Your grandmother dies one muggy May afternoon in Connecticut, six thousand miles away from her beloved apartment in Calcutta, India.
She dies alone in a hospital room. Your moon-faced grandmother is not wearing the crisp white widow’s sari that she has always worn. She has removed the ivory bangle that she wears to help her arthritis, and her small gold earnings. Your grandmother, who, despite her arthritis, cooked thousands of meals in her sootblackened Calcutta kitchen, who fed the entire family her famous chicken rizzala, who was always chasing away the crows that slipped through the barred dining room window, your grandmother, who had her own rickshaw-wallah, a dark-skinned man who pulled her in his rickshaw through the streets, your grandmother who listened wide-eyed as a girl to her big, gleaming radio every night, mystery serials and romantic stories, your grandmother, who told you a story about her sister who died as a baby from an opium overdose, this grandmother of yours, whose mind held labyrinthine connections to all your scattered relatives in the bazaars and suburbs of Calcutta, who was always making nimbu-pani lemonade for these distant relatives when they visited, staying for a morning or for a few days, this grandmother, whose mind held six wars and flaming riots and deaths and famines, this very same grandmother of yours, she dies alone, in a sterile hospital room in Connecticut, in absolute silence.
She dies while you are on a train, on your way to see her. You were supposed to visit a week ago, but it is the end of senior year in college, you were in the middle of exams, and your aunt, who was caring for your grandmother, was not clear about exactly how sick she was. You had been to visit your grandmother a month ago, and she was deformed—the surgeons had removed part of her tongue and her jaw to combat the cancer—and mumbled, but she was alive. Every morning she rubbed coconut oil in her hair, then bathed, and sat, like a cat, in a patch of sunlight on your aunt’s massive red couch. She peered out of the picture window at the neatly trimmed suburban lawns, the glittering, empty sidewalks, the blue mailbox on the corner. She turned to you with her ruined face, and mumbled, Where are all the people? What have they done with all the people?
You moved closer to her and pulled her to you, till her mangled face rested on your shoulder. No, this is not true. You did not move an inch. You were not your grandmother’s favorite, that honor went to your brother, who is fair-skinned, like her. You could not find a way to answer your grandmother’s question. It hung between you, till she said she was tired. You helped her up and she shuffled down the gloomy corridor to her room. She lay down and you covered her with two comforters, because even in spring, America left her cold.
She dies alone in the hospital because just that morning she asks your aunt to buy her a doll. Your grandmother mumbles that she has always wanted a doll, the kind with hair you can brush, with eyes that open and close. So your aunt leaves her alone in the hospital room and goes to Toys R Us and buys a huge doll with a pale dimpled face and wavy blonde hair. The line is long, and it takes a while, and when your aunt gets back to the hospital your grandmother has already been declared dead.
Your aunt is inconsolable and cries steadily all day, even as she drives around Hartford with you sitting next to her. She sobs quietly on the road, and at traffic lights she clutches the steering wheel and lowers her head and moans. You have to gently tell her that the light has changed, to direct her through the blighted, burntout streets of downtown, till you find the old-fashioned Italian funeral home that has started a sideline in Muslim burials. Your grandmother has already been taken there, and a group of squat, elderly, orthodox Muslim women have arrived to wash the body and prepare it for burial. They have had a lot of experience with death and have a brisk, practical approach. Interrupting your aunt’s crying, they say that they need six yards of white muslin cloth. You and your aunt drive to an Indian fabric store, and the people there understand immediately what the cloth is for, and wrap it, with solemn ceremony, into a brown-paper package.
On the way back to the funeral home, your aunt says, All she wanted to do was go back to Calcutta and die there. Why did I bring her here? Why? I should have let her be at 205 LC. You understand instantly what she means: your grandmother has a small, cramped, ground-floor flat at 205 Lower Circular Road in Calcutta, and this is the heart of your family. This is where you gather for massive Eid lunches, the entire family overflowing the divan and two battered leather armchairs, and sitting, cross-legged, on the beds. The door to 205 LC is always open and there are always people arriving and your grandmother is always in the middle of cooking biriyani, and the smell of roasting meat and potatoes and saffron fills the house. After lunch your grandmother falls asleep with grandchildren jumping up and down next to her and loud conversations are conducted over her sleeping bulk. 205 LC Road is your grandmother. Except that now your grandmother is dead.
Your aunt vanishes into the funeral home to help the women wash your grandmother’s body. You sit outside on a patch of crabgrass and look across the street at a gas station. Cars pull in and out and you hear snatches of R&B on the radio and the chunk-chunk of gas nozzles cutting out. For long periods of time there is only the occasional swish of a car speeding down the block. Your grandmother found the silence of America unnerving. At 205 LC there was always the ticking of the pendulum clock, the cawing of the crows outside, the wail of Hindi film music from transistor radios, the shouting of women on rooftops as they dried clothes. Somewhere, there was always a man hammering. These sounds made up the basic warp and woof of life. To listen to nothingness upset your grandmother.
You are called back to the funeral home to see her. She is lying on a stainless-steel table, swathed in white muslin, her head covered, one long strip wrapped around her jaw. Your grandmother looks like a waxwork effigy of herself. You have the irrational thought that your real grandmother is back at 205 LC, squatting by her two-burner stove and wiping sweat off her face with the pallu of her white sari.
There is no question of burying your grandmother here, in America. No question of putting her into foreign soil, alone, exposed to snow and car exhaust. She will be put into a pine coffin, and then enclosed in a lead-lined box; this in turn will be encased in a sturdy plywood box, securely screwed down. Then, covered in labels, with a custom’s clearance pasted on her, your grandmother will be airfreighted, via London and Dubai, to Calcutta. Your aunt has a friend at Air India who is helping with this.
You do not stay to see your grandmother boxed up. When you return to your aunt’s house, you stand at the doorway of your grandmother’s bedroom. She must have left in a hurry for that last visit to the hospital, because her glasses are still on the dresser, as is a jar of her beloved Pond’s Cold Cream, and three creased and muchread Agatha Christie novels. You get into your grandmother’s chilly bed. As you lie there, your body heats up the sheets, releasing your grandmother’s distinctive smell, soft and clean. You try to cry but you cannot.
She dies in Hartford, Connecticut, and is buried, three days later, halfway across the world. You cannot travel to Calcutta for her burial. India is too far away and too expensive, and besides you are starting a summer internship in a few days.
You imagine the scene at the Muslim Cemetery: the beggars at the gates, reciting the Koran and asking for alms; the outdoor taps where mourners wash their hands and feet; the tall, spindly palm trees rising above the rows of graves; the red, sticky soil; your Calcutta aunts gathered at the grave site, heads covered, hands clasped in prayer. As is the custom, your grandmother will be buried, still wrapped in white muslin, on a plank, and her grave will bear no name, just a hump of earth.
No one has ever taught you to pray, but your grandmother made you memorize two lines, and now you add them to the prayers being said, six thousand miles away: La illaha il Allah, Mohammad rasul Allah. Lying in your grandmother’s bed, you say them over and over, till you fall asleep.
She dies in Hartford, Connecticut, and a year later you have to travel six thousand miles to visit her grave. Your uncle picks you up at the airport and drives you to 205 LC, down the long, straight driveway, past the spindly mango tree that your grandmother used to nurture. Your grandmother does not come out, dressed in her white widow’s sari, to greet you. Her tiny apartment is exactly the same: once-yellow walls now gray, the pendulum clock ticking high on the wall, the clay figurines in their glass case furred with dust. You go to the corner by the dining table and there find the same metal jug full of well water, and you pour yourself a glass, and it tastes the same, of earth and minerals.
That afternoon you visit your grandmother’s grave. The kabristan was once far outside the city, but now has been swallowed up by it. Inside the shady grounds you can hear the tinkle of bicycle bells and the put-put-put of motorcycles. Nearby slum dwellers use the graveyard as a short cut and saunter through, freshly bathed, clutching plastic shopping bags. You try to feel something, but all you can think about is sitting outside the Italian funeral home, looking across the street at the gas station. You remember how the evening had darkened and the cars’ red taillights looked like the eyes of wild animals.
In the evening your eldest aunt—the one who looks startlingly like your grandmother—invites you for dinner. She has made chicken rizzala, using your grandmother’s recipe, and it tastes the same, rich and fragrant with onions and yogurt and scented with cardamom. You ask about your grandmother’s funeral, and your eldest aunt says that it was raining that day. The mourners were gathered at the gravesite, but it was hard to cut open the lead-lined coffin. Lacking power tools, the gravediggers finally pried it open with hammers and chisels. It was getting dark by the time your grandmother was finally interred. You think of the wet, red earth, and the way it squelches between your toes and spatters your clothes. You imagine the scar of the freshly dug grave, the sticks of incense guttering in the wind.
After dinner—you eat with your fingers, like everyone else—you wash your hands in your eldest aunt’s bathroom, passing through her bedroom. She uses the same golden, translucent soap, Pears, that your grandmother used to. After you wash your hands, its smell clings to you. On the way out, you see that your eldest aunt has built a new cupboard by the door, a tall, handsome structure gleaming with coats of varnish.
Your eldest aunt sees you looking at the cupboard and says, You know what that is?
You must look confused, because your eldest aunt says, This is the wood from your grandmother’s coffin. It was solid American plywood, three-ply, it was a shame to waste it. So I made a cupboard out of it.
You cannot believe that your aunt did this. You walk over to the cupboard and touch it with the palm of your hand, feeling, under the stickiness of the varnish, the soft grain of American wood. You stand motionless and your eyes fill with tears. Your aunt notices and says, There, there, and, It’s okay, she’s in heaven now.
You want to ask your eldest aunt for a minute alone, but that is an impossibility in an Indian family, she will not understand what you mean. Instead you stand with your palm flat against the wood of your grandmother’s coffin, eyes tightly shut, trying to stop the tears from flowing. You cannot stop crying, and you cannot explain to your aunt that you are not crying for your grandmother. You are crying for yourself, because with your grandmother gone, you have lost the center of your world. This is what your life will be like from now on. You are naked and homeless and alone.