I silently stand witness.
A few minutes ago, he was cold.
A few days ago he was warm.
Now he is on fire.
Traditional Hindu cremations are not for the meek. They aren't cold impersonal, sterile events, where cardboard boxes carrying a body are slid into electronically-regulated, temperature-controlled blast furnaces sealed behind metal doors, they are very personal, and corporeal, physical and metaphysical. They force you to confront and examine a balance between the science you hold to be true, and the faith that holds you to be true, or false. Did my father cease to be, when his neural activity ended, just before I received that phone call? Or was there a soul, and was his soul just beginning another leg of its journey, waiting for me to free it from the shackles of this body?
It was 40 more than the 8 customary hours allowed to begin this process, but there were extraordinary measures taken for what are becoming more ordinary circumstances. My father was in a climate controlled container, waiting as his son leapt over oceans and flew forward across time. Even though it began as an oral tradition, the rules were written down in a era when sons couldn't live on the other side of the world from their fathers. So one tradition was debated against another by orthodox family members, and my responsibilities to perform these last rites won me the technologically enabled opportunity to see him on his way.
At the center of this all is the husk of the man who helped create me. He helped me learn how to persevere through challenges in life and how much more meaningful it can be in the service of others. Sreenivasan Krishnaswamy (one tradition has the son take their father's first name as his last) had a mother from the lush southwestern state of Kerala, and a father from the arid Deccan plains of Tamil Nadu state in the southeast. Like the regions they yielded from, there was little they had in common. For a large portion of that marriage, my Grandfather felt his life would be better served as a temple priest earning next to nothing in a tiny hamlet in his home state rather than surrounded by his wife, their children and her large extended family. For my father and his siblings, being the children of -for all practical purposes- a single penniless mother in the 1940s and 50s in rural and tradition-bound south India was not easy. The magnanimity of distant uncles kept a roof over their heads. Most of his formative years were spent sharing cramped sleeping quarters and recycled schoolbooks, small meals and meanings of life with cousins and second cousins. The extended family was the only one he ever knew.
I was scheduled to arrive on the following Tuesday for a two week visit, but I missed him by exactly a week. I arrived on Thursday just before dawn and slid the two accordion style elevator doors open onto the floor of his flat, and when I looked to the right, his apartment door was wide open. It wasn't even 5 in the morning, and there was my mother in tears, the woman who divorced him more than 13 years ago, she and her sisters had all flown down from Mumbai, to see him, to see me, to see me see him. There were friends, and extended family members, but also an absolute silence where I could hear myself breathe, and swallow, as if I was underwater, as if I had just plugged my ears. The elevator tore that, with its alarm "please close the door" in both English and Tamil, and as it produced an annoying set of worn down chimes, people looked in its direction, saw me and began to part. I was shocked to realize that he was lying in state, here in his apartment. I had spent the last 40 hours steeling myself to face him at the cremation grounds, which I calculated to be at least 5 hours from now, a five hours I needed, as if the five hours mattered. I thought he was in a morgue somewhere, that I could get the courage up to face the fact, but here he was, lying inside what looked like the counters you find in a jewelry store. It was as if I could tell the clerk- I'll take the sleeping man with cotton in his nose and that cloth ribbon holding his jaw shut please, wrap him up.
This was my father, this wasn't dad, or daddy, or pops. We found inspiration in one another, and our relationship had evolved over the years, where we saw each other more equally, but all that dissolved as I stared at him knowing he wasn't going to stare back at me. There was a sense of clear purpose, of the duty that lay ahead of me. By the time I caught my breath, the processes had begun. The son had arrived, and the refrigerated ambulance was summoned. As I shifted to another room and began accepting condolences and mustering up the thank yous and "you meant a lot to him too" type sentences in what was my first language, he was shifted into a vehicle for a cold 5 hour ride to the ancestral village where his father was a temple priest.
With a high school diploma, he migrated to Bombay where he could begin earning money to support the family. For years, he shared a 400 sq ft flat with 7 other adults, including his eldest brother, sister-in-law, mother, and three more siblings and a cousin. Keep in mind, walking into a flat of their own, which had running water on tap and electricity was still a step up from fetching water from the well, and studying by oil lamps, while sleeping a few yards away from the livestock. My aunt told me that when my father married, and began sharing the balcony of that flat with his wife, she remembered being depressed that she would never have children in these conditions; some things in life required a level of privacy, village or city, extended family or not.
Both his first wife and child died as she gave birth. This was not a small fact of his life, because it was kept from my mother's family until after her wedding. That fact in the late 60s, in conservative Hindu Bhramin society caused a rift between the families. My parents lived apart for more than a year, and my mother refused to set foot back in the home of her mother-in-law. As I recently learned, my conception likely happened in the kitchen of my uncle's home, where my parents slept during a trial reconciliation, and thus began peace between clans. The marriage between my parents would dissolve in the mid 90s when one party had assimilated American expectations into her ideal of a relationship, and the other party was blindsided because he felt he had lived up to his obligations from a different set of cultural expectations; he had given her a son, a roof over their heads, what more could she be asking for. His father's neglect for his mother had reappeared, in a different time, in a different country, in a different way, between different people.
I had visited this village called Vasudevamputt perhaps a half dozen times, mostly in the last decade. I remember the first time in the early 80s, where after a two day train ride between Bombay and Madras, then two bone-jarring bus rides lasting another 6 hours, my mother was far less thrilled than I was at the prospect of sitting on the back of a swaying, rickety, wooden-wheeled bullock cart for the last 7 kilometers. That path has now been turned into a windy one-lane roadway where a bus barrels by the village once or twice a day. But perhaps cell phones have cut back on unnecessary trips so much that more buses are unwarranted. That thought crossed my mind as we pulled up to the temple and I saw that one of the neighbors had leased out his yard for a cell phone tower. The neighbor told me that the sales pitch was just too good.
My father worked his way up as a salesman of electrodes and other industrial goods, and by what his old boss and dear friend told me in the last few days, my father was good at it. He had a standing letter from two departments that he could come back to work at the company, if America didn't suit him. The American opportunity was thanks to the youngest brother in my father's family. This uncle had no interest in stopping his studies at high school, he and his cousin would escape the crowded house in Bombay by riding local trains from one end to another. It was, relatively speaking, the only quiet place they could find to study and think. When they were younger, my father would go to local book shops and hand copy text books for them, because books were more expensive than time. These two uncles pursued college degrees, and with the financial help of all their siblings and family, both eventually made it to the U.S. and they have been repaying that gratitude to their families ever since. When that youngest brother settled in the US, he sponsored my father across. Similar to the experiences of most immigrants that first year was a brutal one, my father struggled to acclimate to the people, the culture, the language, and of course the weather. My mother and I joined him a year later to begin planting roots.
The majority of my father's time in the United States was employed as a mid level administrator at the DCLU (Department of Construction and Land Use) in the City of Seattle. He occasionally attempted to enter the seemingly get-rich-quick world of import/export businesses, trying to be a conduit between buyers and sellers of latex goods, and water bottles, and handicrafts and gems, but there was never that silver bullet which burst our family out of the ranks of the squarely middle class.
After my parents divorced, I suggested he retire early and spend more time in India, where he could live far more comfortably and make more of an impact. While on a visit to the United States in 1998, a massive Stroke cost him all the motor skills on his right side. He worked through grueling physical therapy for six months and decided he would rather spend the rest of his life at home, closer to family than in this land which now held some painful memories. The first few weeks back, he was depressed at how peopled pitied him, spoke of him, stared at him. India is a country full of starers, whether you are a local or a foreigner, it seems every set of the billion plus eyes, has glanced at you for at least a second or two longer than necessary. There was a tipping point of sorts, where he realized that he could use his status as a "Stroke patient" to his advantage. He filed for a handicapped train pass, and in the process, realized how much bureaucrats bent rules for him based on his disability. He had figured out that corruption in India was just a force of nature, almost an inevitability embedded within its soil, there was no use trying to defeat it, it was how you channeled it that mattered.
There is something different about the dirt in the rural villages of India. It might not make sense to some people, but it does not feel dirty to me. Unlike in the cities, where the dirt is the space between buildings, mud and muck gather on street corners, laced with grime and grease, here dirt just is. My father was rested briefly on that dirt outside the temple as I was lead through the beginning of rituals which last a full 13 days after the last breath. A priest had me repeat incantations that tested even my Dravidian and Sanskrit language-friendly tongue. Till this time I felt cheated by that tongue, for during the past two days, it let words escape me before they could form in my mouth. The shock had manifested by robbing me of one of my most valued treasures; expression. I understood the phrases including my father's name, the words pointing to his Hindu astrological sign, or our family lineage, otherwise it was a blur. I found myself focusing on the pronunciation for a while and then that too became unconscious, I had familiarized myself with the priest's cadence, and the immediate-term recorder in my mind took over, mimicking sounds like a toddler does much to the amusement of his parents, but without much comprehension. It is as if these words were warming up my tongue again, stretching my mouth out, teaching my breath how to meter and to bend sound again.
I found myself more conscious of the villagers who were watching, listening, judging whether this kid from America was doing right by his father, whether I was going to be able to live up to the man who was covered up to his neck in a white cotton sheet and draped now in flowers. Some of these villagers had dirt caked up to their shins because they had paused from the backbreaking work of planting rice. Shepherds had corralled their herds of cattle or goats so they could come pay their respects one more time. Some came wearing their Sunday finest, which was a button down shirt and lower body wrap called a lungi. A regional minister even came to pay his respects, waiting two and a half hours till the procession began.
For the last ten years of his life, my father began focusing his efforts on this particular place, because he knew he could, and that no one else would. He had become a voice for these people who often go unheard. When he heard about local government construction projects, he lobbied on behalf of the natives, harassing, pestering, cajoling, shaming local bureaucrats till they included clauses into contracts which would source some of the labor from the locally unemployed. He convinced the construction companies it was good for them because it cut down housing costs, convinced local politicians that those who delivered jobs in this drought prone and often impoverished region would gain loyal voters. Many times it was simply his presence and his story that won him the necessary audience; that a man was driving four hours from the big city of Chennai to lobby on behalf of these poor farmers, that someone who had once lived in the United States was choosing to champion their cause, and to top it all off, he was a "Stroke patient".
He kick-started women's self help groups and micro-lending programs between a cluster of villages, and when they succeeded, supported their development into independent small businesses. He helped put dozens of children through school, college and helped them get their first jobs.
One man, roughly my age, who would run barefoot through the villages with me when we were young, came up to me and told me that my father had made a crucial difference in his life simply by vouching for him in order to secure his first bank loan. This man has since repaid that loan and several others, and has a small cooking oil delivery business up and running, he has good credit with the bank, and now a name of his own, with which he can vouch for others. My father was the spark.
I struck the match and lit a small pill of camphor, nestled it among pieces of dung patties, placed that all into an earthen pot, where it began growing in intensity and heat. While it continued to smolder I held one end of special reeds between my praying hands, made sure the other end touched my father's ear as I repeated prayers which were supposed to lift away any final desires remaining in his body; desires that would tie him to this world. I tried to focus on his ear, but whether it was the heat or humidity or simply the thawing from exposure, his forehead glistened, and I felt like asking my father why he was sweating so much, whether he felt feverish, whether he'd like a cold drink.
As my prayers and circumambulations progressed, villagers began building the litter that would carry him to his final resting place. In a matter of minutes, one man had weaved palm reeds into a tight mesh, and lashed it to a frame of bamboo. A portion of the sheet that covered my father's body was torn for me to use in ceremonies in the coming days. He was then transferred onto the litter, roped into it securely and the procession began.
I walked in front, bare-chested, with the traditional lower body wrap, carrying the smoldering pot at arms length, as people threw flowers and coins in our direction. The procession (all male) made its way along a path between rice fields, and then down to a slow flowing creek which turns into a swift river after the monsoons. I was the first to climb in, the water was waist deep, with slippery rocks beneath. Two members of the procession grabbed my free arm to help me across, while my other arm worked to keep the smoldering pot up above the water. By the time I had made it to the the dry portion of the riverbed, I turned to see my father hovering above the water, held aloft by a half dozen pallbearers whom I had never known.
There were dozens of people in the later stages of my father's life whom I never knew. Several seem to originate as part of the Chennai sunrise beach walker's set. He befriended captains of industry, ordinary laborers, fellow retirees and members of the laughing club every morning from a make shift post near the Gandhi statue on Marina Beach. He struggled to walk a few more steps with his cane each day, and sometimes he would just sit near the statue in a plastic lawn chair, greeting his friends and making new ones. On one of the few occasions that I made it to the beach with him, I watched how natural it was for him to make connections between people. A walker who ran a stevedoring company asked for a connection to an industrialist my father knew who was using the competition. My father seemed completely in his element as a connector, as a bridge. A mutual philosophy he and I agreed on a decade ago was that the transmission and dissemination of knowledge and information was more important than its acquisition, simply-put, it is more important to share than to hold. So my father shared what he had; friends. If money ever changed hands due to these introductions, the transaction fee was that both parties donate one percent to a charity of their choosing. Often times this is how thousands of pencils and notepads and hundreds of pounds of old clothes would make their way to his tiny village because those he connected had already seen his good works.
He had an ability to connect with people, regardless of what rank or social position they held. Within 30 seconds of meeting someone, he would somehow drop an anecdote or a name or a landmark that would resonate with them, and the meeting took on a different meaning for the stranger. Perhaps it was his attempt that counted, the attempt to reach past the things that separate us all, the attempt to reach past the thing that made his right foot drag, and his right hand curl inward.
I was expecting firewood, but instead, from within the burlap sacks which were already waiting for us, emerged rows of stacked dry dung patties. I only knew it in the context of reinforcing mud huts, and its use as a cooking fuel, and my head spun at the prospect of what was about to happen. They laid it in three columns beneath him, then unloaded him from the litter onto that bed, and waited for me to ask for blessings from different Gods facing different directions, preparing this offering for the God of fire so that he may carry my father's soul onward.
I was asked to rub coins against the palm of his curled right hand as he lay there on the riverbed. I'll never forget how cold his hand felt. My fingers were in shock at the chill and as I kept rubbing, I kept wondering why he couldn't feel me, why he wasn't waking up from this deep sleep. Didn't he know that it was me, that I was there, earlier than expected? My priest told me that these coins were in essence the last thing that my father touched, and that I should keep them as mementos. But I remember struggling with the notion of whether these were objects that were touching his hand or whether he was touching them, because the idea of him touching them made me imagine that he had will, that cognition still existed, there was somehow control, direction, authority, life involved for him to touch something, and here I was about to set it all ablaze. Another set of coins were being wrapped in clay and kept next to his body for a reason I would only understand the following day. Members of the procession began covering his body with more dry patties, and it seemed like time quickened. Before I knew it, he was almost all covered up, except for his face. At this point, his friends and family came and sprinkled rice across his lips for his journey ahead. I was the last to do so.
There was a small indentation in the patties that sat on and around his chest, and I was asked to empty the contents of that very hot pot onto him. Quickly, the men who had been waiting on the sidelines, covered him completely except for one hole for the smoke to rise. They sprinkled hay, lamp oil and sugar as accelerants on this now substantial pile, then put a layer of clay on top of it all, smoothing it out with their bare hands. His face was covered, and there was smoke coming up faster and faster now, I could no longer see him, I just saw this mound of green and brown, with glints of golden hay, inside, fire was consuming what was left of my father.
My cousin, my priest and I rose before dawn the next day, and waded across that river again, to perform rituals I never fathomed. By daybreak, the men who had watched the pyre after dark had opened up bits of it to make sure everything was progressing. So there I stood, gaping, into what was left of my father in a way I had never imagined. The priest wrapped my left wrist with a talisman, and then had me find certain bone fragments with nothing more than my thumb and forefinger, and drop them into a pot of milk which I carried in my right hand. It had been more than 16 hours and the bones were still very hot to the touch. I felt a mild burn on my fingertips, heard the plop and subsequent sizzle as the milk absorbed the heat. I was also given the small stash of coins that had been through the fire with him. All the clay that surrounded the coins, all the clay that surrounded him had essentially hardened into a pot of sorts because we had essentially built a kiln. We buried that pot with the milk at the edge of the river, and the rest of the pile would be reclaimed within a matter of days in what could possibly be one of the most organic processes on earth.
As the sun rose and I performed those last hours of rituals, everything was still smoldering inside. The smoke and dust began to rise, the more the pile was disturbed. It engulfed me. I grasped for some reason amidst what seemed like pure madness. I had just touched razor sharp bits of his skull, his finger, seen how porous his leg bone was, and wondered whether the dark yellow-brown powdery substance was marrow. As I chanted and turned and prayed, and walked around his remains I postulated with some mathematical certainty, that my father, was in that smoke. He was setting gently on my skin. I was inhaling him. He was in my lungs, and perhaps some unfiltered sliver of him was within the oxygen in my bloodstream and making his way to fill the emptiness in my beating heart.
* * *
By the time I walked away from the riverbank, his body had become an it to me.
The man of science in me was content that there was no more K. Sreenivasan. At this point, he was reduced to a construct in a collective memory, a set of images to be stored and accessed, a series of anecdotes that triggered emotions, but to think that, much less say such a thing to some of my relatives was blasphemous. I had several honest conversations where I alluded to this idea, that for me, the ceremony was through at the cremation, the rest of it was for the family. It was for their appeasement, that I would invest the time and energy and money, to make sure an inadequate funeral service for my father would not be the source of superstitious blame for any ill that befalls the family in the future. It was for my father's generation, perhaps the last one which truly believes these rituals to be so important, which truly has the necessary amount of faith.
I performed the rituals for Day 9-13, in Mumbai so more of my father's family could participate. Each of those days, I would go to a special center where they perform nothing but last rites. Culturally and spiritually, these places are barely a step above open cremation grounds. Since it is still considered a somewhat inauspicious series of rituals, there are only a handful of such facilities in the megalopolis that is Mumbai, and they are not in the nicest neighborhoods, because only the poor or lower caste or people of other faiths or no faith, would allow for prayers of death in their backyards day after day. Each day was a confrontation with the reality that is Mumbai. The city by several estimates is more than half slum, and I was driving into one each morning, leaving my mother's tiny middle class flat or my friend's spacious corporate subsidized apartment. I was spending more on these 4 days worth of rituals than most of that neighborhood may see in a year's wages.
This place, was spare and pinkish inside, just three small rooms, each with a sink and a stove for the preparation of more offerings to the Gods. Each day, I would sit in front of a fire, and perform prayers for my father's soul, as well as three previous generations, so that they may reach salvation after the thousands of lives they've already lived. There would be offerings of rice and clarified butter, and honey and milk and yogurt and ginger, some offered to them through Agni- the God of fire, and then the rest I would take to the ocean.
The facility technically has a flowing stream next to it, but being Mumbai, that stream is a cesspool of detritus, organic and artificial, and while I could take some comfort that his ashes from the rural south of India may eventually find their way into an ocean, all I could be certain of in this neighborhood was that packs of stray dogs would probably feast on these offerings as fast as I could drop them off (which allegedly would be 16 years of bad luck). Even finding a clean patch of ocean is not an easy thing in this city of millions. At most beaches, the ocean churns back the worst of what has been thrown into it, and as the tide goes out in the afternoons, there is a quarter mile of different lines of trash to cross. So I would go to a sliver where the ocean was rockier, into one of the more affluent neighborhoods, that had developed a waterfront promenade, venture out onto the rocks and hurl these edible offerings for whatever life aquatic managed to survive in these waters.
What I began noticing was the intensity with which people cared that the last rites be performed as thoroughly as possible, all the way through the 13th day. One of my father's uncles would call almost every day, partly to check in on me, but also to remind me of the importance of the following day. "Tomorrow is a very important day, very very important" he'd declare at the end of each brief chat. I detected almost a tinge of jealousy among some of my elder relatives, as they kept stating to me how blessed my father was to have a son perform all his final duties so traditionally because I think a part of them wondered whether they would be as fortunate. I certainly don't expect the next generation to carry out such an elaborate sequence for me, but again theirs is the generation that believes, that these particulars matter. As I discovered after a few of these conversations, I'm the fool for trying to reason against the irrational.
As a couple of friends counseled me, the ceremonies also have very logical roots, whether they are couched as such or not. During the first ten days the place of death, the family of the dead, the son performing the last rites are all essentially quarantined. Not only are they not supposed to leave the home, but they are unwelcome in the homes of others. It makes perfect sense as a way to prevent the spread of communicable diseases, for the same reasoning that the body should be disposed of by the end of the first day. The prescribed number of days of mourning is also the grafting of a framework for collective grieving. Otherwise how could one know, whether it was rude or callous to approach someone in grief. Was three days the right answer? 30 days? 2 weeks seems like a decent period for people to arrive at some sort of emotional catharsis. At some point, if you're thinking about your loved one day after day, you're bound to have a good cry. I've sat in front of sacred fires for what seems like a lifetime now and have had time to wonder whether maybe a few thousand years ago the high priests realized that the smoke from these fires gives grown men an excuse to cry while still holding onto their masculinity.
The ceremonies also drive home the importance that I am but a link in a long chain. Day after day I was reminded of the names of my great grand fathers and their wives and it forced me to wonder how I fit into that chain, how my ideas and actions reflect upon them and also what is it of them that I carry with me. While it emphasizes that I am part of a family, it painfully drives home that the chain has so far ended with me, even before a tactless relative or priest asks me where my son is, or for that matter where my wife is, and who will pray for me when I'm gone. It makes me think that perhaps the notion of the soul transmigrating, of generations of ancestors watching over you, is just meant in part to console us for when we all can feel so completely alone. Perhaps faith is as valid as a cocktail of pharmaceutical drugs psychiatrists prescribe to cure that same loneliness.
The underpinnings of faith are changing as fast as the Mumbai skyline. The business of God is gigantic, but whether faith profits from that is difficult to tell. Festivals like Diwali and Pongal are massive economic drivers for retail sales, there are also billions of dollars spent on a daily basis when you count the travel by people on spiritual pilgrimages to holy sites, and temple donation receipts.
Both my priests in the south of India and in Mumbai were shrewd businessman who knew that once these sorts of ceremonies started, prices could climb, and while the families may mutter bloody murder, they would rarely argue with the man who will help their dearly departed ascend into the next world. Its a bit like haggling over the price with the driver of the hersh once he already has the casket. Part cultural acceptance, and part selfish motivation, but both these men and their associates would take calls on their cell phones in the middle of ceremonies because these calls usually had to do with future revenue. The interruption of ancient prayers by a cell phone ring is a price of modern India.
* * *
There is the end of the individual in the eyes of God, and family, and then there is the end as recognized by the state. Disconnecting internet, power, water connections, seem the modern day gestures of detaching someone from society's life support. Calling the Social Security Administration to tell them of his passing made me realize it was exactly that, his security within a society that I was turning off. Arguing with a bank branch manager of why the bank could not accept a hospital certificate and one from the crematorium and instead needed a computerized document from the city just made me realize that somehow, it feels as if recognition by these institutions and corporations has gained an undue importance over time. My father was just an account to them, a number. They wont know how he laughed, they won't care why he cried, but why do they matter so much?
My father was on an upswing, I had just run to see him in November when he was suddenly hospitalized for a series of ailments, but he was getting better now. He was back home, he had just finished his physical therapy for the morning, had told the barber who comes to shave his face to come back the next day, and after briefly gasping for breath, the "cardiac event" was over before the ambulances could arrive. I suppose I should take comfort in that it was swift or merciful, that it wasn't some prolonged illness in a hospital, a bedridden agony. There are several things I'm supposed to feel, but at times I feel nothing at all, no joy, no pain, just a blank slate. I've spoken to several others who have lost a parent, and consistently the phrase/ idea of feeling like you are on a different planet comes up. It is as if I am watching myself outside of myself just go through the motions of life. At other times, there is no valve for my sadness with which I can meter it out. It appears and overwhelms as it pleases, and then passes like a monsoon shower. Memories lurk in corners of my mind darkened by the passage of time, and this event has flooded me with a somewhat blinding light that has activated so much at once. At times memories of my father rain down on me like tiny pieces of paper in a surprise ticker tape parade.
I went through his photo albums to see what he saw as he looked back across his life and his friends, I took a few images of him before he had his stroke, am hanging onto his passport and various id cards. There was an event which required a small photo of him so that a garland could be placed around it, and I had no idea what protocol was. Should it be the most recent image of him, should it be the best looking, does historical accuracy matter anymore? These aren't the things you think about, until you have to.
Throughout the surreal hours and days, I find myself defaulting to the words "my father passed" never the word died, never the word dad, and I wondered why that was. It isn't a sentence you prepare for or practice saying, but this set of words seemed accurate to me, even though it seemed to delineate that I believed he was passing onto another place. The formal title of father grew more from my role in his life than a lack of affection. Since their divorce, I have maintained an equidistance from my parents, playing multiple roles that overshadow son. Since my father's Stroke I've been his financial planner, legal counsel, medical advisor, and tech support. Somewhere during these roles I played in my life, he deposited things into me when I wasn't paying attention; several characteristics that I didn't even realize were his till so many more people filled in anecdotes about his life and compared my behaviors, mannerisms, phrases to his. I definitely have his curiosity, a penchant for making connections between people and ideas, a complete lack of tolerance for bureaucratic and institutional inefficiencies and corruption, a healthy disrespect for authority, a sense of wonder that the self is ever in progress, an ability to define my family beyond my blood relatives, among several other things. Whether I have inherited these things genetically or whether by watching him, will take another generation to answer.
Giving away his things has been therapeutic. I gave away almost everything he owned in a matter of days. A distant cousin with a new family took the furniture, an Ayurvedic masseur who helped my father improve his circulation got the home electronics, the driver's wife got everything in our kitchen for hers. A cousin helped me find a government school for girls where we donated his laptop to the top performing girls in their computer classes.
Two girls had exactly the same score, so they will share it with an explicit understanding that the less fortunate of the two girls would get the computer at year's end. That girl's parents work as flower sellers behind a five star hotel, earning perhaps the same in annual wages as the cost of the computer. The smile she had on her face was so deep, so pure, so unadulterated, my father made that happen, even after he was gone.
The villagers got all his old clothes. I wonder about wearing the clothes of the deceased, whether these villagers are actually carrying pieces of him around. Perhaps they'll wash everything before wearing it, but there's a good chance that there were skin cells of my father's on those clothes, perhaps those cells are touching the skins of others now, perhaps there are pieces of my father wandering all through that village, in shirts on the backs of old men, in towels drying off small children.
On my last day in the country, I spent some time away at a quiet beach, a 24 hour hall pass that I begged away from family. As I was walking with my feet in the ocean, I wondered whether my father's remains had made it to the sea in the past two weeks, was there a quadrillionth of him touching my feet now on this stretch of ocean? I was reminded of an interesting conversation I had with someone during this past couple of weeks about quantum mechanics and super-positions and how a unit of light and unit of energy has already been proven capable of existing in more than one place at one time. Within hours of that early morning conversation, during my rituals for the day, a senior priest by coincidence told me that we were living in a bundle of divine energy, that I just had allow myself to feel it. So as science hurtles toward proving the possibility of omniscience and perhaps of God, I have reason to believe that my father can still be with me. So I did what I've done at beaches for most of my life, I scribbled a prayer in the sand in Sanskrit, right along the water's edge and waited for the ocean to take it away. Now, perhaps there is someone I know answering it.
by Hariharan Sreenivasan
son of Sreenivasan Krishnaswamy
8/22/36 ---- 1/4/11