When my grandmother died, all ten of my aunts and uncles started sleeping in my grandmother’s living room. It was large and had hard grey marbled floors; to sleep, they rolled in thin mattresses and lined them up together with no gaps in between. They didn’t just sleep there, they spent all day there, crying and praying. Some ate, others quit. When I imagine them in there, I always imagine them sat on their padded floors, swaying in unison like wheat in a field being blown gently by the wind, or at other times I imagine them wailing together like a chorus of spectres – not a harsh or violent sound, but in harmony and sadness, reaching to a pitch and then subsiding.
My grandmother had had ten children. All of them survived childbirth. All of them survived infancy. That was unusual, at the time, in that part of the world, and for home births. I always wondered if she was scared of birthing children like I am. I am sure that she would have been scared. She had grown to be so scared of everything toward the end of her life. Scared of death most of all. And the problem was, you couldn’t talk her out of it because she was right to be scared of it, of course. She was old and she was sick, she had had several strokes. Some were serious and others went unnoticed until a routine check-up at the hospital. Stroke is such a strange word for it. As though God is reaching down and stroking you, but like a clumsy giant he doesn’t realize his strength and injures you instead.
She had had ten children and all of them were into their middle age when she died. Even the youngest was in her 40’s. Her great grandchildren were growing up, the oldest now entering middle school. What do you do, after all that? Just keep going? Wait for this life that you’ve made in your belly to make even more life, and then claim this new life for your own? Do you think of all the blood and skin and hair and memories and hands and hearts that you’ve made from nothing, that came from inside your own body where you didn’t even know that you were making it, and how?
She was a small woman, thin and frail looking. But she was still active, even restless, right up until the day she died. Also: by then she was utterly mad. On her better days she was terrified by the thought her mind was going, and on her demented days she forgot who she was, and thought her youngest son was her long-dead husband, so she spent her days being either confused or scared. So it was best that she went, I think, at the time she did. She had done everything you can in a life. She had had many, many children, she had pierced her ears all along the side and including the small bump of cartilage on the inside of each one. There was no skin left to pierce. She had seen life, death; she had even outlived one of her grandchildren. What else can be done, in the end when you expect life to conclude but it stubbornly doesn’t? You sort of wait. I imagine muzak in the background.
When my mother called me to tell me that my grandmother had died I was at uni. I live away. Videsh. That’s what they call it. ‘Out of the country.’ I grew up videsh, and never lived in the place my grandmother gave birth to the person who gave birth to me. I saw my grandmother almost never. Whenever she saw me I thought she looked reproachful, as though somehow I was responsible for my parents migrating and never coming back. Sometimes I felt like we were vying for the rightful ownership of my mother, and most of the time I thought my grandmother won. Which is strange considering she gave birth to me, sort of, once removed. My mother is an expansive woman, as petite as I am, and her stomach is like buttermilk, pale and cool. I can see how she could create something in there. Comfortably. But my grandmother was small and dark, her stomach was rough and paper-like. How did she make that buttermilk? There was a disconnection there. So I never really felt that my grandmother made my mother, and so somehow made me. But I know she did because I know she wasn’t sleeping with anyone but my grandfather because it is just impossible to have sexual affairs like that when you live in a giant house surrounded by hordes of your own children, relatives, servants and god knows who else.
First I received a text. Nani is dead. When I got the text, my immediate thought was that I didn’t know how I felt. I asked myself, almost immediately ‘how do I feel?’ and I thought ‘I don’t know’. I don’t know was how I felt. The apparent seriousness of what had happened was in quick conflict with the question mark I felt almost before I finished reading the text. So I was feeling I don’t know but my mother was feeling something very very definite. And it was something that I recognized. Something I recall from my childhood, when my other grandparents died. When I called her she was already talking in that sing-song moan of grief that meant that something catastrophic had occurred. It was speech that was also a cry, and it meant that the crying didn’t have to stop while speech occurred. It is intensely uncomfortable to hear, almost like something prohibited like when you accidentally hear your parents having sex. But this was something that you should hear, that is meant to be heard, so I listened as she cried/sang into my ear about what had happened. And like when a line from a song asks a rhetorical question, so too did she answer all of hers herself without paying any mind to what I said in reply. I soon cried from hearing her crying, although a part of me wondered if I was really crying because I felt I had to and I should do.
“You should be with people, are you with people?”
“No mum, I mean, yes, I am at university.”
“You should tell people at university, what am I going to do what am I going to do?”
“Mum, it happened how it should, it happened like it ought to have, she was old and she was sick. A heart attack was sudden and not drawn out. It was the best way.”
“She’s with God now, God has taken her, my mother my mother, oh my daughter my mother…”
She wailed in hindi and I answered in English. She cried in hindi and I cried in English.
This is the first and only time I can recall my mother ever hanging up the phone on me without saying goodbye. I felt acutely abandoned, something I increasingly felt around both of my parents. As they aged, they were becoming like teenagers in cahoots. Against the world, together, turning each other against everyone else, except one another, unreachable in the way children are when they play secret games with each other, or speak in made-up languages to one another. After my mother hung up on me, I sat with the phone in my lap and thought about what to do next. I was crying, but I wasn’t thinking about my grandmother. My grandmother doesn’t exist, and she never existed for me. She existed for my mother, in some larger than life way that I don’t even really have an analogue for because my mother revered my grandmother and I don’t revere my mother. My grandmother occupied some promethean space in my family tree but I was so far removed from her that I can barely conjure any memories about her, let alone something tender. I was crying because I had just heard my mother crying and that will make you cry nine times out of ten and you aren’t even sure why.
I don’t really remember much else from the day my grandmother left. I remember still-frame images instead of moving pictures. The face of a classmate as I explain my hesitant tears. Her milky face punctured by the round O of her mouth, a black hole in a pale white oval, as she haltingly backs away from my obvious display of grief. The lecture that I had rushed out of when I received the news. A woman was discussing art made of meat. There was talk of a meat dress, and at the time I thought that a meat dress sounded cool and heavy, slippery but protective. She had gone on after a woman who had discussed the work of a performance artist who pulled yarn from her vagina and knitted them together with long dangerous-looking needles, while a camera filmed her unblinking, unsmiling face.
I remember the first cigarette after the rush of embarrassment I felt when I realized that I shouldn’t be crying at uni drove me out of the building. The path outside stretches through the campus like a spine. It curves snake-like through a scattering of buildings, connecting disparate departments and faculties together. I remember a woman and her daughter, anxious looks of being lost on their faces. They were looking for a prospective student event, in the biology department. They were late, they had traveled a long way to be here, and the event had started 15 minutes ago. They asked me for directions. I do not know where their building is, but I say I do anyway. I direct the woman and her daughter to turn left and follow the path until it disappears around the corner. The daughter and the woman stop looking worried, and instead look relieved that their destination is almost within sight. I accept their grateful sighs and watch them stride determinedly away. I stub out my cigarette and I go back inside.