The kabooter woke me up with the sun, their coos and fluttering wings beating against the air conditioning unit, amplifying their sound. Every morning I woke up like this: at the break of daylight, my sheets twisted up in an anxious pile, and my mouth parched from the dry Delhi air. Then the grief followed—slowly creeping to the back of my throat, slithering its way downward and settling deep within my belly.
Gone, it said as I stared at my breakfasts of fried eggs and toast with butter and marmalade lovingly prepared by my cousin’s wife. How can you eat when your nani is buried in an unkempt grave? How can you eat when your mother is falling apart?
Gone, it whispered again, in my showers. I’d turn the water to the highest temperature I could withstand in hopes of releasing the pain nestled between my shoulder blades, my skin red from the heat, surrounded by a cocoon of steam. What about her pain? How long did she lie on the bathroom floor before she was found? How easily the elderly’s pain is dismissed and written off as a symptom of old age. How quickly they are forgotten.
“You haven’t come downstairs to see me once,” my aunt chided me. “You’ve come here after a whole year and you’ve spent it mostly in your room.” My grief had sunk into my limbs so deeply that every step beyond the confines of my room felt impossible. I struggled to find the words to explain this.
The nights weren’t any better. The imminence of death, panic and paranoia seized my entire being. The atmosphere felt sinister as the neighborhood dogs would howl in the courtyard of our apartment complex. In my sleep-addled state, I was convinced that this was the sign of qayamat. Gone gone gone and soon you’ll be gone too, my grief hissed into my ears. Draped clothing and curtains in the dark became jinns and spirits towering over me as I frantically whispered duas into the night. Ya Hayyu Ya Qayyum… I began to envision every catastrophic event I’d ever witnessed, which all felt inextricably linked to visions of a haunting future. …Bi-Rahmatika astagheeth. I slept with the light on for days.
Forty-eight hours and a cramped seventeen-hour flight later, we stepped foot into Indira Gandhi International Airport. Stuck in the very last row of the plane, I soothed my discomfort with Shah Rukh Khan movies on the laptop of a white woman seated next to me. “I’m such a fan,” she gushed, handing me one earbud and placing the other in her ear. “I’ve probably seen Chennai Express at least eleven times.”
Paused in the middle of the expected airport rush, I saw the woman again. Standing under a large poster of Shah Rukh Khan next to the duty free shop, she grinned and flashed me a thumbs up. I waved back but realized that the joy and relief I normally felt upon arriving here was not there. My eyes felt wet. Don’t cry don’t cry don’t cry…
The next day, I sat in the backseat of a rented white Tata en route from Delhi to Moradabad, watching my mother’s reflection in the side view mirror. Her head leaning against the smudged window, she never turned her gaze forward. I watched her blank expression slowly crumble into despondency and heartbreak the closer we got to our destination. As we passed more familiar landmarks of her hometown, her expression contorted in response. Her lips turned downward as we merged onto Station Road, passing the railway station her late brother used to manage. The same lips began to quiver as we passed local shop stands, the cinema hall and the primary school my cousin Nadia attended as a child. Tears streamed down her face as we turned into the neighborhood alley anchoring her childhood home. Finally, her whole face filled with an indescribable despair as the Tata came to a full stop before the double iron doors of the house—this last image burned permanently into my memory.
She came to marry my nana through his maternal grandfather, who held the title of Qutb, revered and respected widely within the city as a Sufi spiritual advisor thought to have a direct connection with the Divine. According to the tale, the Qutb approached my grandmother’s father and presented him with a few bangles and a set of instructions. The Qutb told him to take the bangles to his wife and that his wife would immediately understand their purpose. Upon receiving the bangles, my great-grandmother knew its message. My nani and nana were arranged to be married.
Widowed early on in life and at a height of four foot ten, my nani stood a whole foot shorter than him. The only evidence of this height difference was a singular photo, grainy and faded, found in the back of an overly stuffed photo album in the cabinet of the store room in her home.
She married young, bore seven children with my nana and ran the household. My nana was the parcel office chief at the local railway station, working late hours and often out of town. Over the years, nani eventually became the sole matriarch of the home due to several members of my nana’s family either passing on due to old age and illness, or relocating to Pakistan years after the Partition. When finances ran low, my nani pinched and saved for her children’s needs. Finally, when my nana’s body slowed down from cancer, she stood by his side until a hip injury rendered her on bed rest too. This made her prone to falls for the rest of her life. A high schooler at the time, my mother and her siblings took care of them both until nani recovered and nana passed away.
When I started visiting in the summers instead of the winters, she would worry about the heat. “Bechari bachchi,” she’d sigh, fanning me as I parked myself in front of the air cooler, beads of sweat dripping down my face. “Bahot garmi hai.”
Sometimes, I’d sit quietly next to her, stirring the sugar into my chai while we watched the latest Indian drama on TV. Other times, I’d massage her hands or feet with the muscle ointment my mother brought her and felt comforted by the softness of her skin. Occasionally, after she bathed, I’d run the copper-colored comb she’d used for years through her hair. Her hair had grown down her back and bore a brilliant orange hue from the mehndi paste she used to cover up her grays. I often watched her braid it tenderly, neatly and tightly, before placing her signature gold hoops back into her ears. As she grew older, her hair began thinning and her braid tapered off to a very fine point at the end. I’d run my fingers over it, imagining the tip of her braid as a paintbrush.
Among her rituals was chewing paan. Whenever I peered inside the silver, ornate case full of kaleidoscopic dried leaves and nuts, I felt as if I were peering inside a treasure chest, full of rare and mysterious riches. I’d watch her pick up the case off the shelf and sit on the edge of the bed with it, using a nutcracker to crush up tiny pieces of the betel nut. She continued this habit even as she became bedridden. When she could no longer get up to spit out its juices, the adjoining wall became her canvas, splatters of red painting its surface.
I slipped on my sandals. “Taiyaar.”
He led the way outside as my mother and I followed. Ignoring the stares of neighbors, I held my gaze downwards and walked briskly. The sun was beginning to set and I used my flashlight to light our path. I found my grandmother’s grave marked by a mound of dirt and a small marker at the top of a hill. The ground of the gravesite was uneven, with other graves scattered in a chaotic fashion. I tried to fight back my anger. Even in death, it felt like she was cast aside. I wanted a world where she did not have to endure difficulty in order to be seen as strong. I wanted a world where I could reassure her that I’d try my hardest to put together the pieces, to remember her as a being outside of her hardships, but that I’d also hold space for her truth and experiences. I attempted to say a prayer in her honor but all my words felt insincere and hollow. I had hoped to feel some sense of her spirit, her presence— but there was nothing there.
“She’s not here,” I said. “She left.”
“Her soul was ready to leave,” my mother murmured. “She left as soon as she could.”
She was gone.
Months later, I tried to find her in my dreams. One night, I found myself visiting an unfamiliar home on an unfamiliar street. My instincts told me that someone in the household had passed and that I needed to provide my condolences. My friends, whose faces kept changing, accompanied me as we walked inside. Downstairs was low-lit and crowded, full of objects and furniture covered in dust that towered on top of each other. Cats hungry for attention gave a mournful yowl, rubbing their heads against my leg. I walked up the creaky stairs and found myself in a tiny room. On TV, an older model with rabbit-ear antennas, an unmemorable program played in the background. A group of Desi women sat on beds reminiscent of the ones at my grandmother’s home, their eyes fixated on the screen. Against the far-left wall lay an older woman, her back turned so I couldn’t see her face. Maybe this is who has passed, I thought as I carefully approached the body. As I got closer, the woman began to resemble my nani more and more. I quickened my pace. Could it be?
I reached out to touch her. Nani Ammy…
Her body still had warmth. She was still alive. She slowly turned toward me at the sound of my voice, and my heart skipped. I looked into her eyes with the sinking realization that it wasn’t her. She wasn’t my grandmother. She was someone else. I fled, knocking chairs aside and woke up, my pillow wet from my tears.
I had many dreams like this. Often walking through corridors and rooms of homes and coming across doppelgängers of my grandmother. But in every cruel instance, I knew that these women were not her.
One day, my mother finally saw my nani in her own dream. In it, my nani was years younger and dressed in an ehram, an outfit my mother described to me as a simple white, cotton outfit worn during the Hajj pilgrimage. In it, she walked over to a guava tree, a tree that used to grow inside the courtyard of my grandmother’s home when my mother was younger. The tree no longer exists today.
In it, she plucked the ripe fruit and placed it in my mother’s hands. “Khao,” she said, instructing her to eat. My mother looked down at the guava and woke shortly after.
“I feel she is finally at peace,” she said to me.
I’d imagine her emerging from a grove of guava trees, all lined in a row. Glowing and beaming, she’d sit down next to me on the charpai, grasp my hands and listen to my woes. We’d have conversations that we never had in the current realm. She would affirm me and remind me to keep going—to break cycles, to honor my truth. “Jaldi wapas aana,” she’d say, embracing me tightly once again.