Every Monday night, around nine-thirty US Central time, my husband calls his parents and two brothers in India. It’s his “routine call home” during which he catches up on the latest political happenings, friends and family gossip. It is Tuesday morning over there when he calls (India is eleven and a half hours ahead of US time). I have no such “routine calls” planned for my parents and siblings. I call when I miss them, which is often, and sometimes they call me up wondering why I haven’t called in a while.
However, our families still get confused over the time difference. My father-in-law will ask to talk to my nine-year old because it is morning outside his window. He is always surprised to know it is past his bedtime. They call us to wish the night before birthdays and anniversaries, and ask, “So what’s the plan for the day?” Um, turn in for the night and celebrate tomorrow.
Fifteen years ago, when I moved to America, my parents called me in the middle of the night because it was afternoon in their part of the world, and they assumed it was morning for me. After a lot of midnight calls that ended with me hanging the phone on them, they have learnt to restrict their calls to early mornings, Indian Standard Time.
Now, on the rare occasions when an ‘out of area’ call pops up on my caller ID around midnight, I get heart palpitations. I know it is a call from India bringing portentous news: an uncle died, my grandma in the hospital, my cousin getting married, my cousin getting divorced, my father’s cataract operation, my brother getting engaged.
A couple of months ago, Ma calls up around eleven at night. My husband and I are watching Friday Night Lights on Netflix. Coach Taylor is in the middle of one of his succinct pep talks when I learn my cousin was in a car accident. “He died on the spot,” Ma says. He was her younger sister’s wayward son, one year older than my brother. My thoughts are with his nine-month pregnant wife. I want to say he was irresponsible in death as in life, but I hold my tongue. Not because it is disrespectful to the dead but because we are all thinking it.
My grandma, we call her Aaji, is eighty eight years old. She has four daughters, eight grandkids, one dead grandson, and six great-grandkids. Three years ago, when I visited her, my grandfather, Baba, told me not to worry. “I take care of her,” he said. I hugged her petit frame and my arms encircled her completely. My heart skipped a beat at how frail she was. As I bent down to touch her feet in obeisance, I prayed to the invisible gods to keep her alive a little longer.
A month after my cousin’s death, Ma calls me in the evening. “Your Aaji is in the hospital. Low blood pressure and shortness of breath.” She has been hospitalized before for similar ailments and always comes back home after a couple of days. I’m not worried. But a few days later, when my sister calls me at midnight, I know it’s not good news.
In a scratchy, sandpapery voice she tells me Aaji passed away in the early morning hours. My mother, an aunt, my Baba and a cousin were with her when she took her last breath. I am strangely calm as I ask my sister questions about her last morning. When she hangs up the phone, I go back to watching Friday Night Lights. It is a nail-biting homecoming game between the Dillon Panthers and the visiting team.
For two days, I move in my orbit, numb to the happenings half way around the world. It is summer: swimming pool, library, ice-cream, grocery shopping, swimming pool... My husband reminds me to call up Baba. I nod but don’t pick up the phone.
I am a coward. I don’t want to talk to my Baba: He, who never forgets to call me on my birthday or my son’s or husband’s. He, who was married to my Aaji for sixty-eight years. He, who defied his family to marry her. He, who played rummy with her in the long afternoons. He, who called her out when she was overly critical of her daughters. He, who supported her when she decided to go back to school after their third daughter was born. In a country where sons are still preferred over daughters, he agreed with my Aaji that their four daughters should get the best education possible.
When it was time to cremate her, his hands were trembling so much one of my boy cousins had to light the funeral pyre. Now, I can’t even pick up the phone and talk to him because I know surrounded by his daughters and their families, he is lost and alone. I don’t have the courage to talk to him.
Out of the blue, a friend tweets me, “I miss you.”
I PM her, “My Aaji died.”
I pick up the phone and start dialing the eleven digit number I can recite in my sleep. I am hoping, when I call, a cousin or one of my aunts will pick up the phone. But Baba picks up the phone. His “hello” is normal, almost cheery.
“How are you beta?” he asks.
Tears sting my eyes. I don’t understand. How can he be so calm? Is he still in shock? My head pounds. My chest feels weighed down.
He must’ve heard my silent sobs because he says, “Your Aaji did good beta. She wasn’t in pain. Just tired. The doctors and nurses took good care of her. We were all there for her. But she was tired. She just wanted to come home and rest.” I am sobbing loudly now. It’s not cathartic. It’s a numbing pain that spreads through my body, trickles through my eyes and seeps out of my pores.
I want to be on a plane to India but cross-continental grief is expensive. My Aaji’s frugal self wouldn’t have approved of me hopping on an international flight to mourn over her ashes. I send up a silent prayer for her soul over the phone lines, tell my Baba to take care of himself and hang up the phone.