As a year has come to a close and we begin our journey around the sun anew, this is a personal, reflective post, written to serve as catharsis during a moment of grief and loss, as well as to record some memories. Please feel free skip this altogether, gentle reader.
It was an unremarkable, reasonably bright Friday morning in October when my flight touched down at the Dulles International Airport, and after passing through Immigration, I drove my car, which was patiently waiting for me in the airport parking for 10 days, back straight to my workplace in Baltimore, my laboratory, for it was a work-day. My mind, however, was still reeling from an experience a couple of days prior, a moment that I found weird, surreal and greatly disconcerting.
I had traveled to Kolkata, my city in India, for a short visit to see my ailing grandmother. Although I don’t know if her condition was ever officially diagnosed—more on that later—she appeared to have been exhibiting all the classical signs of Alzheimer’s, with sharp decline in short-term memory and cognitive functions, rage attacks and mood swings, as well as paranoid delusions, among other symptoms. She was rapidly forgetting familiar people, including my mother who was one of her regular caregivers, and she had forgotten the face of my wife—who discovered that unfortunate fact during a visit just before mine. She was also suffering from various physical ailments, which were getting difficult to treat, because her hip and lower body pain had rendered her nearly immobile, making it nigh-impossible to have her driven to a clinic or hospital at any distance.
Despite being a metropolitan megacity with nearly 5 million inhabitants, Kolkata, strangely, has negligible options for the care and support of geriatric patients, especially those with complicated conditions like Alzheimer’s. My grandmother stayed at home with my aunt (the widow of my mother’s late next sibling) and her son (my cousin) as the immediate caregivers, and my mom visited daily, her own health permitting, to help with the care needs. My visit coincided with the time of the Durga Puja, one of the greatest religio-cultural festivals of our people, Bengalis and Bangladeshis, which unfortunately meant that doctors, nurses and other external caregivers my mom and aunt usually relied on were often out of station or otherwise engaged. My grandmother was also battling a severe and painful case of urinary tract infection, in which the bacterial organism was found to be resistant to most of the usual antibiotics. I wanted to see if I could help with anything during this period, and also try to relive my fondest memories with my grandmother, since—as I reminded myself pragmatically—this could very well be the last time I saw her alive, given her fragile condition.
I was not prepared for what I experienced.
This was on Wednesday evening, a day before my flight back to the US. My grandmother was resting at her home, the pain from the infection had somewhat abated after a few doses of doxycycline, and I went to visit her before my departure. I sang her a couple of her favorite songs, and we talked about my childhood, our home in Baltimore, our two adorable cats and so forth; like any proud human to cats, I held forth my dazzling array of thousands of pictures of our cats on my iPhone, describing to my grandmother their antics. She seemed excited and radiant, and she was grinning—and for a little while, everything seemed just fine.
And then it happened. It seemed like some switch went off. Suddenly, she looked around, and spotting my cousin she told him with great urgency, “Please take me home. I shouldn’t have come in the evening. My mother is home alone.”
Shocked at these words from our 92 year old grandmother, my cousin blurted out, “But you ARE home! This is your home!” But she was adamant. No, she had to go home to her mother—her mother who had passed away when I was 12; I am nearly 47 now.
It was raining hard outside. Sitting beside her, I gave her a hug and said, “You can hear the rain outside, right? How will you go now, in the rain? Rest up. Rik [my cousin] will take you once it settles down.” She looked into my eyes and asked plaintively, “Okay. It’s just a matter of one night, right? I can go home tomorrow, right?” With a straight face, I lied. “Yes, just for a night, daadi. Everything will be fine tomorrow.”
It was raining hard, but not as hard as the emotions welling up inside of me. With no umbrella, I stepped out onto the road outside, and walked a mile back to my parents’ home, awash in the downpour, streaming tears mixing with the rain on my face. I called up my wife across the ocean in an attempt to heave this sense of sadness mixed with dread off my chest; I managed only staccato sentences punctuated with sobs, but she—Bless her!—understood and knew all the right things to say to calm me down before I reached my parents’ place. It helped more than I knew, because I did not want to break down thusly in front of my mom, for obvious reasons.
I never met my paternal grandparents, except in a family photograph in which both appeared severe, stern and unsmiling—likely in the style of the day, in the middle of the last century. The only set of grandparents my childhood has been intimately associated with consists of my maternal ones, facilitated by the fact that their residence was located within a mile of ours.
My grandparents’ house was illuminated by the larger-than-life presence of my grandfather, an erudite historian and scholar of ancient Indian history; my older uncle, my mother’s next sibling and a scholar specializing in medieval and modern Indian history; my younger uncle, their next sibling with eclectic professional interests, but always, always fun. But in a way, no one could match my beautiful grandmother, who easily radiated gentle kindliness and possessed a near-infinite capacity for love and affection.
My grandmother, who hailed from a most distinguished and accomplished family from the district of Mymensingh in Undivided Bengal (now located in the nation of Bangladesh), was a woman of many capabilities—which served her well as she functioned as a vital cog in their family dynamics, bringing up 3 children while moving around from one region to another along with my grandfather, whose government service in Education meant rotating postings. Not the least of her abilities—as I have heard later—was her uncanny knack of quickly picking up local languages that were completely foreign to her and being able to carry on conversations with neighbors and everyday helpers.
By the time I was born, my grandparents had already settled down in our city, Kolkata.
Since the time I could form conscious memories, I have known my grandparents’ house intimately—its two-storied structure close to the thoroughfare; a gated parking pad within its boundaries large enough for our ancient Ambassador to occasionally roll in and back out; a bathroom and a toilet housed in a separate structure at the back, with an adjacent space in which stood a deep tube-well, which supplied water for daily use in cooking, cleaning and washing; an open veranda with pillars, adjacent to the kitchen, which provided a convenient space to clean and chop veggies of various kinds, dry homemade spices, and process whole, fresh fish bought from the nearby market—descaling, gutting, cleaning and chopping into pieces, a job in which my grandfather took pride and pleasure.
The parking pad area was veritably adorned with trees and flowering plants of different kinds; there was a jackfruit tree, which produced large jackfruits in such abundance that they had to be given away to friends and family, and a Java/Black Plum (‘kalojaam‘ in the vernacular) tree, whose fruits would develop during the summer months of May/June, turn from green to pink to crimson to black, taste sweet or sour with an astringent finish while coloring the tongue purple, and would invariably drop to the ground and make purple splotches with its juice on the white concrete of the parking pad at the first sign of the famous South Asian wet monsoon blowing in from the Southwest. The plants that I remember to this day were: a bougainvillea vine wrapped around the gatepost; the vividly deep blue Aparajita (a.k.a. Clitoria ternatea); the fragrant duo of night-flowering jasmine or Shiuli, and the Plumeria or Kath-Champa; a tree called Bel, which also yields a trifoliate leaf that is considered inedible (because of a chemical principle that causes liver toxicity) but is essential as an offering in Hindu religious rituals—as well as the fibrous, pulpy Bel fruit, which made its way to the dining table as is or in form a prepared beverage called ‘Bel Pana‘.
In season, the flowers and the Bel leaves represented my grandfather’s daily harvest—lovingly gathered in a basket in the morning, and threaded into garlands by his own hands, to be placed on idols of the family deities, a statue of Vishnu or Narayana, and a Shiva-lingam with a Gauripatta at its base, the aniconic representation of Shiva or Maheshwara—two of the Holy Trinity of Hinduism right there.
It was the house which was my second home in childhood through early teens, where I could be safely deposited by my parents, as my mother—secure in the knowledge that I would be lovingly fed and taken care of—would accompany my father to their professional engagements; where, on hot, sultry summer evenings punctuated by hours-long powercuts and never-ending whiny buzz of mosquitoes, my grandfather, a consummate raconteur, would spin stories from fairytales and folklore from various parts of the world which he had read, until I drifted into sleep. This was how he had inculcated in me a love for reading—from otherworldly fantasies, to Agatha Christie and other mystery writers; science fiction by Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke; the Martian series by Edgar Rice Burroughs; graphic novels featuring Tintin the intrepid reporter, Phantom the Ghost who Walks, Mandrake the Magician; to vernacular fiction; as well as scholarly books on Indian history, all of which he had in his collection.
It was the house that was my sanctuary where I spent a truly magical chapter of my life, through ALL of which my grandmother’s presence was a constant, an all-pervasive manifestation of boundless love and kindness. It was the house where I, even when I grew up, would drop by at every possible pretext, to goad my grandmother into making her signature masoor lentil soup (a.k.a. daal), or a semi-hard candy/sweetmeat called tokti prepared by painstakingly churning milk (whose taste has so far remained unparalleled), or to take out the harmonium and sing for her any song in Bangla (the vernacular of the people of Bengal and Bangladesh) which I may have newly picked up, and to hear her sing it with me if she already knew the lyrics. She was once a student of vocal Indian classical music, and had a mellifluous singing voice.
It was also the house from which had started their final journeys to the crematorium, both my grandfather and my mother’s next sibling, my uncle. I was not present during either of those heartbreaking occasions; I was in the middle of my final school-leaving exam when my grandfather passed away, and I was taking my PhD viva voce in a different city when my uncle succumbed to lung cancer.
Despite the presence of people around, including family members, for sixteen more years my grandmother had to contend with loneliness in that house, which must have been a constant reminder of both of them and their tragic absence. She bore it with fortitude, but I am certain that towards the end it broke her. I could not be near her when, in the second week of November, she was finally free of her physical pain and emotional distress at all those distant memories haunting her. She passed away peacefully in her sleep, on her own bed. According to the official death certificate, the cause was multi-organ failure, which was a distinct possibility the doctors had already indicated.
My pragmatism, which mostly serves me reasonably well to cope with life’s vicissitudes, tells me that even with the sense of loss and grief, her immediate caregivers during her final year—my aunt and my nephew—would heave a sigh of relief, as would my mother. Taking care of an Alzheimer’s patient is undoubtedly a significant challenge, especially in a city where emergent concerns about the health of a patient with advanced years usually meet with a shrug from the medical providers. I don’t know if, save for my mother and me—and perhaps my young cousin, who, like me, grew up with my grandmother—there is really any one else to feel this profound sense of sorrow and bereavement in our bones. I am glad I managed to visit and spend an hour of levity with her before she left us forever. But one by one, the lights in my life are going out, and I am going to miss dearly that unconditional, all-encompassing love which only grandmothers seem capable of.
As always, the specter of death and bereavement turns me to the immortal words of Nobel Laureate and one of the most beloved poets of India, Rabindranath Tagore. Written originally in Bangla, this poem speaks of the continuity and endlessness of life despite the pain and grief in our daily lives.
There’s sorrow, and there’s death
The separation causes pain profound
Yet there’s peace, there’s joy,
In its endlessness life abounds
Life’s stream is an everlasting one
Smile the moon, the stars and sun
Spring follows winter every time around
Waves rise and waves descend
Flowers wilt and bloom again
There’s no fear, no pitifulness
Of a hardship there’s not a trace
Within that plenitude the mind seeks a ground
- My grandparents’ house was in the southern part of Kolkata (or ‘Calcutta’, as it was known then), a region populated predominantly by persons and families who were harshly displaced from their generational abodes in Undivided Bengal in 1947, when the-then British Indian province underwent Partition largely along communal lines into Hindu-majority West Bengal (which became a state in Independent India), and Muslim-majority East Bengal (which was given to Pakistan and re-christened as East Pakistan). (East Bengal has since emerged as the sovereign Republic of Bangladesh through its nationalist movement for self-governance which culminated in the Liberation War of 1971.)
- Harmonium is a type of reed organ, in which air is pushed by pumping a bellow by hand through a set of reeds set to different pitches allowing musical notes to emanate. It is a popular musical instrument in the South Asian cultures.