Death at a distance
My grandmother died in Kolkata on Friday.
She was 92.
She was the last of my grandparents.
I dashed back to my parents house, after getting the call mid-morning.
We watched TV. Drank tea and ate poppadoms.
There wasn't as much hysteria as I thought there might be, as there was when the penultimate grandparent died.
Just the dull practical details. Like sorting visas to fly out in case the divvying of the inheritance turns into even more of a bunfight.
The phones were ringing, furthering the discussions as to who the representative might be, from this distance.
Details filtered back across time zones.
That she stopped eating four days ago.
That her last words were, something like, “I won't be getting back up again."
That it was enormous luck that my uncle, her eldest son, was visiting her and so able to take the reins of the situation.
That everyone there agreed that it was a good death, whatever that is.
And anecdotes about her too.
Like how she'd ask for a receipt for any gift she was given.
What I picked up on most were the incidental details around the religious rituals of death that I barely know anything about.
That my uncle had to hold some fire in his mouth before lighting the funeral pyre (the cremation had to happen within 24 hours of death. So she was ashes even before I was awake.)
That the mourning period involves the family not eating meat – I haven't obeyed this injunction. (I felt some sort of odd consolation that this period will end with a family repast at Ping Pong next weekend.)
That Parsees hang bodies from a tower, for the vultures to pick at. (My grandmother wasn't a Parsee.)
Our family belies the cliché of extended Asian families – there's only the four of us here.
But outside of us, our clan is literally extended in space and time.
Which makes you feel even more like insignificant when things like this happen.
Death bridges distance, brings you closer, but it still doesn't answer those questions caused by those dislocations, voluntary or otherwise.
I felt the oddness of my second generation upbringing.
I only knew my grandmother as a name.
As a some photos in an album.
The object of some stories, occasionally told.
There was never any sense... impulse... pressure to get to know her.
(Or indeed, India, Bengal, Kolkata, my culture, my other language, my heritage.)
Is this is a bad thing?
I've never thought so. But then you re-consider, and ask the question.
How do you grieve for someone you didn't know?
And only met once when you were two years old?
Outside, snow was falling as the sun was shining. It was cold and beautiful. Like the day.