Death: I’ve had 13 years to think

The most sacred cremation place in India: Manikarnika Ghat in Varanasi, where funeral pyres burn day and night.

A body lies on the steps of Manikarnika Ghat in Varanasi, where funeral pyres burn day and night. Concepts of death are very different in many Indian communities.

I’ve been immersed in writing about death after spending a week in Varanasi at a home where ailing, elderly Hindus go to end their lives. They want to die there because they believe dying within the boundaries of the ancient city of Kashi will mean moksha, or salvation for the soul.

The story — I will write more about that later — took me back to the deaths of my own parents in 2001. I cremated my father, Debabrata Basu, 13 years ago.

Every year, especially on March 24, I think about the events of that day. Of bringing his body home to our flat in Kolkata. Of going to Park Circus Market to buy garlands of marigolds and bouquets of white, fragrant Rajanigandhas (tuber roses). Of all the people who came to pay their last respects. Family. Friends. My father’s students and colleagues from the Indian Statistical Institute.

I think of how summer had already cut spring short that year. The temperature soared beyond 90 degrees as we made our way to the crematorium in Kalighat. I waited with my father’s body, under a hot sun. I felt exposed to the entire world, for seven hours. Time stood still then. I looked down at his gaunt face, his cold body. I touched his hand from time to time. Was it to make sure he really was gone? Physically, he was.

But his soul was free. He would be with me always, I thought.

I also lost a dear friend recently. Lateef Mungin, a colleague at CNN and before that, at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, died after suffering seizures. He was only 41.

I attended ‘Teef’s funeral at an African-American Baptist church in suburban Atlanta. Everything about it was so decidedly different than what I had seen at the cremation grounds in Kolkata and most recently in Varanasi. The way a body is laid out. They way we honor a person. They way we say goodbye.

In the last few days, death has again entered my life with the story of the missing Malaysia Airlines jet. I spoke with Mr. K.S. Narendran, whose wife. Chandrika Sharma, was on that flight. This is what he wrote to his friends last week:

I remain focused on what we have at hand by way of information, and stay with the knowledge that Chandrika is strong and courageous, that her goodness must count for something, somewhere. I carry firmly the faith that the forces of life are eternal, immutable and ever present to keep the drama ever moving. In the ultimate analysis, I am neither favored nor deserted. No one is.

(You can read the entire story on CNN.)

I admired Mr. Narendran’s quiet strength and how he coped with the knowledge that his wife may never come back home. It was a stark contrast to the way many of us display our anxiety and grief.

We all have to come to terms with dying. We will all die one day. That is certain. But there is so much uncertainty about what happens afterwards, about what we believe happens to us after our physical presence on Earth has ended.

Do you believe in heaven? In hell? Do you believe we possess souls?

Hindus believe in rebirth. They see it as another cycle of testing for one’s soul. That’s why people go to Benaras to die. That’s why they take God’s name and hope for moksha that will put an end to that undesirable cycle. It is an alien idea for Christians, Jews and Muslims. But who’s to say?

I am not sure I will ever come to any concrete conclusions. But I do know this. I feel my parents’ presence within me. And that will never go away.

Suchitra

suchitra_sen

In my childhood, there weren’t too many Bengali women who had made it big enough to attain celebrity status. But there was Suchitra Sen, goddess of cinema.

Her films, usually with Uttam Kumar, were wildly popular in Kolkata.

To me, Sen was the ultimate beauty. She had a certain Bengaliness about her. She was feminine but strong. She had a “no-nonsense gravitas to care out a persona that has never been matched, let alone surpassed in Indian cinema,” film critic Saibal Chatterjee told the BBC.

I just remember my older cousins talking about her. They referred to her with only her first name. Like Greta. Or Marilyn. Legends don’t require a surname. In fact, it’s been said that idols of Lakshmi (goddess of prosperity) and Saraswati (goddess of knowledge) were modeled after Suchitra. Now, that’s some star power.

In all, Suchitra acted in 52 Bengali films and seven Hindi films. The first movie of hers that I saw was “Kamal Lata,” based on a story by famed Bengali author Sarat Chandra Chattapadhya. I was riveted by her performance, made all that much intense by the power of black and white imagery. I gazed into Suchitra’s big eyes and wanted to be like her one day. Talented, smart, strong, beautiful.

Suchitra died today in Kolkata — at the same hospital where my mother died.

Thank you for the hours of entertainment but mostly for inspiration, Suchitra. Rest in peace.

Beam me up, Scotty

panipuri

Pani puris, known as phuchkas in Kolkata, can be found on many street corners. I can eat many, many, many of these. And I will. Soon.

 

Dreaming of warm, dry winter days, pishi, pani puris on the street, a wedding, speaking Bengali and dear friends.

Wishing today were Saturday.

Wishing I could be across the world in an instant. Beam me up, Scotty.

On Thanksgiving

newalipurI’m at work today, on Thanksgiving, surrounded by news that projects mankind in the worst sort of way — war, murder, rape. But I am also heartened by the best of humanity.

I was especially reminded of that as I wrote a CNN story about a Holocaust survivor who met his Polish Catholic rescuer for the first time since the war ended. The survivor told me how grateful he was to the family who hid hid from the Nazis. Because of them, he was able to continue his family.

I am not with my family today but I am thinking of them. Some are still here in this world; others, including my mother and father, have passed away. They remain in my heart and fill it with love.

I am thinking today of two dear friends who each lost a parent this year, Valerie Boyd and Jan Winburn. I know this holiday season will be especially tough for them. But I know their mother and father’s spirit will warm their gatherings.

I looked through an old album last night and found this photograph of my father’s family. It was taken at my grandfather’s house, in the backyard, in Kolkata in 1970. I’m sitting in the front row, my parents, brother, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents and great aunt around me.

I wish we could all be together today. I am thankful for each and every one of them being a part of my life.

Fifty-one

meandma2I turned 51 today.

Last year was the milestone year. The big 50. I felt OK about it. 50 is the new 40, my older friends told me. I celebrated with a big party. My brother came from Canada, my cousin from New York. My sisters-in-law traveled great distances, too. Then everyone went home and life resumed, no different, really, than before.

Today is different.

Not that suddenly, I feel old. Or that there is no hoopla this year.

Today is different for one very important reason.

My mother suffered a massive stroke in 1982. On my birthday. She was 51.

That day changed our lives in so many ways. You can imagine all the obvious ways: my mother was in a coma for days in the Intensive Care Unit at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital and when she regained her senses, the left side of her body no longer worked. There were months and months of physical therapy for my mother. And even more months of adjustment for me and my family while we learned how to take care of an invalid, infirm woman.

She’d also lost a lot of her cognitive abilities and the mother I adored was suddenly gone. She was there in person, physically. But the woman I knew died on that day.

Over the next 19 years that she lived, I learned to relate to my mother on a whole new level. In the end, when my father also cruelly lost his cognitive abilities to Alzheimer’s, my mother became like my daughter. She’d ask me what she should wear, what she could eat. If anyone asked her a difficult question, she’d consult me before answering publicly. We exchanged roles.

My mother died in May 2001. I had to deal with her dying all over again. Except this time, there was nothing left of her at all. She was gone.

I’ve always feared turning 51. I feared it even more after I learned I was prone to hypertension — my mother’s blood pressure had soared to obscene levels before the stroke.

So on this day, I contemplate my mortality. And want desperately to make time stop so that I can have the opportunities to accomplish all that is left on my long, long list of things to do, places to see. It’s not that I want to be young again — I greatly value the wisdom time and experience have given me. Just that I feel the days whizzing past like speeding bullets.

Like everyone else, I want to feel that I did something good for this world. Now there are fewer days left for me to achieve that.

Phir bhi dil hai Hindustani

One reason I miss India terribly: my pishi (aunt).

One reason I miss India terribly: my pishi (aunt).

“When did you get home?” a friend asked me yesterday.

“Last night,” I replied.

“It must feel good to be back,” she said.

The pause on the phone was long enough to be awkward.

“Yes,” I said. I wanted the conversation to end.

But what was home? That word has always been problematic for me. I have always straddled two continents, two cultures, a feat that becomes hard at times like this.

My closest friend Eugene in Kolkata and I used to discuss for long hours what being home meant. Was it in Atlanta, where I have lived for 23 years, where I work, where I laugh and love? Or is it in my native India, where I am not an “other” or a minority, where I can bask in my Indianness, where I am in my element like I can never be in America?

After my parents died in 2001, going “home” to India became emotionally exhausting. Kolkata was not the same without my Ma and Baba waiting for me at our flat on Ballygunj Circular Road. Some of my trips after that were short — I was but a tourist on a fleeting journey. Others were punctuated by weddings and funerals and other events that made them extraordinary.

This time, it was different.

Another reason I miss home: the incredible food.

Another reason I miss home: the incredible food. This is Sunday lunch at my aunt’s house in Delhi.

I spent a lot of time with my father’s sister, my pishi, in Kolkata and his brother and his wife in Delhi. My uncle and aunt are the only two of my father’s seven siblings who are still living. Three of my aunts and uncles died in painfully rapid succession in the last year and a half.

I felt a need to soak up my family as much as I could.

I was also on assignment for CNN for part of the time I was home. I found it refreshing to report on my own people for a change and to work alongside Indian journalists.

Now, I am back at my desk at CNN Center in Atlanta. I look at the sun and think that it also shone over India today, many hours earlier. I smell India in my notebooks and clothes and long to make that long plane journey back.

I am an American by nationality and in many ways, by identity. Yet my heart remains Indian. Phir bhi dil hai Hindustani. 

Happy Birthday

My mother and me at the Acropolis in Greece. June 23, 1964.

My mother and me at the Acropolis in Greece. June 23, 1964.

My mother would have turned 82 today. I would have picked up the phone and called her. 011-91-33-2247-6600.

I would have said: Ma! Happy Birthday. I would have asked her what she was doing to celebrate.

She would have said that my pishi (aunt) was coming over for lunch. Nothing special was planned.

I wold have asked about what else was going on. She would have given me family updates — she kept in touch with everyone. She was the glue. She would have caught me up with gossip about the neighbors in our flat building.

She would have hurried through the conversation to get to the most important part. When will you come to Kolkata?

I would have said: In mid-September, Ma. I will be there soon.

I would have imagined her smile. She would have told me how she couldn’t wait to see me.

I will get on a plane to go home next week but she won’t be there waiting for me.

Happy Birthday, beautiful Ma. I miss you every waking moment.

Reach for the Sky

Last weekend, I went to a trunk show of jewelry crafted by my friend Anubha Jayaswal. She’s a friend from my hometown, Kolkata; her husband Vishal loves Bengali food more than I do. That’s true homage to the cuisine of my culture.

Anubha works in the frenzied world of finance but when she has spare time, she makes jewelry. Check out her stuff on her Sky Jewelry page on Facebook.

I bought a couple of pieces and enjoyed the afternoon talking with desi girls who, like me, are not big fans of the ornate gold stuff you see in Indian wedding photos.

Kaka

Kaka, standing on the balcony of the house
in New Alipur in the 1950s.

When I was a little girl, we lived in a house my grandfatherbuilt. It was common then for sons to remain in the house with their parentseven after they were married and had children. It was an extended family systemthat is dying out fast now in urban India.
I grew up rich with memories of relatives, close anddistant. I was privy to my father’s family history, told in most vivid detailby my uncle, Samir Kumar Basu. I always knew him as Kaka, the Bengali moniker for a father’s younger brother.
Kaka was only a year and half younger than Baba. The twowere extremely close growing up in Dhaka, Bangladesh, united perhaps in theireye problems that took root at a very early age. Both had macular degeneration.Both wore glasses so thick that I substituted them for magnifiers to look atflower parts for biology class.
Kaka lived on the third floor of my grandfather’s house inNew Alipur, then a fairly new development in Kolkata. He was a brilliant manand soon rose to the top of the companies where he worked. Eventually, hebecame director of Chloride India.
We ate breakfast together every morning. I sat with my roti,potatoes and cauliflower. He, with his half-boiled egg on a porcelain Englishstand and two pieces of white toast with butter.
Playing chess with my father in Florida, late 1970s

Afterwards, I climbed into the back of his Ambassador for alift to Gokhale Memorial, the school I attended  in those days. On the way, we would talk about everything.It must have been irritating for him to have a five-year-old chatterbox gononstop before a hard days work was about to begin. 
“Boddo kotha bolish,” he would say sometimes. You talk toomuch.
In the evenings, after homework, after an evening bath, Iwaited anxiously for my Baba and Kaka to return home. Both had a habit ofpacing from verandah to verandah. Kaka would whistle popular Rabindrasangeet. Itried to imitate him. How was he able to get tunes out with such precision?
We sat down to dinner together and Kaka always made sure togrill me on what I had learned that day. He’d quiz me with a geographyquestion. And when I wandered off point, he’d tell me I was talking too muchagain.
Kaka and me at a family wedding, 2009

In later years, Kaka moved out into a posh company flat. Iwanted to go spend days there not just because of the air-conditioning but tomonopolize Kaka’s time.

He never married or had children. Over the years, he grewaccustomed to life alone, though he was always generous to open up his home forothers. After my parents died in 2001, I often stayed in one of Kaka’s guestrooms.
Evening conversations were never dull with Kaka. We arguedsometimes but he always treated me with respect; asked me about things inAmerica that he did not know well. He was one of the few members of my familywho took a keen interest in my journalism. Even introduced me to his friends totalk about the Iraq war.
Kaka at Calcutta Club.

He especially liked to gab with his peers at Calcutta Club,a social club that was started in 1907 when Indians were not allowed into thewhites-only Bengal Club. Later in life, when Kaka became frail and his eyesfailed him completely, he held onto his trek to the club as salvation from loneliness.He left exactly at a certain time and was rarely late coming home. He nappedfor three hours, limited his cocktail hour before dinner and ate with extremediscipline. I admired that about him. How he kept to routine. How he neverindulged.
The last time I saw Kaka was in early December. I had stayedwith him for almost two weeks during a visit home. He liked to listen toBengali songs on my iPod. The noise-cancelling headphones, he said, made itfeel as though he were in a concert hall. He marveled at the technology thathis poor eyesight prevented him from enjoying.
Some nights, we watched Bengali soap operas on television.He listened intently to the dialog and when the screen was silent, I describedfor him what was unfolding.  Ithought it was grossly unfair that a man who lived by himself should not havethe benefit of sight – without being able to read or enjoy television.
But Kaka never felt sorry for himself or allowed pity. Iwill always think of him as the most fiercely independent person in my family.
Several years ago, the night of my departure from Kolkata,Kaka sat me down at his dining table. 
“Wait,” he said, shuffling off to his bedroom, counting hissteps as he always did and feeling his way to his closet.
He returned a few minutes later with an old jewelry box. Ithad once been a rich blue velvet. Now it was worn, the cardboard peekingthrough.
“Toke ar ki debo?” he said. What else can I give you?
I took that to mean that he thought I had all that I needed.True. Or that I wasn’t one for ornate ornaments that most Bengali women ogle.Also true.
He began telling me a tale of a trip he made to Hyderabad,years before my birth. The southern Indian city is famous for two things:Biryani, the Mughlai rice dish, and fresh water pearls, he said.
My cousin Sudip took all of us out to eat in 2005.
Kaka loved food and enjoyed it throughly.

“I bought this in Hyderabad. It’s not biryani,” he laughed.

A string of iridescent pearls glowed under the light of hischandelier.
“Kaka,” I said. “You don’t have to give me these.”
I wondered why he had bought them. Had they been meant for someone?Or had he just picked them up because it was the thing to do in Hyderabad?
“It’s a very small thing,” he said. “Wear them and think ofme.”
Last November, he’d called me in Atlanta to ask that I bringhim good Belgian chocolates. He loved the taste of cocoa on his tongue justbefore he went to sleep every night.
Kaka at a wedding in 2009. 

My aunt, Pishi, told me that Monday night, Kaka had askedfor chocolate. She took that to mean that he was recovering from a recent boutof illness. But Wednesday, he was gone.

He died in his sleep, peacefully.
In 2010, when I visited Kaka, I had recorded some of ourconversations. Kaka loved to tell me stories about my father’s childhood. I hadplanned to finish those conversations. Ask him questions about a time with few records, save a few old black and white photographs. Kaka was awonderful storyteller and now an important part of my family’s oral history hasbeen silenced.
He was the eldest living of my father’s siblings. Manythought him as the family anchor. I simply thought of him as Kaka, the man whobecame my father after my own died, the man who stood by me always.
I will miss you terribly.

Kolkata Hipstamatic

Life on the streets of Kolkata can be an assault to the senses for someone unaccustomed. For me, it’s home. The vendors, the noise, the traffic, the smells, the sounds. Everything. I snapped photos with my iPhone when I was home in November and December. Of rickshaw wallahs, sweet shops, jewelry stalls, tea vendors and grand dame buildings about to fall flat on their faces. And so much more.