‘I wonder what happens to skin when it is robbed of touch. Does it break? Does it know to breathe? Does it forget the painful sweetness of a tickle?’
The wetness of your tears grows like a heart on my shoulder. It was exactly like this that our bodies stood, the last time we saw each other– your face on my shoulder, your hair grazing my chin. But we were eleven years younger then, and although the story of our separation, one to America, one to Australia, stuck like a tale on an old tongue, our tears dried up faster, we smiled easier.
It was no funeral.
Your mother, my Kaki, now suddenly widowed, comes out from the other room and hovers behind us. Other than the plain white cotton sari she wears, she still looks the same, with thin tangled hair, orange in the parts where the henna seeped through her greys.
His soul is unhappy when you cry, Kaki whispers an accidental lullaby.
She and your brothers won’t touch us for the next thirteen days. It is how long it will take your father, my Kaka, to travel through this transient space until he finds a home where he will forget he ever had a daughter, a niece, a wife.
There is a comforting smell of turmeric and sun in the air, a smell I associate with long sticky afternoons at your house when we lazed around after lunch on the sofa, on your bed, on straw mats in the shade of your shawl, on the cold marble floors. You still carry that smell in your hair, so when you stop for air between your sobs, whiffs of childhood crawl up my nose. My knees give in and I am reminded that I have travelled for thirty hours in three planes to be standing in front of you– now a woman cousin, no longer that girl who once carried cloth bags bitten shut with rows of safety pins. We peel apart and you don’t make eye contact as you slide down onto the floor. I notice your round momo nose and let out a half-laugh thinking of all those times we pretended to pull your nose off your face and pop it in my mouth, making chewing noises: Mmmm, kati mitho!
Before I can sit next to you and ask you stupid questions like how you’re doing and what life is like in Melbourne where you now live, I am whisked away to the main room. There, your brothers with shaved heads in white robes are seated in a line, slouching against the wall. The shaved eyebrows make your brothers look angry and invisible at the same time. Monks are chanting while relatives – yours and ours– are seated with joined palms tucked under their chins facing an old photo of a young Kaka. In that picture, your father looks like a stranger; his newsie cap is limp from over washing and he doesn’t wear glasses.
His body is already in the Bagmati, slowly mixing into sewage and sediment.
I wake up under the weight of a thick blanket. Diwali lights from the neighbour’s house dance on the room’s ceiling. It’s 5PM on my phone but this is not my bed. It takes me a moment to understand that it is a November morning in Kathmandu. I feel for you and find that your pillow is cold.
Whenever you slept over at my house you were always up before me. In those mornings, I couldn’t help but feel like you’d snuck out to do something better. I would wake up hearing laughter from the kitchen downstairs. It would comfort me but also make me jealous. How openly you laughed with my Aama who would be talking loudly, telling you the things she wanted me to hear: With eyes sealed like that, she’ll miss her entire life!
I find my way downstairs and see you in the main room where your mother and brothers are sitting in what looks like either deep meditation or sleep. You are by the door, as far away from them as you can be; eleven more days before you can touch your own family again. I wonder what happens to skin when it is robbed of touch. Does it break? Does it know to breathe? Does it forget the painful sweetness of a tickle? Later, a monk explains to me that all this fasting, this discomfort of not being able to touch your loved ones, serve as a payment for Kaka’s sins, so that he may pass through this in-betweenness, this Bardo, with ease.
I sit down and gently rest my palms on your back so as not to startle you. He’s still sleeping. Imagine that. He doesn’t know he is dead yet, you say. Then you turn around to look at me, as though we didn’t see each other just yesterday. When did you get here? you ask.
I’ve come home often. But you’ve never been here. I’ve visited Aama and Baba enough to know that, like your parents, they too have begun to sleep in different beds, in different rooms. There was a time when they found each other funny, but now there is a solid mass of air in the space between their shoulders as they stand next to each other.
But here at the funeral, they never have to stand next to each other. The women are with the women, the men with the men. I’ve never seen Aama this at ease – here, she can spend all day in the back kitchen, hunched over the stove making roti, tea, aalu, laughing and crying with all her female relatives who have travelled from Kusma, Pokhara, Lamjung for this funeral, women she hasn’t seen in years.
As for Baba, he can do all the things that allow him to move, to get away. Pick up people. Drop off people. Pick up large items. Drop off large items. Wear his baseball cap and hide in the shade of its bill.
Today, Kaka wakes up. Today, we tell him he has died.
The monks ask us to be patient. He is going to be afraid. He is going to touch you but you won’t feel anything. He is going to talk to you but you won’t hear him. He will wonder why we are all gathered in his house and why we are crying. Why his photo has a garland of marigolds slung around it. Why his sons and his wife are in white. Why, when he tries to eat, the food slips through his fingers.
All morning, the monks carry tiny mirrors and wave them around as they challenge Kaka to find his own reflection. They tell us that Kaka is stubborn. That it has been hard for them to convince him that he is dead. They ask him to touch his loved ones and see. They ask him to try to eat food and see. They ask him to stand under the sun, look for his shadow and see. By afternoon, we are told that Kaka has understood. That he is sitting under that avocado tree in the garden and crying.
Now we usher him to the other side, they say. It’ll take him another nine days to crossover. I wonder how many days it will take us, you and me, to be thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen and eighteen again.
We get to share the same pillow now that too many relatives – yours and ours- have arrived for the funeral. Our blankets get thinner, our mattresses narrower.
So do you still talk to Milan? You ask as we pull our mattress down onto the floor. You’re referring to my first boyfriend from high school. All I remember about him is that he was colourblind and I used to test him every month to see if he could see the colours I saw.
You don’t know about the boy I secretly married Hindi-film style, sindoor and all. Or the different people I kissed in the computer room each time I stayed up all night writing my college essays. Or the girl who danced so close to me in a bar in New York, I never thought I would spend another day without her. That is how far back we must travel.
Are you still in touch with that Indian boy? I ask. The one who hit you sometimes?
Arjun, you say as though to correct me. He married a vegetarian.
Your brothers light a small fire in a clay pot. Twice a day we drop food for Kaka in the fire. The monks hold our hands and reason: He is bodiless. He doesn’t have a mouth. So he will satiate himself by smelling the fragrance of food.
Kaka was diabetic. He spent a good portion of his life hungry. You used to say that he had a delicious mouth; on his lips, everything turned into sugar. Watching Kaka eat always made me want to eat. Using his fingers, he mixed his doctor measured quarter cup of rice, with a dribble of daal and two pieces of cauliflower in a delicate but purposeful manner creating little mounds around the edges of his plate. He slurped each bite into his mouth and chewed with his eyes closed.
Did Baba tell you that he was there with Kaka when he died? I think he told me because he knows I’d tell you.
At the hospital, before any phone calls were made to us abroad, the doctors tested Kaka’s consciousness. They asked him his name; three times they asked. Brother, he answered, each time.
In the middle of the night, Kaka got out of his bed to go to a puja on a hill. I have to show my face, Kaka insisted when Baba tried to stop him. Cousin Jiwan called on my mobile phone. I have to be there.
It wasn’t until the next day, when Baba asked your mother about Cousin Jiwan, that Kaka’s delirium made sense—Jiwan had died seven years ago.
Kaka passed away quietly in the middle of the night. There were two things he told the nurse he wanted: 1) to see his wife and 2) a sip of Orange Fanta.
I read somewhere that our bodies contain truths that words can only express in a clumsy-careless manner.
When we were ten, on Saturday afternoons after showering in the sun, Aama laid each of our heads on her lap –one head on each knee– and dropped a small teaspoon of warmed mustard oil in our ears. The liquid warmth tickled us at first, but soon our giggles were drowned out as the oil dissolved the world around us. It was at that moment that we could hear the saliva in our throats, the air in our breaths, and the slow kisses of our eyelashes.
When we were older, some Saturdays we put henna in our hair and laid on our bellies; the smell of henna, like wet tea leaves, grew pungent with each passing hour. Some Saturdays I would oil your hair and practice that French braid on you. Some Saturdays we wrote love letters and read them out loud; we took turns placing our heads on each other’s bellies, with every word they rose and fell like little buoys.
Tonight, before going to bed, you flip our pillow over to the unslept side. Under the covers, you say in the smallest voice: I wanted to say so much to him. How will I do that now?
Your grandmother, Bajai, never calls me by my name: sometimes I am you, sometimes I am your mother, sometimes I am Aama. You don’t let me correct her because she has promptly thrown out the Australian-made hearing aid you sent to her some months ago. She said the volume dial was possessed—if it isn’t teasing her, it is hurting her brains.
Bajai breathes loudly from her mouth while trying to pin the edge of her white sari onto her blouse. Against the light from the window, the skin around her arms hangs like jellyfish displaced in air. I remember how you and I used to play with the wrinkled and loose skin around her elbows—she’d wag her finger and tell us it was only a matter of time before we grew our own set.
I get up to help her with the safety pin. She looks into my eyes but I can tell she doesn’t recognize me. She says, Do you know that I just celebrated my Chaurasi? I’ve lived for 84 years to see this day! I should have gone before him.
If you were me, would you have had the heart to tell her that she was actually 95?
The streets of Ason taste like a dizzy of feasts. Walking through its bulging footpaths in this Tihar month of November makes me forget that when you and I get home after all the items on our list for the last day are bought, there will be no festive lights to wrap around the house, no firecrackers to light and sizzle, and no mutton to eat.
Of course I am hoping that in this unexpected outing of ours, I’d walk you further down towards New Road and into the galli past Tip Top where we would get our favourite samosas and lalmohan. After that, we would walk to Bishal Bazaar where I know that if any greasy man whistled or tried to touch us, you’d go up to their faces and slap them with Bollywood dialogues: You don’t have mothers and sisters at home? Once, you literally slapped a man and it landed so well on his face that the didi who was selling gum and cigarettes where we stood applauded. When I remind you of this incident, you say: I would never! Then maybe we could walk down Mahabouddha where I’d buy you two marble sodas, because you can never pick between orange or Cola.
But none of this happens. Once we buy everything on our list, you turn around to head back home.
You can write it all down, I say. Whatever you wanted to say to Kaka. We can bury it in the same place we buried that huge eagle paperweight you gave me for my birthday.
You laugh so hard that I think I’ve offended you. What was I thinking giving you that gift at thirteen? you say.
In the courtyard, we build a tree for Kaka. Under the tree, we have dressed a figure of twigs in his pink shirt, bluish grey tweed jacket and Nepali topi. In Kaka’s tree, apples, oranges, bananas, instant noodles, butter cookies and paper streamers grow harmoniously.
Like all the other women, you let your hair down and begin to walk in circles around Kaka’s tree as the monks chant and beat their drums. I let my hair down because you let your hair down. I move in behind you and hold on to the hem of your shirt. Right then, Aama comes charging at me with her hair hugging her like a large shawl. What do you think you’re doing? Tie up your hair. Out! Aama says, pointing towards the house.
I stand outside this ritual, this circle meant only for children of dead parents and watch you hold your sister’s hand. Your nose gets bigger and redder when you cry. A thought that I don’t share with anyone crosses my mind: Why can’t I just have one parent too?
Later, you tell me that I’m lucky.
You’ve always sworn that I was wearing a bunny suit when I first met you. That I tilted my head and listened intently to all the Nepali that was spoken around me. That my gait was indicative of someone stepping in two places at the same time.
Our family had moved to Kathmandu from Calcutta and Kaka had finally accepted Baba for marrying an older woman after his first wife ran away. I didn’t know any of this then. I was eight. I also didn’t know that I had family beyond my parents. I didn’t know that cousins could be friends. That cousins came in my size and age. That cousins could remember the important and embarrassing parts of your life. That cousins could speak in touch and smell.
I swear it was a bunny suit! you say, as we’re falling asleep. I leave in the morning. I even remember the colors—it was purple and pink. And it had large ears.
I have never owned such a suit. But reasoning is useless.
That rabbit suit was what made me like you instantly, you say.
And for the first time, my body relaxes next to you. It dips into the mattress on the ground, like lead through liquid. My muscles stop trying to bridge the years.
And for once, I am comfortable in this in-between.