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.
This Post Has 38 Comments
Wow, that was quite a post reliving what probably remains one of the most poignant memories of your life. Am sure your brother was smiling down upon you as you penned this.
The memories don’t fade, you just interpret the reality differently after 19 years.
This is a sad but beautiful post. I shivered to think that if no one had intervened, thanks to the clods at the US Embassy, you would not have been able to say goodbye to your brother and be with your family during that difficult time. I’m glad you have your fond memories of your brother.
Yes, she was quite out of line with her comments and her lack of understanding. I mean her sole purpose was to differentiate between the visa applicants and she was clearly horrible at it. As a human being too, I’d hate to run into her again.
Of course, 19 years have gone by and you see old things with new eyes.
So sorry for your loss, and for the trouble you dealt with to attend the funeral. It sounds like you made an important emotional breakthrough at the end, though, appreciating, what your relationship was, instead of what it was not.
It was a very hectic time and being thrown out of the Embassy was an experience. I think he was starting to get things for himself, do some of his own thinking.
Well written … you had quite an experience. My brother is in a nursing home. He barely makes any sense when you talk to him. He had a series of small strokes that took away a fairly talented mind that was wasted with years of meth use. My sister disappeared in 1998 and I have not heard of her since. Both the parents are dead. I have been without blood family for years. It is a sad affair as well. I used to play music and write with my brother. Better, I think, to lose a loved one quickly than dry up all the feelings in the incommunicative sands if time.
Oh Ken, it must be hard to see him like that and to have no clue where your sister is..
That is really very sad, indeed…
very touchy. The pangs of life are really very hard to bear and full of obstacles. The way of write up is just superb. I remember my trip by train to Grand canyon with my son last year. I met a man who was detached and alone in mid 40’s travelling to Los Angeles to try some luck in direction. He got somehow to talking with me and stated his woes. I saw him to be a great artist and was duped by his brother. His father was dead and he had left everything and was on a new life search, all alone in wilderness. I too am a wodehouse fan by chance.
It’s sad, isn’t it, how families are? Thanks for reading and your input.
The best thing I have read today
Thank you, NSV, for your praise. I was just writing down what happened.
Your comment is ringing in my ears. The memories don’t fade, it’s the way we interpret them. Reliving the entire sequence and penning it down must have made you feel lighter. I don’t know how but in many ways. It does for me.
It does help, in that as you write it, some of the true feelings do come out. You question yourself, your reactions and attitudes and sometimes it surprises you.
Does it make it lighter? I don’t know, for I seem to be able to detach myself fairly easily.
Thanks for the coming over to read and to chat.
Wow! After I finished reading this post, I took a moment to let it all sink in. A very beautiful, poignant, and lucid piece of writing.
Thank you Akshay. I’m glad to have your appreciation. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.
Touched by your beautiful memoir. As to the US consular services, their border services at the Canada-US border are no better. A friend was once traveling to Burlington from Montreal. The man at the border asked, on hearing he was from Pakistan, how far Afghanistan was from his home, if he had ever been there and how come he didn’t have a turban on, with a cruel smirk on his face.
I plan a complete post about those little tyrants at the border. Racist, small minded pigs most of them.
Really sorry for your loss, it’s times like these when you look back and reminisce your times spent together and suddenly you start feeling a certain void. Memories come flooding back, of every small and big moment spent together. I have been through similar losses. I have always been so stupid with people in my lives that I probably never realised their importance in my life when they were there with me. Why is it with some of us that when people are alive, we tend to take them for granted or keep delaying any plans of meeting them or getting together and suddenly one day we get to know that they are gone, forever and we won’t be seeing them ever again! I still miss my maternal grandpa and a cousin of mine whom I was very close to.
These are never easy to deal with.
The loss of a beloved one is hard, and made harder when you wonder about al the could have beens and what ifs. I’m glad you connected with each other as a result of the last visit and letter.
And I can’t even begin to imagine what you went through at the embassy.
Thank you. It was a very stressful experience.
A very touching portrayal of events really close to your heart.
Thank you, Naveen, for stopping by and taking the time to read and comment.
That was an amazing post. I read it when it was published and I am awaiting the next post!
JK, Thank you for taking the time to read, comment and for your positive feedback.
Wow. I came looking for the writing about your father that you spoke of and happened on this one instead. You write so powerfully. It was almost as if I was there beside you and could feel all the emotions running through your mind. Amazing writing…I think you have learned how to write rightly!
heh! Thanks so much. It means a lot to get such good, positive feedback. If you want to read the post about my dad you will find it here : http://www.sloword.com/10-10-1985/
Thanks, on my way now!
A very powerful and touching story … it’s like the universe was conspiring to prevent you from getting to the US. When you got to the flat tire, I was starting to think you weren’t going to make it after all.
I felt that way too, at that point. The expressway there used to be quite deserted and it was a major coincidence ( quite a major one ) to find a taxi.
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(Hadn’t seen this.) Miss him. Wish I had been capable of thanking him.
Yeah, I know. I wonder sometimes, too…
I think I know who you are, Anonymous, and I would not beat myself up over the past.
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