Father died early this Sunday morning. He nearly died on Friday, but I’d like to think he chose Sunday.
It didn’t matter that Sunday was considered an inauspicious day for dying. There were prayers one could offer to remedy that and rituals one could undertake to correct it. And father being the religious man that he was, would have known.
It did seem like Tibetan Buddhism had too many alternatives to make up for all the wrongs in this world. That is to say, there was no situation that was so terribly wrong or so very inauspicious that a person could not somehow rectify by offering some specific prayer or carrying out a particular ritual.
I think that’s why I like Tibetan Buddhism. I don’t understand much about emptiness or any of the grand philosophies that revolve around the mind and the existence of “I” — things I usually overhear Western Buddhists discussing at length over a cup of coffee in a roadside cafe in Dharamsala. I did, however, appreciate the fact that my faith was lenient to its followers. We could be the worst criminals in our lifetime and yet erase all wrongs just by the accumulation of good merit through the practice of pure thoughts, kind deeds, good motivation, and of course via prayer offerings. It gave me some comfort to know that father would be in a safer place after his death if we said the right prayers and followed the right rituals — all in right amounts.
I didn’t understand how long I had sat there lost in my own thought. I didn’t immediately recall how I had moved from my father’s bedside to underneath the guava tree in the vegetable garden at the back of my house. All I remember is thinking how grateful I was that he was no longer in pain.
Wherever he was, I was sure of one thing, that he was no longer confined to a bed. He was free as a bird, or at least his soul was if you want to be factually correct. My cousin, a monk, would argue that father’s “mind” is now free and that there was no such thing as a “soul.” But I couldn’t be bothered with these details. All that mattered was he was free and he was independent — just as I had always known him to be, until the last four months of his life. Wherever he was his dignity would be restored to him.
I wish I could see him now, just a peek into the world where he is now. It would remind me of how tall and dignified he looked when he stood. In his current world, he could walk and run and jump and hop and stretch and exercise — all on his own. I wondered whether the Gods above would hear me if I prayed earnestly for just a fleeting glance into his new world. Surely they with all their supernatural powers could sense the intensity with which I wanted this. Surely, the many Gods, Goddesses and deities of Tibet – that the first-generation Tibetans had invited from Tibet when they settled in India – would be kind to me after sending me to four months of living hell.
I sat engrossed in my doubts, unaware of my surroundings yet again. I don’t know how long I sat there that way, my thoughts coursing through all the incidents in the last four months that had reshaped the role of my family members.
After father’s health had worsened, Mother and I had fallen into a ritual. She and I would be up every morning at 5. Mother would cook breakfast and lunch, while I swept the floors and did the rest of the cleaning around the house. I’d clean out father’s urine bag and then prepare to change his diapers. On his bedside table, I’d lay out all the necessary items — a huge ball of cotton, two pairs of gloves, a bottle of scented talcum powder, a bottle of liquid disinfectant, a clean rubber sheet, two clean bed sheets, one clean adult diaper, a mug of lukewarm water, and ointments to treat bed sores. Once Mother and I were both through with our cooking and cleaning around the house, we would hover around father’s bed to change his diapers and get him cleaned up.
By the end of the first week, we were almost as good if not better than the ward boys in the hospital who had first showed us the technique of changing diapers. After more than three months of practice, Mother and I had gotten almost mechanical in the way we went about the task. Father always told visiting friends and family that he was perhaps the cleanest patient one would ever find. And it was true. After every such session of cleaning and changing diapers, we gave father a sponge bath and sprinkled so much scented powder on him and on the bed linen that the room would smell much like a flower garden.
This used to be the best part of my day – seeing father in clean clothes, with all his scented powder glory and devoid of the pungent odour one expects from a bedridden patient. I had loved slicking his hair back with a comb after giving it a wash. Mother and I would then carry father on to his wheelchair and wheel him into the veranda facing our tiny garden in the front. Sometimes, father asked to see the vegetable garden at the back of our house and he’d comment on how negligent we were for not plucking the fruit from the guava tree or using the lettuce for our meals.
We’d lay out his breakfast for him as he sat there watching the guava tree or the vegetable garden overgrown with weeds. “Don’t feed me,” he’d say each time Mother or I brought the spoon of porridge to his lips. He’d snatch the spoon from our hand and lay the bowl of porridge on his lap and the cup of Tibetan butter tea he so loved on the table we had set by his side. It was as if he was fighting for independence by seizing every opportunity there was to do something on his own. And so he always brushed his own teeth, taking a little longer than necessary, if only to enjoy the satisfaction of having accomplished a task by himself. But eating was something he enjoyed most, or at least appeared to, taking hours on end to finish a simple bowl of porridge.
As he ate, he’d talk about lands he’d never set his eyes on again and dreams of returning to a home that he had once hastily escaped from. He spoke over and over again about the beauty of the life he had known before his escape to India. He’d smile as he thought of the places and faces from that other life — a smile so radiant and peaceful that it made me wonder how beautiful a past it must have been to make a dying man look so alive and happy, if only for a few seconds or minutes.
Towards the end, I had gotten used to the whole ritual of cleaning, bathing, dressing and feeding father; maybe started to enjoy it even. And yet, I occasionally felt annoyed that my life had been reduced to this. Being a teacher at the local school may not amount to much but in the small town I lived in, it had.
In the days following father’s illness, I had had to take time away from life as I had known it. My days no longer started with the sound of children’s laughter as they played outside the classrooms before the morning assembly, no quarrels or fights to settle, nor were there any bells ringing to warn me that an hour had passed and another was starting. In the world of my father’s illness, time stood still, it seemed and yet, time raced us by.
Sometimes I was afraid father sensed my bitterness and anger. But I wasn’t angry with him. I was only angry with the world for changing course so quickly and without warning.
Mother always used to pray earnestly for good health. It was one thing I had had difficulty understanding.
She’d say, “As long as ill health does not befall any of us, I will never ask our Gods and deities for anything else.”
I always thought it was a weird prayer. Why not pray for a mansion, a house full of servants and two or three chauffeur-driven cars. Hell, why not ask for enough money to offer all those expensive prayer ceremonies that Mother held every year. Sometimes even twice a year. Nevertheless, I think I understand now — after months of living life in and out of hospitals and worrying if the money we had left in our bank accounts would be enough to buy us more time. After all that, I could see why Mother had prayed so earnestly for good health.
So now that ill health had befallen one of us, it seemed all we did was clean, worry, eat, feed and cook. And yet, each time father reminded us it was time to eat the fruit from the guava tree or weed the vegetable garden, we were reminded of how little time we had. It was as if the tree and the grass were growing faster than ever just from the knowledge that we had no time to tend to them. Suddenly we had too much of everything we didn’t want — too many guavas and so few mouths to eat, too much grass and no help on hand to cut them, and now too many packets of adult diapers and no one to make use of them.
If father returned for another month, we could use up all the adult diapers in the remaining packets. I could wake up at 3 in the morning if I had to, or maybe even 2 to get an early head start. I would even pluck all the guava trees by torchlight, going at it every morning until that tree was stripped bare of all its fruit; cook him a meal with the fresh lettuce leaves from the garden; and uproot the weeds in the garden until no grass would ever grow on that patch. All so father could die in peace.
But father was in peace. Or at least that’s what the prayers will be for. Or that’s what they say the prayers are for.
Already the air reverberated with the sounds of monks chanting, drums beating, bells ringing and cymbals clashing. The deafening noise they created was strangely comforting. They drowned out the noise in my head, crushed the anguish in my heart and blocked my thoughts from wandering.
Strangely, it was me who felt at peace. Only the sight of the ripe yellow guavas hanging from the tree and smell of the overgrown weeds disturbed the tranquillity in the vegetable garden this summer morning.
All of a sudden, I heard a voice from a distance. “Why are you here by yourself?” asked the voice — so distant it could have been coming from another world.
“You must go into the house. They will need you for the rituals,” said the voice.
I searched for the source of the voice. A face looked down at me. I had seen that face before. Perhaps at a prayer meeting. Perhaps the face belonged to a parent of a student of mine. Perhaps from another life.
The face stared down at me but all I saw were the ripe guavas hanging from the tree in the background and heard the grass swishing in the morning breeze. “I can’t go in. I have to stay,” I told the face.
“I must pluck all the guavas before it is too late,” I murmured, eyeing the bright yellow fruits that seemed to be screaming out to me for help as they dangled from the swollen tree.
“I must weed this garden before summer ends,” I said.