My uncle died yesterday. He was my mother's elder brother, with a daughter exactly my age and another boy. My paternal grandmother, who could never keep track of my mother's seven brothers by name, used to call him "engineer mama". We called him Naupa Mama.
I didn't know him as well as my other mamas who used to take me to get Thums Up across the street (Bapu Mama) or bring me Gems candy regularly (Deep Mama) or stick his finger in my mouth to tell me he knew exactly what I had eaten (Bapkhan Mama). But he was definitely a fixture in our visits to India. Last week, when my aunt called and told me his kidneys had failed and the dialysis wasn't working, she told me they were pretty much just waiting for the end.
So last night, as I was at my friend Himanshu's for dinner, the call came and I knew as soon as I heard my aunt's voice. He had just died 10 minutes ago. I glanced at the wine in my hand and had a lump in my throat but didn't cry.
The calls with bad news, of course, have been coming as long as I've been alive. And I could always tell you where I was. When I was 7, it was my maternal grandfather -- and my mom was pregnant with Rahul; I was upstairs when the call came. When I was 9, it was my father's cousin, a murder detailed in the economic space of a blue aerogram; I was in the hall where we kept the crib and I started screaming. When I was 10, it was my mom's elder brother and I remember I was reading one of the Babysitter's Clubs where Claudia was the main character (was it number 2) and my mom fell down on the stair landing of our house in shock. That one, I think, hit us hardest, most unexpected, a heart attack, a scurry to the hospital, finally death in an auto rickshaw. When I was 13, my grandfather died and I remember feeling intensely sad because I had spent most of my childhood afraid of the funny way he talked, due to paralysis; it was the middle of the night and I remember my cousin was staying with us and I was embarassed to cry in front of him so I poured water into a steel glass and covered my choked-up-ness by taking sips. Six months later, my maternal grandmother died and I remember how much harder it seemed to strike my mother than when her father died. In between, there were a few baby cousins, a few close friends and neighbours from Assam. Common to all was the absolute helplessness with which we grieved and watched from afar.
I thought moving to India might have made things different but if anything it makes me ache for the family literally on both sides of me -- my maternal extended family in Assam and my mother in New Jersey. She has been counting down Nitin and Naya's upcoming visit and isn't coming here for the funeral and last rites. So I will likely go and represent for the 13th day of mourning - shradho - next week. And then the week after, I think I will go to the US for a few days. Expensive options but possibly best for the mental health, which really is beginning to wear and shouldn't be alone for a six-week stretch, I have decided.
As we did in the US, we turn to ritual to get us through-- we will be vegetarian for 13 days (or less). We will pray and light incense sticks stuck in a banana. We will call our relatives every day and ask for details and they will offer others we didn't ask but are curious to know. My aunt: They dressed him real nice. I gave him so many kisses before they took him off. Your other uncle waited till his body had entirely burned before they left. His wife was sound asleep when we got there; she then bathed and dressed in widow white and still seemed very despondent.
Today I left work early to get the details and my aunt described the day; as she told me everyone arriving by dawn to begin dressing the body and preparing it for cremation, I finally broke down. For my uncle's loss, of course. But also that I missed out on the remaining seven siblings coming together for the first time in a very long time. Two have died. And one, my mother, remained in America.