Petals within pages


“You know the plant is going to die, right?” Sahana said to me with slight panic in her voice, cutting off my effusive gushing over “obstinate ma plant”. In my slightly unbalanced (hopefully temporary) mind, the geranium that I planted the day after ma’s death has truly become her alter ego. Sahana seemed concerned I will plunge back into dooms of despair once the plant has lived its lifetime. I laughed at the panic in her voice.

I was narrating the story to a friend. She asked if I had considered pressing petals of those flowers within pages of a book? I thought that was a brilliant idea. The dilemma, however, was which book deserved the petals of obstinate ma plant? And how did one press petals to dry anyway? The second part was easy since Google has the answers. The difficult decision was which book would ma love to be remembered in? Was it a book by her “pran er thakur” Rabindranath? Manik Bondopadhyay? Mahashweta Debi? Poetry of Sukanto? All of them were her loves but I finally decided on Ashapurna Debi’s “Prothom Protusruti”. My fledgling feminism took flight at a young age when ma first passed on this book to me. Since then I must have read the book and it’s sequels over a dozen times. The story follows the life of a little girl in rural Bengal at the beginning of the 20th century when Bengal society was tightly shackled by social restrictions imposed by upper caste men. The book, while narrating the story of Satyabati, touches on all the restrictions placed on women to limit their freedom – the most important one among many was denying them education. The belief was if a woman touched paper or pen she would be a widow. When Satyabati’s cousin shudders at the fact that Satyabati has taught herself to write, the little girl finds a loophole in that theory right away. How can women touching pen or paper be paap (bad karma) when the goddess of learning, Debi Saraswati is a woman herself? Satyabati questioned each and every tradition that curbed women’s rights and flouted every rule that tried to hold her down. She managed to loosen the chains just a bit for the future generation of women.

Ma too fought patriarchy every step of the way. She refused any kind of limitations to such an extent that I, in my childhood, sometimes thought, “Oh just get along. Give in!” Looking back I realize she was loosening the chains so that her daughter and grand daughter can have space to spread their wings. She emulated Satyabati all her life, at the expense of her own peace and happiness sometimes. I know it is only fitting that petals from “obstinate ma plant” find their resting place in the pages of the book that tell her story.

He gave me hope…


And just like that he has been gone for one month. And just like that one month will turn to two and then a year.

Baba had a zest for life. Although his knee hurt and then his hip, his hands shook and his pace maker had to make sure his ticker was ticking at the right speed, he never gave up his love for life. He got bored, sure, but then he found ways to stay engaged. He loved to read conspiracy theories and expounded on those with an impatient me and more patient Sahana. When Ryan was with him, the two of them egged each other on about who could bring up the craziest conspiracy theories. He loved martial art movies and especially Bruce Lee. And he loved cricket. He found the funniest posts on social media and reposted them. Then he liked his own posts, always! He learnt the basics of photoshopping and made collages and was mighty proud of them. He was always eager to learn new things, go to new places and try new dishes. Most of all he loved to eat and he loved to feed people. I can not believe I am writing about baba in past tense.

Since he loved to live, he gave Covid a valiant fight. He held on for 9 days after ma was gone. In fact, the nurse who took care of him was convinced he will get better. His vitals were improving and although his lungs were shot the doctors thought his chances of survival were over 70%. They warned me recovery would take time and there was a long fight ahead of us but he would, most likely, make it. He gave me hope.

In fact, I went to bed somewhat happy on the night before he died because his vitals were really good. Sahana had called him that day and he was so excited to talk to her that the nurse had to intervene. He knew Sahana was graduating from college and he wanted the link of her virtual ceremony so he could watch it. When Ryan came on to the camera to say hello to him, his face lit up even when he was strapped to oxygen.

He fought hard against Covid and many of us were his trusted soldiers. So many of us fought to keep him alive but we lost. This deadly virus ravaged this man’s body whose zest for life kept him going as far as will power could go.

I did not see my ma’s dead body but I saw baba’s face after his death. And I have to remove that face from my mind’s eye to see his regular, living, smiling face. Every morning I sit in front of both their gorgeous photos for a while before I start my day. In the photo, he has a smirk. I like to embed that smirk in my brain to remove the vision of his lifeless face. I also see so much of him, his big eyes, his mouth, his sense of humor, his love for food, his love for animals in his grandson. It is wonderful that he left this imprint for me.

Death certificates


It still seems unreal as I write authorization letters to people to collect death certificates for both my parents. “I here by authorize _______ to collect death certificate of my deceased mother and father……”

Those have not been collected yet and that is giving me anxiety because I need those to prove to the world that my parents are dead. As if it is not enough that when I land in Kolkata airport, two eager faces will never, ever greet me again. As if it is not enough that no one will gently stroke my arm when she sees me for the first time after many months with a smile so huge that her face could not contain it. As if it is not enough that no one will go outside the chaos of an international airport in India to call the driver of the car to come and pick us up and when everyone is safely in the car, pass us bottled water and bars of Fruit and Nut Cadbury chocolate. As if it is not enough that I, a non tea drinker, will never, ever, sit in the living room with them sipping tea for companionship and talking about life. As if it is not enough that someone will never go to the fish market and tell the fish monger that his daughter is home and he needs to buy the freshest catch. As if it is not enough that all the messages, all the video calls, all the show of love and affection came to a sudden halt. As if it is not enough that I walk among the flowers in the morning trying to believe that their energy is now merged with the universe but still can not convince myself. As if it is not enough that I constantly ask “why” and never find an answer.

The “goods” in the week of May 30th.


I was humming as I weeded. I was surprised when I realized I was humming. That is good, right? The fact that I am singing a song again while doing something?

I went back to work on June 1st. That was mostly good. On occasion I felt I did not want to do this, all I wanted was to go back home, sit on my reading chair and stare into space. However, I refocused on the job at hand and got it done.

My cousin has come to stay with us to help me live through this time. One day I came back from work to find a bowl full of peeled oranges and peeled lichees waiting for me. She went out with Sahana but left prepared food for me to eat. This gesture of caring made me cry and reminded me of ma, baba – but not in a sad way. It reminded me to be grateful for the love and care I continue to receive from my loved ones. I hope I am able to pay the kindness forward.

I was dreading my birthday this year. June 3rd was very, very hard. Yet my friends and family showered me with love. Sean came to pick me up from work with flowers. Instead of coming home right away, we sat on a bench and cried for ma and baba. I came home to a delicious meal of luchi, alur dom, fish fry, payesh, cookie cake and ice cream. Sahana cooked the entire meal under the tutelage of my cousin sister, her mashun. There were gifts of framed photographs of ma, baba in happier times, lovely dresses. And love, laughter, hugs.

My flowers continue to radiate beauty and joy.

I got so many hugs from my family at work.

A friend invited me over for tea. I surprised myself when I realized I enjoyed the evening.

Writing still helps me process and cope. It makes me cognizant of the forward progress in my journey of loss and the path to rebuild around this loss.

Many nights Sahana, Ryan, sister and I play a raucous round of ludo before bed.

On Saturday we went to a beach nearby. I looked for ma, baba in the gentle waves.

I have talked aloud to ma, baba sometimes. Mostly joked with them. I asked them what is the point of being dead if they can not part the traffic for me so I can zoom ahead of other cars.

My circle of love still surrounds me and I try to find ma, baba in each sunset, in the white clouds and the blooming flowers.

A dear friend sent me hug on wsapp on a day I was miserable. I needed that hug and I told her I was having a bad day. She said she was thinking of me and it must have been telepathy.

I desperately need something to look forward to. Searching.

Back to work


I joined back to work on June 1st after an absence of almost a month. I was oddly nervous. I am an embodiment of grief right now. Not just grief, I have this shroud of misfortune all over me. I was scared how my friends will feel when they encounter such heavy sadness. How uncomfortable they will be in my presence? What do you say to someone so unfortunate who lost both her parents 9 days apart? What would I say to such a person? Sean suggested I simply say an honest ‘thank you’ when people give their condolences. I parked my car at the parking lot and slowly walked towards the building, still nervous to see my coworkers. I had left the building one day with my world intact. Within a month, I was returning as a broken woman with part of my universe destroyed. The overwhelming response from my colleagues, however, when they saw me at the branch was “I am so glad to have you back.”

I also got a few hugs (we are all fully vaccinated). Some friends did not bring up my loss at all. They sat with me, talked to me and by their presence they let me know they were holding me up. Some asked if I was OK. I was honest in my response. I am not ok but I will get there.

It has been good to be back doing what I love doing. There have been times at work when I felt normal, I felt like I am doing well, I am on the path to healing (which I believe I am) and then there have been moments when a wave of grief has plummeted me to the bottom of the ocean and stomped on me viciously. I have talked myself through it. Read the book jacket, ask a customer who looks lost if s/he/they need any help, breathe.

Today a friend at work asked how I was doing, how I was holding up. It seemed he really wanted to know so I told him. I have hours of normalcy, acceptance and then moments of intense despair. He understood. He said if anything gets too much, jot him a line, he will take over. That was big. The knowledge that someone will take over if I can not hold it together now.

I work with simply the best people.

An unhappy birthday


I was dreading my birthday this year. But it came anyway like any other day. I woke up at 4:00 am, filled my travel coffee mug and started the car at 4:30 am to take Ryan to his swim practice. Once Ryan went in to swim, I sat in my car watching the sun slowly lighten up the world. This was my first birthday without my parents and this is the first of however many birthdays I have left that I will spend without them. The irony is, I had planned to celebrate my big 50 with them last year.

Once I came home, I got a call from Breshpati and Khushi. They sang a lovely rendition of “happy birthday” to me. Breshpati said ma always sent a pujo in my name on my birthday so she is continuing the tradition and on her behalf, she sent a pujo for me to wish me well in life. Gouri called me to ask my permission to do a pujo for my parents in the house – if I had no objection. I was so touched by these gestures. These women, who are not related to me by blood, were more than my sisters who are acting solely out of love for my parents and me. I am sad to have lost my parents and feel totally unlucky and unhappy right now but I also acknowledge the blessings of love that have touched me from all corners of life. They will sustain me, I am sure, once this feeling of heaviness subsides.

Cleansing.


Since my ma and baba got sick and eventually died, I woke up every morning with a debilitating sadness. I have never, ever felt such heaviness of heart in my life. Well, I have never, ever lost both my parents 9 days apart before this either.

After ma died, I needed to do something that I thought would bring peace to her. I took the help of my friend to organize a puja at our local Kali temple for peace. When baba died 9 days later, I simply added his name to the temple along with ma. One puja for two kind of a deal.

But then I had my doubts. Baba was a spiritual man, not religious. Ma did love her Kali thakur but did not do any sort of puja at home. Was I doing the right thing? Is this what they would have liked? Since I never participated in a puja since a young adult, I was oddly frustrated on the morning of the ritual.

As we walked into the temple, we heard the melodious voice of the priest conducting a puja from a distance. The voice, intoning Sanskrit shlokas, as well as the quiet ambience, the calming smell of flowers and incense sticks soothed my frayed nerves. The shanti puja for ma and baba was next. A very elderly priest approached us asking my name and informing us he will be conducting the puja.

“It is for your mother, right?”

“For both my mother and father. I lost them both to Covid.”

“Oh ho,” he said as he walked away and got busy arranging the puja necessities.

Before he started the rituals and the mantras he turned to us and explained the purpose of the ritual. And only then did the whole process start becoming meaningful. Beautiful even.

He said, “Visualize the electric gadgets in your house without electricity. You have your television, your refrigerator, your microwave but nothing works because there is no power. Similarly, when someone dies the body is present with all its details. The power or the soul departs. Our job today is to free the soul from this dimension so it can merge with God, Almighty, the universe, water or whatever you believe. We come from water and we go back to water.” The word Narayana, he explained is home of water – Nara is water, ayan is home. As he intoned mantras in Sanskrit calling on the major rivers of the world to accept the souls of my parents, tears finally flowed freely down my face. I released my parents to wherever they will find eternal peace while I live the days allotted to me with their love and memories in my heart.

Since the shanti pujo, I have found some respite. I now understand why ritual is important for humans. I came back with the priest’s words of comfort. He said “Some priests ask for beds and bedding, they ask for food and sweets, clothes and thousand other worldly materials. But what use are those materials for a departed soul? You, as a daughter, are freeing them to be one with the universe. That act of release is for your shanti and for their shanti. Go home in peace, light a candle in front of their photos, and if you can, meditate.”

During the entire car ride home I let the tears flow. Never once did I wipe the tears off my face. That cleansing brought some relief to my soul. Once upon a time, ma, baba gently let go of my hand to help me find my path in this world. But they remained as my safety net, always. On the day of shanti puja, I felt they gently released my hand yet again and urged me to make my way in a world without them. They knew I could do it. They had raised me strong enough to make it on my own, without their help.

Now I have their love and memories as my safety net. Those will have to see me through.

Stigma


I feel compelled to write this blog to showcase what not to do when a family is in trouble and someone is dying of Covid.

My parents lived in an apartment building which has its own association and its president, secretary, treasurer as well as other office holders. Baba held some official position for a while and then retired from it. However, since he was a mechanical engineer, if any repair needed to be done, the technician always wanted to consult with him. For the most part, he was a respected member of the association.

That all changed when both he and my mother contacted Covid 19. While my parents were in the hospital and were fighting for their lives, the secretary of the building called up Gouri and Mashi, the two household helps and yelled at them that they will die of Covid. He prohibited them from leaving the apartment. When they fearfully relayed the conversation to me, I suggested they isolate themselves and get everything delivered, which they were doing anyway. The secretary’s concern was valid as both the women were exposed to the virus. Gouri went to the terrace to water the plants, I asked her to stop going to the terrace. The plants were watered by the guards.

Ma died after 5 days in the hospital. Baba came home after spending 12 days there. But he needed oxygen cylinders and bipap machine. I contacted someone who works in Kolkata police to preempt any trouble before baba came home. I had heard horror stories of recovering Covid patients being barred from entering their own homes due to fear of contamination. She suggested we bring baba home in a car instead of an ambulance for a show of normalcy. That is what we did.

But at home his oxygen saturation level dropped significantly and he needed constant supply of oxygen. The secretary of the building association tried to prevent the oxygen delivery men from delivering oxygen to our apartment in 5th floor. Gouri screamed at the guards and they let the delivery men pass.

The hospital brother could not find a heartbeat in Baba on the day he died. My cousins desperately tried to find a doctor to check him. When a doctor was found to write the death certificate, the security guards refused to let the doctor go up without the permission of the secretary. Again, Gouri screamed at them and took the doctor to our apartment. By this time Gouri and mashi were in isolation for more than 17 days.

After baba’s death, I asked a friend to arrange for a Covid test for the two women. A technician came home, collected sample and the result came to be negative. My friend sent me and Gouri the negative report. The secretary was told about this negative result. He said he does not believe the test was done properly and he would not let Gouri and Mashi out of the apartment till June 7th. Ma and baba started showing symptoms on May 2nd. So June 7th would be more than a month that the two women will be in isolation despite a negative covid test. The secretary is causing such trouble for our bereaved family because he is afraid and also because he can terrorize two women who can not stand up to him. When the municipality workers came to take baba’s body for cremation, he did not allow them to use the elevator. Instead they had to carry his body down 5 flight of stairs. If he is afraid of the virus, (and he should be) this was a dumb move because the elevator could have been easily sanitized, instead baba’s body traversed the 5 flights of the common area. If the virus was spreading after 17 days of his sickness, it would spread in the common area instead of being contained in the elevator which could be fumigated and sanitized.

All the bedding, pillows, baba’s clothes have been thrown away. Our whole apartment was sanitized by the Kolkata Municipality at quite a steep price paid by me. I am happy to do it for the good health of all. We want to be part of the solution, not the problem. However, the inhumanity of the secretary and the security guards of that apartment building has appalled me. While dealing with the death of both of my parents, I had to address the bullying of a few frightened individuals of two very frightened and sad women.

This unkind behavior is scum in the sea of kindness that I have experienced in our ordeal but I wrote about it to appeal to all to please be guided by science and practice empathy for people who are suffering from Covid. Please do not propagate the stigma. You never know who will breathe in this virus next.

The ‘goods’ in the week of May 24th.


This week has had its ups and downs. I have woken up extremely sad and unmotivated each morning. I have also dreamed of both my parents and strangely, I remembered the dreams. I never remember any of my dreams before. So I am counting that as one of my goods of the week.

My cousin sister came down from Boston to stay with me for a month. She and I grew up together along with her brother so we have many, many shared memories of my parents.

Reminiscing with her has brought smiles.

Sahana printed two vibrant photos of ma and baba. I have them on our coffee table. Looking at those photos make me happy. After a gloomy weekend, the sun is shining on their photos today.

We did a shanti pujo for them on Sunday at our local Kali temple.

The ritual gave me some peace and a sense of closure. This morning I did not wake up with debilitating sadness. The ritual was not heavy on religiosity but full of ideas, thoughts, metaphors and spirituality.

The few cousins who live in this country were there at the pujo and then came home with us.

I joined back to work mid week and took 2 days worth of training on race and justice. While I learnt a lot about the horrific history of injustice in this country, I realized my personal trauma is so recent I felt numb towards other people’s pain. I don’t know why I am writing this as ‘goods’ since I felt guilty about not feeling more deeply about injustice.

I look forward to going back to my library branch to work from June 1st. I think being back at work will keep me distracted.

I finished a John Grisham book last night. It almost took me a month but I did finish it.

I have to live on because I have a lot to live for.

I know my parents would want me to be happy. I will be….one day.

My husband, my children and my cousin sister along with my community of friends continue to be of great comfort.

Feed the hungry


During a tearful conversation about my parents on a video call this morning, Breshpati (Khushi’s mother) reminded me what ma often said when death was a remote eventuality, not a harsh reality as it is today. She said to us “When I die don’t do any rituals, just feed some hungry people in my memory.” I had completely forgotten her wish as I live through this haze of pain. Breshpati’s words brought back the memory of what she wished for. Both ma and baba started an NGO to help the under privileged about 10 years back. They went to villages, orphanages, schools for poor children and under funded senior living facilities with clothes and food. They ran this initiative for years till Covid stopped them.

Feeding the poor would, of course, be their wish. So Breshpati and Gouri talked among themselves about doing just that once Covid came under control. The two women decided that they will go to Bharat Shevashram and feed hungry children in memory of ma and baba. I, with the help from a friend, am arranging for a shanti pujo (a religious ceremony for the peace of their souls) in our local Kali temple thinking that would bring peace. But would it? And peace for who really? How could I forget what she wanted me to do after her death? I heard her words but must not have paid attention thinking we are far away from that scenario – death. Huh!

Coincidentally, my coworkers donated money to UNICEF and Care India to help fight Covid in ma and baba’s memory. I shed some tears at their thoughtfulness. One of Sean’s donors, pledged money to his organization for Covid help in India in their memory as well. I shed tears of gratitude. This is what would bring peace to them – feeding the hungry, helping the sick and maybe, just maybe a ritual Shanti puja in front of ma’s favorite – the fiery goddess Kali.

And after the pujo, I will donate to our local food bank.