A heart attack does not look like what it does in the movies. My father never clutched his chest, never cried out in pain. He simply fell flat on his back, looked up at the sky in wide-eyed wonder, and let out a sound I can still hear at night sometimes, when I’m struggling to fall asleep.
In 2009, we went on a family vacation to a hill station in Madhya Pradesh known for its dramatic waterfalls and pristine jungle. The only hospital in the whole area was twenty minutes away from our forest location, a small army unit with one doctor and a seldom, if ever, used defibrillator. Death was called quickly. They wrapped my father up in hospital bed sheets and put him in a freezer.
My father, who only a few hours ago was smiling for my photographs, his foot balanced on a giant boulder, hands in the pockets of his khakis. My father, whose name for me was Piglet, who liked to hassle babies because he said they looked cuter when they cried, who loved guava cheese and Parsi maleeda, who kept a bowl of mogras by his bedside because he was soothed by their smell.
We brought my father’s body home in a van, which I followed in a taxi, sandwiched between my husband and my grandmother. The afternoon of the heart attack, tired from our winding drive up the hills, my grandmother decided, instead of coming out with us for the short hike to a famous scenic viewpoint, to recuperate with a quick nap at the guesthouse. My father had kissed her goodbye with a smile. She expected that we’d return soon after sunset.
Instead, my uncle had woken her up and brought her to the hospital, to my father’s lifeless body. If my grandmother felt overwhelmed by her grief, she took pains not to show it. She held my hand for the entire five-hour drive, on the hairpin roads down the ghats, back home. A thing about living in a small, close-knit community is that news travels fast.
By the time we returned, a tent was already set up in our front garden, and plastic chairs placed for the people who had begun pouring in. Five priests arrived with all the accoutrements for a funeral, and the prayers were over by the afternoon. We went to the Parsi Aramgarh, where a freshly dug grave awaited my father. Small rocks bit into my knees as I knelt by his graveside to throw flowers on the mound of dirt that covered his remains.
For three years after my father’s death, grief turned me into a narcissist, I saw only the reflection of my unhappiness, my own unspeakable loss in everything that I heard, saw or read. I still regret my own selfish, self-destructive behaviour from that time, which caused the people who loved me a lot of pain. For years, I lost interest in any activity that didn’t serve to numb that feeling.
Alcohol was a constant companion in those days. A writer once said, “Language is not experience. It is a means of organising experience.” But the unconscious mind, the part that governs illogical emotions like love and anger, predates language by a few million years and is inherently untrusting of it. If it isn’t always possible to organise experience with words, then one must make sense of our inner state by folding them, like origami cranes, into the shape of one’s thoughts, or filling up the space between them.
In her exquisite rumination on the death of her husband to suspected Covid-19, the author Jesmyn Ward described her immense loss as a “tender second skin” and wrote: “Even in a pandemic, even in grief, I found myself commanded to amplify the voices of the dead that sing to me, from their boat to my boat, on the sea of time.”
In 2012, I began writing a novel as a way to cope with the overwhelming heartache that threatened my everyday existence. In a way, it was my grandmother who taught me how to see the world through a writer’s eyes. To spend time with her was to be immersed in stories – about growing up in Raj-era Bombay, her eccentric, cruel father, about her garden, her sons, her grandchildren.
She has that rare natural talent to mine the telling detail out of any image – the adorable hood of a baby cobra; the cyclone whorls in the fur of a dog; the way a man would rush up and down the streets of her Malabar Hill childhood, lighting gas lamps that flickered through the muggy night.
As a baby, I refused to nap anywhere except in my grandmother’s arms. She’d sit in one place for hours, holding me. As I got older, I followed her around like a puppy, holding the end of her sari. I snuck into her bed when I had a fever, and she would slather Vicks rub all over my neck to stop my cough.
She’d wrestle me to the ground and cut my nails with a tiny pair of curved scissors, something I hated. On her bathroom shelf, she kept a toothbrush for each of us cousins. Her cupboard held tins of ginger biscuits, macarons and jam tarts. On the weekend, all five of us would sleep in our grandparents’ bed.
Once they got us to stop wiggling and arguing, my grandfather would put down his Jeffrey Archer, or John Grisham, switch off his bed lamp, reach over to my grandmother, and say, “Haath Aapo.” Give me your hand. Their arms would form an arch, as a slowly whirling fan dusted our heads with a soft breeze.
We are five cousins who grew up together. In the summer we piled into my grandfather’s truck for a few hours of staying out of our parents’ hair. He’d run us on his farm on the outskirts of town. Hot, indolent langurs watched from the red roof of the farmhouse, as we ate jamuns the colour of bright bruises straight from the trees and took rides on a bullock cart.
My grandfather’s rule was to not kill anything that grew on his land. Weeds and strangling vines flourished alongside tomatoes and cabbages. We’d emerge from the scrub with thin, cuts on our legs and burrs on our clothes. “Come on, let’s be Sandow,” my grandfather would say, and take off his shirt, his neck brick-red with sunburn. It looked like he was wearing a furry apron. He marched us through the trees – one tall, hairy Sandow followed by five smaller, pink, hairless Sandows.
My grandfather died in June 2019, on the morning of what happened to be my grandmother’s 83rd birthday. We arrived from New York a day before he passed away. When I took my daughter to greet him, he was seated in a wheelchair, looking out at the garden he and my grandmother had created over the sixty years of their marriage.
Because of the stroke he’d suffered six months earlier, it took him a few moments to figure out who I was. When he did, his old eyes lit up with recognition, and his hands opened together in the shape of a book. He’d always been interested in my writing, asking me many questions over the years, and was eagerly awaiting my debut novel. While I’m glad I got to see him one last time, it breaks my heart that he’ll never get to read my book.
My next visit to India was immediately before Covid-19 tightened its noose around the world. I found my grandmother much changed. In public, she’d kept up her stoic façade. But in private, she confessed that she’d lost interest in all the things she loved: her garden, her friends, good food, nice clothes, good gossip. Worrying thoughts came into her head uninvited. She could not stop herself from getting anxious about performing the most simple, mundane tasks. No one understands this state of mind better than I do; anxiety, after all, is merely grief in waiting.
Nowadays when I read, I can’t help but fill in the spaces between fragments with what is foremost in my own ruminations: the forever altered world in which we find ourselves living in. I find the most comfort in writers who offer me this space. I end up reading a lot of poetry, which, like music or colour, we can accept without needing to annotate. Art lifts the burden of having to put into exact words the things we have no language for.
It is hard for me to describe in words rather than in images what my grandmother means to me, or define the ways that her love carried me through the terrifying storm of grief. My grandmother has never said the words, “I love you” out loud to me, ever. But every time I arrive back home, there will be a garland of marigolds hanging over my bedroom door, and the fridge will be stocked with my favourite foods.
The last time we were together, I spent most of my time at home sitting on my grandfather’s side of the bed, in the shallow groove his body had made over time. We didn’t talk much. I took out photo albums and coaxed her to recollect the memories attached to the black and white pictures – of my father and his two younger brothers as little boys, of her as a very young bride – she was eighteen – in a white lace sari with rubies at her throat, of my grandfather on a lake with his dog, a German shepherd named Shane.
At the end of my trip, my grandmother seemed to be in better spirits. I said I’d be back in the summer, and we could look at some more pictures together. In the car, on the way to the airport, I held her hand. Our family has a tradition where we look back for as long as we can see the house – looking back means that you will make your way back. In the window seat of the plane, crying, I kept sight of the land for as long as I could.
When you move to a foreign country, each time you leave home feels like a little death. A writer on Twitter mentioned how the pandemic’s disruption of family gatherings during the holidays – is regular life for those of us who are immigrants or in the diaspora. We are always uncertain of when we can next see our dear ones in person.
I try to offer comfort over our infrequent Zoom calls, but like most people of her age, my grandmother feels alienated and confused by technology; the calls turn out to be a further source of stress. Besides, we never communicated through words. My grandmother’s love kept me going, now it is my turn to keep her going. But I don’t know when I will be able to see her again. Until then, I must keep looking back.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.