We all lose people we love, people who are integral to us. We cannot escape loss. I will never know what it must feel like to lose a child but I know the sorrow of a mother or father’s death.
Today, my father-in-law, Edward Duffy, died.
His wife, Jean, and his seven children are in that unenviable position today of realizing they will never see Ed’s smile again or hear his laugh. They will never sit down for a family dinner with him or debate the future of America.
It is a very hard thing to think about death in those ways. So finite.
But I have learned some things in all the years that have passed without the physical presence of my parents. I have learned that their love has stayed with me, no matter that I cannot see them or hear them or feel them.
Ed would have turned 90 later this month. He lived a long and full life. He grew up on a farm in upstate New York, served in the Navy during World War II and excelled in his banking career. By the time he retired from a top position at Marine Midland Bank, Ed had built a comfortable life for his family. He served on the boards of several companies and was wise with his money, as every good banker should be.
But most of all, he cared deeply about his family. They mattered more to him than anything else. That was something that drew me to the Duffys. When I first met them, my parents were in India and I saw them for a few days every year, if I was lucky. I wanted so much to be a part of a family, and Ed and Jean were gracious enough to give me that gift. After my parents died, I thought of Ed and Jean as my own mom and dad.
I reminded Kevin today of his father’s long and rewarding life. Ed’s children were lucky to have him around so long. That’s something precious many of us don’t get.
Ed may no longer be here on Earth and we will miss him. But his spirit is within all those he loved and he will continue to be a guiding light in their lives.
Here’s to you, Edward Duffy, and a life well lived.
The film “Aradhana” had just made its big splash in 1969 when my family returned once again from a soujourn in America to India. As we settled back to a middle-class existence that back then meant ration cards and standing in line for water, the songs of “Aradhana” blared on speakers at street stalls. We had a radio at home but half the time we didn’t have electricity. So there were two ways to hear music for someone like me in Kolkata: go see the movie over and over again at a cheap matinee or listen to the street speakers.
The movie starred Sharmila Tagore, a Bengali actress who was hugely popular in Kolkata, and Rajesh Khanna, perhaps the biggest star in Bollywood at the time. The songs were all number one hits and I went to see the movie many times with Shantidi, the woman who worked for us as a housekeeper.
That summer, we went to Delhi to visit my father’s brother. I called him Rangakaka.
My uncle’s name was Tapan Kumar Basu. In my culture, younger people never address an elder person by their first name. Kaka is the word for a father’s younger brother. My father had four brothers so the family gave them all terms of endearment. Ranga was the name given to this uncle. It means color in Bengali, a fitting name for a man with so much joie de vivre.
Rangakaka was the most outgoing, the most gregarious of all my father’s brothers, I thought. He gave new meaning to “eat, drink and be merry.”
On that trip to Delhi, I was only 7 years old and did not know my uncle well then, though my parents were very close to him.
When he was a college student, he had lived with my mother and father in north Kolkata for a while. One of the stories that was often circulated in the family was of the time when my parents were out and burglars broke into the house, gagged and tied Rangakaka up and shoved him under the bed. My father always told me Rangakaka was a lucky man that day.
Instantly, I took a liking to Rangakaka. One big reason was that he knew all the lyrics to my favorite “Aradhana” songs. Another reason was that Rangakaka drove us everywhere in his Fiat when few people in my family even owned cars. Those who did hired chauffeurs to take them around. But not Rangakaka. He told me he loved to drive. In the early 1970s, the streets of Delhi were wide open and it was easy to navigate traffic. Unimaginable today.
Rangakaka drove us around and all the while regaled us with song. “Roop tera, Mustana. Pyar mera, diwana. Bhuul koi hamse naa ho jaaye.” Your beauty is intoxicating. My love is crazy. Let’s not make any mistakes.
I loved that I had such a hip uncle who knew the songs that were dear to me. My parents did not care for popular Hindi songs. They listened to far more intellectual Bengali music, which I did not understand well then and therefore, was not interested. It was sort of like having a mom and dad who listened to Beethoven and then visiting an uncle who sang the Beatles. Yay.
Rangakaka sported sideburns, drank whisky and smoked cigarettes. He liked to dance and get loud. Everything my father was not.
He was an architectural engineer and in his long career, he worked on several important projects in India, including the Vidyasagar Setu, the longest cable-stayed bridge in India that carries traffic over the Hooghly River in Kolkata. A lot of his work was in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir and when the insurgency raged in the late 1980s and 1990s, I listened to my uncle lament the destruction of one of the most beautiful places in India. Later, when I went to Srinagar to cover the war, Rangakaka set me up with his contacts and friends. I felt a modicum of security knowing that I could run to my uncle’s friend’s house if I were in danger. They would have done anything for me because I was Tapan’s niece. That’s how much my uncle’s friends respected him.
I wish I had spoken more with my uncle about his work, especially in Kashmir. I wish I had spent more time with him when he still confronted life full on. For many years, when my parents were still alive, I did not go to Delhi much so that I could spend more of my precious few vacation days at home in Kolkata. It was only in recent years that I spent considerable time in India’s capital, reporting stories for CNN and visiting family.
My uncle and aunt were always generous with their hospitality. The house that they built in the 1970s always had guests in the downstairs room. We referred to it solely by its street number — J1815. I have so many fond memories of Rangakaka there.
On my last two trips, Rangakaka was weak and had trouble going up and down the stairs. Everyone gathered in the evenings in his upstairs bedroom, where we’d munch on snacks, sip wine and talk. Often it was about his adventures or about my childhood. My uncle and I both loved a syrupy Bengali dessert delicacy called Chom Chom. Rangakaka was famed for the number of Chom Choms he could eat at one sitting. He told me once that I was as sweet as a Chom Chom and from then on, that’s what he called me. I was 51 the last time I saw him and he was still calling me by that name.
“Mone aachhe, Chom Chom?” he said. “Do you remember, Chom Chom?” And then he launched into a childhood story.
I had planned to visit Delhi in January but for many reasons, I postponed my trip. Now I am full of regret.
Rangakaka died on April 9. He was 77.
I was on assignment for CNN when I received the sad news in a text from Rangakaka’s eldest son, my cousin Jayanta. My heart grew heavy. It was as though I had lost my father all over again.
At the Charlotte airport, I plugged in my ear buds, went to my Hindi playlist and selected “Aradhana.” I could hear Rangakaka singing, and it made me smile.
My story on a home for the dying in Varanasi, India, came out on CNN.com today.
I spent a week reporting in the fabled holy city and was fascinated by its spirituality much more this time than I was on previous trips. Part of it was because I was reporting on faith. But another part of it was that I think I have transformed over the years; my rebellion against organized religion has mellowed.
As I have grown older, I have lost people who were close to me. My parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and good friends. I was in shock after I returned from India in February to the death of my colleague Lateef Mungin. He was 10 years younger than me.
That kind of loss makes you think about the things that are important in life and also about what happens to us after we stop breathing.
The people I spent time with in Varanasi were, for the most part, steadfast in their beliefs, though there is one man in my story who may surprise you.
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 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.
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.
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.