The following is the beginning of my manuscript-in-progress.
“I once heard the Master say ‘If you haven’t yet faced yourself,
you will when the time comes to mourn your parents.’”
In doctor language: Hamman-Rich syndrome is an acute and rapidly progressive form of cryptogenic fibrosing alveolitis of unknown aetiology. Both sexes affected; slight male predominance. Highest incidence between forty and seventy years of age. Fatal within months of onset.
Translation: The soft tissue in my father’s lungs hardened very rapidly, making it difficult for him to breathe. No one knows why this happened. There were no treatment options. He died because his lungs turned to stone.
My earliest memory is vague, as I suppose early memories often are. I see the old rotary-dial phone from my parents bedroom, with the fancy carved handle and golden finger-holds. I see my mother in the polyester turquoise nightgown she wore in the wintertime, which had a top zipper and quilted front. And I see my father, crying.
When I conjure this memory I must be careful not to alter its details to fit my own frame. But I do believe I recognize the heave of his shoulders, the brown of his skin or perhaps the shirt he was wearing. My heart goes out to my father in that moment, for I was too young then, just three, to do much more than be scared, to inadvertently make a movie in my brain, to wet the bed despite having been potty trained for over a year.
Now I feel retrograde compassion for my father, marbled with ironic strands of empathy. Since time and space are jumbled in memory, as they are in dreams, I experience the irrepressible urge to go back and comfort him, to tell him, “Papa, I know how you feel.”
I am waiting
for you to be again
what you always were
for you to be there whole
for me to run to with this new grief—
-Linda Pastan, “Duet for One Voice”
Hey Papa, can you believe you’re dead?
I remember leaving the funeral home, having nit-picked and itemized our way through every detail, repeatedly turning down offers of a fancier urn, more flowers and a more expensive coffin from a sweaty old man in a bad, checkered suit and all I could think was “I can’t wait to get home and tell him how ridiculous all of this was.”
Grief precipitates, to risk a somewhat melodramatic metaphor, the reverse of the Christian demarcation of time, B.C. and A.D. With Dad, Without Dad. I’m not certain what I thought losing a parent would be like, or that I even thought very much about it at all. But now, as I prepare to enter Year Three of this new era, there’s one thing I do know: I grossly underestimated the transformative power of absence.
My father, Subhash Chander Mehra, was born on April twenty-seventh, 1942. He was the middle child, preceded by two sisters and followed by two brothers. Santoj, Sudarshan, Subhash, Sudesh, and Sharath. I think it’s adorable, how the names fall into line that way. I don’t have any access to the sibling experience, but I know my father’s place in the family line informed nearly every action of his life. As a first-born male in India, he was a cause for celebration, doted upon by his sisters, idolized by his younger brothers. But that’s the language of this place, this world. My context, my tongue. The vocabulary of the world I’m sitting in now bears little or no relation, I fear, to the cramped dishwater alleys in which my father grew up.
His family was poor—not destitute, but crowded into a cluster of third-story, third-world rooms—a laundry-hanging, paint-chipping, stinking kind of place with exposed wires and pipes and rickety staircases which I had only ever imagined or seen in movies before I was there, standing in the very room where my father was born. It seems absurd and sad to me now, that during our time in his hometown, Amritsar, as I followed my father, camera in hand, I conceived and carried myself as if I were on an NPR segment, the thoughtful Western journalist exploring an exotic place.
We are just minutes away from the hustle of Amritsar’s gleaming new shopping malls, where young men and women dressed in Western clothes pay for half-hour increments of high-speed internet and take the rare opportunity to size up members of the opposite sex. But here, in the old district, little has changed since Subhash Mehra’s last visit. The sweets vendor sits cross-legged in front of a large pot of hot oil, carefully fishing out treasures just as Subhash remembers.
The stairs creak uneasily as we continue upwards. They are tall and narrow, built to minimize the amount of wood needed for construction. The pastel blue-green paint is peeling off in flakes, revealing the cracks and crags underneath. I ask Subhash questions and hear the emotion in his voice. He chooses his words carefully, breathing heavily with exertion.
As I story tell now, I count forward in weeks and think, “Was it happening then, in front of me?” My fathers lungs quickly building honeycomb, blocking his way, as he showed me the one bathroom they shared with two other families, the second-story railing where two-year-old Sudesh fell and hit his head, rendering him what they called “slow” for the rest of his life? And the tired old street dog lay napping behind an old bicycle covered in dust. And there I was, dressed in the same, colorful clothing as everyone else, but much too tall for a girl, with hair much too short, my sunglasses and my bag undeniably new. My ears not pierced, though my nose was. American—used to walking on sidewalks, to well-ordered lanes of traffic, to all kinds of signifiers that remain transparent until we step on someone else’s soil. My father’s soil.
Amritsar was the only place I traveled to in India where I felt like a real novelty. On the street, a young girl walked up to me and wanted to shake my hand, asked me what my name was and if I was from America. Mera nam Nishta hai, the first day of Hindi 101 thankfully coming back to me. Hanji, America.
I’m not sure that I ever fully articulated this to him, but it did hit me, that day. Beyond the sheer novelty of being in a place so different from the one to which I was accustomed, I felt a deeper level of resonance. I saw, and I’m afraid the most accurate expression is cliché, just how far my father had come. How could I not have known? I remember marveling. I didn’t have any idea.
POMEGRANATES ARE INDIGENOUS TO THE middle world, that strait of land we now call Iran, reaching its shoulder up into the Mediterranean and bumping its back side into Pakistan. From this Fertile Crescent the fruit traveled, through either accidental or purposeful means of cultivation, both east and west, dropping its fine seed into the dry, deep soil of Turkey, Afghanistan, and India. One thinks of camels, brightly colored silks, young, dark slaves and bundles of curled cinnamon.
It is not difficult to understand why some ancient soul would dare to smash and chance the first pomegranate. Unlike, say, the artichoke or the durian, the pomegranate advertises itself well in its natural state. Green, waxy leaves about the length of a man’s hand, handsome orange-red flowers shaped like junior hibiscus blossoms—all say Come, climb me, pluck my leathery fruit. Some have even suggested that it was no apple which tempted Eve in that proverbial garden, but rather the glittering, jewel-bright seeds of a pomegranate.
Like many things with seductive powers, the pomegranate requires a bit of work once in-hand. You cannot simply bite into it, or slice it at will. First, you must split the outer skin carefully—you will discover, as many pleasure-seekers have before you, that pomegranate juice stains hands and shirts with an unbleachable fuchsia. Second, collect your promised reward using gently prying fingers and patience. Each fruit contains hundreds of seeds, honey-combed in chamber after chamber, nestled into so many grooves and protected by a film of bitter white pith. Once you have loosened the seeds from their home and discarded both peel and pith, these tiny fruits from the tree of knowledge are yours to enjoy.
In Northwestern India, where my father was born, wild pomegranate bushes grow alongside the tall, slender trunks of cultivated pomegranate trees. This state, Punjab, shares a border with Pakistan and is home to hundreds of farmers, men and women who give this place its title, “Breadbasket of India.” For miles as the crow flies outside of my father’s hometown the horizon is dominated by orderly rows of crops, broken only occasionally by the brick burner’s smoke. Here, pomegranates are considered the gods’ fruit, phal bhavan, left before Shiva’s stone lingham or at Durga’s marble feet, given as an offering back to the very ones who blessed its budding and growth. If the fruit is sacred, or dangerous (as Persephone, goddess from another land, would attest) that may account for why it tastes so good.
For years my father peeled me pomegranates. It was the only time I saw him wear an apron, seemingly wine-stained and spattered, tied delicately around his waist. He would buy the fruit by the case and shuck them, like pearl-laden oysters, by the half-dozen. Every fall a Tupperware container full of seeds kept constant in the refrigerator, rid of their pith and ready for my consumption. Now I find it is my turn to pick him out, seed by seed, one by one, nooks and crannies. A different kind of harvest.