Fiction by Divyanka Sharma
Death Comes to Aishbagh
I was getting ready for work when mother told me of grandma’s death. Ambulances were rushing to Beth Israel Medical Center, urgently piercing the morning air with their siren call for space. Ubers and Lyfts and cabs were angrily honking in the 9am rush hour; East Village was ablaze with indifferent and impatient office-goers trying to inch forward towards their destination. My mother’s voice carried less remorse and pain than a message of death would warrant. There was a restraint that was clearly carried over the mountains and across the Atlantic; she was unsure of the reaction her news would elicit. Her words moved from Aishbagh to New York City, from a deep dark night to an angry morning, and slipped hesitatingly into phone sets across the two corners of the earth.
“Dadi is… Dadi is dead,” she said, hesitatingly.
I let my lipstick hang an inch away from my lips as I listened. Dadi had been fighting a losing battle with breast cancer and so the news of her death should not have come as a shock. And it didn’t. It came with the weight of a hundred bricks let loose on my stomach. It brought with it an increased heart rate and short gasps of breath. Dadi was dead. I repeated in my head as I thought of her gentle body and the familiar softness of her heartfelt embraces. Her hugs had been as big and strong as ever, even when she had lost one of her breasts to the knife, even when her body could barely keep itself straight.
“It must be hard for you,” my mother continued awkwardly. “You two were close, I know.”
“It is, Ma. I wish I was there with you all right now,” I replied, breathless and barely coherent.
The scene of mourning at Aishbagh conjured up in my mind. I imagined rows of women, wearing wispy white saris, wailing by Dadi’s dead body; the children confused and subdued into silence by the solemnity of death. I felt like an intruder in my own home, voyeuristically observing someone’s private expression of grief. From my place in front of the dirty grey window overlooking New York, the place I had temporarily settled in, Aishbagh, my home of eighteen years, seemed foreign, distant, unknown. Dadi would have smacked my knuckles for thinking of myself as an outsider. She would tell me not be a firangi maidam, a foreign woman. She would have told me my two sentences of English didn’t make me any less desi, any less of her gudia, her doll.
“This is very sudden, ma. I wish I could come home,” I said to my mother, slowly gathering my breath and wiping tears away from my face.
“Yes, I know. But she was in pain and she is not any more. If you can come back, you know how much we would love to have you here. Dekh lo, see if you have the money for the tickets.”
I knew she was in pain but the selfish part of me didn’t want her to leave. We had all known that she would not make it. Stage 4. We knew that her cancer had spread from her left breast to the right, and then to her armpits. We knew that the mastectomy would not stop the monstrous cells from infecting her entire being, consuming every piece of her body mind and soul. Despite knowing the weight of the chemotherapy, in spite of knowing the toll of monthly hospital visits, I wanted her to stay. She had been suffering; unable to drink water because of the excruciating pain from her mouth ulcers, could barely talk. She had been strong even with just one breast left hanging limply on her body. Why couldn’t she win the fight, bite back at the colonizing cells, banish the imperialists from her body? The childish piece of my being wanted to cry and scream her death away. It wanted to run to Aishbagh, shake her cold, still body under the yellow and saffron shroud and scream Dadi until she awoke.
“I will look, ma. Was thinking of coming back next month but maybe I can take an advance from work. I don’t know what the point of being here will be.”
Heavy sobs threatened to break lose from my gut and crack the mic of my phone. I held tight and took a breath, swallowing them back into the pit of my stomach.
“Okay, but make sure to check everything before deciding to come over. You know you’ll lose a day in the time difference and what not. Maybe you won’t be able to make it for the funeral?”
“I hope I can, ma. I really hope so.”
“Okay, darling. I have to arrange for the flowers and food for the wake. You will be okay, right?”
“Yes, ma. I will be. You go and take care of things.”
“Alright. I am sorry, my dear. I wish I could have called with better news. Take care.”
I stared at the mirror with my lipstick still in hand, streams of brown crookedly cut through the blush on my face. Nothing was different in my immediate world; the insignificant apartment remained unkempt, my hair had not been brushed, the traffic jam outside refused to pick up speed. Yet, Dadi was gone and I didn’t know how to mourn her. Could I go to a temple somewhere in Queens and pray for her? The idea sounded strange, forced almost. The best would have been to take the day off from work and sit by the Brooklyn Bridge. I could dissolve into the sea of bodies there and cry silently on a corner bench. I wish I knew a respectful way to remember her, mourn her, and let my own grief out without being a traitor to my own culture and people.
Realistically, I knew I could not go back to Aishbagh in time for the funeral. Dadi would have wanted me there, I was certain. She had been free with her love but demanding of attention and care, sometimes pouting in wounded silence for days when I would forget to text or call her. My days would often begin with a badly spelt, short, and deliberate whatsapp message, “gud mrng. Do prayer” and ended with a stern “don’t drink much . do work . gud night.” They greeted me every morning, despite her insomnia from medication. She would send me badly taken photos of herself on the selfie camera on her phone and I would note the receding hairline, the tufts of missing hair with each passing week. By the last days of her life, she had lost all the hair she had on her being. If she had been around, she would have felt let down by my absence. She would have felt like our chats and giggles and sobs and tears had meant nothing. The two of us had maintained our relationship despite the time and cultural differences between us, and with her devotion to me came an expectation of devotion returned. And I had been devoted to her. I loved her deeply, sometimes more than I loved my own mother. But I wasn’t sure if she died believing that, or that I would ever forgive myself for not being where I should have been. I wiped my eyes and went back to applying my lipstick, trying to concentrate on the contours of my lips and the day the lay ahead of me.
I crossed the street onto Fifth Avenue and thought of the gullies of Aishbagh, as loud as New York on a workday morning. Women were selling mangos with chili powder across from me, women used to sell mangos with chili powder back home. There were dogs on leashes scampering by skinny women alongside me, there were thin stray dogs skipping by skinny women on the roads back home. Everything was the same but nothing was. There was concrete and glass and large labeled trashcans around me. There were no people I liked, let alone love. There was a din, an organized manageable noise pierced irritably across the American air, but there was no familiarity in the shrieks and honks here. Everything was as foreign to me as my brown body was to these American shores. Why was I here? No one was mine. I didn’t belong. And the one I loved so deeply and sincerely lay dead and motionless thousands of miles away. A taxi whizzed right past me as I ran onto the sidewalk; like the rest of the city on its way to work, the car and its driver wanted me out of the way. There was no space for nostalgia and grief on the busy streets of New York. There was no space for me.
Someone pushed past me and muttered a loud watch where you’re going in my ears as he bustled away. The city’s buzz assaulted my ears as I stood trying to make sense of Dadi’s death. The world around me moved on mercilessly. No one here mourned Dadi even as she lay on her deathbed, her impatient breathing now silenced forever. I walked into the subway stop, fighting away stubborn tears that wanted to flow like rivulets for my deceased grandmother, wanted to honor memories of time spent with her fingers gently caressing my hair. It was impossible to hold them back as the turnstile blurred into the dirty grey concrete of the floor; I gave in to their mutiny and cried like a child, not caring about the confused faces staring at me. The dead old woman from Aishbagh meant nothing to any of them; everyone had offices to get to, children to drop off to school, coffee to drink. And I did not care what mattered to them and didn’t. She had mattered to me, she had been important to me, and I was going to honor her life and times by crying for her with no shame or worry about social castigation.
I wanted to hold on to the nearest human and cry my eyes out, to sob and shake like a possessed woman. Instead, I sat alone in my seat, shuddering and shivering with grief. My mouth, buried under a layer of peach wax, twitched unsteadily as I tried to hold my face in its stable state. I was to get off at 42nd street but instead I got out at 14th street and made my way back home. I walked downtown in a daze, unaware of people running and brisk walking to their offices, most heading uptown. I missed Dadi so acutely in that moment. I would never wake up to her soft crackling voice; she would never demand that I try all the Indian restaurants in Queens. I sat down at a bench opposite Whole Foods and pulled out my phone to read our correspondences. I wanted to take in all I could, as if the emails and whatsapp messages would disappear if I did not cling on to them this very second. I wished I had known the precise time and circumstances of her death so that I could have prepared for it, could have been with her as she died.
I sat there watching the morning crowd thin as the minutes and hours passed. Somewhere to the northwest, the Empire State building looked down upon my insignificant losses, the hawkers of organic food raked in their lunchtime millions as I sat ignoring a grumbling stomach.
Divyanka Sharma is a writer, poet, data analyst, and systems economist. She currently lives in New York City and spends most of her time explaining to people what she does for a living. She travels home to India for work and it is in her motherland that she finds inspiration for her stories and poems. She enjoys writing about ordinary people who are made extraordinary by their idiosyncratic choices, about their daily struggles and joys, and about the painful yet exhilarating experience of being part of the Indian diaspora. Her work has been published in eFiction India, Making Connections, Muse India, and on her personal blog. She loves dogs and hates pigeons in equal measure.