I was born into my grandfather’s house in India, the first grandchild. I lived the first three months of my life cradled in arms, never once being placed down. My grandparents, aunts, and uncle passed me around, giving me to my mother only when I needed feeding. This was my second womb.
At three months, I boarded a plane with my mother bound for America. Every few years I would return to that house in India. Bonds formed in spite of the distance. Though I was a stranger to India in many ways, India never seemed strange to me. There, I would always be the first grandchild, the first baby. My grandparents were anchors mooring me to India even as I became more American.
My grandfather died last week. He was the last of my living grandparents. With his passing, I felt the last of those anchors lift up into the atmosphere. I felt rootless, unmoored. My Thatha, the man who loved me so well, was no longer holding a space for me there.
When I was 21, I relinquished my allegiance to all other states, princes and potentates. I became a citizen of the United States of America. My mother took this step long after me and with serious reservations.
The day after my Thatha died, my mother came to D.C. on a desperate mission to obtain a visa so that she would be able to travel to India for his funeral. I drove her around from office to office and finally to the airport. When it was done, we both felt a sense of relief. This time, she would be there to say goodbye.
It felt good to do something, to help my mother regain access to the place that she could never truly leave. It grounded me and gave me purpose. But the moment she left, I felt myself float out of my body, and follow her onto the plane.
In the days that followed, my disorientation was profound. What should I do? Where should I be? Should I be there? What is happening there? Who can I talk to? Where am I? I began to read the Upanishads, a Hindu holy text. The night before my grandfather’s funeral, I fell asleep with these words in my head:
“Let my life now merge in the all-pervading life. Ashes are my body’s end. Om… O mind, remember Brahman. O mind, remember they past deeds. Remember Brahman. Remember thy past deeds. O god Agni, lead us to felicity.”
That night, at 2 am, the phone rang. I answered still in a half dream state and listened to my mother describe the funeral for me. “We fed him rice. His body was laid out on a palanquin. We carried him to the crematorium. We poured water around him. He looked peaceful. He is on his way.” I was there with her. I could smell the smoke, the incense, the flowers, and the sweat. I could hear the chanting, the tears, and the distant traffic. I imagined temple idols, garlanded in flowers, watching with careful, loving eyes.
That morning I awoke from a dream. I stood at the edge of a vast ocean, bathed in warm sunlight. Pink flower petals floated in the air above me, blown by the wind out to sea. That day I called home, to India. I spoke with aunts, uncles, cousins, and my mother. “I am there with you,” I said, even if it was not true at all.
The funeral was over. The work week was done. And I was here, in America. And here, in America, the in-laws were due to arrive to celebrate both Easter and Passover. I was yanked from my hazy mourning reverie into a world of chocolate bunnies and Seder plates, Easter eggs and Matzo.
I took my daughter to a neighborhood Easter party sponsored by a local church. With beautiful weather, and smiling children, I felt welcomed by but distant from this earnest community celebration of resurrection and eternal life. This was someone else’s holy day, someone else’s path to peace.
That evening, the Passover Seder was led by my father-in-law at my sister-in-law’s house. As is customary in my husband’s family, each family member took turns reading from the Haggadah. The Haggadah guides the celebration of Passover and commemorates the sufferings of the Jews in Egypt and their eventual liberation through God. I missed out on most of the reading because I was busy dealing with my two toddlers, both over-tired and over-excited from the day’s activities.
When the kids fell asleep, I rejoined the Seder. The meal was complete and only a few passages remained to be read. I have been participating in Passover Seder’s for the last eight years and so I actually missed being a part of this ritual. I asked to read the next passage not knowing what it was.
I began to read, “Their idols are of silver and gold, the product of human hands: they have a mouth, but cannot speak; they have eyes, but cannot see; they have ears, but cannot hear; they have a nose, but cannot smell; their hands cannot feel; their feet cannot walk; they can make no sound with their throat.”
A fit of giggles seized me. “The idolater is reading the part about idolatry!” I said. Around me, my family by marriage joined in with chuckles of their own. My father-in-law winked playfully saying, “From now on, you always get to read that part.”
I do not know what any of this means. I do not know who I am, where I belong,what I believe or who my community is. The things I do know:
1) My grandfather loved me in the best way.
2) Part of my heart lives in India.
3) Another part of my heart lives in a 600 sq. ft. condo in D.C.
4) Chocolate bunnies and Easter eggs are lovely reminders of rebirth and eternal life. And they are especially good for distracting a grieving heart.
5) Children don’t care if you’re sad when they’ve had too much sugar.
6) Like the show, the Seder must go on, and on, and on. 😉
7) I am and forever shall be an idolater. Amen.