by Rheea Mukherjee
The door that led into the house my parents owned in Denver needed an extra nudge for it to open. Once prodded, a bell attached to the knob jingled before you could set foot on the white tiles. This jingle, the thrust of the door, was a short prelude to the potent smell of mutton being fried in canola oil. The smell of curried meat, intense and intrusive, compared to the odorless winter air outside. Clumps of snow would fall from the sides my boots onto the floor as we took off layers of sweaters and coats.
For me there would be vegetarian dishes. My father always made sure of that. He wearing shorts that reached his knees, his elbow poking against the thickness of masala vapors, stirring his curry, a universe of flavors condensed into an offering of love. The TV in the living room was massive, reminiscent of the American suburban nineties. CNN or some other news channel would be blaring, and the house not yet warmed enough for a Colorado winter, would temper the spattering of oil.
This is how I remember my father. Not because there wasn’t more. Not because I don’t remember other things. Like him driving his car, his head attached to a cellphone, bantering to clients in Hindi or English about real estate: houses, liquor stores, another closing. Not because I don’t remember vividly him telling us ghost stories when I was eight, coddled by pillows, in the backseat of our car being driven somewhere in Georgia, one of the many family road trips that entailed pit stops at gas stations and the endless tar of an American interstate highway. Not because I don’t remember him telling me that it was not possible I had gotten three C’s in Social Studies, Math, and Science in 4th grade, I had studied too hard. Because I do remember him marching up to my favorite teacher, Mrs. Berks, who looked up my tests frantically and then realized that it was true. I had gotten straight A’s that year and she had made a mistake, a miracle I still can’t fathom. Only he knew.
I remember by father cooking in Denver because, as an adult, this was the last familiar image I was offered. His image of flesh: curly hair, thinned legs, and a curved stomach is what I knew before I saw that same flesh burnt at cremation. I saw his body still, pumped with preservatory chemicals that had made his body last through a frozen drawer in a Denver hospital and 24-hour flight in the cargo hold of a plane all the way to India. His body now in the homeland provides an irrefutable place of gathering for his transcontinental family.
An ambulance transports him to the cremation ground near Old Madras Road. He lays still, his wedding ring blunt, gold, tight against his swelled fingers. It would be nice if my mother could have this ring, but they simply can’t remove it, too tight, too ingrained into his body to remove. He won’t say anything because he is dead. The body is stunned into silence, into frozen flesh. I touch his hand. It’s unreal. It’s hardened by the absence of flowing blood. But the image, this body, I can see it wake. I can see it being concerned about me, about my choices, the way I am not doing enough. I can see it proud; I can see it hungry for his own cooking. I can see lips part into a familiar daze of sleep, like when he would prop himself on our Denver sofa. Our dinner finished, TV still blaring, his snore a reciprocal thank you because we had eaten, we were around, even though our worlds were so different and our agendas so disconnected.
My mother was made from entirely different fibers. She sat silent on many things. She couldn’t be pushed into an argument easily, and it made parts of their marriage and parenting frustrating for the both of them. Like my father, I have inherited a source of reckless passion, I will hop to a side, stick firmly to it: politics, family dialogues, right and wrong. My rationale is thick, meaty, informed, the emotions that go with it are irrational, teary, sobbing hiccups in the middle of pointed debates. The one person I don’t debate with is my father, our irrational sides emerge, my mother would be silent, and we quickly realized our differences were best met in cars singing familiar tunes and drinking coffee from gas stations.
When the cremation is done, we are left with ash and bones. Ash was expected, but not bones. Pieces of white that were harder to process emotionally than the Bollywood-suggested relief that ash offered family members. Bone reminded us that there was flesh once resting upon it. That there were thoughts, actions, and voluntary muscles that worked with a brain, coaxed a body to move, to thrive, to be able to fry meat in canola.
My father left this body suddenly, with no warning, no sign. He died alone in a city where the sun shone in spite of the winter snows. He left when I lived in a country he wanted me to know the most. He left when I was just about to figure myself out. Just about to really say I knew what I was doing and why I was doing it. About to say maybe I didn’t know what I was doing and needed him to be OK with it. He left when I hadn’t figured out how a father-figure figured into my life. Before I weighed the pros and cons of our relationship.
Plane trips and long drives, my father was always trying to escape the mundane regularity that other people found solace in. He booked tickets to Mexico and Europe, we packed, we collected stamps on our passports, and documented our travels with early-2000’s digital cameras. My father never really drank, but on vacations he offered silent negotiations: margaritas were sipped with my mother, in return he waited for us to talk more in-depth about life.
This anticipated conversation can only happen in death, when the body is no more and the threat of an argument or disappointment no longer exists. Once he has died, we are in huddles; an assortment of friends and family openly discuss the force he was, the good and bad times. We sketch his life story in anecdotes, people argue the accuracy of incidents, and his intent and purpose are surgically dissected. Grief allows a tongue more honesty than the most potent Mexican tequila. The tea being passed round is overly sweet, how he liked it.
When he was alive, our honesty held the potential of a zygote. And a zygote it stayed, a group of unaware cells unable to calculate its larger context. At the family table, my brother and I made jokes only beer-guzzling twenty-somethings would find funny. At best we offered vague observations about the architecture or the food of the place we were visiting. We cannot at this time fathom the flick of the match; the short burst of light life is, the existential crises brewing in all of us.
The physical body is a piece of the grand puzzle, whether we are aware of it or not, our physical selves are roaming the corners of this illusion in search of the heart flutter only purpose and love can offer.
This is what I think my father wanted: We were to chisel our multi-cultural existence into a beautiful sculpture, a family integrated as one, different, restless, traditional, modern, and tremendous. In a pot, blended, one day we would make sense: Our half-formed comprehension of Bangla, our non-existent knowledge of Konkani, our nine-year stint as Bangaloreans in the 90’s, our Colorado Tax Resident status, and our Christmas churchgoing habit. We were to be a family stitched asymmetrically, a lovechild of MLK and Gandhi. But we were too confused ourselves, so we did what was easier. We held to our own sides, we drew a line with chalk against each other and I created this delusion: I was worldly and internationally skillful, and my father was as industrious and as unimaginative as the Indian railway system.
My father’s restlessness always kept us on edge. A Saturday family road trip to Albuquerque would be proposed on a Thursday phone call. The conflict was my friends and weekends planned around cocktails, hookah, and making snow penises outside our dorms. A friendly Friday call would be made to make sure I would drive to Denver to spend the weekend at home, which I would. The conflict was his scantily hidden judgment on independent plans I might have made otherwise. The call would inevitably come when I was in college surrounded by friends, shot glasses filled with disgustingly sweet peppermint liquor. Calls I wanted to avoid because it was here where he dovetailed into the Indian parent stereotype, the one which would demand weekends to be spent at home in a tone that revealed his weariness and discomfort for American dorm room parties. I could feel the twisting of his soul. His dichotomy in parenting always an unresolved sea between us: a murky liberal-conservative broth with no authentic roots. His decades in the U.S. had birthed a cultural cancer, an identity crisis; one that had him constantly juggling the Indo-American cultural influences he had to stand in support of. Years later, I chose India, not in rejection of American values, but in acceptance that my soul and life work lay in a city that changed its landscape every two weeks.
In the self-important moments we all give ourselves, I have imagined myself the master curator of my father’s juggling, the ringmaster to showcase his good and to facilitate the termination of his cultural confusion. In his death, I can be deluded to think I could have done this when he was alive. But this is why death becomes the purpose, a domino block that falls onto the living and allows us to create another story, another purpose, another memory. This is why my father’s death will contain my death as well, and the purpose I might leave for another here on Earth.
The parent memory is perhaps the most unimaginative and limited calculation of a person. He has left others in far more expansive ways. He has left memories of being a lover, a brother, an uncle, a friend, a problem-solver, an advisor and well-wisher. Now I know who grieves. We grieve. In tiny pockets of isolation. In private memories and images. His sisters and brother may remember younger limbs, younger skin attached to a younger smile. His wife may remember conversations and facial expressions I’ll never know. His nephews and nieces will be myopic and only see him as a generous uncle. Everyone who once knew him will grieve his mischief, his iconoclastic and rebellious ways that I had tried to imitate. People will remember him as a man who ordered a small coffee in a large cup. Five sugars. As a man who moved continents, from India to the U.S. to India, and back again to the U.S. with a mere shrug of his shoulders.
He left before I could condense our memories into tighter scenes, specific colors. Before I could transcribe his voice into an unmistakable echo. Before I could have said, Fine, I’ll come on one of your silly adventures, humor his wanton travel needs. Foster his addiction to planning road trips in Eastern Europe or driving aimlessly on deserted Indian highways.
I talked to him last on a Monday in 2012, four days before he died. I had lost a cousin that I had been close to that week, and as soon as I heard his voice I started crying. He said we had to come together at a time like this. We had to be strong. His nephew’s death had scarred his heart and he remembered at that moment what he did best: He made a whimsical travel plan, right there on the phone. A family trip to remember that life was short. He proposed that we go to Ireland next month; random and sudden, like his death. And we all had said yes and booked tickets. Not knowing we would become better travelers only after he left. Not knowing that his next plane trip would not be a European family extravaganza. It would be a cold cargo hold carrying his image from a city where he cooked warm meals for a family that used to nudge open a stubborn white door on wintry Colorado nights.
Rheea Mukherjee received her MFA in creative writing from California College of the Arts in San Francisco. Her work has been published in Scroll.in, Southern Humanities Review, Cleaver Magazine, CHA: An Asian Literary Magazine, QLRS, The Bombay Literary Magazine, A Gathering of Tribes, Everyday Fiction, Bengal Lights, and Out Of Print Magazine. Her book, a collection of short stories, Transit For Beginners, is forthcoming from Kitaab International in 2016. She co-founded Bangalore Writers Workshop in 2012 and presently co-runs Write Leela Write, a Design and Content Laboratory in Bangalore.
Image credit: lee roberts on Flickr