Amma died on a Saturday, the least convenient day of the week. Radha had thought that between the nursing and funeral homes the arrangements would be simple. The viewing was scheduled for Thursday, the funeral for Friday. But no one wanted to house the body for that long. No room, said the nurses. Most unorthodox, said the funeral director. Could the service be held sooner? But daughters and siblings, cousins and nephews were arriving in London from all over the world. Impossible.
Only the temple was understanding. Yes, of course they could make the arrangements, coordinate with the funeral home and crematorium. In the end, the hospital agreed to keep Amma in their morgue.
Radha remembered the day she moved her mother into the nursing home. “Only one place left to go,” Amma had said in soft-spoken Tamil. Neither woman imagined the journey would be so circuitous. All week Radha thought of her mother’s emaciated body being moved from bed to morgue, casket to temple. She did not let herself picture the crematorium.
Amma had died in the early hours of the morning while Radha slept upright in an armchair. Radha had woken and stared at her mother’s unmoving figure, so tiny in a sea of bedding, and known, in the pit of her stomach, that it was over. Still, she sat and stared for a long time, willing her mother’s eyes to open. Bending over the body, her ear pressed to Amma’s cold lips, she prayed for a whisper of life that never came.
Radha called her daughters fırst. “Ammachi has passed on,” she told each in turn. They cried and she murmured vague platitudes: It will be all right. She feels no pain now. Radha envied their grief. All she felt was numb. Amma was dead.
She waited until she was home to tell her husband. Framed in the doorway of their mock Tudor townhouse, she said: “I woke up and Amma was gone.”
Sanjay stood at the sink in the galley kitchen. He dried his hands on a dish towel.
“I saw her lying there and I just knew,” Radha said. Her arms hung at her sides. She did not take off her coat or drop her keys in the flowerpot that served as a catch-all for batteries, nails and hair pins.
He walked out of the kitchen toward her, his arms held out. She thought of a zombie movie the children had made them watch years ago. Without shutting the door, she turned away and climbed the stairs.
Amma left Appa, after thirty years of marriage, on Radha’s wedding day. As soon as the newlyweds’ car was out of sight, Amma had gone quietly to the bedroom, produced a battered, sky-blue suitcase from under the bed, carried it out the back door, down the lane, and through the front doors of the Mount Lavinia hotel where she had already reserved a room for the night. The next day she took the number 37 bus to a doorstep across town where her younger sister was too startled and cowed to refuse her room and board.
No one thought the separation would last. It was 1970 in Ceylon. Motherhood was venerated, widowhood was respected, spinsterhood was pitied. There was no fourth option.
“My daughters are out from under his roof. I’ll never go back.” True to her word, she never returned. She lived with her sister, then immigrated to England with Radha and Sanjay.
This was a story Radha’s daughters loved. Appa died when both were in nappies, ensuring their allegiance to the surviving grandparent. Nisha and Nandini saw their grandmother as an early feminist. “Imagine leaving your husband back then,” they said in awe. “And in Sri Lanka!”
It was the only time Amma broke with convention, expending a lifetime’s worth of transgression in one shot. When Nandini announced she was moving in with her boyfriend, Amma was scandalized. She didn’t speak to her granddaughter for months, leaving Nandini hurt and confused. Wasn’t her grandmother the one who had fırst bucked tradition? Radha didn’t know how to explain. For Amma, going against the grain was a desperate last resort. For her granddaughters—British-born and raised—contravention was the rule, not the exception.
Radha had a week’s worth of compassionate leave, but by Monday, she was already itching for the office. Sanjay hovered, offering to accompany her to appointments, rub her feet, call relations. He made pots of milky tea that cooled untouched. He fretted until she snapped and told him to leave her be, then felt immediate remorse. Not because of his wounded look but because she heard Amma’s voice in her ear: “Poor man is only trying to give comfort. Don’t be so wicked, Radha.”
By Thursday the family was upon them. Cousins, siblings, in-laws, daughters, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, all sleeping and stepping on top of one another, three to a bed and all over the floor on spread-open sleeping bags cushioned by blankets. In these cramped quarters, squeezing past relations in narrow corridors, Radha had breathing room and Sanjay found a channel for his nervous energy.
The viewing at the funeral home was unnecessarily macabre. Radha stared at her mother’s sunken cheeks and struggled to recall the conversation in which she had approved an open casket. She submitted to the hugs of a steady stream of faceless visitors and watched her daughters cry while their father patted their shoulders. They looked impossibly young and beautiful in such close proximity to death.
Finally, the visitation ended and the conga line of vehicles returned to the house in Southall. Twenty assorted relations in the lounge eating takeaway kottu roti with their hands and sharing ghost stories.
“Back home,” her brother began, giving the grandchildren a significant look, “we didn’t have these problems of where to keep the body. People stayed in the house until the funeral. Everyone took turns keeping a vigil.”
“Why?” a niece asked.
“Why else? To make sure no funny business took place! Now one fine day our Great-Uncle Basil died and I was made to keep watch overnight.” He paused while the smallest children squealed.
“Uncle Basil worked at the petrol shed. On Wednesdays he finished work at 4 am. The bus halt was on the opposite street, so when he got down, he walked through a laneway and came in the back door. Aunty used to say he always woke her up with his whistling. He came through the door whistling, twirled his keys on his finger, stopped at the shrine at the front of the house to say a prayer, then came upstairs to bed. Every Wednesday, same routine.”
“Uncle, please don’t frighten the children,” Nandini said.
“What frighten? This is a true story! Now, Uncle died on a Tuesday afternoon and it fell to me to watch him. I was reading when the clock struck four in the morning. That’s when I heard the back door open... and the whistling!”
Shaking her head, Radha carried a pile of dishes to the kitchen where she found Sanjay separating cutlery. He offered a tentative smile, which she pretended not to see. When she returned to the lounge, they had moved on to anecdotes about Amma.
“Remember the time she killed the snake with the back of a frying pan?”
“What about the time she pushed Uncle Ranjith out of the way just before the king coconut fell from the tree?”
“I can still remember how Ashan taught her to ride a cycle. He never saw that bike again!”
“Her mutton curry was always so tasty. What did she put in it?”
“And on Radha and Sanjay’s wedding day when she walked out the door, cool as anything.”
Radha, whose mind was still in the kitchen with her husband, was jolted to consciousness. Why were they bringing up that business again?
“Why did Ammachi leave Appachi?” Nisha asked. This was the one part of the story to which her daughters weren’t privy. It had always seemed out of bounds while their grandmother was alive.
The room grew silent. The big talkers had lost their tongues.
“Was he... a...” Nandini started to ask.
“Appa wasn’t an alcoholic!” The answer was too defensive, too quick. Radha could see what they were thinking but it was not the truth. Her father drank in moderation. She never saw her parents fight. Never heard harsh words exchanged. Appa always treated Amma fairly. He worked long days as a surgeon and had little emotion to spare when he was home. Her mother kept the house with the small allowance he allotted. She cooked his meals. She made his bed. She washed his underpants by hand and hung them on the line. She gave him several children, raised them without thanks, without complaint.
“Why did she leave?” he once asked Radha. “Haven’t I always treated her fairly?” At the time, freshly returned from honeymoon, she could not understand what had broken in her parents’ marriage. Only later, while raising her own children with an attentive and loving husband who believed in a different kind of fairness, did she recognize her father’s cruelty.
Hearing her daughters echo their grandfather’s question, she found herself again at a loss. How to explain there is a cruelty in fairness—that a man can work eighteen-hour days and put a roof over your head and money in your hands and, still, it can not be enough?
Even when Appa was sick and everyone begged Amma to return, Radha didn’t ask her mother about the separation. When she found her mother with her aunt instead of her father, she only said, “You will come with Sanjay and me.” That was the first and last they said on the matter. Radha now regretted all the questions she had never asked.
The funeral home sent a limo to ferry them to temple. Fifteen in a vehicle built for ten with four small children on the floor.
Weaving through the narrow streets, past vegetable stands and Indian sweet shops, Radha stared listlessly out the window. They drove past Amma’s favourite bangle shop and she felt empty. Her fellow passengers were subdued. Even the children looked solemn, playing with the hems of their mothers’ saris. Sanjay tried to reach for her hand and she lifted it to pat her hair.
They stopped at the red light and her sister said: “Do you smell that? I swear I just got the smell of Amma’s mutton curry.” Everyone looked around, under seats, on the ceiling, as if some misplaced curry would be found there.
“The ghost of the mutton curry!” a grandchild cried in excitement, his head still full of whistling apparitions.
It became the day’s running joke. In the middle of the funeral, when a cousin’s sobs threatened to turn contagious, someone whispered, “the ghost of the mutton curry,” and sparked a chain of laughter instead. At the crematorium, as the wooden box was sent on a conveyer belt to the flames, a chorus of “the ghost of the mutton curry” was murmured as a prophylactic for tears.
Afterwards, people filled the house. A buffet was set up in the dining room and Sanjay circulated with drinks and napkins, making sure everyone had enough to eat. Radha watched as he filled Amma’s role. The refrain of a Sri Lankan mother: “Eat! Eat!”
She knew she ought to love him, or at least feel grateful. Instead, she felt nothing. She watched him press samosas on her uncle and a morbid thought came unbidden: what if Sanjay was a pile of ashes at a crematorium and her mother was the one arranging short eats on a platter? She dug her nails into her palms until they left tiny red crescents.
She pictured herself going upstairs, packing a bag, and walking out the door as her mother had done. Nandini and Nisha were adults with their own lives. Radha had a good job, a pension plan. Sanjay could keep the house. They could move on with minimal disruption.
In the other room, her younger brother’s tenor boomed above the cacophony of competing voices: “…swears she got the smell of Amma’s mutton curry!”
Radha wished that she had asked for the recipe.