CW: this contains descriptions of a dying person and a dead body. It isn’t blood-and-guts gory, but it could be disturbing.
I. The First Day
You will not be alone when you die. One by one, we have arrived here in Bangalore from different cities: Boston, Chicago, Pittsburgh. Your daughter—my mother—is with you. So is her husband, my father. Your grandson—my brother—is present, too, and both of your brothers, along with their wives. And I—the eldest of your two grandchildren, your first and only granddaughter, the one most beloved to you—I will be with you as you draw your last, as you were with me when I drew my first. You have been asleep for twelve days.
There are others. Your neighbor, Gowda, from across the street, who stopped by your house every day to ensure there was food in the fridge and that you had someone to talk to. Your daughter and I have joked many times that you like him more than you like us. Cheerful and white-haired, Gowda never scolds you when you walk quickly up and down the stairs or into the bathroom when the floor is wet. We are always telling you what you should not do.
Ravi and Devi, your daughter’s dearest friends, have come to say goodbye. Their daughter, Vidya, and her husband, Sachin, linger, too. They helped me bring you to the hospital the night you forgot who you were and who I was, the night I eventually found you unconscious, eyes half-open, seemingly dead.
The nurses wheel you in and turn off the machine that sustains your breath. They withdraw as we pull close. Your daughter holds your face in her hands, strokes your arms. They are thinner than ever, defleshed by intensive care. In Tamil she urges you on your way while she holds you close.
Over these last two weeks, your grandson has seemed older than me, not two years younger. He has studied your labs, he has argued with your doctors at Ramaiah Memorial, he has fought for your merciful release. Seizures, coma, sepsis. You have always been quick to boast to friends and strangers that he is a doctor. In your final hours, he watches you breathe without rhythm, in tension with the harsh tempo of the machine observing your heart. It is your grandson who has carried your daughter to this moment, the choice to let you go free.
I sit with you and press my face to yours, now twisted by a tube snaking into your nose, arched by a new hole in your windpipe to an unfamiliar plane. Your face is warm from your fever. Now and then a teardrop gathers and falls from your right eye. I wipe it away with a finger, then I wipe at the gummed remains of tears at the corner of your eye. Your thin gray hair is not in its usual braid, but knotted into a bun on your head.
Anger claps in me like thunder. Why has no one cleaned your face? Why have they pulled your hair so tightly from your scalp? Don’t they know it must hurt?
Two hours later, you breathing is still strong, jabbing the air with irregular puffs from your toothless mouth. I see a strand of gray hair clinging to the hospital band around your left wrist. Is it yours? Is it your daughter’s? Is it mine?
Your daughter interrupts my thoughts and directs me to go eat. I protest—what if something happens? “Lakshmi. It could take hours. Even days.” She is stern. Your grandson and I walk downstairs, while your brother and his wife take the elevator. She needs an expensive knee surgery. He has been putting it off. In the humid, crowded canteen, I blink to bring the menu into focus. Jetlag roars in my brain.
I order rasam and scoop it into my mouth, an eye on your grandson’s phone. Why am I here? How have I left your side? I leave my food and kin and run up the stairs, two at a time, back to your room. Your daughter is holding your hands. I urge her to eat, knowing she will not eat enough after all of this is over. Slowly, reluctantly, she leaves with your son-in-law.
“Call me. Call me if anything happens.” The others return.
Something does happen: you vomit blood, a cascade of orange from your mouth. You are calm, nearly motionless, as if this is not happening. Your gown is stained. Nurses appear and check the machines. Your grandson picks up his phone, and your daughter appears, breathless. The nurses want to clean you, so they draw curtains around the bed and ask us to step aside.
While we wait, there is conversation. “Should we call the priest?” your daughter asks your son-in-law. I peer around the curtain where you hiccup for breath. “It’s late. If she goes now, we’ll have to wait.”
“Yes,” he muses. “I think we need to tell him to come tomorrow.” He makes the phone call.
I am uneasy. Why are they saying this so near you? What if you can hear them? I peer once more between the curtains and wonder why the nurses are so slow. What if you die when we aren’t by your side? Then I realize—the nurses have slipped away. Then I realize you are more still than you have been.
I pull the curtains aside. “Is she gone? I think she’s gone.” The numbers on the machine fluctuate. You do not siphon the air for breath. Your grandson checks your pulse. I hold your hand and watch your face. Had we left you to die alone? Was this what you wanted?
Your daughter sits unmoving. She says your name. She says it again. She says it as a question. She says it as a statement.
The nurses return. Now your doctor is here. He records your time of death. Your grandson asks him to close your eyes, then he walks to the other side of the room to sit. He drops his face in his hands as tremors move across his shoulders. This is the first he has cried today. A nurse pushes a clipboard at his face. Your brother’s wife calls her daughter.
I sit on the bed with you and clutch you, touch your arms, kiss your cheeks, tell you that I love you. Did you know you were not alone when you died? Where were you now? When no one is looking, I pull the gray hair from your hospital band and into my bag. I touch you again, and realize you are cold. So quickly, I thought. Why does this surprise me? I cry and your daughter tells me to stop. “The soul can’t go if you keep it here.”
“Paati is in my earliest memories,” I choke between sobs. “She’s in my memories before you are.”
“Should we bring her home?” your daughter wonders. “I don’t want her to be alone in the mortuary.” An unnameable horror strikes me. I am afraid to sleep in your house with you there as you now are.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” I say. “It’s warm. You don’t want that.” She decides you will spend the night in the mortuary and return to us tomorrow, and I am full of relief. Two women walk in with white gauze and ask us to leave the room. I linger. As if you are a doll, the nurses move your limbs this way and that way, so that they lie uncomfortably askew. How dare they touch you this way? As if you cannot feel?
In the evening, your daughter and I walk to a shop near your house to buy you a sari for your cremation. As we sift through piles of silk, the shopgirl asks me, “Is it for you, ma’am?” We are silent, and I select a green silk sari. Green is a color I have seen you wear often. The color of the sari on the floor the night I found you lost and undressed in your kitchen, before your seizures, before your coma. As the girl slides the garment into a bag, your daughter gives her a wad of rupees. She says, as if to herself, “This is the last thing I’ll ever buy for my mother.”
II. The Second Day
Your grandson, your son-in-law, and Gowda depart early in the morning to bring you home. They return with you in an ambulance and with a bamboo stretcher, they carry you indoors. But for your face, you are wrapped entirely in white, with cotton balls in your nostrils.
“Wait,” your daughter commands, and spreads a sari on the floor of your living room. They place you upon it. The skin on your face is no longer taut, the folds of brown loose and natural. You seem to exist in the natural pause between breaths. You seem healthy again. Then your daughter declares, “I don’t like seeing her like this.” She drapes you with your new green sari. I begin to worry. What will the priest say when he arrives?
Your daughter yields and turns back to you, pressing her check to yours. “She’s so cold,” she whispers. Your skin does not feel like skin. It has the quality of putty. And yet—it seems as if you might wake up at any moment.
Outside a log of pungent wood burns black before the gate. The smoke colors the air before your house and announces to your neighbors: there has been a death in the family. A crowd swells in your house. Puttamma, the low-caste woman who has cleaned your house for years and tolerated your scoldings. She wears a faded purple sari and a face streaming with tears. Yasoda, who would take the bus from her village to visit her daughter, who lived in the apartment attached to your house. Yasoda would spend hours talking to you and cooked when you were too tired.
The priest arrives. He is shirtless and bearded, a white veshti pulled around his waist. White ash covers his forehead and his hair sits in a bun. He directs your daughter to pour water over her head and to loosen her hair from its braid. She emerges from a bathroom in the house, her sari soaked, her gray-black hair clumping into wet strings. She looks at me and does not see me.
As your daughter and her husband sit outside below the trellis, joining the intonations of the priest, the women gather inside to wash your body. How are we to do this? Which sari should we use? You are stiff from rigor mortis and the mortuary: how are we to move your limbs and change you? The Brahmin women are uncertain, but Yasoda and Puttamma know.
From the priest we learn we cannot use the green sari since it has already touched you. Your daughter enters with one from her wardrobe, a coffee colored length of silk. I sprinkle water on your face and wipe it dry. Wails fill your living room, and I realize they are mine. The older women listen in silence. They have done this many times.
I raise your head to wind a fold of silk around you and slowly, slowly, let it rest back on the floor. I do not want to hurt you. Your head is like a stone.
The crematorium is a large concrete building. The interior is dark, cool, and tall-ceilinged, without furniture or any décor. The man place you on the floor of a small room to the side. The priest asks your son-in-law to walk around you thrice, a jug of water on his shoulder. Each time he passes the priest, the priest raps the side of the jug. Three times this happens, three streams of water pour to the floor. The priest tells him to drop the jug and it sprays the floor with water as it shatters. So, too, we hope, will your karma. May you never be reborn.
We follow as they chant and carry you to the foyer, up a flight of steps, and into a dark room. I enter. But no, it is not dark. Brilliant orange flames blanket you, a light and heat that I feel from where I stand frozen, three feet away. I can hardly see you through curtain of fire floating from your body. I turn and see your daughter on the other side of the door, alone, eyes wild, her hair damp from the rites at your house. I leave your side to rejoin hers, hold her to me, rest my chin atop her head.
When she finally steps away, I return to the room. You are gone, brought by a conveyor belt behind dark curtains. Only your grandson and Gowda remain. A low boom sounds. “The head,” said Gowda. We stand motionless. “It’s over.”
In the afternoon, your daughter and I enter your bedroom. Light filters through the blue-flowered curtains in the window and shines on the framed photos of your mother and father on the wall that faces your bed. The figures are serious, unsmiling. “I put those there,” your daughter says. “I don’t think she wanted them there.” Why I ask why, she shrugs. “I think she missed the too much to see them.”
Your daughter unlocks your bureau and we peer inside. A few saris droop from hangers. Your white blouses and petticoats. Bottles of Pond’s Talc Powder rolls of paper towels from the U.S. It was always difficult to get the key to this bureau: this is where you would store your cash. Your daughter and I would sometimes laugh at how you would spend twenty minutes a day to sit on your bed and count it with the same fervor you prayed with at the altar.
“There’s almost nothing in here,” your daughter marvels. “She’s been giving things away.” Silence unspools before us. “It’s as if she’d been preparing.” Guilt crept into me. What if you saw us here?
She pulls out a decaying album of black and white photos. A peacock poses on its woven fiber cover, damaged by invisible insects. We flip through photographs of your daughter as a child. Your brothers as lanky young men. Your mother, sweet-faced and serious. The son you never spoke of.
And then—there you are. I am stunned. “I thought she destroyed all her pictures of herself,” I say, leaning against your daughter.
“I did, too.”
You are a sharp-featured young woman, with firmly braided hair and a multitude of gold and diamonds in your earlobes and nose. In one photo, you sit with your twelve-year-old daughter, who looks at the camera anxiously. In the other, you hold up your infant son and gaze at him. The little boy is laughing wildly. As you look at him, your face is impassive, a pearl of calmness and secrets. Over all these years and so many visits, you never once showed me this face.
III. The Third Day
We rise early the next day. Today we will drive to Srirangapatnam, three hours west of Bangalore, where the Kaveri River meets itself at a sacred confluence. We take two cars. Your daughter, your brother’s wife, and I sit in one. Your brother, your son-in-law, your grandson, and Gowda into the other. They leave before us to stop at the crematorium. We will meet them later at a temple on the outskirts of Bangalore and process together to Srirangapatnam.
As our caravan nears the city, lush fields slip by. The Kaveri is full of swimmers who scream and splash the water. We remove our sandals and slowly walk down the slick, concrete steps of the ghat that slopes down to the water. Where it meets the ghat, the river bears floating bits of plastic and other refuse. Further out it is blue and clear, and in the distance it meets cloud-clotted sky.
A young priest at the riverside agrees to guide us through your rites. Your son-in-law sits cross-legged on the bottommost step, your daughter stands behind him. She puts a hand on his shoulder as the priest directs. The priest sits opposite your son-in-law. Your grandson and I face them. The water lurches a few inches away. Between them is a small terracotta urn, the fruit of the crematorium. Someone removes the plate covering its mouth.
There you are, a heap of black powder, mingled with chunks of pallid bone. You, my grandmother, the first love of my life.
It is too hot to cry.
The priest requests the names of your father, your mother, your father’s father, your father’s mother, your mother’s father, your mother’s mother. We move on and on into the depths of your ancestry, uncovering the names of those you must join. Into the urn your son-in-law pours clear coconut water, then water mixed with blood red kumkum. At last he wades into the river, the urn balanced on his shoulder. Your daughter and your grandson and I watch from the river bank, shielding our eyes in the sun. “He’s going to fall,” your daughter says. “I know he’s going to fall.” The murky water reaches his waist and soaks his veshti. He lets go of the urn.
Though we are distant, I see in my mind what happens next. The urn will fill with water and the ash will mingle with it. Your bones will sink to the bottom of the river. Over time you will journey from Karnataka through your homeland, Tamil Nadu. You will reach the Indian Ocean and your soul will join the souls of the universe.
Your son-law-dunks his head under the water and your grandson and Gowda join him. They dry off in towels and change. The clothes they have worn must be destroyed. Together, we climb up the ghat to slip our shoes back onto our feet. A hundred feet away I see a cart piled with coconuts, bright green in the afternoon heat. Your grandson joins me as I walk toward it, and we pay six rupees for two. Drinking the nectar inside, I squint at the river before us. You are gone.