by Shiv Dutta
Art Work by Sayalee Chandhari

Art Work by Sayalee Chandhari

        Sometimes death has a way of healing what ails a family.
        In 2004, the year after my wife’s death, I needed to go to India to perform her last rites, Shraddha and Pinda Daan. According to the Hindu scriptures, these rites sanctify a departed soul and liberate it from its earthly bonds. Both my wife and I were deeply religious. Every house we ever lived in had a prayer room with a shrine that housed sculptures and images of Hindu gods and goddesses. Either she or I, or sometimes both of us, prayed every morning before starting off the day’s activities. We lived by the rules laid down in the scriptures. Though we never discussed if we wanted the scriptures to be followed after our deaths, when the time came for her last rites, I wasn’t going to deviate from them.
        The meanings of these rites and the reasons behind their observance are long and intricate and are described in great detail in the Hindu scriptures. In a nutshell, Shraddha is performed to express respect for the deceased parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. This rite is both a social and a religious responsibility enjoined on all male Hindus. It is intended to nourish, protect, and support the spirits of the dead in their pilgrimage from the lower to higher realms, preceding their reincarnation and reappearance on Earth.
        When a person passes away, close relatives, especially the sons, observe a mourning period of ten or sometimes twelve days. During this period, they subsist on a vegetarian diet and maintain an austere lifestyle. Strict adherence to the scriptures requires walking without shoes and wearing unstitched clothing and, at the end of the mourning period, shaving off hair and beard. The Shraddha ceremony follows at the end of the mourning period, at the conclusion of which friends and relatives join in a vegetarian feast. Close relatives join in a non-vegetarian feast the next day bringing life back to normal.
        Although the departed soul is without a body, according to the scriptures its notion of a body remains along with its feelings of hunger and thirst (akin to phantom pain of an amputee). During the Pinda Daan ceremony, lumps of boiled rice mixed with sesame seed and barley, called pindas, are offered to the dead to satisfy its cravings. This rite, observed on the first death anniversary of the departed, enables the deceased to be admitted into the assembly of his or her forefathers.
        While Shraddha can be performed within India or outside the country, the Hindu scriptures dictate that the Pinda Daan should be performed only at a few prescribed places in India, Gaya, a small town in the state of Bihar, being one of them. I had a priest perform my wife’s Shraddha in Austin on the eleventh day after her death, but I decided to have the Pinda Daan in Gaya. And since I was going to be in India anyway, and having a second Shraddha ceremony wasn’t forbidden, I decided to perform it again in Kolkata.
        These rites involved a fair amount of travel in India and for Shradda, the participation and presence of many of my wife’s relatives and mine, as well as our close friends. Having not lived in India for more than thirty-five years, whatever little I knew about these ceremonies was lost in the haze of memory. I needed my family in India to help me get through this, and the only one who could was Sanjay, my older brother and the current guardian of the family. He lived in Kolkata and had gone through these rituals several times in the past when some of the other family members passed away. But would he help? I was hesitant to even ask, afraid to be lambasted once again, with him reminding me, like so many times before, of my past “misdeed.”
        “Did you help the family when we needed it?” I imagined Sanjay excoriating me.
        The request to help the family had come in the form of a letter from Sanjay a couple of months after I had arrived in Canada in 1968 on a Canadian university scholarship for postgraduate studies. Rita, my wife, had accompanied me.
        “Dada has a difficult time meeting family expenses. Can you send him some money to help out?” Sanjay wrote.
        I felt a pain in the pit of my stomach reading that letter. I knew how hard Dada, our oldest brother among my ten siblings, had been working to keep the family together by himself. My father hadn’t been much of a breadwinner. He had owned a restaurant that didn’t do well. When he passed away, he didn’t leave any money for the family. Being the oldest of the siblings, the mantle of the family head fell on Dada. He was the only earner in the family at the time, as the other siblings were all still in school. He had joined the physics faculty of a local college as an instructor, but the job did not pay much. He supplemented his income by tutoring a drove of students, both before and after his regular job, with no time for relaxation or entertainment, and with the money he thus made, managed the family, including his siblings’ schooling needs. To see his siblings stand on their own feet one day had become his life’s mission.
        “Sanjay, it’s very hard for me to tell you this, but I can barely manage my basic needs with the stipend I’m getting,” I wrote back. “But I should be able to help out soon.”
        It was a long time before I heard back from him.
        Sanjay’s demand for money wasn’t altogether unusual at the time. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, a great number of foreign students in North America, who hailed from third-world countries, faced similar familial demands. To the families back home, our move to this part of the world was like a move to El Dorado with instant access to fabulous wealth. Therefore, Sanjay interpreted my inability to help the family as a deliberate refusal on my part. That I was a student on a $350 monthly stipend with no other source of income was of no consequence to him. I didn’t know how the rest of the family felt since I hardly had any communication with them. Most of my letters to Sanjay inquiring about the family would remain unanswered for many months, and when he did finally write, his replies were sharp, curt and brief. “You don’t care about the family, so why do you want to know how the family has been doing?”
        In the midst of an alien culture, my increasing longing to cling on to my family and my roots was greeted with cold-hearted rejection. I was already struggling as I tried to adapt to the ways of life in a foreign country. His behavior added further to my stress.
        “I don’t understand why he’s treating you like this,” Rita said when she sensed my anguish. “He’s an educated man. He must know how difficult it is to live on your paltry stipend.”
        “I’m hoping someday he’ll realize his mistake and be sorry,” I said.
        It was heartbreaking to see how much Sanjay had changed toward me. We had been very close until the day I left India. In fact, we were the closest among all siblings. I missed that closeness and wanted it back. I fondly remembered his mentoring me every day during the summer breaks of my high school years.
        “Write three ten-page essays, one each in Bengali, Hindi and English,” he used to say. “Don’t worry about making mistakes, and continue to read the books I suggested.”
        He would spend hours going over these essays and correcting my mistakes. He would ask me questions about the stories in the books I read to make sure I understood them. At the end of the summers, my writing skills and reading comprehension had vastly improved. I can never forget how important that mentoring turned out to be for many of my future academic accomplishments.
        I also remembered with gratitude his generosity in covering part of my travel expenses which made it possible for me to undertake my Canadian journey in 1968 that eventually put me on the path to success. Although he had never presented it as a loan, I thought the right thing for me to do would be to pay him back, and I planned to do so by installments soon after I landed my first job in the late ‘70s.
        “What you owe is what I had spent on you plus interest for the last twelve years. Unless you can pay back the entire amount in one lump sum, don’t ever think of sending me any money because if you do, it will be returned,” he wrote after I sent him whatever I could for the first installment.
        When I read that letter, I couldn’t believe it was written by the same person who had once been so generous to me. He wasn’t desperate for money, and that made his response even more hurtful. By this time, he was a senior engineering executive in an English company in Kolkata and was financially quite well off.
        “Thanks for your meanness and insensitivity,” I felt like answering, but held back, fearing it would diminish whatever little chances I might still have to improve our relationship.
        I returned to India for the first time in 1980, twelve years after I had left. I landed in Kolkata. It was a convenient place from which to visit my mother and my siblings, most of whom lived nearby. Sanjay was the only one who lived in Kolkata. Despite his ill-feelings toward me, Rita and I chose to stay with him. I didn’t need his invitation. Indian tradition and customs allowed me that privilege. I thought staying with him might give us a chance to clear our past misunderstandings and help revive our former relationship.
        But it didn’t work out quite the way I had hoped. It was clear Sanjay hadn’t forgotten his disappointment with me for not helping the family during my student days. He rarely talked to us before he left for work in the morning, and if I ever asked him anything when he returned, always late in the evening, he dismissed me with one word answers.
        “Is Probal done with his studies yet?” I asked about our youngest brother.
        “How’s he doing?”
        “Good.” He walked away before I could ask him anything else. I also wanted to know the circumstances of Dada’s death; he had passed away shortly before my trip. Sanjay had given me the news in a brief telephone call. Sadly, I never got to see Dada after we waved good-bye at Dum Dum airport in Kolkata the evening I left the country.
        As for the rest of my family, they didn’t seem to have been affected by my past “misdeed.”
        Though we spent most of our time with Rita’s family, our stay with Sanjay became quite unbearable after three days of his continued aloofness. Not wanting to ruin the rest of our vacation, saddened and disappointed, we decided to move out of his apartment. We rented a place for a month, a little more than the length of my vacation from my job as a research analyst in a Canadian utility company in Toronto. The next day, while Sanjay was at work, we packed up our suitcases and left for our new living quarters.
        I returned to the U.S. from that trip wondering if Sanjay and I would ever be back to our old relationship.
        Before Rita passed away in 2003, she and I went back to Kolkata four times, staying mostly with her family. Though we didn’t stay with Sanjay anymore, we did drop in to see him. His behavior hadn’t changed. My persistent cajoling and stroking, along with an over-the-top humility that sometimes smacked of fawning, didn’t bring him and me any closer during those visits. It was only after Rita passed away that he suddenly began to be conciliatory, and I started to wonder what it was about her death that brought this about. It couldn’t have changed or obliterated the reasons that had caused him to keep me at bay in the first place. I wondered if he felt sorry for, even pitied, me for living alone thousands of miles from him and the rest of the family. Perhaps, but could there be something else? I couldn’t ask because it would be considered rude and impolite in Indian family relationships. And then, like an epiphany, I began to see a possible reason.
        Rita and I had married a couple of months before we left the country in 1968. We had met as students at Jadavpur University in Kolkata. She was studying to be a librarian, and I a physicist. After finishing our degrees, she started working as a librarian in a local college, and I joined a local Institute as a Research Assistant. By this time, we’d been dating close to four years.
        “You know I’ll be getting $350 a month. It’ll be very hard for us to live on that kind of money,” I had told Rita once the offer from the Canadian University had been finalized. “Do you still want to come with me now, or do you want to join me later?”
        “I want to go with you now.” Rita never hesitated to let her wishes be known.
        In Canada, we lived in a small apartment that cost us almost one third of my stipend in rent. We never dined out and hardly ever went to a movie. We didn’t have a car and rarely entertained friends. We had nothing left over at the end of the month. My stipend was our only source of income. Rita’s visa status prevented her from working. Despite a hard life, she stood by me, never complaining.
        “Is there any way you can help your family?” Rita had said when I received Sanjay’s letter asking for money.
        “I don’t see how.” Never had I felt so helpless.
        Rita was diagnosed with cancer in 2001. Though she had fought valiantly for two years, ultimately, her will to live was no match for her obdurate enemy. Though Sanjay didn’t care much for me at the time, and even less for Rita, I followed the dictates of my conscience and called to give him the news.
        “So sorry to hear this,” he said in a tone I hadn’t heard in years. His voice was soft and mellow. “If you need any help, please don’t hesitate to let me know.”
        What a turnaround, I thought.
        From that point on, his behavior started to soften.
        The sudden shift in his attitude might very well have been the result of his genuine sadness at Rita’s death. And yet, the years of humiliation and indignity to which he had subjected Rita and me, made the cynic in me wonder if it also signaled to him the potential beginning of my ability to help the family, free from any encumbrances. It’s true that Rita’s appearance in my life had made it difficult for me to be of any help during my student days, but he might have also thought she had stood in my way in later years as well.
        It is ironic that what I couldn’t achieve with my persistent efforts over a period of almost twenty-five years, Rita’s death achieved overnight. I welcomed Sanjay’s transformation but only with a great deal of anguish, ever so conscious of the great price I had to pay for it. The awareness of this painful trade-off has remained with me despite the thaw in our relationship.
        “I need to go to India for Rita’s last rites,” I said to Sanjay over the phone shortly before her first death anniversary in 2004. “But I hardly know anything about how to go about getting them done.”
        In a stroke of good luck, he volunteered to assist on his own. In fact, he had already begun to work on the preliminaries soon after I told him about my planned visit. I no longer had to sweat over how to reach out to him for help.
        “You’re to go to Gaya for Pinda Daan and then to Allahabad,” he told me when he called to go over the details. “Shradda will be done in Kolkata, and Sayoni has already made the necessary arrangements for that.” Sayoni is our youngest sister.
        Gaya is the place where many Hindus from northern India go for Pinda Daan, and Allahabad, a city in the state of Uttar Pradesh, is where Rita’s cremains, which I had been saving for a year in my prayer room, would be immersed in the Triveni Sangam, the holy confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna and Saraswati rivers. Because Sanjay had been to these places before, not only did he make my travel arrangements, he came and stayed with me during all the events–more than five hours under a hot sun in Gaya while the ceremonies took place, with the lighting of sacred fires and prolonged chanting of verses from the Hindu scriptures; an overnight stay in a shabby rooming house in Gaya that only had cold showers on winter mornings; a five-hour sardine-packed train journey from Gaya to Benares, another holy place I was advised to stop by; a three-hour gut-wrenching ride over cracks and fissures and potholes in a rickety taxi from Benares to Allahabad, where we hired a boat with a pilot and sailed a couple miles down the Ganges until we reached the holy confluence, where I parted with Rita’s ashes into the eternity of the Triveni Sangam.
        During the time Sanjay and I were together, whether in the train, the taxi, or the hotels, he shared with me the news of some of the tragedies that had struck the family after I left for Canada. Not only did I learn that Dada died of a heart attack, I also learned about my brother Probal’s difficulties.
        “Did Probal finish his studies?” I asked.
        The last I knew of him was when he was in medical school training to be a doctor.
        Sanjay went into the harrowing details of the ordeal that Probal had gone through. It turned out he was already very sick when I was in Kolkata during my first visit. Soon afterwards, he developed an acute case of schizophrenia. In spite of the best treatment available in Kolkata and elsewhere in the country, his condition became progressively worse until it became impossible to keep him at home. Sanjay had to admit him to a sanatorium.
        “Where’s the sanatorium?” I asked.
        “A few blocks from my apartment.”
        “How long does he have to stay there?”
        “Perhaps the rest of his life unless he recovers; I doubt if he ever will,” he said.
        According to Sanjay, he alone took care of Probal. Despite his fulltime job, he often had to travel to various medical facilities, both inside Kolkata and outside. None of our other brothers, all of whom lived in India, came forward to support him either financially or morally.
        “Why the hell didn’t you tell me all this before?” I felt like screaming but didn’t. I didn’t want to bring up the unpleasant memory of our past fractured relationship. Had I known about Probal’s sickness, I could have consulted my physician friends in the U.S. and possibly learned of some treatments that might not yet have reached the shores of India. Perhaps I could have been of some help in averting the steady decline in Probal’s condition.
        “Anger and resentment, justified or not, often lead to irreversible consequences,” I was tempted to tell him, referring to his keeping me in the dark, literally for decades.
        “You mind if I take care of his sanatorium expenses from now on?” I asked. I guessed he would be retiring soon, and it would be difficult for him to carry this burden which was huge by Indian standard.
        He hemmed and hawed for a while but eventually agreed.
        Sayoni, our youngest sister, who was a professor of Sanskrit in an out-of-town college, and, according to Sanjay, an accomplished organizer, had taken time off from teaching and worked long and hard with Sanjay to ensure the completion of Shradda ceremony that took place in Kolkata soon after our return from Allahabad. I was happy to know that she had invited Rita’s relatives and ours and some of Rita’s and my friends.
        Altogether, there were close to 100 people in attendance. The ambience was somber and pensive. The ceremonies were accompanied by another round of chanting of verses and lighting of sacred fires, just as in Gaya, and lasted a little more than an hour. A vegetarian feast for the invitees followed the ceremony in a spirit of fellowship and solidarity.
        One day, after the thaw in our relationship, Sanjay and I were in his Kolkata apartment having our afternoon coffee. He was complaining about how the other two brothers didn’t keep any contact with him.
        Since the fracture in our relationship was already fixed, I was debating inside myself whether to tell him what I thought was the reason. Also, this seemed like a good opportunity to let him know what I had felt about his behavior with me over the years.
        “If you treated them like you treated me for years, I can see why they’d want to stay away from you,” I said. “It’s only because I wanted to cling to my family and my roots that I put up with your insults and arrogance. Otherwise I too would have walked away from you a long time ago.”
        He looked pensive as he quietly stared out the open window.

        I had wanted Sanjay to get to know Rita and treat her as part of our family. Rita had wished that, too. Unfortunately, that never happened.
        As I reflect on the complexity of familial relationships, I cannot help but wonder whether these relationships are anything but a wily subterfuge of a much bigger scheme only to propel humanity on its onward journey through endless cycles of birth and death, and familial love, affections, and attachments are only incidentals in that scheme.
        Since Rita’s death, being free from any major financial obligations, I have tried to seize every opportunity I could to meet Sanjay’s and my family’s need for money. Meeting Probal’s sanatorium expenses is just one of them. Over the years, I have done much more than I could have possibly done during my student days, including paying back my debt to Sanjay.
        In 2010, six years after Rita’s last rites and the thaw in our relationship, Sanjay and I found ourselves at the Ocean Terrace of Sheraton Waikiki’s RumFire restaurant, sipping a cold glass of salted Margarita, the breathtaking view of the azure Pacific only a few feet from us, and the majestic silhouettes of the Ko’olau Mountains in the distance. It was early in the evening, but the crowd had already started to thin out. We’d had a long day of sightseeing and gotten back a little while earlier. We flew in to Honolulu two weeks before and had seen all the major attractions of Oahu. We even managed to visit the Big Islands and see Volcanoes National Park with a clear view of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa.
        “The one place I’ve always wanted to see is Hawaii,” Sanjay had told me when I visited him in Kolkata in 2008. I was happy I could fulfill his desire.
        This was our last night in the Islands of Aloha.
        “No wonder they call this place Paradise,” Sanjay said between sips. “If I hadn’t seen it myself, I’d never have known. This is the most beautiful of all the places I’ve been to. Thanks for the trip.”
        As I heard him above the gentle murmur of the Pacific, I saw Rita’s smiling face materialize in my mind’s eye for a few fleeting seconds, a face that seemed to say, “I’m happy that at last you’ve got your brother back!”