The Management of Grief
By Bharati Mukherjee
A woman I don’t know is boiling tea the Indian way in my kitchen. There are a lot of women I don’t know in my kitchen, whispering and moving tactfully. They open doors, rummage through the pantry, and try not to ask me where things are kept. They remind me of when my sons were small, on Mother’s Day or when Vikram and I were tired, and they would make big, sloppy omelets. I would lie in bed pretending I didn’t hear them.
Dr. Sharma, the treasurer of the Indo-Canada Society, pulls me into the hallway. He wants to know if I am worried about money. His wife, has just come up from the basement with a tray of empty cups and glasses, scolds him. “Don’t bother Mrs. Bhave with mundane details.” She looks so monstrously pregnant her baby must be day overdue. I tell her she shouldn’t be carrying heavy things. “Shaila,” she says, smiling, “this is the fifth.” Then she grabs a teenager by his shirttails. He slips his Walkman off his head. He has to be one of her four children; they have the same domed and dented foreheads. “What’s the official word now?” she demands. The boy slips the headphones back on. “They’re acting evasive, Ma. They’re saying it could be an accident or a terrorist bomb.”
All morning, the boys have been muttering, Sikh bomb, Sikh bomb. The men, not using the word, bow their heads in agreement. Mrs. Sharma touches her forehead at such a word. At least they’ve stopped talking about space debris and Russian lasers.
Two radios are going in the dining room. They are tuned to different stations. Someone must have brought the radios down from my boys’ bedrooms. I haven’t gone into their rooms since Kusum came running across the front lawn in her bathrobe. She looked so funny, I was laughing when I opened the door.
The big TV in the den is being whizzed through American networks and cable channels.
“Damn!” some man swears bitterly. “How can these preachers carry on like on like nothing’s happened?” I want to tell him we’re not that important. You look at the audience, and at the preacher in his blue robe with his beautiful white hair, the potted palm tress under a blue sky, and you know they care about nothing.
The phone rings and rings. Dr. Sharma’s taken charge. “We’re with her,” he keeps saying. “Yes, yes, the doctor has given calming pills, Yes, yes, pills are having necessary effect.” I wonder if pills alone explain this calm. Not peace, just a deadening quiet. I was always controlled, but never repressed. Sound can reach me, but my body is tensed, ready to scream. I hear their voices all around me. I hear my boys and Vikram cry, “Mommy, Shaila!” and their screams insulate me, like headphones.
The woman boiling water tells her story again and again. “I got the news first. My cousin called from Halifax before six a.m., can you imagine? He’d gotten up for prayers and his son was studying for medical exams and heard on a rock channel that something had happened to a plane. They said first it had disappeared from the radar, like a giant eraser just reached out. His father called me, so I said to him, what do you mean, “something bad’? You mean a hijacking? And he said, Behn, there is no confirmation of anything yet, but check with your neighbors because of a lot of them must be on the plan. So I called poor Kusum straight-away. I knew Kusum’s husband and daughter were booked to go yesterday.”
Kusum lives across the street from me. She and Satish had moved in less than a month ago. They said they needed a bigger place. All these people, the Sharmas and friends from the Indo-Canada Society, had been there for the housewarming. Satish and Kusum made a tandoori on their big gas grill and even the white neighbors piled their plates high with that luridly red, charred, juicy chicken. Their younger daughter had danced, and even our boys had broken away from the Stanley Cup telecast to put in a reluctant appearance. Everyone took pictures for their albums and for the community newspapers – another of our families had made it big in Toronto – and now I wonder how many of those happy faces are gone. “Why does God give us so much if all along He intends to take it away?” Kusum asks me.
I nod. We sit on the carpeted stairs, holding hands like children. “I never once told him that I loved him,” I say. I was too much the well-brought-up woman. I was so well brought up I never felt comfortable calling my husband by his first name.
“It’s all right,” Kusum says. “He knew. My husband knew. They felt it. Modern young girls have to say it because what they feel is fake.”
Kusum’s daughter Pam runs in with an overnight case. Pam’s in her McDonald’s uniform. “Mummy! You have to get dressed!” Panic makes her cranky.” A reporter’s on his way here.”
“You want to talk to him in your bathrobe?” She starts to brush her mother’s long hair. She’s the daughter who’s always in trouble. She dates Canadian boys and hangs out in the mall, shopping for tight sweaters. The younger one, the goody-goody one according to Pam, the one with a voice so sweet that when she sang bhajans for Ethiopian relief even a frugal man like my husband wrote out a hundred-dollar check, she was on that plane. She was going to spend July and August with grandparents because Pam wouldn’t go. Pam said she’d rather waitress at McDonald’s. “If it’s a choice between Bombay and Wonderland, I’m picking Wonderland,” she’d said.
“Leave me alone,” Kusum yells. “You know what I want to do? If I didn’t have to look after you now, I’d hang myself.”
Pam’s young face goes blotchy with pain. “Thanks,” she says, “don’t let me stop you.”
“Hush,” pregnant Mrs. Sharma scolds Pam. “Leave your mother alone. Mr. Sharma will tackle the reporters and fill out the forms. He’ll say what has to be said.”
Pam stands her ground. “You think I don’t know what Mummy's think? Why her? That’s what. That’s sick! Mummy wishes my little sister were alive and I were dead.”
Kusum’s hand in mine is trembly hot. We continue to sit on the stairs.
She calls before she arrives, wondering if there’s anything I need. Her name is Judith Templeton and she’s an appointee of the provincial government. “Multiculturalism?” I ask, and she says “partially,” but that her mandate is bigger. “I’ve been told you knew many of the people on the flight,” she says. “Perhaps if you’d agree to help us reach the others . . . .?”
She gives me time at least to put on tea water and pick up the mess in the front room. I have a few samosas from Kusum’s housewarming that I could fry up, but then I thin, why prolong this visit?
Judith Templeton is much younger than she sounded. She wears a blue suit with a white blouse and a polka-dot tie. Her blond hair is cut short, her only jewelry is pearl-drop earrings. Her briefcase is new and expensive looking, a gleaming cordovan leather. She sits with it across her lap. When she looks out the front windows onto the street, her contact lenses seem to float in front of her light blue eyes.
“What sort of help do you want from me?” I ask. She has refused the tea, out of politeness, but I insist, along with some flighty stale biscuits.
“I have no experience,” she admits. “That is, I have an M.S.W. and I’ve worked in liaison with accident victims, but I mean I have no experience with a tragedy of this scale ------”
“Who could?” I ask.
“------ and with the complications of culture, language, and customs. Someone mentioned that Mrs. Bhave is a pillar ---- because you’ve taken it more calmly.”
At this, perhaps, I frown, for she reaches forward, almost to take my hand. “I hope you understand my meaning, Mrs. Bhave. There are hundreds of people in Metro directly affected, like you, and some of them speak no English. There are some widows who’ve never handled money or gone on a bus, and there are old parents who still haven’t eaten or gone outside their bedrooms. Some houses and apartments have been looted. Some wives are still hysterical. Some husbands are in shock and profound depression. We want to help, but our hands are tied in so many ways. We have to distribute money to some people, and there are legal documents – these things can be done. We have interpreters, but we don’t always have the human touch, or maybe the right human touch. We don’t want to make mistakes, Mrs. Bhave, and that’s why we’d like to ask you to help us.”
“More mistakes, you mean,” I say.
“Police matters are not in my hands,” she answers.
“Nothing I can do will make any difference,” I say. “We must all grieve in our own way.”
“But you are coping very well. All the people said, Mrs. Bhave is the strongest person of all. Perhaps if the others could see you, talk with you, it would help them.”
“By the standards of the people you call hysterical, I am behaving very oddly and very badly, Miss Templeton.” I want to say to her, I wish I could scream, starve, walk into Lake Ontario, jump from a bridge. “They would not see me as a model. I do not see myself as a model.”
I am a freak. No one who has ever known me would think of me reacting this way. This terrible calm will not go away.
She asks me if she may call again, after I get back from a long trip that we all must make. “Of course,” I say. “Feel free to call, anytime.”
Four days later, I find Kusum squatting on a rock overlooking a bay in Ireland. It isn’t a big rock, but it juts sharply out over the water. This is as close as we’ll ever get to them. June breezes balloon out her sari and unpins her knee-length hair. She has the bewildered look of a sea creature whom the ties have stranded.
It’s been one hundred hours since Kusum came stumbling and screaming across my lawn. Waiting around the hospital, we’ve heard many stories. The police, the diplomats, they tell us thing thinking that we’re strong, that knowledge is helpful to the grieving, and maybe it is. Some, I know, prefer ignorance, or their own versions. The plane broke into two, they say. Unconsciousness was instantaneous. No one suffered. My boys must have just finished their breakfasts. They loved eating on planes, they loved the smallness of plates, knives, and forks. Last year they saved the airline salt and pepper shakers. Half an hour more and they would have made it to Heathrow.
Kusum says that can’t escape our fate. She says that all those people - - our husbands, my boys, her girl with the nightingale voice, all those Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Muslims, Parsis, and the atheists on that plane - - were fated to die together off this beautiful bay. She learned this from a swami in Toronto.
I have my Valium.
Six of us “relatives” – two widows and four widowers – choose to spend the day today by the waters instead of sitting in a hospital room and scanning photographs of the dead. That’s what they call us now: relatives. I’ve looked through twenty-seven photos in two days. They’re very kind to us, the Irish are very understanding. Sometimes understanding means freeing a tourist bus for a trip to the bay, so we can pretend to spy our loved ones through the glassiness of waves or in the sun-speckled cloud shapes.
I could die here, too, and be content.
“What is that out there?” She’s standing and flapping her hands, and for a moment I see a head shape bobbing in the waves. She’s standing in the water, I, on the boulder. The tide is low, and a round, black, head-sized rock has just risen from the waves. She returns, her sari dripping and ruined and her face is a twisted remnant of hope, the way mine was a hundred hours ago, still laughing but inwardly knowing that nothing but the ultimate tragedy could bring two women together at six o’clock on a Sunday morning. I watch her face sag into blankness.
“That water felt warm, Shaila,” she says at length.
“You can’t,” I say. “We have to wait for our turn to come.”
I haven’t eaten in four days, haven’t brushed my teeth.
“I know,” she says. “I tell myself I have no right to grieve. They are in a better place than we are. My swami says I should be thrilled for them. My swami says depression is a sign of selfishness.
Maybe I’m selfish. Selfishly I break away from Kusum and run, sandals slapping against stones, to the water’s edge. What if my boys aren’t lying pinned under the debris? What if they aren’t stuck a mile below that innocent blue chop? What if, given the strong currents . . . . .
Now I’ve ruined my sari, one of my best. Kusum has joined me, knee deep in water that feels to me like a swimming pool. I could settle in the water, and my husband would take my hand and the boys would slap water in my face just to see my scream.
“Do you remember what good swimmers my boys were, Kusum?”
“I saw the medals,” she says.
One of the widowers, Dr. Ranganathan from Montreal, walks out to us, carrying his shoes in one hand. He’s an electrical engineer. Someone at the hotel mentioned his work is famous around the world, something about the place where physics and electricity come together. He has lost a huge family, something indescribable. “With some good luck,” Dr. Ranganathan suggests to me, “a good swimmer could make it safely to some island. It is quite possible that there may be many, many microscopic islets scattered around.”
“You’re not just saying that?” I tell Dr. Ranganathan about Vinod, my elder son. Last year he took diving as well.
“It’s a parent’s duty to hope,” he says. “It is foolish to rule out possibilities that have not been tested. I myself have not surrendered hope.”
Kusum is sobbing once again. “Dear lady,” he says, laying his free hand on her arm, and she calms down.
“Vinod is how old?” he asks me. He’s very carful as we all are. Is, not was.
“Fourteen. Yesterday he was fourteen. His father and uncle were going to take him down to the Taj and given him a big birthday party. I couldn’t go with them because I couldn’t get two weeks off from my stupid job in June.” I process bills for a travel agent. June is a big travel month.
Dr. Ranganathan whips the pockets of his suit jacket inside out. Squashed roses, in darkening shades of pink, float on the water. He tore the roses off creepers in somebody’s garden. He didn’t ask anyone if he could pluck the roses, but now there’s been an article about it in the local papers. When you see an Indian person, it says, please give him or her flowers.
“A strong youth of fourteen,” he says, “can very likely pull to safety a younger one.”
My sons, though four years apart, were very close. Vinod wouldn’t let Mithun drown. Electrical engineering, I think, foolishly perhaps: this man knows important secrets of the universe, things closed to me. Relief spins me lightheaded. No wonder my boys’ photographs haven’t turned up in the gallery of photos of the recovered dead. “Such pretty roses,” I say.
“My wife loved pink roses. Every Friday I had to bring a bunch home. I used to say, Why? After twenty-odd years of marriage your still needing proof positive of my love.” He has indentified his wife and three of his children. Then others from Montreal, the lucky ones, intact families with no survivors. He chuckles as he wades back to shore. Then he swings around to ask me a question. “Mrs. Bhave, you are wanting to throw in some roses for your loved ones? I have to big ones left.”
But I have other things to float: Vinod’s pocket calculator; a half-painted model B-52 for my Mithun. They’d want them on their island. And for my husband? For him I let fall into the calm, glassy waters a poem I wrote in the hospital yesterday. Finally he’ll know my feelings for him.
“Don’t tumble, the rocks are slippery,” Dr. Ranganathan cautions. He holds out a hand for me to grab.
Then it’s time to get back on the bus, time to rush back to our waiting posts on the hospital benches.
Kusum is one of the lucky ones. The lucky ones flew here, identified in multiplicate their loved ones, then will fly to India with the bodies for proper ceremonies. Satish is one of the few males who surfaced. The photos of faces we saw on the walls in an office at Heathrow and here in the hospital are mostly of women. Women have more body fat, a nun said to me matter-of-factly. They float better.
Today I was stopped by a young sailor on the street. He had loaded bodies, he’d gone into the water when – he checks my face for signs of strength – when the sharks were first spotted. I don’t blush, and he breaks down. “It’s all right.” I say. “Thank you.” I heard about the sharks from Dr. Ranganathan. In his orderly mind, science brings understanding, it holds no terror. It is the shark’s duty. For every deer thee is a hunter, for ever fish a fisherman.
The Irish are not shy; they rush to me and give me hugs and some are crying. I cannot imagine reactions like that on the streets of Toronto. Just strangers, and I am touched. Some carry flowers with them and give them to any Indian they see.
After lunch, a policeman I have gotten to know quite well catches hold of me. He says he thinks he has a match for Vinod. I explain what a good swimmer Vinod is.
“You want me with you when you look at photos?” Dr. Ranganathan walks ahead of me into the picture gallery. In these matters, he is a scientist, and I am grateful. It is a new perspective. “They have performed miracles," he says. “we are indebted to them.”
The first day or two the policeman showed us relatives only one picture at a time; now they’re in a hurry, they’re eager to lay out the possibles, and even the probables.
The face on the photo is of a boy much like Vinod; the same intelligent eyes, the same thick brows dipping into a V. But this boy’s features, even his cheeks, are puffier, wider, mushier.
“No.” My gaze is pulled by other pictures. There are five other boys who look like Vinod.
The nun assigned to console me rubs the first picture with a fingertip. “When they’ve been in the water for a while, love, the look a little heavier.”
The bones under the skin are broken, they said on the first day – try to adjust your memoires. It’s important.
“It’s not him. I’m his mother. I’d know.”
“I know this one!” Dr. Ranganathan cries out, and suddenly from the back of the gallery. “And this one!” I think he senses that I don’t want to find my boys. “They are the Kutty brothers. They were also from Montreal.” I don’t mean to be crying. On the contrary, I am ecstatic. My suitcase in the hotel is packed heavy with dry clothes for my boys.
The policeman starts to cry. “I am sorry, I am so sorry, ma’am. I really thought we had a match.
With the nun ahead of us and the policeman behind, we, the unlucky ones without our children’s bodies, file out of the makeshift gallery.
From Ireland most of us go on to India. Kusum and I take the same direct flight to Bombay, so I can help her clear customs quickly. But we have to argue with a man in uniform. He has large boils on his face. The boils swell and glow with sweat as we argue with him. He wants Kusum to wait in line and he refuses to take authority because his boss is on a tea break. But Kusum won’t let her coffins out of sight, and I shan’t desert her though I know that my parents, elderly and diabetic, must be waiting in a stuffy car in the scorching lot.
“You bastard!” I scream at the man with the popping boils. Other passengers press closer. “You think we’re smuggling contraband in those coffins!”
Once upon a time we were well-brought-up women; we were dutiful wives who kept our heads veiled, our voices shy and sweet.
In India, I become, once again, an only child of rich, ailing parents. Old friends of the family come to pay their respects. Some are Sikh, and inwardly involuntarily, I cringe. My parents are progressive people; they do not blame communities for a few individuals.
In Canada it is a different story now.
“Stay longer,” my mother pleads. “Canada is a cold place. Why would you want to be all by yourself?” I stay. Three months pass. Then another.
“Vikram wouldn’t have wanted you to give up things!” they protest. They call my husband by the name he was born with. In Toronto he’d changed to Vik so the men he worked with at his office would find his name as easy as Rod or Chris. “You know, the dead aren’t cut off from us!”
My grandmother, the spoiled daughter of a rich zamindar, shaved her head with rusty razor blades when she was sixteen. My grandfather died of childhood diabetes when he was nineteen, and she saw herself as the harbinger of bad luck. My mother grew up without parents, raised indifferently by an uncle, while her true mother slept in a hut behind the main estate house and took her food with the servants. She grew up a rationalist. My parents abhor mindless mortification.
The zamindar’s daughter kept stubborn faith in Vedic rituals; my parents rebelled. I am trapped between two modes of knowledge. At thirty-six, I am too old to start over and too young to give up. Like my husband’s spirit, I flutter between worlds.
Courting aphasia, we travel. We travel with our phalanx of servants and poor relatives. To hill stations and to beach resorts. We play contract bridge in dusty gymkhana clubs. We ride stubby ponies up crumbly mountain trails. At tea dances, we let ourselves be twirled twice round the ballroom. We hit the holy spots we hadn’t made time for before. In Varanasi, Kalighat, Rishikesh, Hardwar, astrologers and palmists seek me out and for a fee offer me cosmic consolations.
Already the widowers among us are being shown new bride candidates. They cannot resist the call of custom, the authority of their parents and older brothers. They must marry; it is the duty of a man to look after a wife. The new wives will be young widows with children, destitute but of good family. They will make loving wives, but the men will shun them. I’ve had calls from the men over crackling Indian telephone lines. “Save me,” they say, these substantial, educated successful men of forty. “My parents are arranging a marriage for me.” In a month they will have buried one family and returned to Canada with a new bride and partial family.
I am comparatively lucky. No one here thinks of arranging a husband for an unlucky widow.
Then, on the third day of the sixth month into this odyssey, in an abandoned temple in a tiny Himalayan village, as I make my offering of flowers and sweetmeats to the god of a tribe of animists, my husband descends to me. He is squatting next to a scrawny sadhu in moth-eaten robes. Vikram wears the vanilla suit he wore the last time I hugged him. The sadhu tosses petals on a butter-fed flame, reciting Sanskrit mantras, and sweeps his face of flies. My husband takes my hands in his.
You’re beautiful, he starts. Then, What are you doing here?
Shall I stay? I ask. He only smiles, but already the image is fading. You must finish alone what we started together. No seaweed wreathes his mouth. He speaks too fast, just as he used to when we were an envied family in our pink split-level. He is gone.
In the windowless altar room, smoky with joss sticks and clarified butter lamps, a sweaty hand gropes for my blouse. I no not shriek. The sadhu arranges his robe. The lamps hiss and sputter out.
When we come out of the temple, my mother says, “Did you feel something weird in there?”
My mother has no patience with ghosts, prophetic dreams, holy men, and cults.
“No,” I lie. “Nothing.”
But she knows that she’s lost me. She knows that in days I shall be leaving.
Kusum’s put up her house for sale. She wants to live in an ashram in Hardwar. Moving to Hardwar was her swami’s idea. Her swami runs two ashrams, the one in Hardwar and another here in Toronto.
“Don’t run away,” I tell her.
“I’m not running way,” she says. “I’m pursuing inner peace. You think you or that Ranganathan fellow are better off?”
Pam’s left for California. She wants to do some modeling, she says. She says when she comes into her share of the insurance money she’ll open a yoga-cum-aerobics studio in Hollywood. She sends me postcards so naughty I daren’t leave them on the coffee table. Her mother was withdrawn from her and the world.
The rest of us don’t lose touch, that’s the point. Talk is all we have, says Dr. Ranganathan, who has also resisted his relatives and returned to Montreal and to his job, alone. He says, Whom better to talk with than other relatives? We’ve been melted down and recast as a new tribe.
He calls me twice a week from Montreal. Every Wednesday night and every Saturday afternoon. He is changing jobs, going to Ottawa. But Ottawa is over a hundred miles away, and he is forced to drive two hundred and twenty miles a day from his home in Montreal. He can’t bring himself to sell his house. The house is a temple, he says; the king-sized bed in the master bedroom is a shrine. He sleeps on a folding cot. A devotee.
There are still some hysterical relatives. Judith Templeton’s list of those needing help and those who’ve “accepted” is in nearly perfect balance. Acceptance means you speak of you family in the past tense and you make active plans for moving ahead with your life. There are courses at Seneca and Ryerson we could be taking. Her gleaming leather briefcase is full of college catalogues and lists of cultural societies that need our help. She has done impressive work, I tell her.
“In the textbooks on grief management,” she replies - - I am her confidante, I realize, one of the few whose grief has not sprung bizarre obsessions - - “there are stages to pass through: rejection, depression, acceptance, reconstruction.” She has complied a chart and finds that six months after the tragedy, none of us still rejects reality, but only a handful are reconstructing. “Depressed acceptance” is the plateau we’ve reached. Remarriage is a major step in reconstruction (though she’s a little surprised, even shocked, over how quickly some of the men have taken on new families). Selling one’s house and changing jobs and cities is healthy.
How to tell Judith Templeton that my family surrounds me, and that like creatures in epics, they’ve changed shapes? She sees me as calm and accepting but worries that I have no job, no career. My closest friends are worse off than I. I cannot tell her my days, even my nights, are thrilling.
She asks me to help with families she can’t reach at all. An elderly couple in Agincourt whose sons were killed just weeks after they had brought their parents over from a village in Punjab. From their names, I know they are Sikh. Judith Templeton and a translator have visited them twice with offers of money for airfare to Ireland, with bank forms, power-of-attorney forms, but they have refused to sign, or to leave their tiny apartment. Their sons’ money is frozen in the bank. Their sons’ investment apartments have been trashed by tenants, the furnishings sold off. The parent’s fear that anything they sign or any money they receive will end the company’s or the country’s obligations to them. They fear they are selling their sons for two airline tickets to a place they’ve never seen.
The high-rise apartment is a tower of Indians and West Indians, with a sprinkling of Orientals. The nearest bus-stop kiosk is lined with women in the saris. Boys practice cricket in the parking lot. Inside the building, even I wince a bit from the ferocity of onion fumes, the distinctive and immediate Indianness of frying ghee, but Judith Templeton maintains a steady flow of information. These poor old people are in imminent danger of losing their place and all their services.
I say to her, “They are Sikh. They will not open up to a Hindu woman.” And what I want to add is, as much as I try not to, I stiffen now at the sight of beards and turbans. I remember a time when we all trusted each other in this new country, it was only the new country we worried about.
The two rooms are dark and stuffy. The lights are off, and an oil lamp sputters on the coffee table. The bent old lady ha let us in, and her husband is wrapping a white turban over his oiled, hip-length hair. She immediately goes to the kitchen, and I hear the most familiar sound of an Indian home, tap water hitting and filling a teapot.
They have not paid their utility bills, out of fear and inability to write a check. The telephone is gone, electricity and gas and water are soon to follow. They have told Judith their sons will provide. They are good boys, and they have always earned and looked after their parents.
We converse a bit in Hindi. They do not ask about the crash and I wonder if I should bring it up. If they think I am here merely as a translator, then they may feel insulted. There are thousands of Punjabi speakers, Sikhs, in Toronto to do a better job. And so I say to the old lady, “I too have lost my sons and my husband, in the crash.”
Her eyes immediately fill with tears. The man mutters a few words which sound like a blessing. “God provides and God takes away,” he says.
I want to say, but only men destroy and give back nothing. “My boys and my husband are not coming back.” I say. “We have to understand that.”
Now the old woman responds. “But who is to say? Man alone does not decide these things.” To this her husband adds his agreement.
Judith asks about the bank papers, the release forms. With a stroke of the pen, they will have a provincial trustee to pay their bills, invest their money, and send them a monthly pension.
“Do you know this woman?” I ask them.
The man raises his hand from the table, turns it over, and seems to regard each finger separately before he answers. “This young lady is always coming here, we make tea for her, and she leaves papers for us to sign.” His eyes scan a pile of papers in the corner of the room. “Soon we will be out of tea, then will she go away?”
The old lady adds, “I have asked my neighbors and no one else gets angrezi visitors. What have we done?”
“It’s her job,” I try to explain. “The government is worried. Soon you will have no place to stay, no lights, no gas, no water.”
“Government will get its money. Tell her not to worry, we are honorable people.”
I try to explain the government wishes to give money, not take. He raises his hand. “Let them take,” he says. “We are accustomed to that. That is no problem.”
“We are strong people,” says the wife. “Tell her that.”
“Who needs all this machinery?” demands the husband. “It is unhealthy, the bright lights, the cold air on a hot day, the cold food, the four gas rings. God will provide, not government.
“When our boys return,” the mother says.
Her husband sucks his teeth. “Enough talk,” he says.
Judith breaks in. “Have you convinced them?” The snaps on her cordovan briefcase go off like firecrackers in the quiet apartment. She lays the sheaf of legal papers on the coffee table. “If they can’t write their names, an X will do – I’ve told them that.”
Now the old lady has shuffled to the kitchen and soon emerges with a pot of tea and two cups. “I think my bladder will go first on a job like this,” Judith says to me, smiling. “If only there was some way of reaching them. Please thank her for the tea. Tell her she’s very kind.
I nod in Judith’s direction and tell them in Hindi, “she thanks you for the tea. She thinks you are being very hospitable but she doesn’t have the slightest idea what it means.”
I want to say, Humor her. I want to say, My boys and my husband are with me too, more than ever. I look in the old man’s eyes and I can read his stubborn, peasant’s message: I have protected this woman as best I can. She is the only person I have left. Give to me or take from me what you will, but I will not sign for it. I will not pretend that I accept.
In the car, Judith says, “You see what I’m up against? I’m sure they’re lovely people, but their stubbornness and ignorance are driving me crazy. They think signing a paper is signing their sons’ death warrants, don’t they?”
I am looking out the window. I want to say, In our culture, it is a parent’s duty to hope.
“Now Shaila, this next woman is a real mess. She cries day and night, and she refuses all medical help. We may have to --- ”
“Let me out at the subway,” I say.
“I beg your pardon?” I can feel those blue eyes staring at me.
It would not be like her to disobey. She merely disapproves, and slows at a corner to let me out. Her voice is plaintive. “Is it anything I said? Anything I did?”
I could answer her suddenly in a dozen ways, but I choose not to. “Shaila? Let’s talk about it,” I hear, then slam the door.
A wife and mother begins her life in a new country, and that life is cut short. Yet her husband tells her: Complete what we have started. We, who stayed out of politics and came half way around the world to avoid religious and political feuding, have been the first in the New World to die from it. I no longer know what we started, nor how to complete it. I write letters to the editors of local papers and to members of Parliament. Now at least they admit it was a bomb. One MP answers back, with sympathy, but with a challenge. You want to make a difference? Work on a campaign. Work on mine. Politicize the Indian voter.
My husband’s old lawyer helps me set up a trust. Vikram was a saver and a careful investor. He had saved the boys’ boarding school and college fees. I sell the pink house at four times what we paid for it and take a small apartment downtown. I am looking for a charity to support.
We are deep in the Toronto winter, gray skies, and icy pavements. I stay indoors, watching television. I have tried to assess my situation, how best to live my life, to complete what we began so many years ago. Kusum has written me from Hardwar that her life is now serene. She has seen Satish and has heard her daughter sing again. Kusum was on a pilgrimage, passing through a village, when she heard a young girl’s voice, singing one of her daughter's favorite bhajans. She followed the music through the squalor of a Himalayan village, to a hut where a young girl, an exact replica of her daughter, was fanning coals under the kitchen fire. When she appeared, the girl cried out, “Ma!” and ran away. What did I think of that?
I think I can only envy her.
Pam didn’t make it to California, but writes me from Vancouver. She works in a department store, giving makeup hints to Indian and Oriental girls. Dr. Ranganathan has given up his commute, given up his house and job, and accepted an academic position in Texas, where no one knows his story and he has vowed not to tell it. He calls me now once a week.
I wait, I listen and I pray, but Vikram has not returned to me. The voices and the shapes and the nights filled with visions ended abruptly several weeks ago.
I take it as a sign.
One rare, beautiful, sunny day last week, returning from a small errand on Young Street, I was walking through the park from the subway to my apartment. I live equidistant from the Ontario Houses of Parliament and the University of Toronto. The day was not cold, but something in the bare tress caught my attention. I looked up from the gravel, into the braches and the clear blue sky beyond. I thought I heard the rustling of larger forms, and I waited a moment for voices. Nothing.
“What?” I asked.
Then as I stood in the path looking north to Queen’s Park and west to the university, I heard the voices of my family one last time. Your time has come, they said. Go, be brave.
I do not know where this voyage I have begun will end. I do not know which direction I will take. I dropped the package on a park bench and started walking.