This is the story of people who act with the purpose of the ages though they may not at any given moment have any idea what they are doing. It is also a story of change and transition because we are changing, and our minds and souls with us. Soon enough we’ll all be dead, or American beyond distinction. It takes place in the Garden State in autumn of 1997, the time of year when the stems of chlorophyll- leaking leaves snap free and send showers of technicolor shard drifting crunchily to the New Jersey earth. The Internet as we know it wasn’t five years old.
I had found refuge from the coming cold in Morris Plains with an aging couple who were family friends. Among family and friends, we call elders “Uncle” or “Auntie,” whether they’re related or not. This Uncle was a physical chemist at Picatinny Arsenal and Auntie worked in the psychiatric hospital, Greystone. They never had children of their own, but had hosted hundreds of people from India in their home, young and old. They were stewards of a generation of Indian immigrants.
I arrived from Manhattan unaware I was just in time for the last two weeks of Uncle’s life.
There is a story among our thousand-thousand-year old people about the man who comes for a funeral at the house of the deceased and annoys everyone by staying past his welcome for the free food and shelter at the hand of the widow. I had arrived before my hosts’ death. We haven’t yet developed such a response to the type of visitor I was. Maybe this one will do.
The soon-to-be departed was a 70-year old colleague and friend of my father’s for four decades and in that time my father had sent him a quantity of business from which he had benefited. Through hard work and dedication to the science of his profession he had earned well and had treated himself and his wife to the surroundings in which they had been planted for the last twenty-five years; a beautiful suburban six-bedroom, three-bath home. Childless, their resources went not to progeny, but instead to the building of a community of their people in northern New Jersey.
While I had neither spoken nor written to my father in more than a year (he had taken a despise for my general lack of interest in work or study), I wasn’t above taking advantage of his alliances to protect myself from the ravages of nature in the long months of winter.
Upon arrival, I dazzled my hosts with such conversation and jocularity as to earn my invitation to stay – independent of my host’s obligation to my father – for at least a week or two. I was marshalling resources to return to my own war in nearby New York City. I convinced them I was a writer who kept copious notes of circumstances such as these and that I might one day immortalize their own lives. They believed I was an artist between exhibits seeking inspiration from the autumnal hues.
I knew that despite their immigration to these United States, my hosts had clung tightly to the traditions of South Indian culture. Women kept their own carefully-ordained place in the company of men, as men did in the company of women. So I intended a comfortable time behind heavy doors closed to the bitter cold, my soul warmed by the fireside of my hosts, sipping their brandy and discussing the bodies politic and geographic, attended with snacks and refreshed drinks from time to time. I thought I’d make myself available occasionally to wash a dish or two in exchange, perhaps a trip to market to lend a hand. This is how our time had begun before my host’s untimely demise.
We are a proud lot whose culture allows for the manipulation of the universe toward our own ends at any cost under the auspice of our belief in dharma. It is our complete acceptance of the universe’s larger workings which allows this state of mind. It shall sort, indeed, has already sorted it out.
This might be a confusing position for the western mind to understand, as many believe in the knowability of answers and of the mind of God in some personage, a God who rewards truth and justice and balances acts pure and impure. But then again, the westerner often takes the so-called “big bang” as a zero-point, supposes it the dawn of time, while we find this to be a very shallow view. We know an infinite number of times, dawning and dusking eternal.
Such matters my host and I had already taken to discussing upon the first day of my arrival when I met one woman around whom this tale would later revolve. He had just finished saying to me, “The Iliad and the Odyssey taken together are but one-eighth the length of the Mahabarata,” when she walked into the room and delivered a snack tray for our consideration. How she moved.
Her name was Priya and to my eyes never had a more beautiful creature walked this earth. Beauty like only the daughter of Death herself as a vision walked. The only sufficient words are in the vernacular and so from here I continue in such timbre so I may better illustrate the point:
Chocolate. Sweet, dark chocolate skin and ink-black eyes which reflect the soul of anyone who peered within them. Thick, jet-black hair surrounded her oval face and fell to her shoulders. Her hips were well-rounded and her breasts were gloriously full. She had that beauty only young Indian women have when they are capable of driving a man to the wild impulse of marriage because they think they can possess them thus.
My host’s wife introduced us. She was married to a doctor and the couple were staying in the basement rental apartment which he had installed ten years before when his father had lived here and required a live-in nurse. So they were living in the basement of my hosts’ house amidst the colorful autumn leaves of New Jersey when I turned up, broke, unemployed and seeking shelter under a harvest moon.
She was the only daughter of a family friend in the area and had been sentenced to her Indian doctor in an arranged marriage in Vijayawada three years before. Her mother had taken the view that a daughter once married no longer belonged in her parent’s home and so had nudged the young couple out a month ago. But the young doctor had yet to receive his American medical residency, was in fact without occupation and so when Priya’s mother pushed them out, the young couple were strapped for money and a place to live. They turned to the woman who had brought Priya to this country – not her own mother but my host’s wife.
This is where our story takes its first ugly turn. Long before her marriage, Priya had been brought to this country by my hosts because her mother had rejected her at birth and left her with a villager’s family in their hometown in India.
It went like this: a mother and father with three children – two boys and a girl – gain an opportunity to emigrate from India to the United States and elect to take only the sons, leaving the daughter behind until she is seven years old. At last she is brought by a woman to whom she is unrelated – a neighbor – to be reunited with her (now) American family who only guardedly welcome her.
Then, after fifteen years and an American upbringing, the family requires she marry an Indian doctor and so she moves back to India to do so, only when she returns to the United States, she is told she cannot live with her new husband in the family home like her brother and his wife and child.
So for the second time in her life they reject her. She sought refuge in the only place she could, in the folds of her neighbor’s wife’s sari, sleeping in the basement of their house – a house which has served as shelter for dozens of other refugees over the years, refugees from nations and loves, hatreds and political legalese; a shelter for me.
I wish I could say Priya’s story was uncommon, but I cannot. India is overpopulated and resources are thin. It has made our people strict, ancient and realistic about the material world. Sensitivity to the struggle of others is often measured against what it will cost or what one can gain. Altruism is in short supply.
I arrived on a Monday afternoon, the 29th of September. The weather was much warmer here than in New York City; blue skies with cottony clouds floating by. When I left the city, it was muggy, cool and humid. It felt so ominous and dirty. By contrast, at night, there were crickets here. It’s a really lovely place.
Dover is something like an hour and twenty minutes from the city. After I’d gotten down from the bus on the streets in downtown, I’d rung Auntie. She came to pick me up in her red Oldsmobile station wagon with wood-paneled sideboards. She, too would be 70, the following month. She was wearing a colorful red and gold sari and looked tiny and sweet behind the steering wheel of her big American wagon when she pulled up to the curb to pick me up.
She brought me a turkey sandwich to eat and took me back to the hospital where she worked – a campus of grassy lawns and trees. This is a nut house. It is also where Auntie works as an administrator and counselor. She had to wrap up a few things and left me to sit eating lunch on a beautiful old wooden swing in the grassy lawn. I sat in the lovely rockaway swing: the type which has two seats facing one another connected to a floor board and hooked on either end to a carriage structure. It’s made of all wood slats so the whole unit swings between the frame. I spent the half hour drawing the swing in detail.
We went to their home in Morris Plains where Uncle was waiting, presumably aging and infirm after his consecutive heart failures over the years. But I found him alert and eager for my arrival. It was me who was exhausted. Upon arrival I slept for hours and hours and hours at the behest of my hosts.
Arising late the morning after I arrived, I went with Uncle to his office at Picatinny Arsenal – a Vietnam Era military facility which produced and then worked to deactivate mines and other explosive devices for use in South East Asia and elsewhere.
He was seventy years old and drove a silver, late-model Mercedes with ease. Though weakened by his recent illness, he had the energy to go to work at least briefly. Auntie told me he had been going two or three times a week since he got out of the hospital in August.
“You can check your e-mail from my office,” he said. He moved slowly but not ungracefully. It was becoming apparent that he had some weakness to contend with. But Uncle never let on how much and he escorted and drove me to his office and back without me feeling an inkling for his true pain. He was mentally strong and had tremendous character.
In reality he was quite frail and in recuperation from six months of congestive heart failure. A 30-year diabetic, he labored over the care of his body with insulin injections and capsules and pills of all sorts. He complained that a heart failure treatment called Coreg, a tiny pill with a powerful kick, was wiping him out.
The pill is a beta-blocker. The spiking interchange of adrenaline (briefly) and “crashes” from Insulin reactions and hypoglycemia fatigued him completely and the side effects of heart meds made up the end of his life. Though the doctors asked for his activity to be limited, the desire to move, to act, to go to the office, to be productive was stronger. His will to continue his chemistry, his work, moved him.
But that day when Uncle and I went to his lab and office at the Arsenal, I had no real understanding of his condition, self-absorbed as I was, immersed in my thoughts and writings and thoughts about writings. I was worried about my first novel, copies of which I had left in Manhattan with several agents and publishers in the hopes one would read and choose to publish it.
I was worried about my process, my life and my anxieties, and so my writings reflected my selfish need for appeasement in the face of my fears. I didn’t realize the journals I kept then would carry a heavy burden. I talked to myself about a meaningful life because of my fears that I was not living one, even though my hosts were in the middle of a health crisis which loomed far larger than such philosophical ramblings.
Here was my entry during my visit to Picatinny:
9/30/97, The Arsenal
Uncle was a senior research scientist who specialized in physical chemistry dealing in nitromides. For 37 years he had one job, at Picatinny Arsenal. My father was a sulfur chemist and an organic chemistry professor. These two men were the same age and for a very long time focused the powerful capacities of their mental faculties on a variety of projects, often in support of the US Military. It is because of this relationship that they are here at all. It is definitely why they are the owners of houses and cars and luxury items in the U.S. of A.
Picatinny is located on a beautiful, rolling, hilly campus of small roads nestled among lovely groves of trees which also had begun their autumnal parade of color. The arsenal is an explosives and weapons munitions campus and Uncle took me deep into the windowless laboratory buildings where he worked. The walls were made of thick, white cement bricks. The lighting was institutional, tube lights under flat plastic sconces.
Uncle told me the peak of activity here at Picatinny was during the Vietnam War. He was working then on methodologies for disarming mines. There was hardly any activity to be seen when we arrived. Uncle said that in the previous ten years, employment had dropped 300%, downsizing from 6,000 to around 2,000 employees.
We were sitting in the George C. Hale Laboratory. It is a white-cement, very plain building planted like an ugly gray brick in the beauty of these surroundings. Uncle’s office is also windowless. Going to work for forty years he couldn’t even look outside. Old chemists and scientists are a strange and beautiful lot, to me. Old school Indian chemists worked hard, damn near blind to the specifics around them, so absorbed.
We spent a couple of hours at his office and he let me use his internet to check my e-mail. Uncle was, even at this stage of his own problems with life, concerned about my need for e-mail in order to pursue my work. He and Auntie seemed supportive of my efforts to become a writer, though I’m unemployed, broke and unmarried at 30 which is uncommon for an Indian at best and looked upon as pathetic at worst.
For many years I had known Auntie and Uncle were here but I had not been in touch with them. I had grown away from my own family and so I did not retain the contacts which my father and mother kept. I knew they were here but knew nothing really about their lives. I was taken aback by their refreshingly open approach to my process, my lifestyle. I was wary however of the underlying nature of my people which crawls into every interaction. We are deceptive, cautious, manipulative. Were they humoring me only to quietly reorganize my thinking?
The town of Dover was, by its own estimation, 275 years old, announced on a wooden sign when you enter the town square, that read:
1722 Dover 1997
Lots of US flags. Lots of big houses on beautiful occupied territories that keep some native names.
Northern New Jersey was also home to the first and largest immigrant community from India in the United States. I had never grown up around a lot of Indians. There were a few families who trickled in slowly to where I grew up and we knew and supported them of course, but I never had close Indian friends. I was surrounded by white kids and a handful of Latinos, among whom I was the weirdo with the funny name.
I was fascinated by the Indian community surrounding Auntie and Uncle. Here were Indian kids with Jersey accents who switched back to Indian ones when they were with their parents or other family members, but they had other Indian kids to do it with!
Concerning the Author
Let me take a moment now to describe who I am: a Brahmin man, born in India and raised in the United States. There are now many like me.
Our parents brought us here because they were seduced by the American century at one time or another and now they expect us to know things about our culture which they take to be natural. When we do not maintain our culture, often they are angered by our inability to feel what they believe are normal ties to family and food.
They told us to assimilate and then left us to be raised by ignorant, bigoted, limited white people who watch too much television. They expected us to be Indian-Americans with an emphasis on the Indian. But we were disenfranchised, disunited and dissed in these states. I am disillusioned.
In our schools we were raised as outsiders and foreigners because no one could pronounce our names, we dressed funny and carried smelly lunches. At home, the relationships we witnessed between husband and wife were in direct contradiction to every major feminist movement spawned by the American century. We were shown the patriarchy at an early age and pitched its opposite by our teachers and friends.
When we failed invariably to live up to the previous generation’s hopes and desires for us, we were chastised privately and lied about publicly to avoid familial embarrassment. I am among the few of us to manage to get this far in expressing ourselves.
Our culture sometimes makes me sick. But as I’ve said, I am not above taking advantage of it in my time of need. My host and I talked about many things and bullshat one another about the importance and validity of our knowledge. It is our way never to point out when someone is clearly lying and so our discussions bounce around the room like rubber checks. We invented the half-nod/half-no head shake for this very purpose. It says neither that you agree or disagree, but allows the conversation to continue.
Thus, completely irresponsible half-truths are spoken aloud and allowed to resonate. Whole worlds of argument are built on the foundation of a faulty logic supported by sycophancy. But we are Brahmin men, and so we do this with impunity in the living room energized by the food and drink brought to us from the kitchen by our women.
Priya was beautiful. Her carriage, despite being weighted with an immeasurable sadness, was graceful and contrite. She was neither prideful nor temperamental. She served her husband and her host family with a quiet orderliness.
When we got back home from the Arsenal, we watched the Mahabharata – a then newly produced operatic version from England being widely praised. We listened to Ravi Shankar records. Uncle was fading.
One Week Passes
one week passed like this: I met some of Uncle’s friends and neighbors. I met his nurse.
Uncle had a private nurse named Ruth who came to see him in his home. She was a middle-aged, white woman with nice features, a good smile, and a short brown, businessy hairstyle.
She came every other day or once a week. She sat with Uncle and Auntie for a few minutes, took readings. did a very limited in-home check of diagnostics. She was present for maybe 20 minutes and began by saying, “Rest. Rethink how you work.”
Auntie says, “Until 40 we think about the mind and not the body. But from 40 on we have to forget about the mind and think about the body.”
Ruth, an American, responds loudly in a tone of voice she obviously uses often daily as though Auntie and Uncle are hard of hearing, “Wee-eeeell, we should think about the body all our lives and then when we get to 70 it won’t be like …. Aaaaaaaaaaaaah!” She shakes her wrists and hands.
She continues, “If we think about how we eat, how we exercise, how we live and how we pray,” she says, pausing significantly, “ long before 40. We’ll be a lot better off at 70.”
Her tone of voice is reprimanding as if she knows better than these two 70-year-old scientists, these thousands-year-old Brahmins. I hate this kind of condescension. Then she leaves. For each of these visits no matter how long, 20 minutes or an hour, she receives $175.00. At ten visits a week to clients? Do the math.
Auntie told me Ruth is a member of an ashram in New York City and that she likes coming here to their house because she sees the house as peaceful and spiritual. She invited auntie to go to the ashram in New York with her. She is a westerner who practices yoga, which is becoming more common.
I was 30. Ruth was maybe 40. Auntie and Uncle were 70. What does money and comfort have to do with meaning in life? Death is the meaning of life.
Uncle worked forty-to-sixty-hour work weeks for 35 years for the Army contributing at times over the seasons to the manufacture of explosives designed to kill, maim and destroy people of all ages and at other times to the disarmament of the same toward peace. Ruth may work 20 hours a week telling people what they already know so they might live longer.
I’m penniless. And homeless. I work at the act of living a meaningful, slowly-paced, gentle existence … a full life … unemployed by anyone but myself toward this end.
Ruth will die. I will die. Uncle will die.
It is a beautiful autumn day, a gift for the dying in New Jersey.
More That Happened in the Week that Passed
I shot an art short on video (Beta) with the Doctor. He ‘acted’ as a newly arrived immigrant. I shaved my facial hair and clothing to create three characters who meet him in the USA. There were staged bits and improvised sections where he simply reacted honestly to his feelings about emigrating. The dialog is philosophical and cultural and conducted in three languages.
When he was away at the hospital with Auntie, I had long conversations with Priya. She tells me the doctor is violent with her and calls her a bitch when he has sex with her.
Her husband is half a man and barely a doctor. The latter rubber-stamped him for her as a husband and the former makes me burn with impassioned righteousness. I am too Americanized. I want to free her. I want to tear her from this patriarchy and take her to the tops of the rooftops of the world, in the City. In an instant I imagine us dining at my favorite restaurant in the Mission District, three thousand miles away in the city by the Bay, and driving at night across the bridge to stare back at San Francisco from the Headlands.
But what foolishness is this? It is only the half-cocked romantic thought of a man who has abandoned his own culture for dreams. She wouldn’t enjoy it anyway. She would only look across the table at me with her profoundly sad eyes and sigh as she nudged at her food with her fork. Besides, I don’t have a dime to my name. I’m homeless. Unemployed. Worth less.
October 8th, 1997, Uncle Enters Hospital
Some numbers and number-awareness: On the way to the hospital last Wednesday night, Uncle said, “8 pints to the gallon.” And as I sat in the back seat of the Benz at an intersection while Auntie waited for the traffic to pass, wondering why he said it, he continued, “one pound is one pint … so they’ve taken a gallon of liquid from me.”
It was October 8th, 1997: Emergency Nurse’s Day, “commemorating the more than 90,000 emergency nurses throughout the world who blend the art of caring with the science of nursing to countless patients everywhere,” reads the sign in the waiting room. Count one more patient for the four nurses who met us in the emergency room at Dover General. We were taking him to the ER to fight the water retention.
They weighed him. I wrote down his result and then weighed myself, my scrap of paper reads: “131.2 Uncle, 187.0 me.” 40 years and 56 pounds separated us upon his death. What will I wither away to?
They kept Uncle in hospital and Auntie and I returned home. Uncle’s condition has not changed. He is “stable,” but unconscious or asleep from the sedatives. I didn’t expect this.
The women started bringing the food that afternoon. There were a lot of people around now. It was a Sunday and the skies were clear. The sun shone through the leaves. There were leaves all over the lawn. They had all yellowed, rusted and fallen in the two weeks since I came.
In the last conversation I had with uncle he said that the leaves age and change even more beautifully North of here, in New England, but from the window in his study, I cannot imagine how true that could be. His lawn is a blanket of sprinkled light on green and yelloween.
He is dying. We all know it. Each of us deals with it in our own way, though we have a collective sense of support for our spirits.
The next morning started at 6:00 am, Auntie and Uncle’s cousin’s wife were up and in the kitchen before dawn. I heard them talking because I had been sleeping on the sofa since family members began arriving. Auntie was so practical in the face of her husband’s impending death. She talked about planning for all the people who would come to her house, about preparing food and making sleeping arrangements for them. She made calls to cousins and other family members. She was stunningly together and active.
It was becoming more apparent that these were Uncle’s last days. In the morning, when everyone left to visit the hospital, I stayed at the house alone to “man the phones,” and to be responsible for disseminating information about flight times and hospital updates and the comings and goings of others. They would come later in the day by whatever means possible from many different destinations. Uncle’s sister and brother-in-law from Canada would land at Newark International Airport at 2:30, Uncle’s cousin’s son from London by Virgin air at 6:40. Everyone who can come was making arrangements now.
Mornings were thus the antithesis of evening: an empty house with just me, the itinerant visitor, drifting aimlessly through the rooms. Uncle and Auntie’s cousins from New York, a couple and their son whom they were taking to Rutgers came in at around 10:00 in the morning. This auntie had a stern, harsh appearance and was emotional from the get-go. Her name begins with V., her husband’s S, so we called them V-auntie and S-Uncle.
V-auntie was instantly suspicious of me. Her fear and worry were exhibited in her face immediately. She had no idea who I was, all alone in her cousin’s house. I sat with them when they arrived and tried to explain what I knew, about uncle’s condition and auntie’s and the hospital and the flight plans. V-Auntie just sat opposite me and stared. Her glare was cold as ice and her face as firm as stone.
We sat silently after my stilted recitations on facts and figures and finally she spoke in a crackling voice, “We were married in this house,” and S-Uncle pointed at the carpet, “Right here.” he added.
V-Auntie continued, “We were the first one’s married in this house. There have been many weddings here since then.” Her voice was trembling. “Fourteenth is our anniversary,” indicating the day after tomorrow. Before I could ask how many years ago she answers my thoughts, “our twenty-fifth.” Her emotions were welling beneath her exterior and I am a stranger to her. I don’t know how to behave except to try to be reassuring and tell her what I can about the situation. I sit with them and the depth of the hurt and sadness is inescapable.
S-Uncle calls and gets directions to the hospital. He and V-Auntie will take their son to the hospital and then S-Uncle will take their son to Rutgers for school. They leave and again I am alone briefly.
I walk through the rooms of the house and reflect on my time with Uncle which has been brief but enjoyable. I feel so many strange emotions. I cannot feel him dying or as dead. It just hasn’t struck me yet. I have only words about the phenomenon and they are empty.
Later in the evening people were leaving who will not stay past the weekend. Uncle was still in the same condition with no change. Auntie had slept maybe four or five hours of the last 60. She had been at the house for maybe three hours a day and the rest of the time stayed at the hospital with her husband.
Everyone wore a brave face and made small talk and even chatted gaily sometimes in the face of events. It was a unifying experience, but also a confusing one as many of us did not know one another, or hadn’t seen one another in years. I was the most an outsider.
The family is from Andhra Pradesh and so they speak in Telegu which I, as a Tamilian, cannot understand. Thus, I was left out of the most intimate 65% of conversation. Everyone made allowance for my status as a speaker of Tamil and so we shared English as a common tongue between us all.
The conversation was about a wide array of things ranging from what everyone does, is doing, to where they have been since seeing one another last. There have been marriages and births. It is that sort of an occasion and I am an unintentionally present guest.
Where to begin in discussing the way in which each of the friends and relatives approached their grief ?
The cousin of Uncle’s who had come to visit the previous week, and so was one of the few I had already met, is also a diabetic and had the most in common with him over the years. He is pessimistic. He had come too often to this house for this reason. He believed only a miracle would pull his cousin out of trouble at this point.
We talked at length about such spiritual topics as our shared beliefs in reincarnation and the advancement of spirituality through the laws of physics, the meta-physical made real in a discussion which included unified wave theories and numerology.
This day he said meaningfully, “Well, you know uncle’s birthday is 22nd.” I do not know how to respond to this information and am briefly shy and almost embarrassed. “And tomorrow is the thirteenth,” he continues, “and three and one is also four.” He completes the syllogism for me, “so if he can make it through tomorrow, he could be all right.”
Every time the phone rang, I’d get a stirring feeling in my gut of wonderment and fear. I supposed that everyone here did, too; wonderment as to who it was and fear an instant later that it was the hospital.
Uncle’s cousin has an uncle of his own who lives in Austin, Texas, and who had dedicated the last dozen years to translating ten volumes of Vedic texts: nine books of the Upanishads and a tenth compilation of ‘highlights,’ from the other nine. The work was deeply spiritual, centered on coming to an understanding of the universe from a cultural perspective which is thousands of years old. The word for grandfather is Thatha and they call him Texas-Thatha.
This Texas-Thatha was also enraged at Tagore’s poem which became the Indian National Anthem. Tagore named all the northern states in the poem, but encapsulated southern Indian culture into a single line referring to us as Dravidians. Texas-Thatha hated that national anthem of India so much that he rewrote it with different sanskrit lyrics to the tune of “O’ Canada!”
Uncle’s cousin was pessimistic about Uncle’s condition.
At one point there were at least twenty people in the house – lots of aunties and uncles and friends and cousins came. The faint of heart could not see uncle intubated and passive and practically without function. It was intensely depressing to see him without the strength and life he normally carried. Uncle’s younger sister and her husband came from Saskatchewan. They wandered in and out of the kitchen all night worn and tired by the waiting and the helplessness.
A strange aspect of the day was that the power went out three times for no apparent reason and we were all briefly, collectively plunged into darkness in different rooms without windows around the house causing us to wander into the well-lighted spaces and ask one another in various languages and dialects if the power had gone. The computer upon which I made these notes shut down thrice because of it.
Uncle’s dog Randy wandered from person to person stumbling, searching for his master’s face in the sea of legs and bodies which surrounded him. He was confused and lonely and at one point got outside while no one was watching and ended up wandering around in the grass of the neighbor’s lawn across the street.
Priya found him and brought him back in. She was wandering through the house with her husband, too. None of us knew how to behave, There was no order, nor rules for this condition, but the elders demanded an order of some kind. They had been around death and had a ritualized process which they had developed to deal with it. They behaved in an orderly way. The young and the pets are numb and confused.
Earlier, I wrote, “He is dying. We all know it. Each of us deals with it in our own way, though we have a collective sense of support for our spirits.”
I was dealing with it by sitting at Uncle’s brand new PowerPC which we installed and set up together and by typing these words. It was the only meaning I could find in the crazy empty process of dealing with the practical matter of Uncle’s illness.
I had come here homeless and penniless after having slept in Central Park and wandered around New York trying to get my works published. And with neither judgment nor recrimination, Auntie and Uncle took me in like a puppy and provided for me.
As I have said, they were host to two others who, like me, are in a transitionary period in their lives: Dr. R. and Priya, staying in the basement apartment in Auntie and Uncle’s house while they await R.’s results for his applications for medical residency.
It was their story I began to tell before becoming distracted by death. Since the morning of the funeral, Priya had been feeling nauseous. She was pregnant.
Five minutes after 11:00 in the morning on October 13th, Columbus Day, the call came.
At 11:07 Auntie and several others went to the hospital. The caller told auntie, who had been picking up the phone on the first ring since yesterday evening when she came home to sleep, that uncle’s condition was worsening, that his heart had seized again and that he needed to be defibrillated again. They were “doing everything they can.”
That morning and the previous evening, we were all feeling strangely positive. This was the thirteenth, and since 4:00, the day before, Uncle had been off sedatives. Despite the sedation’s absence he had remained stable and that morning according to Auntie and others he had even moved his extremities, though he didn’t open his eyes.
The First Generation Americans
There are a disproportionate number of doctors in the house. Indian doctors. So there were many approaches to Uncle’s illness ranging from the matter-of-fact to the wildly emotional. The responses were not divided by any factors related to occupation or gender, though generally the most emotional response came from V- Auntie, and the least from one of the many Indian doctors here.
One of them, Uncle’s nephew who flew in from England, was 30 years old and treated as the “eldest son.” It became his responsibility to describe the condition of Uncle to various people in languages ranging from the technical to the medical to the emotional. When he was not around others tried to do the same, but the specifics were insufficient.
The eldest son was quite Americanized and doesn’t speak Telegu, the mother tongue of the family. He did not forgive himself for this easily and wore his responsibilities at this time like a badge with which he hoped to return to his own culture from outside. He took great pleasure in his role though he was struck with grief and cried often. He felt the mantles shifting around himself and wanted to perpetuate the traditional roles of his culture as he perceived them, though his perception was ignorant, uninformed, narrow and reduced.
During my last visit to the hospital and my last opportunity to see Uncle, I sat with Indian doctors in the waiting room who spoke matter-of-factly about respirators and ventilation maintenance. They did so in front of that same V-Auntie who sat with me at the house that first day and then opposite me in the waiting room, who had been married exactly 25 years before in Uncle’s house.
V-Auntie was also a doctor, a pediatrician. She sat with her eyes closed in the waiting room and suddenly she barked out with a deep inhalation of air and sound. It was as if she had awoken from a terrible nightmare. She looked directly at me. “I have to leave here,” she said, “I’m getting depressed.” Priya and I immediately stood up and offered to drive her back to Auntie and Uncle’s house.
As we were leaving, on the elevator, her state worsened. She said, “I can’t listen to the way the others speak, so mechanically. I can only pray.” Then we walked from the elevator through the lobby and out the front doors and she finally broke down.
I held her as she cried into my chest. She cried for a full two minutes saying, “So many important things happened in their house. So many things with my son happened in their house. I cannot see him like this.”
This woman whom I hadn’t met until that morning was crying on my chest in front of the lobby of Dover General and I didn’t have any words or thoughts to help her.
On the way home she sang bhajans in prayer to God which included the names of Auntie and Uncle. She told us that the one thing she had asked of her swami in whom she believed so deeply was that neither she nor Auntie should have their husbands die first. There was no way to respond to the threat to her faith which existed in the car with us on that day. She went to New York the following day to pick up two other family members from La Guardia.
Unlike many of the others, Auntie was stable as an ox throughout the entire experience. She moved with grace through the house of guests who came to wake her husband. She was amazingly calm and composed. The morning he died, she simply came into the kitchen and said, “his condition is worsening. They are doing everything they can.” Then she left.
Death is the meaning of life. Language is a useless way of dealing with it.
The younger nephews and nieces arrived last. They were all closer to my age and so we had some things in common. I was a curiosity to them, another 30-year-old at their Uncle’s house in these grim hours, but one they had never seen while growing up.
We were all interested in comparing notes. We went out to get cocktails together to break the ice. When we do we look like a club or a gang … a pack of brown Indians in western clothes, relatively hip , hardly conservative and without a trace of an accent – at least no Indian ones, some British, but of course here in the US that’s respected blindly. It was slightly uncomfortable for most of us at first but we were all soon very good at being good at it. We had a good time.
Conversation was centered around the happenings of the week and my appearance here a few weeks ago. We all laughed together about the ridiculous relationships we have with elder Indians and Indian-Americans. We have so many secrets from them. We are nothing like them and yet we feel a responsibility to behave ourselves. Some more than others. Me the least of all. The eldest son, who would be responsible for making funeral arrangements and delivering the eulogy was growing into his skin as a doctor.
The elders doted on him and reveled in his position as a med student in England. They were very proud. Though we are exactly the same age, he is treated differently. His being a doctor makes the part of the difference that my being a stranger doesn’t make, the rest is left to my being unemployed and a writer. Strangers who are doctors (or lawyers or engineers) are at least in the party line.
Late that night, I smoke out the eldest son with the tiniest, last remaining portion of marijuana I have left from my time in the City. We sit up, high, and talk about death and life and whether or not I want to sleep with any of his cousins.
What are lies and what is truth?
In order to do this telling justice, I must use names. However to make it easier, I will use names of my own manufacture. Who would believe that a young man named Andy, a student in his fifth year of medical residency in London, England, returned home because of his uncle’s hospitalization for a fatal condition would be sitting opposite me, a total stranger alongside his cousins with whom he shares a long history of growing up in the house in which I have been staying for just the last few weeks?
Andy was a frat boy. Over in England he missed football and Sportscenter. He wants me to write about his Uncle and his uncle’s house because he sees the story as glorious and heroic. He wants me to do it because he doesn’t believe he can. He sees me as a writer and a creative person. Falsely, he sees me as something other than himself. He feels he has given in and become a doctor because it was expected of him. At one point, he actually tells me he feels he was made to become a doctor. He perceives me as a risk-taker.
“I mean,” he says, “It’s a pretty amazing story, really.” He says this to me often during the week of his uncle’s passing. He is referring to the story of his uncle and aunt’s immigration to the United States, to their tireless efforts to make their house an institution to support other immigrants from South India and others less fortunate than themselves.
Andy is in the years when it is important for him to believe many things. He needs to find meaning in Hindu rituals which he has never understood. He needs to step into his role as eldest son by pretending to understand some things, asking about some others and accepting vague answers to questions he asks about the arcane meaning of ritualistic behavior so he can believe he knows something about himself and his relationship to his culture. He is like me, or any of us in-between. But now he has more responsibilities. Soon he will have a life in the US as an Indian doctor. There are already so many precedents for such a life. He wants to step into a mold which he perceives as glorious.
There are many things Andy did while he was home for this family emergency. He came to the hospital and talked earnestly and grimly with the doctors. He served as the primary contact for the family to explain the situation at hand though the situation was obvious to even the least educated person. Andy stepped into his role in the patriarchy with aplomb and a desire for flair. He arranged the funeral and cremation services. He wore a jibba for the funeral and had a story to tell about shopping for it. He wrote a stirring eulogy and delivered it through heartfelt tears.
A couple of days after the funeral, he shopped for a BMW, which he has decided will be his car of choice when he becomes a surgeon. He said it “has to be German.” He shopped for a new personal computer. He went around and saw some friends.
Andy used to be married to an American girl. They are now divorced. The descriptions of that experience are riddled with unhappinesses. Andy tells me he felt even on his wedding day that he was watching someone else get married. He didn’t know what he was doing. At one point, an Indian relative of his, the Texas Tha-tha, I believe, had begun a recitation in Sanskrit to bless the wedding. The recitation went on for some time and Andy’s damn-near-bride leaned over and asked him to try to cut the Tha-tha short. Andy tells the story with shame and self-loathing as well as no small amount of distaste for his ex-wife.
They were married for two years.
Then Uncle died.
The twelfth day from his death was on a Saturday and it is the convention of our people to observe the death during this period of time out of respect and honor for the deceased. Thus, the house was full of people. Many meals were eaten, tears were shed, and some laughter was heard. The silence and pregnant emptinesses of Uncle’s absence permeated rooms full of people, even children were brought to it.
What were we doing here? Sometimes simply reminiscing about a man who had passed. At other times sharing in the experience of the void his absence brought.
The nephew who presided over many of the events and was responsible for many of the troubling details of the last week wrote a eulogy which he delivered at the funeral proudly and through heartfelt tears. It was matched by the tears of the eighty people in the mausoleum of the Cemetery in Dover, New Jersey where the funeral was held.
It was a beautiful day. The sun was shining through the long, tall windows and the ten-paneled skylight overhead and lit the grey-white triangles on the granite stones of the resting places of the deceased within. The panels of stone were dappled in various patterns across the names etched deeply and evenly in the stones.
It was warm and sunny the two weeks before we took Uncle into the hospital and for the three days he was in the hospital it was dark, cold, grey and stormy. The first rains of autumn came on Sunday, the day after his first cardiac arrest and coma. The rains and clouds lasted until the evening before the funeral, the fifteenth, which was also the mid-autumn harvest night. The clouds broke to reveal the shining white face of the full, round moon hung brightly in the night sky.
This was the mid-autumn festival moon in China (Zchong Chyo Jie), and across the planet hundreds of millions of family members gathered to eat mooncakes and sit on rooftops and look at the moon and talk in much the same way that this family talks, when it isn’t thinking about the reason we are all here. The “extended family principle” of Asian families is not something to be codified and analyzed. It is innate to us. We cannot turn from it without pain. We meet and share and do our duties without duty. We feel one another.
Mid-autumn among the changing, falling, dying leaves of North Central New Jersey, my host chose to leave this earth.
There was a period of viewing at the funeral home which brought mixed emotions to the family and friends present. It was so disturbing to see his empty corpse in that cold, grey coffin, half-opened to reveal his upper torso. His absence from that chamber was painfully apparent in the immediate. There was nothing left of the soul which had so recently occupied this cadaver.
We were angry at his departure and stared numbly. Some of us whispered, “I hate this!” and “This is not Hindu tradition!” and “Why are we here?” But we did so mostly because we were angry he was gone and we were hurt and tired and exhausted by our own emotions.
He was dead then and the viewing was meant to confirm it. It was ugly the first day. I couldn’t return for the next. But I heard it was better, with more people in the room and more talk and energy.
The funeral was presided over by a Brahmin, a Hindu priest from the local temple. He came in a white cotton dhoti with a thin bluish-brown borderline. He carried sticks to burn and cloth to lay across the body of the deceased. He burned what is called a homum – a small flame in the mausoleum. He recited slokas and mantras in sanskrit and repeated the many names of God and our many chanted prayers for the dead, dying and living. The ceremony was long.
It began with his nephew’s eulogy:
Peddamma, Atta, Nanagaru, Ummagaru, Mamaya, family and friends today we are celebrating the life of a man who has inspired and enriched each of our lives. It is difficult to capture his essence with a few simple words; however, the simplicity of his approach to life is what captivated our attention.
When I asked my cousin what intrigued her about Peddananagaru, she quickly responded , family. Peddananagaru strove to instill the values of family in all his nieces and nephews. His interest in the extended family was so important to us raised away from the family web that is India. This extended family does not merely constitute our blood relatives, but the entire Indian community. I am proud to address each and every one of you as Uncle, Aunty, and Cousin because of him.
The outpouring of emotions from people in this country and abroad are testament to the goodwill he imparted on others. Peddananagaru’s home has always been a place where anyone was welcome without hesitation. It is where many got their start in this country. It is where you came to get married. It is where you came to seek advice. It is where you came to simply chat.
Peddananagaru tirelessly and passionately pursued excellence in all that he did. Whether this was Chemistry or understanding and treating his medical condition, he pursued all with precision.
Peddananagaru’s love for his wife and family have always been clear for all to see; however, his love for animals and children was something to behold. Kirin, Sasha, Prince, and Randy were not merely pets, but individuals who played an integral part in the chemistry of the Bulusu household.
Peddananagaru’s optimisim and hope for the future was without bounds. Not only did he meticulously map out his own future, but encouraged us all to do so. His hope and zeal for the future kept us all alive.
The ferocity with which he pursued life was always tempered with his peaceful side. I commented this week, that over the past several months Peddananagaru has seemed more philosophical. I believe what I was sensing was his sense of inner peace regarding his achievements, contributions, and role in this life.
This brief narrative cannot do justice to his glorious life. Over this past week several descriptions and titles have come to mind: Ambassador, Diplomat, Pundit, Emminent (sic) Research Scientist; but, I believe the title of Peddananagaru, eldest father, suits him best. How else can one describe someone who has been a father to us all? We will miss him, but I’m sure the greatness of his soul will be felt elsewhere.
Go in peace Peddananagaru.”
During the ceremony it was necessary to open the bottom half of the casket and expose Uncle’s legs fully so a homespun cloth could be placed upon him. Just as this was done, a crow flew past the mausoleum and called out in sets of four.
Caw. Caw. Caw. Caw.
Caw. Caw. Caw. Caw.
We manufacture truths from a collection of languages we decide to believe as we pass through this earth avoiding righteousness and blind to the basic injustice of it all. I am just as guilty, though I struggle with my experiments with the truth. But the shrieking widow has had her vengeance on my arrogant posture. I arrived with the full intention of taking advantage of her hospitality and I end up picking up after her dead husband.
I am sick of the feeble attempts to describe this life in the face of death. In defense of this position I told Uncle’s cousin: “I hold what Lao-Tse says to be true, “existence is beyond our capacity to define.” I believe that science is a self-referential language which builds upon its own definition of truths to create an ever-expanding body of thought which is uniformly true to itself by definition. But because it depends upon our ability to perceive of ourselves “outside” of the natural state in which we exist in order to name and subsequently manipulate phenomena, it is and will always be, ultimately, limited by our abilities (or lack of ability) to perceive the whole.”
He told me to read Max Delbruch.
Uncle’s cousin remains steadfastly optimistic that we will come to a satisfactory understanding of human consciousness through science. His disagreement with me gives me hope.
Uncle is dead after a long war with his own body. He wrestled with congestive heart failure, with diabetes for 30 years, with edema and pulmonary problems. The war was waged thus as battles in his feet, lungs, liver and heart. The soldier cells marched wearily and incessantly through his veins, fighting attrition.
The history of diabetes runs rampant in the family. Even the nephew who spoke so eloquently at the funeral is aware of his propensity at the age of 30.
Uncle’s cousin, for 16 years a diabetic, has watched his cousin die and has listened to doctors say repeatedly, “that diabetes really complicates things …” And still he remains optimistic about the chance that we will someday come to a physical understanding of our state of consciousness.
Dare I, at 30, healthy, say otherwise? Dare I suggest that the fear of death inspires desperate rationalization and belief in unnecessary dogma?
I dare not.
But at 30, I embrace the notion of the natural passage from life to death without the need to understand consciousness. I believe perhaps equally as faithfully, though I am not driven to consider it until challenged to do so, that I am a part of a whole which has breathed me alive and into birth and which will exhale me out unto death. That this is how it has always been, I am confident. My faith is what I have to assure me that it is orderly and passes as it should. Will I, too, grow old to fear?
There are donuts here every morning and Uncle’s cousin’s daughter says, “the donuts are cooked in lard,” prompting another cousin to retort, “Oh great, a houseful of vegetarian diabetics waking up to a box of Dunkin Donuts every morning.”
Laughter soothes us. We laugh about many things, but laughter around stories about Uncle soothes us most. There is always a collective moment of silence after such laughter which he owns despite his corporeal absence. We know that silence belongs to him.
His science and numbers also belong. There are many doctors and chemists and physicists among us. We are Indians after all; good at Maths and Science. We invented numbers. Numbers are made important through the generations of like-minded thought.
We who were gathered now at his home, are mostly educated in science. I was one of the only artists/writers until C. arrived, a design student in a Bachelor’s of Architecture and Design program in Canada. We ache to make. So we stay up until 3 in the morning comparing sketchbooks and bartering metaphors. It is good, healthy art.
I am rejuvenated by a 25-year-old Canadian boy who studies design and art and who breathes life into my science-deadened lungs. I share with him a drawing I made in my journal that I can show to no one else in this house: his dying uncle connected by plastic tubes to a machine which breathes for him accompanied by words from his last hours of life. Only an artist can observe coldly thus. We are purposed with the need for “reality and truths” to be real and true.
Priya is pregnant. Her conception happened in the basement of this house by a man who called her a bitch as he fucked her hard. She will have a baby which will be born to a father and mother who have had an arranged marriage in India and who live in someone else’s home.
“Thank God you’ve arrived,” said the atheist to his brother, “I’ve been surrounded by believers for weeks.” “A dying man is silent and thus have I recorded his final words,” replied the brother.
How can I begin to tell you about the multiplicity of things I have learned about my own culture in the few days I’ve been here? “While the rest of the world was populated by ignorant savages, there were great civilizations in the East.” – Gibbons. Uncle tells me this: “There is more meter in Sanskrit poetry than any in the world. It can’t be beaten.”
That word, “beaten” … what a strange position. I am an Indian-American immigrant with the stories of my culture passed through me as oral history to defend myself to the education and propaganda I am taught by the culture in which I currently live. But my own culture is often unsupportive of my efforts because our own willful desire for self-promotion. Our lack of belief in the concrete denies me access to truths which can be validated universally, as we Hindus are so good at having our own stubborn-minded opinions.
Meanwhile. Mean. While. I am surrounded by a dominant culture which seeks to reduce the worlds of thought and energy of my culture’s thousands of years of history and philosophy into categorizable ideas. Lump-summing our poets into a small box on a timeline in an encyclopedia made by Time magazine or by Microsoft for inclusion in its next encyclopedia-software package to be sent with pc components around the world: “Indian philosophers are old and wrote long poems about their many Gods. Next topic. Space. Press “d”, for Dinosaurs.”
We part learn our own culture so we can defend it in layers to one another, preaching to our own choirs and afraid to stand up before the world and defend the greatness of our collective thoughts. We can’t even understand the infinite machinations of our rituals sufficiently to agree about their meaning.
Eleventh Day Rumi
It is the eleventh day and the skies have gone grey and dark. Rain is predicted for tomorrow morning and the house is filling again. I have been receiving e-mails from one of the cousins who has gone back to her own home in Atlanta. They have included numerous poems. Here is one by Jalaluddin Rumi:
Listen to the story told by the reed,
of being separated.
“Since I was cut from the reedbed,
I have made this crying sound.
Anyone apart from someone he loves
understands what I say.
Anyone pulled from a source
longs to go back.
At any gathering I am there,
mingling in the laughing and grieving,
a friend to each, but few
will hear the secrets hidden
within the notes. No ears for that.
Body flowing out of spirit,
spirit up from body: no concealing
that mixing. But it’s not given us
to see the soul. The reed flute
is fire, not wind. Be that empty.”
Hear the love-fire tangled
in the reed notes, as bewilderment
melts into wine. The reed is a friend
to all who want the fabric torn
and drawn away. The reed is hurt
and salve combining. Intimacy
and longing for intimacy, one
song. A disastrous surrender
and a fine love, together. The one
who secretly hears this is senseless.
A tongue has one customer, the ear.
A sugarcane flute has such effect
because it was able to make sugar
in the reedbed. The sound it makes
is for everyone. Days full of wanting,
let them go by without worrying
that they do. Stay where you are
inside sure a pure, hollow note.
Every thirst gets satisfied except
that of these fish, the mystics,
who swim a vast ocean of grace
still somehow longing for it!
No one lives in that without
being nourished every day.
But if someone doesn’t want to hear
the song of the reed flute,
it’s best to cut conversation
short, say good-bye, and leave
This poem strikes me in the heart of my displacement. I am hurt by my reduction to observer status as a half-Hindu as a result of our immigration. I have missed out on many things which separate me. Not facts, but beliefs.
There was a portion of the twelfth day ceremony, for example, which was meant for all male Hindus who have had their upanayanam (a rite of passage for young Brahmin boys). I was upstairs working on this piece when it occurred and no one came to get me. Someone told me it was because they assumed I did not have my upanayanam done.
When one of the aunties ran into me later and told me this, I informed her that I had my upanayanam in India, w my cousins. We stood in the silence of our separation. I was petty inside and thought in an instant, “never mind … just call me when you need the trash taken out,” since I had been responsible for that task all week.
It is said that a truly orthodox Hindu is not even supposed to cross a single body of water from his home. I have crossed the Pacific, the Atlantic and swum in seven seas, in Lakes and Bays and Sounds. I have eaten meat: chicken, pork, fish, beef, squid, octopus, goat, snake, crckets, grasshoppers, alligator, eel, and drunk alcohol, taken drugs and made love to many women.
Am I even a Hindu anymore?
Uncle certainly was.
What measure of a man was he? At his death about 5’ 4” tall and weighing about 131 pounds. At his peak, maybe 5’6” and weighing 175, wealthy by Indian standards and well-to-do by American ones, he laid claim to both countries and traveled the world. Handsome and charming as a youth and centered and driven as an aging man.
He was the lynchpin for immigrants from the state of Andhra Pradesh in India, to the United States, and in particular to New Jersey where now the largest population of Indians living in the US reside.
There are practically no immigrants from Andhra who have not at one time or another been in his home, a place that has been called The Ellis Island of Andhran Immigration.
He would be called a “liberal,” by political denomination in terms of American politics and he supported the American Democratic party and social democracy in and out of the US. He loved India, Andhra and the United States. He was a member of his local temple to which he sent his wife the morning he chose to leave this earth with a heart seizure. He believed in, but rarely spoke of, God.
He owned a Mercedes Benz and a number of high-tech tools, and for everything he owned, he kept meticulous records. He maintained his possessions with a near obsessive care. He kept the original boxes to electronic equipment which was more than thirty years old. His wife still has receipts from their purchase. He was well-versed in a number of areas but specialized in physical chemistry.
The Twelfth Day
It is the twelfth day since Uncle’s death and the house is full of people. There are easily a hundred people here in the house and the number is growing as car after car pulls up and parks on the tree-lined streets of the neighborhood where they live. His obituary from the local paper read as follows:
Suryanarayana Bulusu, 70, senior research scientist
MORRIS PLAINS – Suryanarayana Bulusu died yesterday at the Dover campus of Northwest Covenant Medical Center after a short illness. He was 70.
He was born in Elldre, India, and lived in Succasunna before moving to Morris Plains in 1972.
Mr. Bulusu was a senior research scientist with Picatinny Arsenal in Rockaway Township, where he worked for 35 years before retiring May 15.
He was a graduate of the University of Bombay and received his doctorate degree there.
He was a member of the Hindu Temple of Bridgewater and the American Chemical Society.
Survivors include his wife Lakshmi; a sister Venkata Lakshmi Vittala of Yorkton, Saskatchewan, Canada; and several nephews and nieces.
Arrangements are by the Tuttle Funeral Home, 272 Route 10, Randolph.
(They misspelled the name of the town of his birth which was “Ellore.”)