What is left of a man when he is gone?
I stand at the bank of the Ganges, taking part in a ritual as old as this land and as foreign to me as the river rushing by. I open the box. Inside is a plastic bag filled with gritty dust resembling crushed charcoal. As I untie the bag, a man next to me places his palms together and starts to sing. I hold the bag out and turn it over. My father’s ashes spiral through the air like snowflakes and land softly in the water below. The river claims them with the sureness of an old lover who waits, knowing that her beloved will someday return.
There is a lone tree along the rocky bank. It has large, leafy branches and leans over the water. I go sit under it. The branches sway slightly, the evening grows cooler, the red in the sky deepens, and the river flows closer. Water laps against my feet. Somewhere on the other shore a bell rings.
Behind me are steps leading to a temple. It has a domed roof and children stand outside, selling garlands made from orange-colored flowers. Men in white dhotis walk by, talking loudly, laughing. The moon, high above, is the size of a small coin.
I stand up, put my shoes on, and stretch. My neck is stiff. I haven’t eaten all day but don’t feel any hunger. There is an aching numbness in the back of my eyes.
I walk back to the rented car. The driver, waiting for me on the steps, flicks a glowing cigarette into the river and walks alongside. A monkey scurries past and jumps on a brick wall outside the temple. It screeches loudly. Suddenly, I am surrounded by children. They reach at my pockets, grab my arms, tug my sleeves. In the crowd are old women holding out cupped hands.
“It is tradition,” the driver says to me. “You must give money to the elderly, the poor.”
I barely hear him over the children. I pull rupees and pesas out of pockets. Hands brush my palms and take the money. I walk faster but they hold on to me, grab my legs, my waist.
“No,” the driver says and pushes the children away. “The elderly, give it to them.”
To my left, at the edge of the temple, old women sit in a line. There are empty bowls in front of them. I walk over and drop money in the bowls, moving down the row. One woman is missing a leg. Her stump sticks out from under her sari. Another is blind and holds her bowl out when she hears me coming. She stares ahead with irises the color of milk. I drop coins in her bowl and she moves it side to side, making them jingle. The woman next to her lifts her bowl toward me. I reach into my pockets but they’re empty.
“I’m sorry,” I say, knowing that we don’t speak the same language.
She tilts her head and opens her mouth. Her face is crisscrossed with wrinkles and her hands are withered. She shakes the bowl.
“I’m so sorry,” I say again and feel tears stinging my eyes.
She lowers the bowl and looks down. The children grab at my pockets. The driver pulls them aside and I walk away fast.
In a hotel room, away from crowds and funeral pyres, I spread open a map of India, trace the contours with my fingers. Deserts, rivers, valleys, lakes, mountains. I rub my eyes with the heel of my palm and stare long and hard at the map until it blurs. Boundary lines start to melt. Colors blend into each other and the country where my father was born dissolves.
I think back to the day when I got the call from my aunt telling me that he had been diagnosed with cancer. I remember staring at black and white tiles on the kitchen floor, holding a half-eaten tuna sandwich, saying “uh-huh” into the phone, listening to her talk, and all that time, swallowing hard to keep the memories from rushing up my stomach and into my throat. “He is your father,” she had said. “What happened does not matter. You must take care of him.”
Through shuttered windows, I hear the sounds of rickshaws honking, the general din of a busy street. I try to recall the date but I fail. I know that it’s early February and three months from now, I will be twenty-seven years old. Almost between a quarter-century and the milestone of thirty. Limbo.
By this point in his life, Einstein had already formulated the theory of relativity. What have I done? A brief stint in the Army, college, work, the usual number of girlfriends, happy hours on Fridays, student loan payments, career choices, the time flying by, and then finding out that my father, a man I had cut off from my life, was dying.
I blink and the map comes into focus. Colors separate. Lines snap back and form borders, roads, rivers. I finished what I came here to do. I kept my promise. What now? I know that I’m not ready to return to New York. Coming to the country of my father’s birth has opened up something inside. I can feel the cracks, thin and jagged, growing.
The air is humid and smells of incense and rat ki rani, Night Queen, a small, white flower. I breathe in the sweet scent. The ceiling fan creaks. Suddenly I remember a line I heard somewhere, I might even have made it up: “When in doubt, just go.” I like that. Leave behind the past, the fears, the guilt. Lose myself in the new and keep moving because with movement, there’s action. And with action, maybe answers.
For the next two months, I wander. I go north. I share train compartments with families and watch them pull out round tins from sacks, the smell of pharantas filling the air. They gesture and invite me to share their food. I walk through streets and pass carts pulled by oxen with droopy eyes, camels with Pepsi signs hanging from their sides, McDonalds serving Maharaja burgers, and women with dark skin wearing saris, garlands of flowers in their hair, driving motorcycles and scooters. I sit in buses as they labor up winding roads, the drivers reaching out constantly to wipe the mist off the windshield. I reach Nepal. I see prayer flags flutter from the roofs of Katmandu and behind them, white mountains rising through gray clouds. I listen to the throaty chants of orange-robed monks in monasteries. I watch plumes of snow drift lazily across mountain peaks, the rising sun coloring them a golden yellow. I take photos of Japanese tourists.
I shift directions, head south and stop in New Delhi. It’s April and already the heat is unbearable. I lie in bed night after night, listening to the watchman walk the streets, blowing his whistle, knocking his bamboo cane on the ground. As the night fades and pale light filters through the curtains and spreads out on the floor, I wonder how long I can keep this up.
“What are you going to do?” my aunt says one morning over breakfast. “Your flight left while you were in Nepal.”
Once she was someone I knew through photographs and phone calls. Now I’m in her house, eating chapatis and daal.
“Don’t know, I’ll think of something.”
“When are you getting married?”
If you’re single, in your twenties, and visiting India, you’ll get asked that question by everyone you meet. It doesn’t matter if you’re missing four limbs, or have an IQ of 32. As long as you’re breathing. And that’s negotiable.
“You shouldn’t be alone,” she says, “you need a woman to take care of you.”
“I’m okay. I can take care of myself.”
“It’s just a stage, beta, you will grow out of it.”
Her husband glances up from his newspaper.
“I will put a marriage ad in the paper for you.”
“You will get so many responses, a good boy like you from America.”
Translation: people’ll look at me and see a walking, talking green card.
“And a doctor too,” he says.
“I’m not a doctor. I’m only thinking about going to med school.”
“Nothing to worry about,” he nods, “doctor sounds good.”
Translation: now I’m a green card with dollar signs.
“What a wedding,” my aunt rubs her hands, making her bangles clink. “We will buy beautiful saris for your wife, we will dance in your bharat.”
I know they mean well but it’s time to leave. I get up from the table.
“I’m going home,” I say.
“With a stopover in Europe,” I add.
“Arre, Amit, what is the rush? Just wait and see the responses you will get.”
“I’ll visit a friend in Italy.”
She waves at her husband. “Speak some sense into the boy.”
He clears his throat, turns the page. He slurps his tea. My aunt waits. She throws her hands in the air, a praying gesture. She drops her hands, shakes her head, and turns to me.
“Well,” she says, “better buy an open ticket. The way you are going, who knows what can happen.”