On the fifth day of this year, I learned that my great-uncle, my Chachaji, passed away at the age of 105 in New Delhi. Since learning the news, I haven’t written a word or felt life. For days I just watched mindless endless television. Two days ago, while I was reading chapter 3 of In the Woods, something led me to have a good cry.
I was not close to Chachaji. But he was the only person in my extended family who tried to help me. I equate the number of people in my extended family to the people in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding. With the exception that most of my family are assholes. You see, my paternal grandfather were three brothers. All of them have at least six children each. All of these children are married with two children. This entire bunch lives in adjacent row houses in New Delhi.
When my father used to belt me and kick me in my stomach, when my mother used to scratch my face and neck with her long fingernails, all these—my uncles and aunts and grandparents and great-uncles and great-aunts and cousins and neighbors—used to stand and watch. No one ever stopped my parents, or tried to protect me, or offer any kind words to me. In fact, my cousins and aunts would make fun of me.
Growing up, I had very little interactions with Chachaji. I used to know him as the great-uncle who visited my parents’ home once a year to distribute prasad. Once in a while, when I crossed paths with him, he would usually ask about my school and would tell me to be brave. I had my first conversation with Chachaji few months before the fiasco of my twenty-sixth birthday.
Before I turned twenty-six, all my grand-parents and –uncles and –aunts, but Chachaji and his wife have passed away. That year, on my father’s insistence, I lived with my parents for months. During those months, my mother did her best to malign my name. She would tear and break everything I owned. Once she tried to get me arrested in the middle of the night. My younger sister and father would cheer on the sidelines when my mother would hit me. When I used to knock at my relatives’ doors for help, nobody used to open their doors. Only the old Chachaji would try to help. He would try to admonish my parents. He used to tell me that he is helpless, as my father was not his child. I often wanted to ask him, why didn’t he intervene in the earlier days. But then, I didn’t want to lose his support.
In spite of all the discussions with Chachaji, on my twenty-sixth birthday, my mother beat me to death and threw out of their home. As I started to re-build my life, I met Chachaji. He insisted that I demand from my parents, my rightful share in my grandfather’s inheritance. At that stage, I needed the money, but my urge to escape was stronger.
I didn’t meet Chachaji again. Once we were in the same wedding, but before I could approach him, my mother threw a tantrum and had me thrown out of the wedding. Over the years I concentrated in rebuilding my emotional health and my life. I saw pictures of Chachaji’s one hundredth birthday celebration on Facebook. I contemplated calling him. But I didn’t. I didn’t want to do anything with my family. Finally, I felt healed and safe and secured. Three years ago, I spoke to Chachaji on the telephone. He wanted to know about my life, about my husband, and when would I visit India.
Since that day, I kept on wishing that Chachaji doesn’t die by the time I decide to visit India. Every time my husband visits India, I start making my plans to visit New Delhi. I think about the gift I would take for Chachaji. He didn’t wear western clothes; he wore only plain white cotton dhoti kurta. So, I would spend hours online, searching for a white wool shawl that I can get shipped to California. Even though all my extended family still lives in the same neighborhood, Chachaji was the only reason I would have visited my old neighborhood.
I didn’t have an emotional relationship with Chachaji. In my head I see my extended family gathering to fulfill Chachaji’s last rites. I visualize everyone in the Hindu temple, singing praises of Chachaji and catching up on the latest goings in each other’s life. Even though Chachaji didn’t intervene when the first time my parents beat me, weirdly I don’t hold a grudge against him. I am thankful to Chachaji for at least making an effort. Since learning about Chachaji death, for days I have been trying to name my feelings. I am not sad. I am not unhappy. I think, I am numb. I realize is that with the death of Chachaji, my last emotional connection to India is gone. That now I am utterly thoroughly rootless.