As the spring of 2013 approached we were delighted to hear that Nana had finally agreed to visit America. Viju must have used some magical powers to convince him. He and Viju were coming to Houston with Urmila. They were to attend a special birthday for Usha who was turning ninety. After Babu mama’s death Usha had moved to America to live with her daughter in Houston.
Bharati and I went to Houston to meet them and also attend the special function. I was curious to get Nana’s reaction about America.
Upon first meeting him, I touched his feet, as is the Indian tradition to greet elders.
“Bless you,” he said touching my head lightly. But the first thing he said, to my surprise, “Acchu what is this?”
He was pointing to my stomach and laughing.
“What?” I said.
“Your belly. It’s so big?”
It was warm in Houston. I was wearing shorts and a T-shirt.
“That’s American life I guess.”
“I know. You know what I noticed when we were waiting at the New Jersey airport for a flight to Houston?”
“Everyone looked so BIG, and they were eating so much. I couldn’t look at that.”
Nana was a small man. He never gained weight. He and Viju ate very little and in small measured portions. Then Nana asked me to sit next to him and told how he got up the previous morning and saw everyone sleeping. He had nothing to do. As a matter of fact he had gotten up at four in the morning and didn’t realize that his biological clock was on Indian time. He had not adjusted to the jet lag.
Later I asked Urmila if I had indeed put on so much weight.
“Don’t pay any attention to him,” she said. “I am watching you for the last forty years and you haven’t changed a bit.”
Nana continued telling me about the latest philosophy he had read and as usual I kept listening.
I didn’t ask him if he had problem adjusting to the western toilet. I heard that he had insisted on taking his bath using a bucket full of water and a tumbler. When people in India took a bath in this manner they never fully disrobe. He was afraid of getting into the shower. I wondered if he felt uncomfortable walking into a shower naked. When he got the courage to take a shower he liked it.
He and Viju stayed in America for only two weeks. They couldn’t visit us in Virginia.
“Acchu, Nana should have seen your house in Virginia,” Usha said later. “He would have really liked it.”
“Well, I hope he will visit again, now that he seems to have changed his mind about America.”
Nana was happy that he made a trip to America. In June we called him casually to find out how he was doing and whether he had recovered from his trip to America.
“I am alone here,” he said in a low voice as if he was lost.
“Why? Where is Viju mami?”
“Someone came a while ago and said they have taken her to a hospital. She was just going out for a walk.”
“Do you know what happened?”
“No. I’m expecting Urmila here. I’m by myself right now.”
We were shocked. What could have happened? We said we would call back again, but really didn’t know what to do.
A while later we got hold of Urmila on her cell phone. We learned that Viju was hit by a motor cyclist while crossing a street in front of their house. Doctors thought it was a routine fracture and she would be out and back home in four to five days.
During surgery she suffered a heart attack and didn’t survive.
“She was here in America just a couple of months ago,” I said to Bharati. “How can God be so cruel?”
“Life is so uncertain,” she said.
Nana was all alone now. He decided to stay where he was and not move with Pankaj.
“I know this neighborhood,” he said. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable anywhere else.”
Urmila spent every night with him. She hired a woman to cook and be with him during the days. We would call him on some weekends.
“I’m doing fine,” he would say in a soft voice as if he was resigned to his fate. “Urmila is here at nights. In the morning this lady comes and cooks. I get up and pray, eat some, read, watch TV, and then sleep. I keep myself occupied. I don’t go out so much. I think of Viju, always.” I could visualize his almost tearful face.
On June 24th this year (2014) Urmila left him in the morning. He had not been eating well for the last few days. There were no other visible signs of his being sick.
“You’r due for your blood count booster,” she said. “I’ll take you to the doctor soon.”
In the afternoon she received a call from the caretaker woman.
“Something is wrong with Sahib,” she said. “You better come home as soon as you can.”
“I’m fine. I’m fine.” Nana said when Urmila came.
“I’m taking you to the hospital.”
“Ok. I’ll come.”
Nana didn’t want any help. He climbed down the stairs by himself. Seeing him very week, Urmila asked him to wait at the footsteps and went to get her car. As they seated him in the car he had already started to roll his eyes. It was too late by the time they reached the hospital.
It was exactly a year and eight days after Viju’s death. We learnt it via an e-mail from India early in the morning.
I called Urmila, to offer condolence. She answered in a calm and soothing voice. I, on the other hand was so overcome with emotion that I could hardly speak.
“Hello, hello, who’s this?” Urmila kept saying on the other side of the line.
I wouldn’t blame her for being confused, because, all she probably heard was my chortled mumbling. I finally recovered and started talking in a normal tone.
Urmila filled us in on what had happened.
That day I kept thinking about the time I had spent with Nana. I had left India in my early twenties and only saw him during my visits from America every six years or so. My memories are from my youth and the occasional visits. But as I think about him I realize the true magnitude of the loss one feels when it will not be possible to see and talk to a person you have loved — not tomorrow, not next month or next year, but never.