Death and the diaspora

Amitha Kalaichandran
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada (Fall 2017)

 

Even though my grandfather, or “Tata” in Tamil, became deaf five years ago, I still felt he could hear me.

I believed that the oceans that stood between our homes – mine in Toronto, Canada, and his in Colombo, Sri Lanka – could carry a symphony of both concerns and excitement, ingredients that would make their way into my nightly prayers.

There is something strange about being part of a diaspora when a core family member lives continents away. It is almost as though they serve as a thin lifeline into a past history and culture, a peephole into a world left behind. Diaspora itself is an odd concept – the result of straddling two distinct cultures, only completely whole when these are balanced (which they rarely are).

I did not grow up with Tata around, as he chose to stay in Ceylon (his preferred name for Sri Lanka). Despite coaxing from my mother, he stubbornly refused to move. On his rare visits he would grimace disapprovingly at the cooler climate and equally colder culture compared to home. The tea was much better back there, he would say, so was the weather and the fruit.

Tata was certain in that regard, armed with a scholarly mind sharpened and a heart hardened since losing both parents when he was four. Taken in by a young couple while living in the small Dutch island colony of Delft, he excelled in Sanskrit and English. He later became a principal of a local high school, where his wife, my grandmother, was a teacher.

Perhaps as a way to pay forward the kindness offered to him as a young boy, my mother would recount how he would donate a portion of his monthly salary to the less fortunate – usually hospitals or towards uniforms for young schoolchildren.

My mother and aunt would describe how Tata’s strict demeanor was atypical in their neighborhood. He would dictate which books to read (and had a predilection for English classics) and watch obsessively over their mathematics homework.  He would also spend time mentoring local wayward children – encouraging them to dream and pursue professions such as engineering, medicine, and law.

It was never easy for Tata to talk to his grandchildren about the war, the one which had ripped Sri Lanka in half for over twenty-five years and caused him to move from unstable Jaffna in the North to relatively calmer Colombo. When my grandmother passed away before I was born, Tata became more focused on his children – those who had stayed in Sri Lanka like my uncle, and those like my mother and aunt who had moved to Canada.

While we would occasionally speak on the phone – typically on major Hindu holidays or birthdays – this became more difficult when Tata lost his hearing.  The relationship we had with him as his grandchildren was different from that we had with our relatives who lived nearby. Perhaps the distance, combined with his age, provided a certain ephemerality.

When Tata became sick in 2015 at the age of ninety-two, he was no longer able to take walks to the market or cook for himself.  I decided I needed to visit him. This felt more urgent after he told my mother that he was not going to live to see ninety-four .

My nineteen-hour flight was stuffy and crowded – many seemed to be connecting through Dubai to visit relatives in the Indian subcontinent. Perhaps some were returning home after a visit to Canada.

The landing was smooth and I was greeted by warm air that blanketed my face like a lover’s sleeping breath. The sounds of honking cars could be heard in the distance as the bustling baggage handlers moved bag after bag onto an open air carousal, soon to be separated across the island.

I was greeted by my uncle – my mother’s younger brother who also lives in Sri Lanka. Like Tata, he had refused to leave the home country he knew and loved deeply. I had last seen him when I was six, just before a landmine set by the Sri Lankan army stole his left foot.  My mother’s face, which sobbed against a curtain when she got the call, has been carved into my memory. Despite this injustice, my uncle never seemed to falter from his upbeat demeanor – with a bright smile and kind eyes he told me Tata had been eager to see me.

During my visit to Colombo, Tata displayed few emotions, though he wore thick-rimmed red spectacles better than any hipster I know. His iridescent white hair was short but still full. His caramel skin hung over his thin body like wrinkled satin. Tata showed no interest in my smartphone, instead preferring to read the newspaper and instruct me on the art of making the perfect cup of chai. If it was not sweet enough, or had gotten too cold, he would shoo it away. A bit like a Goldilocks tale lost in translation.

He did enjoy my cooking, and my attempts to make dishes he might like – spicy chickpeas and tomatoes, okra and turmeric – seemed successful. Praise he was not good at. A subtle nod after the meal and a cleared plated was approval enough.

Tata was not able to join us as we visited the elephant sanctuary in Pinnawala or at the famous Hindu stone temple in in the center of Colombo. Nor could he join us on walks along the long stretch of Galle Beach, where the tide would roll in over the tamarind brown ankles of young Sinhalese and Tamil children.

When the time came to visit the local market to pick up fresh mangoes, pineapples, and okra, something he was once comfortable doing by himself, he stayed behind to rest.

As Tata had lost his hearing, we communicated largely through gestures and written words.  I began to realize how little I actually knew about him. And how many questions I had that would probably never be answered.

These are the questions so many grandchildren have, when their grandparents live many miles away, in cultures that barely resemble their own. They yield treasures disguised as stories, often locked away in layers of linguistic and geographic barriers; and they become harder to tap into with the passage of time.

So when Tata passed away on October 19 2016, at the age he predicted (ninety-three), there were many questions I knew I had to release. Perhaps, like some of my friends who are part of their own diasporas, with grandparents in China, Italy, Guyana, India, East Africa, Iran, Germany, Scotland, or Mexico, I too needed to accept that not all answers are given in this lifetime.

There was no funeral for Tata in Toronto, no reciting of scriptures, nor recounting of memories in a public celebration. Instead, my mother and father booked the next flight to Sri Lanka to organize processions there, with relatives and friends who had known Tata for decades.

As I grieve, I wonder if Tata can hear me more clearly now, and if his spirit is close-by.

Perhaps death is a little like leaving one room and walking into another – maybe while leaving an overcoat behind. Except the next room is heaven or another lifetime, and the overcoat is just the body that houses us on this earth.

Or perhaps if Tata could hear me, and if I could hear him, he would tell me that death and diaspora really go hand-in-hand.

After all, both simply mean leaving one’s original homeland for another.

 


 

AMITHA KALAICHANDRAN, MD, MHS, is a pediatrics resident doctor and medical/health journalist based in Canada. She is a regular contributor to The New York Times, The Walrus, and Canadian Press, with additional bylines in the Toronto Star, NYMag, National Post, Boston Globe, Quartz, New Scientist, CBC, and Maclean’s. Her research has been featured in the Journal of World Health and Population and Pediatrics and Child Health, and Pediatric Emergency Care. Dr. Amitha has also published a children’s book with illustrator Farida Zaman, called “What’s Wrong With Sunny.” When she is not enjoying her time as a pediatrics resident doctor, Dr. Amitha enjoys practicing and teaching yoga, cooking, running, travelling, and spending lots of time with her family in Toronto.

 

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