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Photo by Celia Mitchell (2015/16 Semester Photo Contest Entry), Indonesia Semester.

In The City of Life

Photo by Stew Motta, India Semester.

Death came at 4:30 on a dark Monday morning. I had been lying in my host parents’ room, waiting for them to return from the hospital. My host nieces, Pari and Khushi, were peacefully sleeping in the room next door. We had returned from the hospital about five hours earlier, after my host father, Pita-ji, had been admitted for an emergency dialysis.

I was shaken awake by Ruchi-ji, my host sister. It was still dark outside. I reached for my glasses and shoved them onto my face. Then I saw her eyes, moist with tears.

“Papa’s gone,” she croaked, trembling.

My throat tightened. What did she mean? Was Pita-ji… but no, that was impossible. I dazedly followed Ruchi-ji downstairs. I took one look at the ambulance, at the men carrying a figure shrouded in white, and fled back upstairs.

Death was unthinkable. True, I was living in Banaras, the city of death, but death was supposed to remain an abstract concept, exemplified only by the formless, concealed lumps carried during the frequent funeral processions and the impenetrable smoky haze of the pyres on the burning ghats. Tonight, life, not death, was supposed to prevail.

Pita-ji would say that God and truth always prevail (the God of what—life, or death? the truth of what—death, or life?). “Siya-Ram,” he often said. He sang those words many times when we visited the Sankat Mochan temple together—Pita-ji, my host mother Mata-ji, and me. In those days Pita-ji could still drive and move around without difficulty. As Mata-ji and Pita-ji strode around the temple, dedicated to the monkey god Hanuman-ji, I followed and admired the movements—the prayers, the bows, the giving and receiving of offerings—that seemed so foreign to me. After circling around the main complex and visiting the shrine on the right—all the while Pita-ji was singing, “Siya-Ram, Siya-Ram, Siya-Ram”—Mata-ji instructed me to make a wish as we stood facing Hanuman-ji.

I don’t remember now what I wished for. I didn’t particularly need a wish; there was no need for any. Sorrow had not yet taken residence in our house. We were still living in the city of life. At that time, the atmosphere at home was one of quiet contentment. In the morning, I would come down from my room and receive a cup of steaming chai from Mata-ji. Sometimes I would sit and chat with Pita-ji before I left for the group’s morning meeting. In the evenings, I would talk with both Mata-ji and Pita-ji about a wide array of topics—education in India, their pasts, our views on religion. Or Mata-ji and I would silently read while Pita-ji watched television.

At that time, the rest of the family—Ruchi-ji, her husband Sandeep-ji, their children Pari and Khushi—had not yet moved into the house. Whenever they visited, the tranquility in the house would be replaced with clattering energy. I once saw Pari, the older daughter, crawl on top of Pita-ji’s back and tickle him, while he made Dracula-sounds and tried to push her off. The time of uncertainty, of doubt, of despair, would not come until months later, when it seeped in with medical reports and doctor visits.

Around 5:30, as I stood on the staircase, I saw Pari quietly pad by the doorway. “Mama?” she tentatively called out to the silent house. She seemed to sense something had changed. I crept silently downstairs and called for Ruchi-ji—she ought to be the person to break the news to Pari. Resuming my half-hidden spot on the staircase, I heard Pari’s moment of revelation, the exact point in time when something irreversibly alters one’s world, raising it up or crashing it down.

Sometimes the moment of revelation isn’t so clear. I don’t remember when Pita-ji’s health began declining, when he became fixed to his bed. Starting in January, he gradually stopped teaching at Nirman (a local school), stopped pacing around the house, stopped wearing anything but his off-white (not quite the color of death, but almost) bedroom kurta-pyjamas. Slowly, my memories of his mobility became replaced by memories of his stasis.

“I used to be so strong and full of energy,” Pita-ji complained to me one daywhen he was especially frustrated by his tiredness. “I would work for 18 hours straight at the factory. I would come home and sleep for only four hours, and then go back to work.”

“And when he came home, he would always suggest we go out to eat or go to a function,” Mata-ji added. “We used to go out all the time.” She sighed nostalgically.

We had gone out together sometime in October, perhaps around Diwali. The entire family, along with some family friends, ate out at the fancy Diamond Hotel. That night, Pita-ji was wearing a nice suit, as he always did when he went out—one time I saw him slip on a suitcoat in order to go next door for five minutes. He strode confidently through the marble-tiled lobby. We ate tomato soup and butter naan, vegetable steak with ketchup and paneer butter masala. And when we left, stomachs uncomfortably full, I spotted Pita-ji talking amiably with a man who seemed to be the owner of the hotel.

It was around the time of stasis that the family got a new pet. Khushi dragged me into her room, where a green parrot was holed up in a tiny cuboid cage.

“Look, it’s playing!” Khushi excitedly cried. I looked again. The parrot seemed to be desperately clawing at the corner of its cage.

“More like trying to escape,” I muttered.


“I mean, playing,” I hastily replied. Khushi smiled and turned back to her struggling captive.

The sky was beginning to lighten from black to a soft blue when I finally allowed myself to be dragged into the downstairs room, where Pita-ji’s body was being kept. It was in this room that, only four days earlier, I had celebrated my nineteenth birthday. After being ditched by the group after dinner at the Ming Garden Chinese restaurant, I returned home and was surprised to find everybody at my house, helping carry the half-conscious Pita-ji out of the car and into the downstairs room. It turned out that my friends had planned a post-dinner party at my house, though they happened to arrive at the same time that my host parents were returning from the hospital. Once Pita-ji was safely situated in a chair, I proceeded to blow out my candles and cut the chocolate cake. As I approached Pita-ji with the first slice of cake, he opened his eyes wide and smiled weakly. I carefully coaxed into his mouth a bite of cake, my gift to him that day.

Pita-ji had already given me my birthday gift. That morning, as I prepared to leave, Mata-ji beckoned me into the main bedroom.

“He was in a lot of pain last night,” she said, gesturing to Pita-ji, leaning back on the bed on a tall stack of pillows. “But he wanted to give you this.”

In Pita-ji’s hands was a red-wrapped package. I slipped it out of his trembling hands, sat down, and—despite my attempts at care—ungracefully ripped it open. It was a handsome blue-and-white striped shirt.

“Oh, thank you!” I grinned and turned to Mata-ji and Pita-ji. In a gesture of gratitude, I gently grasped Pita-ji’s hand, then turned and held Mata-ji’s as well.

“Stephen, I don’t want to bring this up,” Chase murmured the next day. “But how is your host father really doing When we got to your house and saw him…” She trailed off. “I honestly thought he was going to die.”

“No, he’s not going to die,” I had replied. “He just gets really tired after dialysis.” And I believed it.

My belief crumbled as I stepped into the room. I somehow sensed Mata-ji and the girls’ presence, but all I could see was him. Pita-ji’s entire body, excepting his face, was wrapped in a white sheet. His normally wide eyes were closed, his mouth slightly agape, his nostrils stopped up with what seemed to be cotton balls. He looked empty; he was empty. The Pita-ji that I had loved was gone, and all that remained was this shell. As tears swelled up in my eyes, I ran out.

I spent most of the morning sitting outside on the porch as friends, family members, and neighbors came to the house to pay their respects. My limbs felt leaden with invisible weights; my mind was similarly slow and tranquilized. The arrival of my friends pulled me out of my numbed stupor and back into painful grief. How strange it is that, after a death, it is the presence of the people with whom you have shared joyful experiences that brings one the most sorrow.

I reentered the room one last time as Pita-ji was being prepared for the procession. One by one, people came up to respectfully lay marigold garlands around his neck and shoulders. Mata-ji handed me one, and I bent down and got one last good look at Pita-ji.

That’s when the sobs came. An unstoppable, choking, almost luxurious wave of weeping overwhelmed me, and I broke down.

Around noon, Mata-ji’s brother finally arrived, and the entire group began heading towards Manikarnika Ghat, the infamous burning ghat, for the cremation. No plans had been made for my own transportation, so I prepared to ride in a cycle rickshaw with my friends. The heat from the sun pressed down on us like a thick blanket as we made our way to the main road. It was on sunny days like this that Pita-ji would enjoy sitting out on the upper terrace, basking in the sun’s heat and looking down on the lane below. Halfway down the lane, one car stopped; Ruchi-ji stepped out and beckoned to me with her hand.

“Mama’s calling for you,” she yelled. I ran.

“He called for you specifically,” Mata-ji had told me on our first trip to the Banaras Hindu University hospital, a journey that would eventually be repeated twice each week. Pita-ji, suffering from failing kidneys, needed to undergo dialysis in order to clean his blood and reduce the swelling in his hands and feet. I never felt completely at ease in the hospital; I did not like the drab dark-grey walls, the dim overhead lights, the acrid smell of the dialysis room.

I didn’t always accompany my host parents to the hospital, and whenever I did, I wasn’t sure how exactly I was being helpful. I, with my lack of upper arm strength, was not particularly good at helping Pita-ji down the stairs into the car, or from the car into the hospital wheelchair. I wasn’t even that good at making small talk with Pita-ji and Mata-ji. All I could do was occasionally make Pita-ji smile, or just sit silently next to Mata-ji in the waiting room.

“You did so much more than you know,” Mata-ji would tell me later, two days after the funeral.

Once we reached the ghat, we bathed Pita-ji’s feet and face with Ganga water, then completely covered him up and laid him on the pyre. I grimaced when more wood was stacked on top of his stomach. I knew it was only his shell on the pyre, that he himself had already gone, but I couldn’t help thinking that I had supported that body up the stairs to the bedroom, grabbed that hand in saying goodnight, watched that stomach rise and fall laboriously with each breath in the last few months.

Ruchi-ji lit the fire, an act usually reserved for the son. But with all of her sacrifices, it felt right for her to perform this rite. The flames flared up, and sooneven the body was gone.

The morning after the funeral, Khushi found me in the front room and sank into the seat next to me.

“Last night, I had a dream about Nanu Papa,” she tiredly said. It was the first time I had seen her be completely serious. “He was alive and couldn’t die. Also,” she added after some moments of silence, “the parrot is gone.”


“I let her go,” she explained, her tone uncharacteristically flat. “I wouldn’t like to be stuck in only one room all day. I thought the parrot wouldn’t like it either. So I let her go.” True enough, the cage was empty, its contents free.

After everything that happened, I thought that I ought to remain in sober mourning in respect for Pita-ji. I wanted time to stand still for a few weeks, to give me the chance to stay in perpetual sorrowful remembrance.But that’s not how Banaras works—hell, that’s not how life works. Life has a way of creeping back in, whether you want it to or not. My friends pulled me out of the city of death and back into the city of life: we went out for Korean food, we watched a famous kathak dance performance, we danced along to Bollywood songs and laughed at our own graceless moves. Even at home, where grief still lurked deeply in eyes and throats, Pari and Khushi, with their childhood games and demands for attention, unabashedly dragged life back in.

“You did so much more than you know,” Mata-ji said, two days after the funeral. “You stood by us through everything. Sometime in our past lives there must have been some connection between us. Now he’s gone,” her arm gestured in the air, “and you will be gone in three weeks. It just shows…” she trailed off. “God must have sent you here to help serve him.”

Perhaps she’s right. My father, who immigrated to America, could not return to see his sick father until it was too late. And now his son had been sent to a total stranger to serve as a comfort in the last months of life. There are too many parallels; there just has to be something else, something greater, working behind the scenes.

Pita-ji would say it was God. As we sat at the dining table before dinner one night, he shared with me his own faith.

“God is in this city,” he told me. I nodded. “Things are so messy and crazy, yet everything works! So God must be here!

“People may think that they see the whole picture,” he continued, “but it is only God that sees all. Like the sun, God touches everything. He takes care of his children.”

To that God, I say thank you. Thank you for taking care of your children. Thank you for bringing me here, to this country, this city, this family. Thank you for the love binding together me, Mata-ji, Ruchi-ji, Pari, Khushi, Sandeep-ji, and Pita-ji. And thank you for my time spent in the city of life.


Dedicated to Ashok Kumar Sachdeva, my Pita-ji (July 12, 1948-April 6, 2015)