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.