To India, For Dad: fulfilling my father’s final wish
New York City
My father passed away on April 1st, 2017 at 2:09 PM in his apartment in Tribeca, New York City after a 7-year struggle with progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP). He was 78 years old. Our only solace at that moment was the thought of him joining my mother in the afterlife. Today, my husband and I travel to India to scatter half of his ashes in the Himalayan foothills. Weeks ago, my brother submerged the other half at Triveni Sangam, a confluence of three holy rivers: Ganga, Yamuna, and the invisible Saraswati.
In an email from my father dated February 23, 2008 (46 days after my mom passed away), he wrote,
My temporary body that is known as Dinesh but consists of water, air, earth, ether and fire should be cremated as per Sanatan Dharma scriptures. The ashes should be divided in two parts (two pots) to be given to Amit and Monica. Amit and Monica should submerge the ashes into river that is closest and convenient to their residence or in river Yamuna at Yamunotri (which means birthplace of Yamuna). Ultimately all two sets of ashes will flow into the ocean and meet there. My soul is eternal and will take another body with my mind, intellect and ego or achieve Moksha.
It has been said that the holy Yamuna River originates in Yamnotri, but then disappears and reappears further south where it flows slow and wide. So perhaps Yamnotri is more of a mythical origin than the actual one as I’m sure that the water flows from the Himalays from an infinite number of sources into all the great rivers of India. Yamnotri is also a place of pilgrimage for Hindus and has a bright yellow temple nestled in the mountains, rewarded after a 5K uphill trek up.
My dad wasn’t the most overtly religious man, but he occasionally did and said things that made me wonder. Like for example this email, where he references Moksha, which means one with God — a state in which the cycle of birth and death ceases to continue. During our last Diwali, we had a small celebration with a candle and Ganpati statue, to which he bowed solemnly the best he could given his disease.
But my mother was very religious, so our being so is to pay tribute to her. And my mom’s name — Yamuna, named from the Holy River, brings us full circle. The reason we now head there, via Iceland then through Russia, to Dehra Dun via Delhi, and then north by car to a few miles from the border with China.
It has been 9-years since I’ve been to India. My last trip was to scatter my mom’s ashes in 2008 — a trip I took with my father and brother. It was a heartbreaking time, as my mother’s untimely demise occurred suddenly and shockingly and just days after her retirement, and the young age of 63. The trip was emotionally grueling and physically taxing. We didn’t have mom to remind us to eat and sleep. We fulfilled our duty but with such a great difficulty.
This picture is of my brother and me sitting on the banks of the Yamuna River in a photograph taken by my father in 2008 after we submerged my mother’s ashes during a Hindu ritual on a rickety boat similar to the ones photographed here. At the time, I was puzzled (even irked) at dad for taking these pictures, but now I revere the images. They are from him. Which begs the question — will I take photos of Yamnotri as I scatter my father’s ashes? To this I say yes, at least initially. Partly because he did this (thus giving me license) but also because its important to remember. I brought his point-and-click camera (or as he called it, camero) to do just that.
And now I’m heading back once again, to the birthplace of my parents. And to the final resting place of the remains of their physical bodies. Two lifetimes have come and gone…how could it be? How could they just be gone? I have so many questions that I hope to explore while there. Indians are much more accepting of the birth and death cycle. Can I connect with my parents? Will I understand why they were taken away? Or perhaps do inquiries like these take me further from the Indian way of acceptance. In a book I am currently reading “The Orphaned Adult,” the author (Alexander Levy) writes about western society’s dismissal, avoidance, and denial of death.
When parents have children, it is with the hope that they pass away first. The opposite scenario is a cruel nightmare that an unlucky minority has to endure. I should be thankful that my parents never had to experience losing a child — something I thought about occasionally, wondering how things could go worse for my dad. A morbid line of thinking. So the question then goes…if we have children with this eventuality — that we will die during their lifetime — how do we help them prepare for the inevitable? When my mother passed away, I didn’t know such a thing was possible. With my father, I prepared myself for years, but still find it cruel and unfair. My brother referred to us as orphans. Is it so?
Delhi, Dehradun, & Musoorie
State of Uttarakhand
We swayed side to side in the backseat of a small white taxi as the driver, Mr. Raman, took sharp turns left and right to climb the road etched on the side of the mountain. It was late at night and my eyes spanned the valley below, sprawling with the lights from the city of Dehradun set against the pitch-black sky. Mr. Raman remarked, “Diwali View” a reference to the festival of lights. And my mind went to my father who visited North India with my mom in 1967 for their honeymoon — specifically in Kashmir (now contested territory with Pakistan) roughly 8-hours north by car. India has changed so much since then and even since I visited here as a child in the 80’s. Back then, access to consumer goods was extremely limited, but now you can get almost anything. Sarees have become Lacoste. Ketchup pizza has become pizza hut. I think mom and dad would enjoy the new India very much, but my hunch is that they would prefer “simple and sober” (opposite of flashy and modern). They left India in the 1960’s, so to them — that period exemplifies what is Indian and the current post-globalization India is westernized and therefore, less authentic — not “Indian”. I can’t help but believe this too, as I am my parent’s daughter and also because my experience in the new India is nascent. My dad ultimately lived in the US longer than he did India and many of his world beliefs were informed by this fact. Or perhaps the other way around — he pursued a life in the west as a result of values: growth, exploration, autonomy, financial stability, some religion (but not too much), some community (but secondary to nuclear family)…the ability to jump in a car and drive to mountains. Memories fill my mind of our road trips from Houston to the Southwest. Traveling in our grey Buick Century and a car-top carrier filled with sleeping bags and a tent in a non-stop trip to the likes of Grand Canyon, Bryce and Zion National Parks, and Lake Powell. And now, solely based on his request, I see the Himalayan foothills in the distance from the porch of my hotel in Musoorie. He brought me back to the mountains.
Being in India without my parents is an odd feeling, as the vast majority of my trips here were with them. I passively followed as they haggled with taxi drivers in Hindi or Gujarati, found safe restaurants for “hygienic” and “pure-veg” eating, and navigated the chaos of the streets. The purpose of childhood family trips was to spend time with extended family and to learn what it means to be Indian through their lifestyle. I only appreciated much later how my typical Gujarati family’s puritan, merchant-class life was only one slice of this vast country filled with farmers and warriors; families much more rich and certainly more poor; those who were more erudite and artsy; and those who liked to party — the only parties we had were pani puree parties (and boy were those tasty).
But perhaps more unsettling is not just that I’m here without my parents, but rather that I’m here without the possibility of my parents — because they no longer exist in the physical form that I have known for over four decades — a fact that I’m still grappling with. It’s difficult to not have the regret that I didn’t travel this country with them, pull them away from family pani puree parties and explore nooks and crannies that they didn’t know in spite of being Indian. But I’m just now figuring all this out and it’s too late. While in Musoorie, B and I walked wandered through a Tibetan Buddhist refugee community today called Happy Valley, which was the first home to the Dalai Lama in India.
My father’s younger brother often pays tribute to my father for being responsible for the success of so many because he pushed our family to immigrate. This is part of a value system that I described but at the same time, my father — at least while I knew him — was risk averse in many ways: he didn’t invest money aggressively, move from the modest house we grew up in, exchange a stable job for a more risky but fulfilling one, or spend time in developing countries (outside of India).
A few years after the onset of his illness, when my dad was just settling into a wheelchair, he became fixated on the idea to travel to India and asked my relatives perpetually for months. I thought — perhaps, if I hired multiple caretakers to take him– we could pull it off. But even pre-PSP when my father visited Mumbai, he would tie a handkerchief on his face to prevent breathing polluted air. Today, as B and I explored the Library and Gandhi Chowk in Musoorie, we played frogger with cars, bicycle rickshaws, and cows. One foot on the street and the other in a rocky unsteady ditch, we shared the road with the backdrop of incessant honking with cars just inches away as the passed us. This is not the India in which my father could have navigated in a wheel chair with his West African aide. It also puzzled me why he was so adamant about going. He once remarked that “everyone is now dead” in India, presumably speaking of his parents (his father died when he was 12 years old then mother sometime much later in life, though he didn’t visibly mourn except for select moments when he wanted to pray on her behalf when we visited temples). He also grew up with his maternal aunts and uncles (as part of an agreement of marriage, my grandfather had to take in my grandmother’s substantially younger siblings as well — these were my father’s contemporaries and they grew up together). And at the time, my mother had passed as well. So yes — Indians accept death as part of the birth/death cycle and perhaps they mourn silently, but they also see death as a signal of their own mortality. Or so I deduct based on my father’s perspectives.
Janiki Chaddi — city near Yamnotri
State of Uttarakhand
We woke up at 5AM after a mere 2-hours of sleep to embark on our journey through the mountains to Yamnotri. The car ride was typical India — a single lane road but two-way traffic with no painted lines, carved out of the side of a mountain, a severe drop-off, and no guardrail to speak of. Our car made blind turns while swerving around busses, vans, and motorcyclists in both directions — alerting on-comers by blowing the horn. The mountains were lined with green trees and shrubs, reminiscent of Peru and at times, the Atlas Mountains of Morocco though those were brown from olive trees. The road (called Yamnotri Road) followed the path of the river — clear water flowing swiftly over a rocky terrain while meandering through the valley, and surrounded by farms on terraces built into the mountains. There were innumerable towns that lined the highway, hosting colorful buildings and tea-stalls and Maggie shops, catering to the thousands who traveled these roads between May and June. We winded through the towns, honking at foot traffic of people, cows, and horses. We passed many school children in uniforms and tightly braided hair, many with light colored eyes and strikingly beautiful features common in northern Indians. The views became more spectacular as the hours passed and ultimately, in the distance — we saw enormous, snow capped towering mountains over the clouds. The Garhwal Himalayas. At last, our 6-hour journey came to an end and we arrived at Kharsali Village — a neighborhood on a hill adjacent to Janki Chatti, the town where the Yamuna River begins. We were told that this neighborhood consisted mainly of Brahmin priests, their families, and the working class who serve them. Just beyond the town are three large green mountains, the last of which hosts the famous Yamnotri Temple, the destination of a 5K uphill pilgrimage that thousands embark upon each summer, mainly by grandmotherly women who ride on the back of horses or carried by four-men. And just beyond, a few miles away as the crow flies, is China.
As we entered this neighborhood, our little car struggled up the unpaved, muddy path while Manoj changed gears, often reversing and reattempted hills with a quiet tenacity. We asked laborers who were working on the road for the way and ultimately, arrived at the Shiv Shakti Eco Resort, a rickety 2-story metal building painted mauve, with a grandfatherly fellow and two young boys waving us in. We asked for Neeraj — the gentlemen who we’ve been communicating with for days and helping us plan our stay and impending ceremony on the riverbanks. When grandfather told us that Neeraj wouldn’t be back until nightfall so we should just relax, I became worried. We sat with the boys, sipped the perfectly made chai made with yak milk, and wondered what to do as the skies started rumbling above. From the hotel lawn, we could see majestic mountains in layers. The green ones in the foreground and white capped ones standing guard behind — as if they were the end of the world.
I summoned my father’s spirit and I decided that we figure this out on our own. We geared up, grabbed my dad’s backpack carrying a taped cardboard box holding the rosewood urn, which in turn held a tied plastic bag holding the half of the ashes that once formed the physical body I used to know as my dad. It also held a small brightly colored Ganesh made of glass I had purchased in New York as well as a screwdriver that I obsessed over back home, knowing I would need the right head at the right time since my brother altered me that the urn was screwed shut.
We took the older boy with us (named Hritik, 16-years old) and walked toward the river with passages from the Gita and our small Ganesh. As we walked we used broken Hindi, bits of Gujarati, English and hand gestures to signal to the kid that we need a Hindu Priest. When B used the word, “pandit” it seemed to ring a bell. Hritik led us to a tent hosting what looked to be holy men sitting around a table. Then he emerged — a sneaker-wearing 30-something year old half smiling man — Arvinda Prasad, our pandit. We struggled to explain to him what we wanted so I broke down and told him in Gujarati…mari pitru murigay…mara passe ashes che…mane ceremony kerwuche Yamuna River per… We were in luck as he understood bits of English and Gujarati. He told us to wait and 2-minute later he reappeared with a flat metal dish containing the requisite ingredients: a small brightly colored yellow shall, two red bangles, yellow and white powders, a bit of rice, a dia, and incense. We walked down a muddy path toward the riverbank. Wearing the backpack, I slipped once but regained footing quickly. The pandit told us that the ashes of his grandparents’ and many others were scattered at this very spot. Everything started to fall into place. We went to the riverside — where a shallow, rocky, and rapidly moving Yamuna River flowed down south-bound from the mountain and set up there.
We asked Hritik to video the ceremony on B’s iphone, which I felt conflicted about but ultimately decided to do. As mentioned before, my father photographed the day we scattered my mom’s ashes, so I had license. And I know that seeing the footage later would give me peace as my memory only holds on to strange things. Death and dying remains a shocking and taboo topic. Sharing this with the right person could open the subject up for discussion. What do they plan to do when their parent dies? Do they know what their parents’ wishes are? We were so lucky to have everything spelled out for my father, but most do not.
Prasad explained to us that yellow and white are important colors and our parents photos in the home should have that hue (the sepia pictures we see in families home came to mind immediately). He recited Sanskrit scriptures from The Bhagwad Gita as we conducted rituals using river water, rice, and yellow powder. We put a tikka on the small Ganesh Statue that I brought, drank a palm full of the river water, and ultimately, while reciting my father’s name, threw the ashes into the rapidly flowing river. He loosened rocks below for the ashes that were trapped, and they slowly disappeared into the swirling water. He gave us red markings on our foreheads and the ceremony was complete. We set the dish with the yellow shawl and the box that held dad’s ashes into the water and it tumbled down with the rapids. He asked to confirm, “Did you eat?” meaning — did you drink the river water, to which I said yes. Finally, he asked me to describe my father so he can pick a stone to match. So I told him, “mentally strong” — he picked a glistening, dense, perfectly formed black stone and we placed it among other stones in an indentation in the wall of the Riverbank. We prayed to Shiva, represented by a larger stone in the forefront adorned with colored powders. We took some of the powder, created a line on Prasad’s forehead, and then climbed back up the muddy path.
After wandering through the Pundit’s neighborhood and climbing trough a many-hundred year old temple, we took a side path to another Yamuna River tributary source coming from a different set of mountains. We touched the water, took a long gaze, and walked back in to town. Gazed again upon the site of visarjan and wandered about to look for marigolds. Found none, so had tea and chevda, and listened to the Ramayana being played via loudspeakers throughout the town. After wandering back, we managed to get much-needed rest and a nourishing dinner of local vegetables (one of which was a cross between broccoli rabe and spinach). The night was freezing so we doubled our quilts and finally slept — not deeply but sufficiently. When in far-off places, my mind wanders to the known. I am on a New York City subway when the 4 AM alarm rings. Our journey continues, though the important work is done.
State of Uttarakhand
Sheer exhaustion. Our 8-hour journey by jeep commenced at 5:45AM in freezing cold mountain weather. Our trip entailed 5-hours of extreme-mountain driving to Musoorie, 1-hour getting through Gandhi Chowk traffic, bumper-to-bumper switchbacks to Dehradun, and then traversing the hectic and hot city to the airport (which is much closer to Rishikesh than Dehradun in actuality). With each leg, I removed a layer of clothing and toward the end, put my hair up in a clip and switched sneakers for sandals. I thought of my father — how he would have no problem with this arduous trek, have no need for water or nourishment, and no complaints. We unwind and recharge in the Dehradun airport as we wait for our flight to Delhi, where we have a 2-hour layover, then another flight to Mumbai — the city of my father’s youth. He loved the mountains, but was really mainly a Bombay boy…
State of Maharastra
My complicated relationship with India throughout my life has come to a turning point and we are getting along much better. I sit in my posh hotel suite just after a breakfast buffet of fruits (washed in purified water), fresh watermelon juice, masala dosa, and chai while reflecting upon my time in Mumbai. And the past. This is the city in which my dad grew up and certain names and places bring back memories with him: Flora Fountain, Nariman Point, Gateway of India, and Victoria Terminus Station — to name a few. The old, somewhat crumbling architecture of proper Mumbai is still intact, interlaced with towering new architecture (most notably the ostentatious Ambani building), cricket fields (the game is as revered as Bollywood here), and innumerable banks (many, many banks). Most families, like my father’s, have moved to the suburbs making the area feel like remnants of better times, catering now to a strange mix of banks and tourist spots. Also unlike before, the streets are clean without litter, taxis have replaced rickshaws, and western stores are throughout (at one point, while bank hopping, we duck into a Starbucks and transported back home). The Gateway of India still stands proudly surrounded by visitors looking upon its majestic height and design, as I did many times on previous trips to India. It may symbolize British occupation (they both entered India and left through this arch — somewhat symbolically), but to me — I think of family vacations to India as a child.
Meeting with relatives was both heartwarming and left me with a sense of tremendous belonging. In India, blood is thicker than water and my family welcomed us, cooked for us, and asked us to stay in better touch. When I asked about their family members about the afterlife — they didn’t theorize or wax philosophically. They answered very matter of factly. Some believe that my parents are now with God (or in the feet of Srinagi). Some said that our human lives are our last lives prior to moksha. Some believe that we just don’t know and should leave it at that. One cousin told me that I should focus on the living, not the dead. And another that I my grieving my parents is because I don’t have bigger problems to think about. And another older aunt/uncle of B’s told us that they do in fact, believe in reincarnation. They went on to say that those with abruptly shortened lives (like when children pass away) are here for unfinished business. And that we interact with lost contacts in their new form, all none-the-wiser. The diversity of opinions on the topic is somewhat surprising. There is no “Indian answer” and at least for my family, who are very practical people, there’s no point in obsessing over it. There is no answer here, but perhaps a lesson nonetheless.
Air India Flight
Somewhere over Canada
When we met him at an event in NYC last year, Salman Rushdie told us that people are calling it “Bombay” again, but from my short experience — “Mumbai” has stuck, at least among the majority who live here. India’s relationship with its past is complicated — just like any of us could say. During our last few days in Mumbai, we shuttled around town in ubers, rickshaws, and autos — to banks, restaurants, shopping centers, points of memory, and family members homes. We shared meals with families, caught up with now much older children of my cousins, and spent some time with some family that I haven’t been in touch with at all on my dad’s side. I felt close to my parents — partly because I saw them in my relatives. I also felt quite busy and overwhelmed…and at times, just too fatigued from heat. This busy exhaustion can deprive the mind from time and space to water. The blanket of sadness lifted. Or perhaps it was my all-too-practical family — who told me: just move on (no explanation required), focus on the people who are alive, be more in touch with God (through daily seva/prayers), and stay in touch with them more. All good advice. But nobody told me to grieve, as I want to and to take my time doing it — that’s more of an American sentiment. I start to plan my coming days, and a sadness kicks in. That I’m moving on without my parents. I know they would want me to, but I feel bad doing it without them. I may return to this rollercoaster of grieving very soon. Alas, I will just have to let it take its course.
Mom and dad, wherever you are, I love you…