this is adapted from a chapter from a novella I wrote a long time ago called “The Temple”
I had caught a connecting flight from Heathrow to New Delhi. The hardly audible voice over the telephone had given me the one piece of news that could possibly get me on a plane, or even think of going to India.
My father was dead. I was flying to perform his last rites.
I was never much of the jet-setting traveler type. I get airsick a lot. I can’t sleep on the planes and get twinges of claustrophobia encased in these steel sarcophagi. Air travel for me is hours of sitting in cramped coach seats, trying to wriggle my toes and fidgeting in the seat to pass the time.
This time it was different. I know not why but I managed to fall asleep. Maybe it was the fact that it was all finally sinking in, the fact that both my parents were now dead. I guess it was kind of a defense mechanism that brought on the soothing anesthetic blanket of sleep over my troubled mind.
I had the usual air travel woes when my journey began from Boston Logan. We faced some turbulence over the Atlantic. The plane was buffeting violently and I could see the wingtips dip and pitch from my seat near the window.
Sudden realization dawned on me as to how short life could be. What if I were to die right here right now? What if the plane crashed into the icy waters of the ocean below me?
At least it would be quick and painless for me, but what about those that I leave behind?
I thought of my wife and daughter. Had I been a good father to my daughter? What about Maya, my wife? The last memory she will have of us is the pointless quarrel we had the night before.
If I died right now, I would not even have said a proper goodbye to them both. Would they remember me after I am gone?
What would be the sum total of my life, my legacy or the fact that I have none? I have lived a normal uneventful life, a face in the crowd, nothing out of the ordinary. I own a beige sedan and a 1600 sq ft. Colonial in a distant suburb of Boston. Maybe that is worth something in the long run, the fact that I did not screw up royally?
But should not one aspire for more from life? What it is that lives on forever, long after one is gone from the face of the earth?
The turbulence outside had ceased, but I seemed not to notice. The storm still raged in my mind. It raced with questions I had not even given the slightest pause for ponder in a very long time.
Maybe it was mental fatigue, but I had not noticed when I had fallen asleep.
I dreamt of my mother. I had not thought of her for so many years now. She was the bridge between us, as my father and I drifted apart. She remained the common link between us, a surrogate for the bond that should have been in place between father and son.
What a strain it must have been for her, playing the silent peacemaker as the two men in her life bickered and fought at every available opportunity.
I would have liked her to have met Aikya. She had never met Maya. I met Maya after I’d moved to the United States. God! How nice it would have been if my mother could have seen what I made of my life!
Would she have approved?
In my dreams she seemed to, just as she had always done when she was alive.
She had been my anchor as an adolescent as I drifted hither and thither, trying to do one thing after the other, while my father disapproved. She stood by me silently. The best thing she always did was to do nothing.
She let me be, but my father was a different story.
He seemed to have charted the course of my life, ever since I had been born. I resented that. As soon as I was able, I rebelled against his every whim. When he wanted me to study liberal arts, I studied science. Just because he wanted me to focus on a career as an academic, a tenured professor Maybe, I chose to be a programmer.
When we quarreled, his precepts and quotes would be grounded in history and philosophy, while I waxed eloquent over parallels drawn from mathematics and quantum physics.
It was almost as if we preferred not even to speak the same language.
It must have troubled my mother a lot, but she did not say a word. I guess what I mistook for cowardice back then was in fact a quiet strength and wisdom that I completely engrossed in my rebellious teenaged self could not even begin to fathom. She did not take sides because she could not.
I think it was the strain that finally took her. I felt guilt rushing in swamping my thoughts like a cold inky black flood. I was as guilty as my father.
We both had killed her.
I knew it in that moment and I guess my father had known it then, on that fateful night, the night of her funeral. I think it was subconscious knowledge of this guilt that drove us both to the last altercation we ever had.
Even from beyond the grave, she had offered us a chance to reconcile that night and we in our raging macho posturing had blown it away.
My grief and sorrow were fresh again. I believe they had never left. I had just hid them somewhere deep inside me.
I woke up and found that I had been weeping.
I brushed my tears away. Perhaps fate had given me another chance. Maybe by honoring my father’s last wish would be my way of apologizing to both of them. I needed it. He needed it.
Maybe the scattering of his ashes would not erase fully all the painful memories of our relationship; but who knows?
Death is a great leveler, all bets are off.
I put my head back and pressed it hard against the headrest of my seat.
I looked out of the window. The turbulence was over. All I could see was the blue waters of the ocean and an even bluer sky.
The captain announced that we had caught a tailwind and would arrive half an hour earlier than our scheduled arrival at Heathrow. I am not a superstitious man, but in that moment I almost believed that it was an omen.
The storm had passed. I was going home.