My first few days as a traditional Bengali housewife in Kolkata have made me understand ritual in a whole new way. I could spend the whole day opening and closing windows — stretching to reach the rusty latches. (In Bengali: chitkini.) Or perhaps, locking and unlocking cabinets in the large standing armoires, or almaris. I want to choreograph an art installation around these movements, a dance piece. But I am also fighting the impulse to do these things obsessively, to define my own movements in this place.

When we first reached the flat in South Kolkata, the rooms looked bleached and empty, as I knew they would. It was dark already and I went directly to my grandmother’s room where her prayer shrine was in disarray. The pictures and statues of god replaced by a large framed picture of her, scattered incense ashes. The apartment was clean but musty, as any place will be after being locked up with the curtains drawn for four months. The elevator is broken so the drivers carried our bags up the stairs and we piled them into my grandmother’s room. The young man who used to help my grandmother was there and he showed us how to make the slip knots for the mosquito net, and we made sure the refrigerator was on. There was much more to ask: how to connect the gas to the stove, how to run the manual washing machine, where the plates and glasses were, but my head was mired in the gaping hole my grandmother left behind.

We went to get some food with my uncle and when we came back, again the apartment seemed askew. I felt like child who had been left home alone and a thick panic began to tighten around my neck. What the hell was I doing here?


The last time I spoke to my grandmother on the phone was early January. She was recuperating for a second knee surgery. She scolded me for not calling and then we spoke a long time, both about serious issues and laughing about not so serious ones — as was our manner. I told her that I would be there very soon. For years I had said I was going to come and live in India, that we could take care of each other. She joked that she wouldn’t last that long. I told her that she didn’t have a choice.

The universe had other plans.

I was in Mexico when she fell ill with pneumonia, celebrating a wedding that honored the dead in the same breath it honored the living. The exquisite sorrow of mourning is leached into nothing over the phone. Spared the details, you go on living with the living, leaving the dead hovering somewhere behind your heart. All of my grandparents, my ancestors, dead and after I put down the phone the idea seems preposterous. The image of a funeral pyre impossible to conjure.

In the apartment, I yelled at Robin for leaving his wallet on the front table, for scattering electronics across the floor. Under my grandmother’s rule, you locked everything of value up to keep from tempting the servants. It was your own fault, she told me, if they stole something. He said, “But there is no one here but us.” And that was the real issue wasn’t it? The distance finally seemed to unravel and the truth of her absence finally seemed to sink into my flesh and bones.

I sat down in her straight-backed chair then and tried to think of some way to mourn her properly, some way to choke through the panic and gloom. But then it all drained out of me. The sturdy back of the chair, the orange rug she used to pray on, it grounded me — something shifted and the apartment seemed to open in my mind. This was our space to take in a new direction, to take care of and fill with life. I would respect the hundreds of keys she left, but I would also unlock the cabinets and fill them with books and clothes and media.

Since that night, I’ve been sitting in her chair for a few minutes each day. For years, I’ve been looking for something that would spark the beginning of a meditation practice. It seems to be one last gift my grandmother left for me.

Otherwise, Kolkata is as charming and disheveled as ever. At night, the sounds of the neighbors late-night dinners fade into silence and then the colony of crows in the trees outside our veranda wakes us up early. On our morning constitutional walk around the lake, there would suddenly be a menagerie of brightly colored gods and goddesses under a tree. Rash Behari Avenue is bustling with people and food stands and vegetable sellers. Papaya and guava and a type of water apple are in season.

Tomorrow we leave for Ahmedabad for 10 days. Then we return to truly make this place our home.