Here. Now. You go.”
If the priest didn’t mumble these exact words, then his gesture told me to take hold of the stick in his hand. It was time. I was the oldest son. By rights the oldest son is the one to poke a hole in the father’s skull, releasing his soul from this life to the
Only vaguely did I know about this ancient ritual. I’d never seen it. Hesitating, I glanced over at my brother, Sanjiv. Being the younger son, he would go next.
This is totally bizarre.
My thought stayed with me. The priest was running everything. Sanjiv and I were almost irrelevant: two modern bystanders caught up in ancestral ways. We had flown back to New Delhi the moment we received news of our father’s sudden death.
The smoke from burning bodies raised an indescribable smell around us and dirtied the sky. It must have been a strong stench, but at that moment I was immune to it. Each pyre occupied its own small plot in the burning ghat, or cremation ground. Women were keening. The logs for cremation formed a social order — cheap wood for the poor; expensive, fragrant sandalwood for those who could afford it. Orange marigolds were also scattered over the bodies of the well to do before the fire was lit.
The priest was eyeing me, wanting to move on; this was his daily business. Meanwhile I felt a strange detachment. Centuries of tradition said, “You must not forget us,” and I obeyed, taking the stick from the priest’s hand.
In the flames, which were transparent in the noonday sun, I could glimpse the shape of my father’s body. The shroud had burned away, and the remains were more skeleton than corpse. No horror overcame me. A part of my mind stood apart, admiring the efficiency of the ghat. The fires burned very hot and finished their work with dispatch.
Daddy had been alive thirty-six hours ago. He had sat up late to watch, with no enthusiasm, George W. Bush take the oath of office. It was 2001, his first inaugural. That morning, he had walked grand rounds at Moolchand Hospital as usual, with a line of young doctors in tow, and had mentioned to my mother as he kissed her good night that he was feeling a bit of discomfort. Better call K. K. in the morning, one of the young doctors who worked with him, just in case. Now there was empty space where once a person had vibrated with life.
How is an adult defined? Someone who knows the value of doing what he doesn’t like to do. So I did it, driving the pointed end of the stick into my father’s skull. I once read a medical memoir by Michael Crichton that began with a shocking sentence: “It is not easy to cut through a human head with a hacksaw.” Poking a hole in one is easy, though, if it has crumbled nearly to ashes.
How long would I remain this detached?
I passed the stick to Sanjiv and managed to keep my eyes on him without flinching after what I had done. When we’re together, I’m the quiet one. But we both occupied a somber silence at that moment, and a shared bewilderment.
Death is bewildering. The survivors confront something worse than deep sadness — sheer emptiness. A void in the vicinity of the heart holding a place for pain to fill in later. In Buddhism it is said that there is no alternative to emptiness; it only matters how you face it. Unknown to me, I would face it very differently than I imagined.
The priest nodded matter-of-factly when the two brothers had done their sacred duty. The chanting continued for hours. Our legs grew rubbery; we were exhausted and bleary with jet lag.
There is a native people in the desert mountains of western Mexico, the Huichol, who take peyote every day, starting when, as babies, they drink it in their mothers’ milk. Are they in a walking hallucination that feels normal to them? At that moment, Sanjiv and I were two Huichols.
For a long time I didn’t know when I was actually born. Looking back, it might not have mattered. None of us is truly present at our own birth. We are barely prepared to arrive. A newborn’s brain is still manufacturing new neural connections at the rate of one million per minute. It has a few primal reflexes, like grasping with the fists, obeying life’s command of “Hold on tight.” On the African plain a wildebeest or giraffe must know how to walk the instant it drops from the womb to the welcoming, dangerous earth. Survival is at stake. The mother gives a few licks to encourage her calf to stand up, and then the parade of life proceeds on its way, with a wobbly infant bringing up the rear. A human baby isn’t like that. It is a half-finished product, a sketch waiting to be filled in. To remain alive, a baby needs all the care it can get.
Indian families have gotten the message with a vengeance. I opened my eyes that day — in April? October? — to see half a dozen female members of my family, and that group of anxious, beaming aunts, cousins, midwife, and mother would be the smallest group I saw in one room for many years. I was the first child of Doctor Krishan Lal and Pushpa Chopra, born at 17 Babar Road in New Delhi. Perhaps because I was born in a crowd I’ve never felt existential loneliness. It was a pleasure to be named Deepak, because hearing my name made people smile. Deepak means light, and I arrived during Diwali, the festival of lights. Firecrackers were going off in the streets, which helped mask the sounds of my grandfather firing off joyous shots from his old army rifle while standing on the roof of his house. The city was sparkling with thousands of oil lamps to celebrate the victory of good over evil. To name a baby Deepak is a cause for smiling.
The only anxiety was that my father wasn’t present. In 1946 the war was still winding down, and he had been on the Burma front, where it was thought he might still be during my birth, although his exact whereabouts were unknown. It would be another twenty days before he set eyes on his newborn son.
But it wasn’t turmoil or anxiety or superstition that made my parents change my actual birthday from October 22 to April 22, only a technicality around when I was allowed to start school. Moving my birth to the spring of 1947 allowed me to attend school when the family moved to a new station. I’m not sure I have the details clear in my mind even now.
It’s inborn for Indians to look on any day as either propitious or ill-favored. Being born on Diwali is auspicious enough to satisfy anyone, but doubly so for a doctor, since the festival celebrates Lakshmi, goddess of prosperity and healing. (The word “goddess” can be misleading. I was brought up to worship God in the singular. All the Hindu gods and goddesses stand for God, without a plural.)
Every morning my mother lit a lamp and recited daily puja, the household religious ritual, Sanjiv and I at her side, our main fascination being our mother’s singing of the prayers, which was lovely.
Our home was full of visitors and patients from every faith, and my mother cared for all of them. My father’s religion was medicine. An army doctor like my father was allowed to maintain a private practice on the weekends. I became aware early on that Daddy was a special kind of physician. Cardiologists rely on readouts from EKGs to tell them what a patient’s heart is doing, but my father gained a reputation for gather...