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Madhushree Ghosh | Longreads | May 2021 | 16 minutes (4,261 words)
Seventeen years ago, I receive the call most immigrants dread. It is inevitable, and yet. The call announces that my Baba, my indefatigable, extroverted, positively enthusiastic father, was felled by a massive cardiac arrest. On a heart that was the most giving one among all the people I’ve known. Life in America at that second continues without a ripple. Only, my life changes, divided into before-the-call and after-the-call.
I ask my now-ex. “Will you come with me?” — like a child.
Awkwardly, he says, “Do you want me to?” — like he has an option and he could escape this uncomfortable moment. I call him my now-ex for a reason.
“My Baba is dead,” I say mournfully. As if saying it over and over would make it real. It wasn’t real. It still isn’t.
Journalist Aman Sethi talks about the burning funeral pyres that light up India’s cremation grounds in the New York Times. With over 300,000 new daily infections and over 21,000 dead in the last week in April, the pyres are lit in the parking lots of crematoriums. Author Rani Neutill writes about the pyres and her own journey back to cremate her mother five years ago. We both acknowledge these images transport us back to our own trauma of losing our parents, our loved ones. PTSD all over again.
On an August evening last year, now Vice President Harris tells the world, “Family is my uncles, my aunts and my chittis.” — as she accepts the Democratic nomination. I — and I am sure, millions of Indians, Indian Americans like me — weep with unbridled joy. To me, this kvelling was surprising, because I didn’t realize the depth of unbelonging I had felt. I have lived in America longer than in India, my birth country. I’m not even Tamil, and yet, that word, “chitti” — younger sister of an aunt, mausi, mashi, moushi in other Desi languages — reverberates in bursts of validation all through our immigrant communities. Two months later, author, host, and activist Padma Lakshmi notes what that ripple effect would be when a woman of color is vice president. Padma articulates what we all felt — we may not agree with everything Vice President Harris said/did, but we do like what she represents. We are hopeful.
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As Indian Americans who have lived most of our lives outside our birth country, we abide by unwritten rules. We work hard, we internalize racism by being “model” immigrants. We follow American rules and norms, in effect, we try to create very large waves of “good immigrants.” We sympathize with other people of color but try not to draw too much attention to ourselves, except when we are excelling at academics, Spelling Bees, or inventions. To say we have internalized our colorism and racism is minimizing what we feel — we try so hard to “fit in.”
For Hindus, death is the final stage of life, the next journey where the soul travels different levels of earth, the nether lands, and on to heaven. The concept of reincarnation is an idea one grows up on, even if we have moved far away from it.
It takes me almost 36 hours to get to my Baba. A layover in Kuala Lumpur watching a somewhat famous Bollywood star hamming it up for his fans in the lounge, waiting for Didi, my sister to join at the airport connection area, both of us now fatherless, rudderless. I do not remember those 36 hours. I remember every moment of those 36 hours.
When we reach Chittaranjan Park, the Bengali neighborhood of middle-class former refugees of the 1947 Partition of India, my Ma is already waiting, eyes swimming in tears, but a hopeful smile on her tired lips. Her daughters are home. She isn’t alone in her grief anymore.
The house is filled with neighbors and strangers. Everyone looks at Didi and me, expecting us to collapse, weep, wail, because only a frantic acknowledgment of loss matters to the neighbors. Didi and I don’t cry, though we hug our Ma despite us not being a hugging family.
The neighbors want to know, “Who will give mukhagni?” — only menfolk are allowed to go with the dead to the cremation grounds. Only sons or designated male family members are allowed to light the pyre, mukhagni (adding fire to the mouth of the dead). Women are second-class, not permitted. Women are to bear children — souls may get attached to them when they return from the cremation grounds — not allowed, not allowed.
Didi tells the crowd and to no one in particular, “Ma will give mukhagni. We will be there with her.”
I hear the collective soft gasp of horror. But no one says anything. The Ghosh daughters are foreign-returned, with Western ideas. They don’t see how wrong this is. How men and women aren’t equal.
We have my father to cremate. We have no time to worry about what the neighbors think.
In a country that brought in immigrants and slaves for centuries, Indians are the “good” ones, who are still shocked in the ‘80s when the Dotbusters attack them in Jersey City. “We are Americans too,” we say, the hatred is incomprehensible.
Post-9/11, the first immigrant to be gunned down in Mesa, Arizona, isn’t a Muslim but a Sikh. Balbir Singh Sodhi is killed at the gas station he managed by a man who didn’t want “towel heads” in his country. As Indians who give up their birth country’s citizenship when we become U.S. citizens, we gulp down that discrimination, that unnamed fear, to pay taxes, buy property, wave the U.S. flag, vote in elections, because we have earned it. We are model citizens, even when we remain entwined with what our birth country does. What we become is casual observers of what’s happening in “desh,” but very involved in the American way of life. We choose, because we are made to.
But then, when we interact with Indians in India, our attitudes are of condescension toward those we left behind, mixed with cultural respect for elders as we were taught. We roll our eyes at WhatsApp Good Mornings and rose gifs from family and classmates pinging at midnight. We send back things like Costco cashews, or thick socks for the family, and college advice for future generations. We are stuck in the decade we left desh — for me it’s the ‘90s, the advent of Madhuri, Rani, Shahrukh, and revenge movies.
We still hate the social media forwards, but surreptitiously sign up for Signal because the WhatsApp gang told us to. However, we dare not leave the high school group of middle-aged classmates because they connect us to our long lost childhood. We post pictures of dishes we’ve created during the pandemic, but secretly, we crave the spicy paapri-chaat mix of crunchy goodness from the stall next to the bus stop at Delhi University. We scroll online sites for the Desi dhurrie, spices, fabrics. We’re more up to date with the politics from desh than ever.
After a few decades in America, we miss the things we consider ours. We may return “home,” armed with U.S. citizenship because we have the freedom to do so. But lately, we go home, not because we can afford to but because we’ve reached a stage in life where our people are getting older, sick, or dying. Guilt that we abandoned our parents, our extended family, our home for better lives in America, is what usually guides us back. But even then, we visit for two weeks at most, because work in America beckons like an angry, righteous, and indignant spouse.
In 2004 when Didi and I get to the Lodhi cremation grounds, we are part of a handful waiting. The priest and the “body handlers” ask for cash to expedite the services. They speak only with the menfolk who accompany us. When we go in, with Baba — his body clad in a new dhoti and kurta hurriedly bought to make him look good on his last journey on a flat wooden bed covered with marigolds and rajnigandha — Baba looks like he’s sleeping. We sprinkle him with his favorite aftershave, as if we want him to arrive at the heavenly gates like it’s his first day at his new job.
The priest says the prayers that guide the soul on its journey. They ask us to throw flowers at the body. They sprinkle ghee all the while chanting shlokas that mean nothing to us. Then they ask Ma to hold a bunch of incense, and place them on Baba. She does, howling, because among the Ghosh survivors, she knows what comes next. They light camphor and place it near Baba’s head. Handing a small fragrant sandalwood piece, they tell Ma, “Isko yahaan lagaaiyeh.” — put this here, pointing at Baba’s chest. I know they mean his mouth. Mukhagni. Fire to the mouth.
Ma does that. Didi and I hold her between us. Those cries haunt me. They will haunt me till I die. The wood bier trundles away from us as if he’s on a makeshift train ride. I did not realize that would be the last time I’ll see Baba. The crematorium fire roars like a hungry dragon at the far end. Baba enters the flames, the orange fire taking over our world.
That is the last time my family is together.
The Great Pause has thrown that nostalgia out like trash. The vaccines cannot be developed fast enough. Being part of the scientific community gives me the privilege of receiving the Moderna vaccine within the first month of 2021. I haven’t seen my extended family and friends in India for over three years — life, then work, and then the pandemic happened. Staying alive in a pandemic has been the reason to stay put.
My life, as it is for many of us immigrants, revolves around phone calls to India early on weekend mornings. India, roughly half a day ahead of us, is also used to those calls. There were times when those calls were short, maybe 10 minutes, our eyes on the clock indicating the $2/minute price on a calling card. Not anymore. Our privilege is calling our cousin for a masur dal vada recipe. Our privilege is us tweeting anti-Indian government comments without concern for whether our families will be harassed by Modi-bhakts. Our privilege is that we are Americans and our bravado too, is American.
India watches us in 2020 grappling with the virus racing through New York, L.A., Texas, and Florida like the California fires usually ravage our canyons, jumping highways, towns, and roads resembling acrobatic dragons.
“Ah, we can’t afford shutdowns. We had the BCG vaccine, we’re immune,” my former classmates say, noting why the TB vaccine may lead to a lower coronavirus infection rate.
The first wave doesn’t phase India. It’s Modi’s India — brash, young, arrogant, and complacent. In May 2021, the Lancet notes the government’s response of “[f]ully opening society with unrestrained crowding, mass gatherings, large scale travel, and lack of personal protective measures such as masks” gave the public a false sense of healthcare and vaccine security — that the pandemic had passed India by, much like the first wave.
During the first and many waves in America meanwhile, we stay home. “Hunkering down” is a phrase I never want to hear again. Then religious places, movie theaters, stores, and restaurants shut down. The owners and workers protest.
Our Indian families and friends find the outrage amusing, “Ah, you’re all such rule-followers!” The condescension we had shown Indians as green card holders, as Indians who’d escaped to a better life, returns against us with a vengeance. The public, our extended families, and friends laugh at our caution.
“Yes, but this will contain the virus,” I counter.
“Sure, but in India, we’re so many people, nothing will work. We’re done with the pandemic here, Madhu,” my WhatsApp classmates opine.
During the first wave, in 2020 at the end of March, a 21-day lockdown is established by the Modi government to curb the virus. Over 120 million migrant workers left stranded, walk back to their villages and homes, making it a migration ten times larger than when Hindus and Muslims moved between British-divided India and Pakistan during the 1947 Partition. The Desis who can stay home are the privileged ones.
Indian-Americans have our own lockdown issues to handle. Beside a few articles, tweets, prayers, and thoughts, we don’t worry about the migrants. A very well-known American activist tells me that Americans get “crisis-fatigued” quickly, and not to expect them to think much about issues outside of America.
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During a WhatsApp call, architect and high-school friend Anuj Arya says, “Migrants who I’ve worked with as daily wage construction workers, can’t survive without their wages. If they live in a 20X20 foot space with 10 more people, one of them getting COVID means the rest of them do too.”
He adds, “A COVID QPCR test is 1500 rupees (about $20). It’s beyond their reach.”
A country of 1.3 billion is now gasping for air. By April 21st, 2021, the oxygen requirement is over 8000 metric tons per day. India, as per the government, produces 7127 tons daily. People aren’t dying because of the virus. The COVID-compromised patients are dying of suffocation.
We sit outside the crematorium in October, watching Baba’s remains burn at high heat. The chimney above the oven spews out hot carbon air.
“That’s my Baba in the air,” I think, feeling nothing.
A few hours later they call us.
They tell us, “Hold your palms to receive the ashes.”
Didi and I hold the clay matka with the ashes and bones. It is harsh, real, immediate. There aren’t pretty urns priced according to your financial ability. It’s a reddish clay pot, with gray ashes. A priest-helper adds, “Yeh dekhiya, your babuji’s nerves are connected at the nabhi.”
Baba’s nerves are knotted near the navel — which never burns completely. This is why Hindu philosophy says we are connected to our ancestors through our nabhi, navel. This is added to a separate dish, covered with another clay plate. We are to take it to the Ganges, the holy river that will connect my father’s soul to the gods. Much as we don’t believe any of it, we do what we are told to.
Didi and I head to the Yamuna river in her best friend’s car. My father’s ashes rest on my lap. The clay pot is still hot from the crematorium. It is surreal and yet, here we are. Here we are.
We get out of the car close to the Yamuna, a tributary that connects to the Ganges. The river is thick with grease, decaying animal corpses, feces, and industrial effluents. The smell is nauseating and yet, Hindu religion tells us this river will connect Baba to the gods. And who are we to deny that?
Ma gets out of the other car, her arthritis makes her older than she is. She waits silently for us as Didi and I climb over rocks slick with dirt, shit, and dead animals. Didi looks ahead, one step at a time, no words. I follow. This isn’t what Baba would have wanted. This is all we can give him.
The priest stands next to us, chanting hymns. “Put the ashes here,” he points.
Didi lets the pot float. We have the nabhi in its clay dish. He points at it and tells me to throw it inside the turgid river. I do.
“Walk, walk! Don’t look back,” the priest says like we are suddenly in an adventure movie.
It must have something to do with the soul latching onto live people. I don’t know. I don’t care. I want to look back, but I don’t.
At the car, my now-ex says, “Uff, that river sucks, doesn’t it?” — like a naïve American would.
I ignore him. My Baba is dead.
Twelve months after the first wave, before the Hindu festival of Kumbh Mela encourages millions to congregate at Haridwar, near the Ganges river bank, the B.1.617 double mutant is already circulating among the people. The Mela is held every 12 years, but the Hindutva nationalist government appeases Hindu astrologers to allow a super spreader event to happen a year earlier. On April 1st, millions descended. The Mela was stopped two weeks later. A double mutant with an exponentially increased infectivity rate has now taken over the entire country — larger metropolitan cities like Delhi reached a COVID positivity rate of 30% in 12 days. Only 9% of the total population has been vaccinated.
On WhatsApp group messages, I now see posts about where one can buy more oxygen, or how to kill the virus by drinking water. Vaccine hesitancy, and misinformation circulates as rampantly as the virus through uneducated guesses, pro-government media rumor mills, and government silence on the total failure of the hospital and healthcare system. There’s a vaccine shortage which was expected to abate by May 1. It hasn’t.
A month ago, citizens and the Indian government were complacent enough to not mandate masks, nor ban large gatherings. The political rallies to pander to the public and gain votes took place like 2021 was a normal year.
On my high-school and middle-school WhatsApp groups, there are no rose gifs anymore, nor are there midnight pings of “Good morning!” The threads are somber, humming with stress, slow panic, and calls for help. The only requests are pleas for oxygen cylinders and hospital beds in Delhi suburbs. We hear of patients gasping for breath in hospital hallways and parking lots, dying in ambulances. Neighbors help neighbors cremate their loved ones.
A relative dies in Hyderabad and his family waits for hours to get the paperwork completed before he is hurriedly cremated. Crematoriums and cemeteries operate beyond capacity. Families wait for hours at cremation grounds in lines snaking through Noida and Ghaziabad to cremate their own. The Noida Hindon crematorium sets 14 funeral pyre platforms on the sidewalk for the COVID-19 dead to perform the last rites there instead. Dead and dying line hospital pathways. There is no respite.
Meanwhile in America, for us, India feels like what New York did in 2020. But Modi continues to punt to states to determine healthcare logistics, while he and his administration have created one of the largest humanitarian crises in this pandemic. On Twitter, we watch an interesting trend of the entire world going about their lives as Indians gasp for breath. It’s as if India isn’t a country that needs to be helped. We hear that the U.S. government didn’t allow for vaccine raw materials to reach India but the blame lies with the internal decisions made at the Indian government level.
We see “trauma porn” photos of funeral pyres burning through the night skies in India. The Western world watches those images over and over, and the Western people react to it. This is showing TV ads of malnourished African babies for us to donate instantly. This is Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel” playing for animal shelters and pulling at our heartstrings.
But where does one donate? Does it go to the PM Cares Fund, run by the nationalist Prime Minister with no way of knowing how your money was used? Where there is no guarantee that the money reaches the migrants dying hungry, or the patients waiting for oxygen or Remdesivir?
I wonder if daughters were able to accompany their dead father’s body to the pyre. The cremations are taking place morning through sundown. Overworked priests are charging more. The lower-class Dalit funeral grounds helpers work round the clock, as do the hospital ward workers, the caregivers. Are the family members able to pay their last respects like I was able to? Do they know if the dignity expected of the dead was given to theirs?
Hospitals shouldn’t be overburdened. Oxygen supplies should have been available. Vaccines in the world’s largest manufacturing country, should be, well, available. And yet, the latest news cycle asks not to blame but to unite, to blame America for holding the raw materials for vaccine production instead. It’s easier to hate the Western country, hand-wave over the flouting of social distancing rules, because religion and elections are more important than gasping-for-breath Indians.
As an Indian who is a U.S. citizen, the guilt I feel is one that paralyzes me. I have abandoned my country of birth to choose the country of citizenship for personal material gain. Of that I am sure. How am I to assuage this guilt? The American way is to donate. But where do I donate? Not to the government that has systematically pushed against unity, religious, and caste freedom creating a Hindutva country. What do I do? How do I amplify this without tokenizing Indian grief?
We hold onto phone calls, reach out to friends, family members, find out ways, or “jugaad” as we call it in India, to make sure our people are safe. Others want to donate, but don’t know how. They See Blue GA circulates a Google doc of places that’ll accept our dollars. We want to do anything, something, something to help. Because if we can’t help, and if we can’t be there, and if we can’t do anything, the guilt we’ve always felt as Indians who became Americans will be fueled enough to rage on further.
As immigrants who love this country, we are grateful for the privilege and we also love our birth country that’s in such hell. Behind the scenes, my group of Desi authors text each other bemoaning the state we are in, neither in desh/home, nor in heaven. COVID is definitely a stark reminder of the choices we made. Feeling guilty is our state of being, besides a state of exhaustion and fear.
It’ll take India decades to recover from this and I am but a bystander, whether I like it or not.
Twitter asks about the use of funeral pyres and how disrespectful it is — do you not rage when they do this to your people, Twitter asks. No, I say, no — because what is disrespectful is how and why Indians are dying.
It takes President Biden two weeks before he does a U-turn and announces millions of AstraZeneca vaccine doses to be routed to India. Two weeks, with thousands dying daily. America and American leaders are silent. Only with social media outrage, behind-the-scenes negotiations lead to Biden behaving like the leader he says he is. Those pyres speak much more than the world’s largest humanitarian country. Are those photos disrespectful? Not if they coaxed my country of choice to act like the leader it says it is.
I hope Vice President Harris comments, perhaps shows solidarity with the country her mother comes from. It isn’t her job, but I’d like to think her chittis would be doubly proud of her if she did.
Right now, as an Indian American, the guilt propels me to doomscroll like I did with other Americans last year. Now I call my friends, and I tell them, “Stay safe,” like it’s a mantra that’ll save them all when their government has failed them.
My Baba’s cremation has stayed with me for decades since he left. The families losing their loved ones can’t even touch their dead as they’re whisked to the cremation grounds. COVID-19 has destroyed life in ways unimaginable.
The guilt I feel, buzzes like a loud bee.
Madhushree Ghosh‘s work has received an Honorable Mention in Best American Essays in Food Writing. Her work is Pushcart-nominated, and has been published in the Washington Post, The New York Times, Longreads, the Rumpus, Catapult, Hippocampus, Atlas Obscura, Unearth Women, Panorama, Garnet News, DAME, and others. As a woman in science, an immigrant, and daughter of refugees, her work reflects her roots and her activism. Her food narrative, “Khabaar: An Immigrant Journey” is forthcoming Spring 2022 from University of Iowa Press. She can be reached @writemadhushree.