Tears and Song

June 18, 2021

Dipika Mukherjee with her father, Kalidas Mukherjee
Dipika Mukherjee with her father, Kalidas Mukherjee

In honor of Father’s Day, writer Dipika Mukherjee remembers her father, Kalidas Mukherjee, who passed away in New Delhi on May 8, 2021.

This will be my first Father’s Day in the US without my father. Papa did not die of Covid, but he took his last breath in New Delhi, at a time when the city was deep in a pandemic hell.

When I answered a panicked phone call in Chicago, ten days before Papa passed away, I was already vaccinated with two doses of the Pfizer Biotech vaccine and had started to resume a normal life as cafés and outdoor events started to open up in this beautiful city I call home. I had been following what was happening in India—most of my family lives in New Delhi, and I have numerous relatives in West Bengal—and it was déjà vu of the worst kind, as the news reports took me back to a year ago, when New York was the epicenter of Covid mismanagement in the US, and the central government refused to take any responsibility.

Hospitals in Delhi had no beds, so we decided to keep Papa, ninety-four, at home. When he first showed signs of a stroke on April 25, words as mumbled verbiage, his language shifted entirely from Bengali to English. As a career diplomat he was fluent in English, but our home language is uncompromisingly Bengali, so it shook my brother, Dada, when my father, who had long expressed a wish to live to be a hundred years old whispered to him in English, “I’m dying, I’m dying.”

Medical staff all over India were already choosing whom to save and whom to sacrifice, and a man of ninety-four years had no chance in the second wave targeting younger people. In New Delhi alone, the toll of 60+ declined from 62% in Jan 2021 to 52% in April 2021, as numbers for those aged 49–59 rose to 32% of all deaths, and those 18–44 faced a death toll at 18% and rising.

Papa passed away on May 8, 2021, at 09:15am; that is the time/date stamp on the death certificate. But he probably breathed his last as early as just after 11pm on May 7, after he stopped breathing through the nebulizer mask. The attending home nurse worked vigorously on his chest. We continued to get a faint pulse even after that, and the oxygen saturation remained at levels that showed him to be alive. But rigor mortis started to set in, his skin turning lighter and lighter, and we turned the air-conditioning to 22°C to prevent the ravages of the Delhi summer outside.

No doctor was available to visit the house, so we had to wait. Without a death certificate there could be no cremation. And while we continued to imagine a faint heartbeat, there would be no cremation.

At about 6:30 that morning, with no doctor available to attend to my father’s cold body, I started to wonder whether the decision to keep Papa at home had been a mistake.

* * *

In Delhi, not only did Prime Minister Modi deflect all blame for the mismanagement of this crisis, the government embarked on $2.8bn vanity project, desecrating the historical parts of Lutyen’s Delhi and, in a clear statement dishonoring anything living, began to uproot heritage trees nearly one hundred years old. Anish Kapoor, creator of Chicago’s iconic Bean installed in the Millennium Park, called Modi’s destruction of Delhi architecture the act of a Hindu Taliban.

In Chicago, I took the RT-PCR test required to fly into India and reached New Delhi on a direct flight with few travelers. Delhi airport felt abandoned. But life at home seemed normal; on the night I reached Delhi, my father had dinner seated at the dining table. In Indian homes, at arrivals and departures, we touch the feet of our elders, for ashirbaad—ashirbaad can only be translated into English as a blessing, but it is deeply imbued with a generational tenderness, the older ensuring the longevity and happiness of the younger—and my father placed his hand on my head in that heartfelt gesture, welcoming me home.

My scholarly father taught me early that ashirbaad is like knowledge, something that increases when it is freely spent and destroyed if unshared with others. In his final days, he would seek out my face, his uncoordinated fingers pecking at my forehead like a blind bird feeding its young.

My scholarly father taught me early that ashirbaad is like knowledge, something that increases when it is freely spent and destroyed if unshared with others.

Medical care at home is affordable and excellent in India; we already knew this because my eldest brother, disabled after a cycling accident in 2016, is now being cared for at home. Doctors in India still make home visits, and our family physician is Dr. D. Dhar, whose physician father had attended to mine. The young Dr Dhar could be counted upon to attend to medical emergencies at our home, even in the middle of the night.

Until the pandemic changed our certainties. Dr Dhar’s clinic is a modest establishment with one person managing the office. It makes no attempt to compete with the swanky medical institutions or megahospitals of South Delhi. Yet Dr Dhar was so inundated by the patients in his clinic that he stopped answering phone calls or even responding to our frantic texts.

Three days after I arrived, Papa started to lose the ability to control his body. He had to be fed, first with a teaspoon, then a large syringe pushing gruel into his mouth, and was rapidly losing strength.

The nurse who has been attending to my vegetative brother at home for the past five years is a Muslim man named Nafeez. Nafeez has become a member of my family; I mention his religion as important to our story, as this is the new India that I am fiercely proud of. My traditional paternal grandmother had been widowed at the partition of India and had scraped a living in a village outside Calcutta with seven mouths to feed; anti-Muslim sentiment ran high in my ancestral home, where non-Brahmins were barely tolerated and Muslims not at all. Yet Nafeez came into our lives in 2016 and became so much a part of the family that he shares the food we eat, and he was Papa’s companion through many nights, as my insomniac father roamed the rooms, sometimes flipping through a book, but most often just looking for conversation.

It was Nafeez who said that if Papa was not put on some sort of intravenous drips, he would soon starve to death. I stood at Dr Dhar’s clinic, late at night, in an attempt to force him to come. My brother needed his tracheostomy tube changed, and Papa’s condition was deteriorating, so we had two developing emergencies at home.

At a quarter to midnight, when it was finally my turn to see the doctor, there were still fourteen more patients waiting their turn. Dr Dhar is a youthful man, light of gait, but on that day, his eyes behind the face shield and mask were weary. There was no time for niceties. When I told him of the situation at home, he gave me a Sophie’s Choice: Pick one, he said, I can only see any ONE of your patients.

I burst into tears. Papa, I mumbled. Please. Papa is dying.

* * *

Dr Dhar’s visit confirmed what we had all begun to understand by then. This time, there would be no pulling Papa back from the brink. Papa needed palliative care. His hands moved in agitated parabolas toward his head, scratching at his scalp in an attempt to soothe the insides, his face contorted. We took to holding his hands, running our fingers through his hair.

I sang Rabindra Sangeet. Tagore’s poetry rendered into song is the soundtrack of most Bengali households, and I sang my father’s favorites, badly and voice breaking, about our astonishment at this vast universe, and the miracle of our place in it. I sang the songs that I would sing to my young boys as a lullaby, of birds in the trees, kuhu, kuhu, kuhu gaye, the Delhi evenings bursting into actual birdsong as my father became a child, lulled into a gentle, peaceful sleep. My mother held my father’s hand, my brother snuggled at his feet.

I sang my father’s favorites, badly and voice breaking, about our astonishment at this vast universe, and the miracle of our place in it.

Before my father stopped breathing, we had put him on oxygen, but cylinders were notoriously hard to buy or refill. On the night of May 7, Dada and I were frantically calling the twenty-four-hour hotlines set up by grassroots organizations, and it was the Sikh Gurdwaras that answered our calls, even after midnight. The waiting lines for oxygen cylinders were at least three hours long.

Nafeez found a distributor selling cylinders at the black market rate of twenty thousand Indian rupees per cylinder, but we would have to cross the Delhi border to secure one, a difficult feat in a lockdown.

I had seen the news reports about bodies washing up on riverbeds, the lines at crematoria, the unceasing obituaries of the dead. But for the first time that night, I realized the helpless panic of families caring for a dying person. I saw how, in the absence of government leadership, the grassroots organizations stepped in.

It was a community of doctors in J-Block of Chittaranjan Park that sent one of their own to certify Papa’s passing. This community also helped us search for oxygen cylinders through the night. The final message on my phone from them is a message of condolence, regretting their inability to do more to keep my father alive.

* * *

To honor my father, I will go to the Art Institute of Chicago, stand at the entrance of Fullerton Hall, and read the writing in Bengali.

My father gave me a lifelong love for words; for memorizing poetry that feeds my soul; a rooted home that is truly mine. Yet the most important gift he gave me was the strong foundation of belief in my own talent. When I was twelve, in New Zealand, and had performed a solo at a Bharatanatyam dance recital, Papa would write to relatives, and even say this conversationally, that the audience had stood up and clapped, a standing ovation like that given to Vivekananda when he delivered an iconic sermon at the World Congress of Religions in Chicago in 1893.

Of course the simile was wildly overblown, yet when Chicago became home, I would frequently visit the Art Institute and stand at the entrance of Fullerton Hall, where Vivekananda's speech is commemorated in Bengali and English text. Chicago felt like a warm fatherly embrace, even if my father was miles away.

May more fathers—in India and around the world—convince their daughters that when they pursue a talent, the world will give them a standing ovation.

Chicago

Dipika Mukherjee is the author of the novels Shambala Junction and Ode to Broken Things as well as the short-story collection Rules of Desire. Her creative work is included in The Best Small Fictions 2019 and appears in World Literature Today, Asia Literary Review, Del Sol Review, and Chicago Quarterly Review, among others. She’s written nonfiction for Newsweek, Los Angeles Review of Books, Hemispheres, Orion, Scroll, The Edge, and more. She is a contributing editor for Jaggery and teaches at StoryStudio Chicago and at the Graham School of the University of Chicago.

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