- I lost my mother in August 2020 in Kolkata, India during the pandemic. I’m still waiting to visit my father there in a way that is safe for everyone from here in New Jersey. This is just another testament of loss by an Indian mother’s immigrant daughter during Covid.
I lost my mother in August 2020 in Kolkata, India during the pandemic. I’m still waiting to visit my father there in a way that is safe for everyone from here in New Jersey. This is just another testament of loss by an Indian mother’s immigrant daughter.
Every day has two dreadful times these days for an Indian immigrant like me living here in New Jersey. Mornings, when I’ve just woken up and reached for the phone when the fog of sleep still hasn’t cleared yet. Then again at night, around ten or eleven pm, when Indians are waking up in India. That’s when I check my WhatsApp messages. I’ve done the same first thing in the morning for the last 20 plus years of my life in the U.S. but things are very different now.
For one thing, there won’t ever be any more messages from my mother. No ding of a WhatsApp at 2 am from her to me because she has miscalculated the time of day and no anytime call from my side to her just because. There will be no familiar voice picking up at the other end no matter what time asking the same thing, ki re kheyechish (have you eaten today)? For another, there are and will be many more messages from motherless daughters like me posting from India on my Indian WhatsApp groups and Facebook status updates. There were more of those in the last year than I have ever encountered in a lifetime. Since it is night here when it is day there, I get all those messages in the mornings separated by a hemisphere.
These messages are more and more frequent now about the passing of parents, friends, siblings or colleagues due to Covid or simply due to something else that was aggravated by the tremendous logistical difficulties of the pandemic. Farewell messages to someone people knew come in every day. Sometimes it’s not about a single person but a couple who left the world together, or a rest in peace message for two people who passed away within a few days of one another.
The silences of Indian friends on news feeds when they don’t post anything at all remains on the back of my mind all day when we are going grocery shopping or I’m teaching or simply taking walks, which we can do here because space is plenty and people few compared to the teeming multitudes on Indian roads. Where are those Indian friends who would post every day in our school group about an exotic dish they cooked, exotic to some but not to others depending on where they live now, or the person who would always repost forwarded motivational posters and Good Morning messages and gigantic GIFs that moved?
Are they on a hospital bed gasping for oxygen?
A part of the life of an immigrant is lived like a story, to be scrolled through on a digital screen or replayed on the mind’s eye over and over again until those discrete moments play like a narrative on a time-lapse video glossing over gaps that the mind tries to grasp because it simply does not know.
Take my mother’s face last spring right around the onset of the pandemic, for example.
In March of 2020, I was returning to the U.S. after a short, sudden visit home to Kolkata. My mother had to be admitted to the hospital for a series of medical tests. At the end of my two-week visit I was scheduled to board my flight on a certain Friday the second week of March from DumDum airport to Newark.
A few days before my return, my mother was sitting in my parents’ bedroom on a plastic chair just so, her hair freshly washed, with a little too much vermilion on her forehead (as per the domestic helper’s taste, I thought, offhandedly) as I watched her eyes fill with tears. My mother never put that much sindoor on her forehead, ever, just a light touch, always, and she would never wear a deep green nightie like she was wearing then. She always wore a sari and the nightie was mine.
On that morning in March, the attendant had helped her bathe and get dressed. Even though Ma could only speak a few broken words now, her brain was functioning just fine still. She had mistakenly thought I was leaving the coming Sunday, not Friday. That realization had brought the recognition that it was going to be 48 hours less with me and just that little fact had made her eyes fill with tears.
I remember other times of parting through the last 20 years. Sometimes it would be something as simple as a suitcase lifted on the table to be packed that would trigger tears for a brief moment. When I left, she would have to deal with the empty shelves and table top, the numerous paper lists I’d left strewn on the surfaces before packing, the plastic bags of various clothing items I had discarded or handwritten bills from stores for items that I carried here to the U.S. for myself or as gifts for others.
Last March, although I knew her condition was serious, little did I anticipate that I would not be able to see her again, ever, at all and that she would go through such terrible hardship while so ill in a pandemic of a kind that neither her generation nor mine had seen in our lifetimes.
Anchor of My Life
In recent years, Ma had given me cherished items from my childhood to carry back to the U.S. My school diaries from elementary school with homework written on them by the class teachers, notes of absence signed by her in her typical handwriting, exercise books all carefully tied with a string. It was as if because she was so neat and meticulous I could afford to be haphazard about my own existence here. She was always the anchor that tied my rather nomadic life with a string, together. She absorbed the shocks and made sense of it. I had built my life very differently from my mother’s and even though she had never wanted me to be so far away, she was proud of me, I think.
So now, in the pandemic, when I’m home all the time in New Jersey, I’m surrounded by ordinary things of everyday life that stand in for her. A thin cotton towel of the kind that you only get in a particular store in Kolkata that was perfect for the humidity of Florida when I lived there. A bedsheet and pillow cases I could never use because they never fit but I keep because she had given them to me. Dried puja flowers that she had given me 20 years ago when I had boarded my plane to grad school in the U.S., suddenly so valuable now that I put the crumbling dried thing away in a Ziplock bag. Just like I saved the few voice messages I had of her soon after her passing, scared that they might disappear somehow after her.
Just days after my return to the U.S. in March 2020, India went into lockdown. Through the next five months Ma’s condition deteriorated as everything unraveled in Kolkata during that first wave of Covid. My college in Manhattan went online and New York City was in a terrible state. There were no international flights all the way to my hometown from Newark until she passed after five nightmarish months. My father, brother, sister-in-law and teenage nephew were with her till the last sharing her pain and the indescribable hardship of caregiving during the first wave of Covid.
But I will never know her pain fully and my family’s hardship because all these 20 years, it was my mother who had kept that world in Kolkata alive for me through the details of her stories over the phone. Home was a real place because of my mother’s narration of it. Although one makes a phone call with a purpose, the unnecessary digressions of my mother’s conversations or thoughts she had saved up through the day or week to tell me were the real details that created the world of my home country for me.
But as her condition deteriorated, she lost the one thing the phone needs as a medium to communicate. She lost speech. My father’s functional exchanges of information that are phone conversations could not create those stories anymore. In those last months, my teenage nephew ran to Ma to show me her through video calls. Sometimes I thought there was a glint of recognition in Ma’s eyes. Sometimes, I thought she only saw the phone.
There is no way my pain during these months of her sickness and since her passing can be compared to the pain of my family members who were there, watching her, lifting her, taking on the dangers of covid by interacting with doctors and nurses at home or waking up nights to tend to her. They did what family should do, hold, touch, tend, care while I only waited by the phone.
All I did was keep the phone so close to my cheek even as I slept at night that I would know even if it rang on vibrating mode. When I woke up, it was often warm.
My decontextualized, non-localized, episodic advice through my mother’s illness to my family was mostly useless as was my international credit card for most local, online transactions for everyday things like groceries during the days of Covid. My father needed someone to stand in line at the bank to be safe or get medicines from the local store, not someone in another continent who could only call by phone.
Before the pandemic, a lot of people like me who moved around the globe and lived in other countries out of choice and not because they were fleeing wars or persecution or acute hunger or human rights violations in their home countries thought the world was shrinking. Cities were coming closer together if you could just live in places that had direct flights. If you could just fix some visa issues that ties up Indians in knots and had the money for frequent trips, you could always live in two hemispheres separated from your loved ones as if you were neighbors. It was just a matter of having access to the right medical and home care for people that you loved at the other end of the world because the world had become smaller. Social media and video calls would make the experience of everyday closeness complete.
What many people had overlooked in this seemingly self consistent logical hubris was the idea of human touch. To hold someone’s hand both in sickness and in health and be a part of their everyday lives is local, not global.
Twenty one years ago, when I had received that letter of acceptance from graduate school in the U.S., a friend from my university cohort in Calcutta (not Kolkata then) had definitively shaken her head and said she wouldn’t apply to schools abroad at all for higher studies because she could never bear the thought of being that far away from her mother.
That friend still lives in Kolkata now. We have been in touch off and on through the years. I messaged her last week to find out how she is doing through the deadly second wave of Covid. She says she hasn’t yet been able to find vaccines for herself and doesn’t know if or when she will get one but she did accompany her mother to the doctor’s when her mother had slight complications after her first vaccine shot.
Most of my school friends on our WhatsApp group in India, which was an all girls school, are mothers now. Many in Kolkata, Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore are at their wit’s ends with lives disrupted by the second wave of Covid, taking care of elderly family members, fearful for their children, desperate for vaccines but not finding any or fearful of standing in lines for hours, in crisis mode all the time not knowing when someone they know might need a hospital bed or oxygen. Several mothers broke down last week on a group chat and burst out saying that they would never want their kids to live in India in the future. They would want their sons and daughters to settle abroad.
Settle, a word we Indians love.
I am still waiting to travel to India to see my father safely since my mother left this world nine months ago. Although I am not religious or ritualistic at all, my husband gave me a ride to a temple in New Jersey on the fourth day after she passed. The temple was completely closed due to Covid and I was grateful for the complete lack of human presence that day. In the absence of anything real or concrete that I could do or touch or see to signify that Ma has indeed passed away and will not call me anymore, I have created my own, personal ritual.
There is a tree that stands next to my window where I have been sitting, socially distancing and teaching online through the pandemic. I take one picture of that tree every month on the exact date she passed and post it on my timeline on Facebook. The tree was lush green in summer when she was most sick. It went through the colors of fall, was completely bare in winter, was covered in light green tiny new leaves in spring and is dark green now again this summer.
I hope to create a time-lapse video of this tree someday until I can visit Kolkata and see her room again.
Madhura Bandyopadhyay is a Doctoral Lecturer in the English Department at John Jay College, City University of New York (CUNY) in Manhattan, New York. She grew up in Kolkata, India and has lived in Florida, California and Singapore. She lives in New Jersey now. Apart from being a teacher and scholar of writing, she blogs in her spare time just for fun on her blog at bottledworder.com