The phone rang in the very early morning hours of Dec 17th, a Sunday. In the USA it was still Saturday, Dec 16th.
I rose from the warm bed and padded out into the cold hall to the phone. I heard the pips that foretold a transatlantic call, waited for my oldest brother’s voice telling me he was coming for a visit, but there was no voice, just a silence, a silence that seemed too long, before he came on.
“Oh, you’re there? Wait a minute”, he said.
A strange vibration went through me. Why would he call and say “wait a minute”?. There was another brief silence before my sister in law came on.
“You there? Wait. Talk to your brother”, she said.
My brain spun wildly through a list of unimaginable possibilities. Then he came on again.
“You there? Yes, I have some bad news. We just got a very confusing call from Lisa. Apparently, they were camping in Virginia and she says she had to take him to the hospital. They said his lungs had collapsed and they could not revive him.”
“What?! Are you telling me he’s dead?” My wife came rushing out of the bedroom to stare at me. Details were sketchy, they were still piecing together details out there. He rang off saying he’d call when he had more details.
My wife and I just sat there, trying to make sense of it all. I spent the rest of the day wondering what I should do. Of the four sons of the family, I was the only one still living in India. The other 3 lived within 30 minutes of each other in Connecticut. Ten years ago, I’d been refused a visa by the US Embassy, told to go away and build a life of some substance before applying again. I’d never been to the Embassy again and had steadfastly refused to consider travel to the US.
My passport was, as is usual in dire emergencies like this, with the authorities for renewal. All Sunday I worried about what I should do, what I could do. Subsequent conversations with the people in the US convinced me they needed help to cope. However, with my previous brush with the Embassy, the lack of a passport and with time running out, it took me all day to convince myself that I should get to Connecticut. The coroner in Virginia had signed the papers to bring him home to Connecticut for the funeral on Friday. I had to leave no later than Wednesday.
Monday morning I was at the Passport Office before it opened. After the usual form filling, I was told that my passport, with surprising and unwelcome efficiency, had been mailed. My wife and I rushed to the GPO, a vast monolithic building in the centre of Calcutta, where we were laughed at by the postal officer. “Good luck, finding your package. You’ll just have to wait.”
Tired and despondent, we returned home at 3pm in the afternoon for a late lunch. I was reconciling myself to the fact that my attempt to launch myself over 2 continents and 1 ocean was a non-starter. Moodily, we ate our lunch in silence. As I finished, the door bell rang and I went to open the door.
“Sahib, bakshish!”, said the postman.
“Kis baat ka bakshish?”, I was ready to snap his head off. <Why do I need to tip you?>
“Sahib, passport hai”, he pushed the package forward.
I snatched it from him, signed the receipt, thrust a note or two at him and shut the door in his face and just after 4 pm, I was talking to the security kiosk outside the US Embassy about a visa. The officer there was polite.
“Sorry, the visa office is now closed for the day. It will open tomorrow at 8am. Please come tomorrow. I’d advise you to bring a bank draft for Rs 750 with you”.
5 minutes from home was an evening branch of the State Bank of India. We went straight there and purchased the draft. The next morning well before 8 am, I was 6th in line on the sidewalk outside the Embassy with faxed copies of all the details. 8 am came and went, then 8:30 am. Around 9am, a consular staff member came out to address the long line.
“Due to the ongoing spending freeze and deliberations between the Senate and President Clinton, we are not sure if the visa office will open today or not. We are currently trying to talk to Washington to get some direction. Meanwhile, if you have an emergency, please step aside, the Consular officer will meet you”.
I stepped aside, showed him the papers and was the first person to enter the hall, which I remembered so clearly from my fraught visit 10 years ago. When my name was called, I walked up to the bullet proof glass and was faced by a decidedly cold and unsmiling lady. She was brusque.
“Show me your papers.”
I pushed the papers under the glass to her. She scanned them and said “This is insufficient proof of death. I need the coroner’s original death certificate. This happened on Sunday morning. Doesn’t look like an emergency if you waited till Tuesday to show up here”.
She brushed off my attempt to explain the cause of the delay, the passport, the papers, bank draft. She then went on to make disparaging comments about people forging papers to enter the US. I let that go and grasped only that she wanted official copies.
“I’ll have those faxed to me in an hour or so”, I said. “I’ll be back soon with them. Thank you”
I rushed over to my brother-in-law’s office which was close by and called the US. My older brother made some phone calls and the coroner’s assistant drove out in the worst snowstorm in 80 years to type up an official copy and fax it back. By 3pm I was back at the Embassy, but the lady consular officer I had met refused to meet with me. She sent someone out to tell me that. He went on to say “She says you’ll just have to come back the next business day.” This was Tuesday. The visa office was closed every Wednesday. With the funeral for Friday and no flights out on Thursday, it basically meant I could not go. I was incensed at her lack of sensitivity. The disparaging comments she had made earlier and my 10 year resentment with the Embassy came welling up and I launched into an impressive rant. She’d wanted to see proof, official proof. I had that. She’d said she would see me today if I had official proof. I ran a pretty successful business and I wasn’t dying to live in her stupid country. She’d said I was lying, I had proof that I was not. She wanted official papers. I had them. This is clearly a genuine emergency and I need to speak with a real human being with brains not some stupid, insensitive, racist, xenophobic bitch.
The yelling and screaming was cut short by two burly Marines, who came up on either side of me, marched me to the door and threw me out of the Embassy. I went back to my brother-in-laws office and called my older brother. He was apoplectic. He’d just finished booking me on every flight out of Calcutta. He hung up, saying “Let me take care of this.” He called back in the evening to say that important people had been notified and that the Embassy in New Delhi was getting a package. I should head over to the Embassy in Calcutta in the morning. The next morning, Wednesday, I was at the front kiosk at the Embassy again. I was escorted in up to the steps. The gentleman who had yesterday told me that the consular officer was not going to see me was waiting for me. He said “Please give me your passport and wait here. She is giving you a single entry visa valid for one month.”
He was back in 10 minutes and I rushed straight to the British Airways office just a few streets away to confirm my ticket on the flight out at 8:30pm that day from Calcutta to London and then on to JFK. Then I rushed over to Woodlands Nursing Home to see the new baby boy that had been born that day to my sister.
Back at home, I pulled some clothes together and packed. Living in Calcutta all the warm clothes I had were a couple of woolen sweaters. There remained the tricky matter of getting to the airport. With no other drivers except for me and my wife I was not happy about having her drive back close to midnight all by herself. She said her brother would come to the airport as well, so she’d be ok, but the sheer effort and stress of the last 4 days was taking a toll already. So I called a friend who had a chauffeur. Could he send the guy over to do the driving? Sure, he’d be there by 5pm, which was my cutoff to leave the house for the long ride to the airport.
Then another thought struck me. I had no foreign currency, the only bank that could release it was closed already for the day. I called a sailor friend who was paid in US dollars, found him at home and drove over to pick up $500. Then I took a shower and had a meeting with a prospective client who was proposing a project in the Middle East. By 5:30 there was no sign of the driver. Traffic in Calcutta was prone to legendary traffic jams so I loaded my suitcase at the back, my wife in the front seat, my older 8 year old son in the backseat and off we went. On the route we stopped to pick up my brother in law who was waiting for us at the curb near Minto Park.
On the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass, the faster route, but also quite deserted in the darkening gloom, I felt the little van start to feel very weird. I stopped and spotted the punctured left rear tire. Just then an empty taxi drove slowly up. I stopped it, threw my suitcase in, told my brother-in-law to take care of things and left for the airport which was still 20-30 minutes away. I checked my bag in and hung around hoping to hear that my wife and son were ok. Sure enough, they came running up to say my wife had managed to drive the car up to the next crossing and get the tire changed in record time by invoking the distressed Bengali woman clause.
Finally, I headed toward security and spoke to the guy there. I showed him the papers and told him I was carrying US dollars, a fact that should have been stamped officially on my passport but wasn’t, which made my money illegal. He sympathetically nodded me onwards. I climbed up a long set of stairs into the 747 and sank into the seat. I remember the little tub of orange juice BA served to bring me some relief. I plugged in the headphones. The captain came on to tell us how much the plane weighed (35 tons) so I turned to the relax channel, but a low voice told me “I was falling, falling” so I snatched the headphones off and stared into space.
I remember the walk through the aerobridge tunnel at Heathrow, wearing my inadequate sweater, feeling a cold I had never felt before. I cannot recall the flights themselves, except for the approach at JFK that seemed to go on forever between tall buildings just feet over the river. My apprehension at customs and immigration was unfounded because the officer simply stamped a 6 month visa on my passport and handed it back to me. No words were exchanged and he barely glanced at me.
I waited near the sliding doors near the entrance for someone to pick me up, assailed every 20 seconds by a blast of cold air as people walked in and out. Finally, I was in the car headed out to Connecticut. Once at my brother’s house, I had time to down 2 Tylenols, shave and shower before I was back in the car headed to the funeral parlor to see him.
He was lying there looking very quiet and very peaceful.
Opposites was the way I had always seen us. He was fair, I am dark. He was rarely clean shaven, preferring to sport a beard and mustache. I had a mustache briefly and am clean shaven. On the cricket field he turned the ball a long way from left to right. I turned it from right to left. No one expected him to bat. No one expected me to bowl. He was his mother’s favorite. I wasn’t. He’d had custom bowling shoes made for him. I played in whatever sneakers, usually hand me downs, I could find. He was considered outgoing and social. I was quiet and socially inept. He was good at most sports and specialized in cricket and table tennis. He’d been offered jobs while still in high school for his skill on the cricket field. He’d been a state ranking table tennis player. He’d won awards. I’ve never won anything in my life. I’d always seen him as privileged. People did things for him. They never came through for me. He was dependent on others. I lived in my own world, isolated from everyone around me.
Now when I look back I am surprised to realize he was a strong reader who enjoyed Wodehouse, like me. He taught me to drive a car and a motorbike, in the early mornings, with those unforgettable words “watch for those old widows collecting flowers for their morning prayers. They are oblivious to traffic and will walk right into your car”. We played on the same cricket team and he accepted my sometimes role of captain.
He and I had never really got along, but on his last visit to Calcutta he had shown a rare and brief moment of care. He talked about the time when he had, on behalf of my parents, tried to convince me to delay my wedding. That had been the turning point for him, the point when he realized that this 8th child of the family was different. He confided his admiration for my independence and the steel core he said I had. When he went back to the US he wrote me a letter hoping to see us again soon. It was the only letter he had ever written to me. It was strangely out of character for him, the character that I had imagined him to be. That was the last communication I had with him.
On the 16th of December, 1995, our brief flickering moment of sibling affection was extinguished for ever.
The phone rang in the very early morning hours of Dec 17th, a Sunday. In the USA it was still Saturday, Dec 16th.