Here. Now. You go."
If the priest didn't mumble these exact words, then his gesture told me to take hold of the stick in his hand. It was time. I was the oldest son. By rights the oldest son is the one to poke a hole in the father's skull, releasing his soul from this life to the
Only vaguely did I know about this ancient ritual. I'd never seen it. Hesitating, I glanced over at my brother, Sanjiv. Being the younger son, he would go next.
This is totally bizarre.
My thought stayed with me. The priest was running everything. Sanjiv and I were almost irrelevant: two modern bystanders caught up in ancestral ways. We had flown back to New Delhi the moment we received news of our father's sudden death.
The smoke from burning bodies raised an indescribable smell around us and dirtied the sky. It must have been a strong stench, but at that moment I was immune to it. Each pyre occupied its own small plot in the burningghat, or cremation ground. Women were keening. The logs for cremation formed a social order — cheap wood for the poor; expensive, fragrant sandalwood for those who could afford it. Orange marigolds were also scattered over the bodies of the well to do before the fire was lit.
The priest was eyeing me, wanting to move on; this was his daily business. Meanwhile I felt a strange detachment. Centuries of tradition said, "You must not forget us," and I obeyed, taking the stick from the priest's hand.
In the flames, which were transparent in the noonday sun, I could glimpse the shape of my father's body. The shroud had burned away, and the remains were more skeleton than corpse. No horror overcame me. A part of my mind stood apart, admiring the efficiency of the ghat. The fires burned very hot and finished their work with dispatch.
Daddy had been alive thirty-six hours ago. He had sat up late to watch, with no enthusiasm, George W. Bush take the oath of office. It was 2001, his first inaugural. That morning, he had walked grand rounds at Moolchand Hospital as usual, with a line of young doctors in tow, and had mentioned to my mother as he kissed her good night that he was feeling a bit of discomfort. Better call K. K. in the morning, one of the young doctors who worked with him, just in case. Now there was empty space where once a person had vibrated with life.
How is an adult defined? Someone who knows the value of doing what he doesn't like to do. So I did it, driving the pointed end of the stick into my father's skull. I once read a medical memoir by Michael Crichton that began with a shocking sentence: "It is not easy to cut through a human head with a hacksaw." Poking a hole in one is easy, though, if it has crumbled nearly to ashes.
How long would I remain this detached?
I passed the stick to Sanjiv and managed to keep my eyes on him without flinching after what I had done. When we're together, I'm the quiet one. But we both occupied a somber silence at that moment, and a shared bewilderment.
Death is bewildering. The survivors confront something worse than deep sadness — sheer emptiness. A void in the vicinity of the heart holding a place for pain to fill in later. In Buddhism it is said that there is no alternative to emptiness; it only matters how you face it. Unknown to me, I would face it very differently than I imagined.
The priest nodded matter-of-factly when the two brothers had done their sacred duty. The chanting continued for hours. Our legs grew rubbery; we were exhausted and bleary with jet lag.
There is a native people in the desert mountains of western Mexico, the Huichol, who take peyote every day, starting when, as babies, they drink it in their mothers' milk. Are they in a walking hallucination that feels normal to them? At that moment, Sanjiv and I were two Huichols.
For a long time I didn't know when I was actually born. Looking back, it might not have mattered. None of us is truly present at our own birth. We are barely prepared to arrive. A newborn's brain is still manufacturing new neural connections at the rate of one million per minute. It has a few primal reflexes, like grasping with the fists, obeying life's command of "Hold on tight." On the African plain a wildebeest or giraffe must know how to walk the instant it drops from the womb to the welcoming, dangerous earth. Survival is at stake. The mother gives a few licks to encourage her calf to stand up, and then the parade of life proceeds on its way, with a wobbly infant bringing up the rear. A human baby isn't like that. It is a half-finished product, a sketch waiting to be filled in. To remain alive, a baby needs all the care it can get.
Indian families have gotten the message with a vengeance. I opened my eyes that day — in April? October? — to see half a dozen female members of my family, and that group of anxious, beaming aunts, cousins, midwife, and mother would be the smallest group I saw in one room for many years. I was the first child of Doctor Krishan Lal and Pushpa Chopra, born at 17 Babar Road in New Delhi. Perhaps because I was born in a crowd I've never felt existential loneliness. It was a pleasure to be named Deepak, because hearing my name made people smile. Deepak means light, and I arrived during Diwali, the festival of lights. Firecrackers were going off in the streets, which helped mask the sounds of my grandfather firing off joyous shots from his old army rifle while standing on the roof of his house. The city was sparkling with thousands of oil lamps to celebrate the victory of good over evil. To name a baby Deepak is a cause for smiling.
The only anxiety was that my father wasn't present. In 1946 the war was still winding down, and he had been on the Burma front, where it was thought he might still be during my birth, although his exact whereabouts were unknown. It would be another twenty days before he set eyes on his newborn son.
But it wasn't turmoil or anxiety or superstition that made my parents change my actual birthday from October 22 to April 22, only a technicality around when I was allowed to start school. Moving my birth to the spring of 1947 allowed me to attend school when the family moved to a new station. I'm not sure I have the details clear in my mind even now.
It's inborn for Indians to look on any day as either propitious or ill-favored. Being born on Diwali is auspicious enough to satisfy anyone, but doubly so for a doctor, since the festival celebrates Lakshmi, goddess of prosperity and healing. (The word "goddess" can be misleading. I was brought up to worship God in the singular. All the Hindu gods and goddesses stand for God, without a plural.)
Every morning my mother lit a lamp and recited daily puja, the household religious ritual, Sanjiv and I at her side, our main fascination being our mother's singing of the prayers, which was lovely.
Our home was full of visitors and patients from every faith, and my mother cared for all of them. My father's religion was medicine. An army doctor like my father was allowed to maintain a private practice on the weekends. I became aware early on that Daddy was a special kind of physician. Cardiologists rely on readouts from EKGs to tell them what a patient's heart is doing, but my father gained a reputation for gathering the same information using only a stethoscope and the sound of a heartbeat. He could time the intervals between the contraction of the two chambers of the heart — the auricle and ventricle — by ear, down to fractions of a second. The EKG only came into general use in the Forties, and, in fact, my father had trained under one of the British doctors who pioneered it when he did a tour of medical duty in India. A doctor's recollection from that era says that cardiology "was nothing more than having good hearing through a stethoscope," but my father's accuracy was considered uncanny.
When he was stationed in Jabalpur, we lived in a huge colonial house with a sweeping drive lined with mango and guava trees. Patients came from all over India as Krishan Lal's reputation grew. My mother would station herself on the veranda, knitting. She kept an eye out for how each patient arrived, whether on foot or by car with a driver. There was no fee for anyone, but when a poor patient was leaving, she'd quietly tell a servant, Lakshman Singh, to make sure he had something to eat and, if the need was great, a train ticket home. It seems extraordinary, looking back, that Lakshman Singh came with my mother as part of her bridal dowry. He was fourteen. (The last I heard, he is now in his eighties, having outlived both her and my father.)
When I was ten and we were leaving the post in Jabalpur to go to the next in Shillong, a sizable crowd gathered to see my father off at the train station, touching his feet, laughing and weeping. I held Sanjiv's hand, wondering at this crush of humanity, so many people so deeply moved.
My mother lived through her children and through her husband's work. She would wait up for him to return from the hospital and quiz him about his cases. Did you rule out a pulmonary edema? Did you exclude atrial fibrillation? She became quite expert at this, and would predict how a case was likely to progress, shaking her head with a mixture of satisfaction and regret if she had been right and the patient didn't recover. She would also pray for the patients and become vicariously involved, not just in the detective work of diagnosis but in their personal lives as well. My father did the same. I had no way of knowing that this kind of medicine had no future. No one knew any other way at the time.
On the day after the cremation Sanjiv and I returned to the ghat and helped sift through my father's ashes. The smoldering heap could be touched gingerly, and every fragment of bone that could be picked out was put into a small pouch. The atmosphere was less eerie than the day before. We had woken from our hallucination. A new crowd of pyres was blackening the air. The wailing women had different faces, if grief ever wears a different face. At one point the priest held up a piece of sternum with two ribs attached. This somehow delighted him.
"Ah, your father was enlightened! See, this proves it," he exclaimed. To him, the fragment looked like a figure sitting inSamadhi, or deep meditation.
My mother, who was arthritic and confined to a wheelchair, hadn't attended the cremation. It's fairly usual for some of the family who are closest to the deceased to stay away. I hadn't had time to know what was coming over me emotionally, but I could faintly smell it — an acrid bitterness that had no name. Perhaps the constant activity surrounding death in India is a wise old way to keep shock from paralyzing us. The only person who had burst into tears since my arrival was Shanti, the live-in servant who greeted me at the door when I was driven to my parents' house, on Link Road in Defence Colony. That area of South Delhi took its name because the houses were built by Indian veterans of World War II who had each been given a free lot in gratitude for their service.
This house, built on the parcel given to my maternal grandfather, is three stories tall, made of brick with one wall faced with river stones. My grandfather had camped himself on the building site, sorting the stones for choiceness and telling the workmen where to place them. This kind of facade was an unusual touch then. A small patch of manicured lawn and a few rose bushes decorate the front, but it's not a tranquil setting. Link Road is full of traffic, and the noise presses on you almost constantly inside the house.
Shanti's anguish made me cry as we embraced. I don't remember tears after that. (There was no wailing at the cremation, either. We have strong women in our family.) My mother was in her bedroom, sitting up, waiting. Because she had become more and more an invalid, none of us had expected that she would be the parent left alone. There were arrangements to be made about where she would live now. We had to face the creeping signs of dementia. But none of that came up the first night. My mother was somber and lucid. I remember only one sentence from her: "Your father's upstairs. Spend the night with him."
His body lay on the floor in a third-floor bedroom. It was wrapped in a winding sheet that left his face exposed. When I saw it, there was no sign of Daddy in the grayish skin and masklike expression. I sat until dawn, letting my mind wander through memories that came randomly. My brother and I were well loved as children; none of the images that ran through my mind were troubling, and for that reason none were exceptional. The army camps we lived in, called cantonments. My mother sharing a meal with the kitchen maid; she and my father had no tolerance for the traditional caste system. A procession of anonymous sick people coming through the door. My father as a young man, striking in his uniform with a blaze of medals across his chest. He was comfortable being our household god, modest as he was.
Flying in from Boston, Sanjiv had arrived at Link Road before me and had been sent to bed to soften the edge of exhaustion. He was waiting when I came downstairs after dawn. Nothing dramatic was said — few words at all, in fact. The extended family would arrive soon. Sanjiv's wife, Amita, had flown over with him, but it was agreed that my wife, Rita, would come later, after the four days of immediate mourning were over, to help my mother settle my father's affairs and sort out his papers.
On the third day Sanjiv and I took the car to Haridwar, four or five hours north. The bits of bone from the cremation were to be immersed in the Ganges. Cultural genes taking over again. The city of Haridwar is one of the seven most holy places for Hindus. The name translates as the Gateway to God; it is where the Ganges tumbles out of the Himalayas and the steepness of Rishikesh, the valley of the saints, before it broadens out on the plains.
The city is sacred chaos. The minute we stepped out of the car a gaggle of priests converged, assaulting us with questions about our family: my father's name, my grandfather's, and so on. Temples line the river, and countless people wade into the water for holy ablutions. At night a flotilla of burning lamps is launched, creating an incandescent mirror of the starry sky.
Once we had answered enough questions, Sanjiv and I were guided down a narrow alley filled with pilgrims, putt-putting scooters, and sweatshops. Inside a small courtyard a priest unrolled a long parchment scroll . Before ashes are scattered over the Ganges, the deceased's family marks their visit by entering a message on the scroll. The event doesn't have to be a death. For hundreds of years this has been a place where people have come to mark important passages in their life, such as a birth or a marriage.
The days of mourning for my father had scattered my energies. Now, looking at the messages left by my ancestors, my mind was suddenly thrown into sharp focus.
In that dim, airless room I saw that the last few entries on our family scroll were in English: My father coming to scatter the ashes of his father. My grandfather arriving right after World War I with his new bride to "bathe in the celestial pool." The record turned into Urdu and Hindi before that, and if the family line had held strong, the record could have stretched back to one of the earliest Vedicrishis, the seers who began the spiritual lineage of India before there was even a religion labeled Hinduism.
I was unusually moved, even though I had had no real interest in our family tree. Impulsively I added a message to my own children: "Breathe the scent of your ancestors." That moment lingers in my memory. Later a folded note was found in my father's room, bidding a final farewell. We don't know when he wrote it, or if he had a premonition that he would die. As much as he had enjoyed his life, the note said, he didn't intend to come back again. My mind flashed to lines from the Persian mystic poet Rumi: "When I die I will soar with the angels. When I die to the angels, what I shall become you cannot imagine."
Yet that moment of fullness fled quickly. If a life is contained between its most ecstatic moments and its bleakest, then for me the two collided into each other. I became subdued and downcast.
I wanted to talk to Sanjiv about this feeling of doom. I wanted to hear what he would say. But as the days passed, I held back. This wasn't a topic that we felt sympathetic about when we shared our conflicting views. I was the medical maverick, he the establishment. Brothers can share genes, a family, and a culture that weaves them into its complex fabric. That much was unspoken between us. Yet twins who are born with identical genes are not clones. At age seventy their genetic profile will be completely different. Genes switch on and off. They listen in on the world and eavesdrop on a person's every thought, wish, fear, and dream. Twins diverge as much as the rest of us, although they may retain a subtler bond. Did Sanjiv and I have that? Daddy had abandoned us to our dream of life. Did he wake up from his or simply vanish?
The scattering of the ashes done, my brother and I arrived back at Link Road after midnight. The pouch that held our father's ashes was empty, left discarded in the backseat. On the way home neither of us had said what was in his heart. The extended family dispersed after four days. I passed Rita when she arrived, and as quickly as I had entered the province of death, I was back home under the Californian sun. But the province of death is portable, it seems. I became haunted by an overpowering sense of gloom: My father doesn't exist anymore. There is nothing left. He is leading where one day I will have to follow.