment and settled them in the guest bedroom. Our apartment at the University was tiny. There were questions on their faces: they deserved to know the details. I made some herbal tea and sat them down; I described the accident – our first meeting was about loved ones passing away. For a short while there, in that room, in the deep silence that followed my recounting, lost in the tumult of their own thoughts, I sensed something – a bond; the wall that seemed impregnable for decades was brought down in minutes by a traumatic event that had seared us all equally.
My grandmother wept silently. My grandfather closed his eyes. He said, ‘What can we mere mortals do against God’s will.’ My grandmother mumbled that at least the deaths were quick and painless.
I offered to make some sandwiches but they said they preferred to rest. I apologised that I would have to return to my own apartment for the night since Ben was unwell, but from the next day I would be with them. I was worried about leaving them on their own – a strange place, cold weather, new gadgets, the grief that would have fermented over the journey; and the cascading weight of guilt and regrets. I told them not to worry about safety: ‘just don’t open the door if the bell rings; I have keys.’
The next morning I looked for an Indian vegetarian restaurant in vicinity and ordered takeaway dishes to stock up the fridge – we rarely ate that food. I turned the key gingerly but they were up – travel fatigue conquered by will-power. My grandmother was at the dining table with a heap of framed pictures she had taken down from the wall and was examining them and cleaning each with a piece of cloth.
“Have you had coffee? There is a coffee-maker in the kitchen.”
“No, we are fine,” she said for the both of them. My grandfather was reading a tattered old book he had brought along. He wished me good morning.
“Come Chinna, sit here by me,” Chinna is a Tamil word for a small boy. “Tell me all about these photos. I am so pleased – Krishna and Malathi look very happy. And the rest of the family too. And look at you – a strapping young man!” A tear dropped on the glass of the picture and she wiped it vigorously. She put her hand on mine, “We are really sorry, Chinna. For your loss, our loss, for everything that has happened.”
She continued with the photos, eager to know the context: Who’s this? Where was it taken? When? What’s in the background? I could see that each telling was like wiping a small crusted layer of time.
“When will we see your family?” she looked up at me as if the long separation was just a bad dream and had disappeared on waking. It sent a shiver down my spine.
“Soon, perhaps tomorrow. Ben is down with fever.” As I looked at her I was fascinated by her face: in those myriad wrinkles was caked a lifetime’s accumulation of sadness and pain and waiting and hoping.
“Appa, leave your books and come see our family,” she said.
My grandfather spoke from his books, “Faith, prayer, are the important things in life. One must not get attached to worldly things.”
He closed his book and came up to us and spoke.
“Chinna, we came to complete some rituals for the liberation of their souls. But I see no prayer room here. Where do you pray every day?”
“There is no ‘prayer room’ here. We don’t pray as such at home, but go sometimes to the church.”
There was a stunned silence. “Church?” he was astounded. “Church?” he repeated, his voice rising. “Have you converted? Circumcised? Wear a cross?”
“Only Jews and Muslims are required to circumcise, Grandfather.”
“You are not a Hindu anymore?”
“I am not sure. A Hindu by reason of birth sure. Beyond that we have no pictures of Gods and I don’t know any prayers. I speak broken Tamil since mother insisted I keep a connection to my ancestry.”
There was distaste and consternation on his face.
“I need to make sure that Krishna’s soul is liberated. It will allow my son to rest in peace. There is….”
“You mean both their souls, don’t you? You will pray for mother too?”
He did not answer.
“Jesus! Even now? When they are dead? You railed against their marriage; you drove them out, you forbade grandmother from any contact, but now after all these years, have you not changed? ”
“Chinna! Don’t talk back! Don’t speak to me rudely in that tone. I am still your grandfather. You are my grandson and in India we respect our elders.”
“But you are not in India. I give you respect because of your age and who you are, but I ask that you respect my family – and that includes my mother. If you can’t, you better return immediately– my parents’ souls will find peace even without your rituals.”
The pause was like a dark monster ready to devour us, and for a moment it seemed it would all end there. He continued after a while, “I was saying there is no place for puja. Would you allow me to make a small puja place – a temple – in Krishna’s study?”
My grandmother chipped in, “It’s just some reading of slokas and some diyas and chanting for the souls of Krishna and Malathi.” I agreed to help build the temple.
Over the next two days we built the temple from fireproof boards and bought some candles and incense and he put up pictures of Hindu Gods and some brass prayer paraphernalia he had brought with him from India. To my astonishment he took out an old faded picture of my parents taken during their wedding and put it alongside. I wanted to ask if I could have the picture to keep but I refrained, not being sure if that was the only remnant of a past that was lost by foolhardiness. He put up some candle holders and his prayer tableau was complete.
“Krishna the pictures lie. Your wife is even more beautiful,” my grandmother was beaming at Sara. Sara blushed, “Thank you grandma,” she said, “I am sorry that we could not accommodate you in our small apartment. Are you comfortable?” and then as my grandmother bade her sit next to her, she continued, “Just to clarify, I am not Jim’s wife. We are not married. Here it is not necessary.” I felt sorry for my grandparents; one more bit of information that would shake them, but they did not react. Using ‘Jim’ instead of my Indian name probably added to the information overload.
Once the temple was ready Sara wanted to observe the rituals and sat close to the makeshift temple. My grandfather looked at her with a frown.
“Are you going to sit near the temple?” he asked.
“Yes. I want to observe”
“Aren’t you a Christian?”
“No Jim and I are agnostics.”
“Did you bathe?”
“Yes. I did – I knew that, I read up about this online.”
“Very well, but don’t touch anything.” He started the chanting and the ringing of the hand-bell.
Over the next several days Ben and Sara spent time with my grandparents. My grandmother and Ben struck an instant friendship –he was thrilled that a new grandmother had as many stories to tell. My grandfather found it difficult to open up but did find Sara an easy person to relate to and asked her many questions about America. I was somehow absorbed into their universe imperceptibly.
The daily ritual of Grandfather praying and reading hymns and chanting Sanskrit slokas came to an end on the twelfth day. All of us felt a sense of relief and completion. An absolution of sorts. The last step, he informed us, was to immerse the ashes in a body of water like a river or the sea. I brought the urn from the study.
“What’s this? This is does not look like ashes from a pyre!”
“This is soil from the burial ground. Symbolic ashes. We buried them.”
He sat down abruptly as if all blood had drained from him.
“Buried! You buried a Hindu priests’ son?” he was terrified; something terrible had happened and he had no weapons to undo it. “Was there no cremation ground? Who made the decision? Didn’t you know what Hindus do?”
He was breathing heavily and I was worried if it was a heart attack.
“It does not matter now. Their souls will never find salvation.” He looked at the box of fake ashes. We were silent.
“This trip has been like a second death. Maybe we shouldn’t have come.” He looked at no one.
Then my grandfather bent down and touched his forehead to the temple.
“Dear God, please forgive me. I failed my family. I killed Krishna…and Malathi.”
I could sense his excruciating pain. He was dead inside now; whatever had held him together had disintegrated.
He spoke at last; to no one.
“He was a lovely bright boy; I had such hopes for him. Such discipline; always obedient. I dreamt he would marry and give me a grandson. I would be the envy of the Brahmin community. My son would continue the millennia old traditions. Then he came one day and I died a terrible death. He wanted to break tradition. But if one makes an exception in a sacrosanct age-old tradition, it all crumbles.” He said, avoiding anyone’s eye.
He paused seeming to draw up a cosmic account balance. “Why could he not have married the woman I would have chosen from our caste? Why did he throw away his destiny?”