THE UNMOURNED by Keya Mitra
THE WOMAN COLLAPSED the Sunday after the opening of the Mini Mahal, a space for first and second generation Indian-Americans in Houston to mourn the deaths of their relatives. A more compressed version of the Taj Mahal in Agra, India, the mini-mausoleum consisted of a large dome made out of concrete, surrounded by four columns. It was located across the street from a thinly populated strip mall. The commissioners tried to replicate the marble exterior of the real Taj Mahal, but could only afford cheap, gray concrete to build it. Within days graffiti decorated the building, a substitute for the mosaic of amethyst and turquoise stones adorning the actual Taj Mahal, with phrases like “Mahal can kiss my ass” spray painted on the sides of the building. In place of the Jamuna River reflecting light upon the mausoleum in India, a lawn, sparse and dry in the cool autumn weather, spread beyond the wire fence bordering the building.
For fifteen dollars, any South-Asian immigrant could inscribe the deceased’s name, along with a commemorative note, on a tiny square tile in a section of the Mini Mahal dedicated to remembrance and mourning. Every day, from noon until eight at night, Indian-Americans, along with a few Bangladeshi and Nepalese, trickled into the building with flowers to construct their memorials.
The greeters—lumbering white men forced into undersized turquoise kurtas—distributed clay tiles at the entrance. One of the men bowed, whispering “Namaste” to Deb as she reached for the tile. The other greeter, nearly identical to the first aside from being three inches shorter, bent over to touch the feet of an elderly woman to demonstrate his respect. “Napaste,” he said as he stood upright. She raised an eyebrow.
“It’s okay,” Deb said, squeezing the shamed greeter’s shoulder before stepping inside to inscribe the memorial. “I kinda like Napaste better. I’d like a nap myself right now.”
He brightened for a moment, though he was soon banished by the veteran greeter to a corner of the mini-mausoleum, forced to repeat “Nama. Namaste. Nama” for a good five minutes before being entrusted with a tile again.
After five minutes of carving with an X-Acto knife, Deb set down her tile. Sitting cross-legged and placing her palms on the concrete floor behind her, she released a long sigh. A woman in a cream colored sari two tiles over leaned over her memorial. She had to be less than forty, but patches of white had overtaken her hair. Was it the shock of her loved one’s death? Or perhaps the strain of immigrating to a country she could never call home? It was something of a crapshoot—whether you ended up looking renewed after relocating to the States or beleaguered by a reality you couldn’t bring yourself to accept. She hadn’t realized how much her own parents had aged after leaving India until she found a wedding photo buried deep underneath a pile of bills and documents in her father’s desk. It had been taken a year before they moved to Texas, eighteen months before her birth. Their faces were unlined, fresh, smiling. Her mother told Deb once that when they’d first fallen in love strangers had, on multiple occasions, paid for their dinners in Kolkata restaurants just because they were so struck by the couple’s radiance. Deb laughed at the idea of it then. When she saw the photo she understood.
The woman drove her scalpel into the concrete. Everyone at the mini-mausoleum, Deb realized, was nearly twice her age. They were all clothed in salwars and sarees, while Deb wore a plain white button-down shirt with jeans. The woman spoke softly to the man on her right. Nearly all the mourners, Deb realized, glanced furtively at their neighbors’ tiles.
Deb had resumed carving when the woman collapsed. The man seated next to the woman leaned over her, pressing her chest. Bones crackled, and Deb grimaced. After a few minutes, he stopped. Motion ceased. Tiles in hand, the mourners stared mutely at the body as the man dialed 911.
With brute, shrill cries, the ambulance announced its arrival. Two men strode in. One knelt over the body, briskly taking out an IV, tubes, plastic bags of medicine, and a defibrillator from a bag. Deb could identify the defibrillator because she’d bought one in case her father suffered a heart attack in front of her. Of course, defibrillators were only useful if you were around when the person collapsed. She’d somehow assumed that if her father suffered from cardiac arrest it would only happen during the two hours she spent with him on the last Sunday of every month.
The woman’s body was unyielding despite compressions and shocks. Medication dripped from the IV bag at a glacial pace. Her spirit is gone, Deb wanted to say. Can’t you see? Nothing is left anymore. But the ritual had to continue, she knew, to appease that nagging question: Could something have been done? The other medic approached the tall man who’d attempted to revive the woman.
“How long has she been down?”
After what seemed like an eternity, the other medic rose, wearily, placed a sheet over the body, and joined the two men. Almost in unison, the mourners placed their hands over their mouths.
She could decipher some of the medics’ murmurs to the tall man. No change in the electrical function of the heart. High body temperature. Probable myocardial infarction.
The high body temperature indicated that she was only recently deceased. Her father’s body temperature had been disconcertingly low; she’d found him three days after his heart attack on his bedroom carpet, perhaps four feet away from that ineffectual defibrillator she’d tucked in the corner by his nightstand. But apparently her father had been preparing for his death for months. His clothes were packed away in old suitcases, his cherished books boxed up and stacked against the white wall in the den. The kitchen counters had been scrubbed, and all that was left in the bathroom was a toothbrush, shampoo, and his shaving gel. In his spare time, he’d been packing away his life. Deb hadn’t noticed. She was barely ever there.
The men expertly loaded the body onto a stretcher. They appeared to exert little effort in picking up the stretcher, as though it weighed next to nothing. The mourners followed them outside, wrapping their fingers around the mesh fence like captive apes mourning the death of their own. Namaste and Napaste followed the medics mutely to the ambulance. Napaste, still carrying a stack of clay tiles, set them down in the grass just beyond the mesh fence. Namaste spoke with the medics, then rushed over to a BMW parked just behind the ambulance, clicking his car’s remote. With a curt wave of the hand, Napaste was dismissed, and he slogged back to the mausoleum, pausing for a moment to stoop down and pick up the tiles he’d left by the fence.
“You’re not going with them?” Deb asked the man who had tried to save the woman. She leaned against the wire fence.
“God. Maybe I should have,” he said. “I didn’t know her, you see. She was just working next to me.” The man gazed at the thinly populated street just beyond the Mini Mahal. His nails were thick and white. Only the wrinkles creasing each finger and the flimsiness of his skin, peppered with liver spots, revealed his age. Impeccably dressed in a black suit and tie, the man had the solid build and dignified carriage of a diplomat Beside him, Deb felt small.
“Who do you think the tile was for? Her husband?”
He shrugged. “Maybe. Who can know? Some come in here to memorialize their living relatives in India. See that women?” He tilted his head towards a woman hunched over a bench, clothed in a bright red sari that seemed too bright a color in this setting. “She has carved a tile for every member of her family in Kolkata. They’re not dead. She just knows she will never have the money or opportunity to visit them again.” He paused. “That said, the woman who collapsed had a kind of deliberate neglect to her that made me certain she was alone.”
The ambulance sped away, and they stared at the vacant space it had inhabited. The indentation in the grass where Napaste had set down his tiles had destroyed the posture of the blades. Deb wondered if the rectangle of mashed grass would cease growing altogether while the weeds alongside of it continued to sprout, if it would remain a bald spot in the landscape. The man turned to her, as though newly aware of her presence. “I didn’t catch your name.”
“Just Deb.” She’d changed her name when she turned eighteen, sick of the mispronunciations. Her father hadn’t spoken to her for days after she’d completed the paperwork.
The mourners remained outside, some still clinging to the mesh fence, others perched on the edges of benches. An older couple paced around the building. None were ready to leave.
“Deb,” the man repeated. She stiffened. My parents were born in India, she wanted to say. I have every right to be here, even if I did shorten my name. She began to speak, then caught a glimpse of his eyes. Thin red lines threaded through the white around his pupils.
“I should have gone,” the man murmured to himself. He turned to Deb once again. “My wife’s name was Deepa. She went by Deep, sometimes. It made me laugh. My daughter, when she became older, called her ‘Beep.’” He smiled. His eyes crinkled. “She’s a character, my daughter. When my father first visited us from Kolkata, she flounced in after school wearing the tightest jeans you could imagine. My father nearly had a ‘myocardial infarction’ of his own.”
Deb glanced down at her own jeans. Would his father consider hers too tight? “I hope that woman has a funeral,” she said.
He kneaded the bottom of the mesh fence with the toe of his boot. “Funerals are mixed bags. They’re beautiful if you can attract a crowd. They’re unbelievably sad if you can’t. My wife was jealous of funerals.” They had attended many over the years, and she was critical of the ceremonies, pointing to how unseemly it was to conduct a funeral like it was a party. But in actuality she envied the way a body could still inhabit space after its demise.
Just a month before she died, they’d gone to their next-door neighbor’s funeral. At the ceremony, Deepa began crying. The neighbor’s daughter came up afterwards; she’d been so grateful for Deepa’s tears. But if only she knew that Deepa, remembering the crowd at her own wedding in Kolkata, was wondering how many she could collect for her funeral here, in America. They simply hadn’t accrued enough friends to draw in a crowd. If she did have a funeral, she knew, it would be something of an embarrassment, sparsely attended by guests whose recollections of her would be superficial, meaningless. Those who knew them—truly knew them—lived across an ocean. “At least you’re a professor,” she’d wept to him once. “Your students will mourn your absence.”
“I know that funerals can be lonely too,” Deb said. “But people need memorials. They crave them.”
“Sure. Why do you think Shah Jehan’s wife wanted him to build the Taj Mahal for her in the first place? She wanted to enlarge her presence into a palace where she’d surround him. A deceptively beautiful prison. Just a few summers ago they discovered that seven hundred of the craftsmen who helped build the Taj Mahal engraved their names on the bricks of the mausoleum,” the man said. “Many of them were laborers who never received any credit for their work. And so they created their own tiny memorial. Shah Jehan’s wife unknowingly had to share her memorial with hundreds of others.”
People scattered, walking across the street to the decrepit buildings lining the strip mall. The sunlight faded, and late afternoon gave way to evening. Deb thought of the way that the river reflected light onto the marble of the Taj Mahal, and the exterior transitioned from pure white to orange or a shy pink within a few hours. Here, there were no rivers nearby, and the Mini Mahal faded with the day, its gray exterior blending into the sullen sky.
“I cremated my wife,” the man said after a while. “Deepa died in a hot air balloon accident. I nearly laughed when I found out, before it hit me. Her body was badly burned. I went to the crematorium alone. Even though our children are grown, they still can’t bear to look at her ashes. And her mother and father hadn’t seen her for years before she died. I had to go back to India and hand them their daughter’s ashes.”
He sat on a bench by the fence. Deb remained standing. Napaste trudged across the street to the strip mall. They were among the last to stay.
She moved away from the railing and sat down on the bench next to him. She had cremated the remains of her own father. His colleagues and friends and a handful of former patients paid their respects, along with her husband and children. But they attended the memorial service she held for him in her home out of obligation, rather than a need for closure.
Her mother and father had lived on the other side of the city. After her mother passed away, Deb considered asking her father to move in—after all, in India, it was expected that a daughter would take in her parents. He had some money; he’d specialized in cardiology and had always been frugal, but he would never hire a live-in nurse. He would have considered it an unnecessary luxury. Her father would only have accepted a relative’s care.
But her father spoke little English, and she’d lost her grasp of the language when she was a teenager. Her husband Brian and her children were uneasy in her father’s presence, trying to compensate for the absence of shared language by speaking loudly, smiling falsely. So Deb never offered to share her home with her father, and he never raised the issue. Deb brought the defibrillator instead. Surely he would understand, she told herself, that such a purchase showed that she cared.
When Deb’s mother was alive her children, Lalita and Chris, could cope with the language barrier by losing themselves in their grandmother’s embrace, the comfort of the warm meals she fed them—saag paneer, dhal, biryani. But her father did not emanate that same warmth. Five months after her mother’s death, on her father’s seventieth birthday, she bought him a cat. He was not an animal-lover, but she forced the animal upon him so when Lalita and Chris visited their grandfather they could sit on the couch with him and place their hands on Salvador’s white fur. They could absorb the heat of the living, breathing creature between them. And, in the process, perhaps their hands would inadvertently meet as they stroked Salvador’s coat, together.
It worked for a while. But sweet Salvador died before her father from a urinary tract blockage. She hadn’t accounted for that scenario. Heartbroken, Lalita and Chris never went back. The house reminded them too much of Salvador. Then, two months after the cat passed, her father died. Salvador’s death was far more crushing to her children than their grandfather’s.
It wasn’t until Deb found the letters he’d written to her mother and showed them to her children that they began grieving their grandfather’s death. Deb discovered them hidden in his chest of drawers. They were written in Bengali, which Deb had never learned to read, but she could grasp their meaning all the same. The handwriting was delicate, careful.
She understood when she found the letters that her parents had loved one another. They’d never hugged or kissed in her presence when she was a child, and part of her resented it, not being surrounded by the same affection her white friends grew up with.
And she’d never been close to her father, who only spoke of his past in spurts, often fueled by alcohol or exhaustion. She never saw his childhood bedroom: they had visited India only once to see the Taj Mahal and didn’t stop over to see relatives in Kolkata. She met her own grandparents once, when they visited Houston, and she recalled thinking they appeared stern, with sharp black eyes and white hair.
On one of the letters to her mother, Deb’s father had drawn a sketch of a bird for his wife-to-be. She would have expected it to be perfect, considering his meticulous nature. But it had a ridiculous beak and the wings looked like kites.
Deb showed her children the picture of the bird. They hung it up next to their drawings of cars and butterflies. She told them that their grandfather was once a child, like them, and even after he was grown the child remained inside him.
“That’d be heavy,” Chris said, “carrying a little boy inside your body.”
“But it made him light too,” Deb said.
Lalita couldn’t take her eyes off the picture. “He was a boy,” she said slowly, and it was only then that her children began to mourn the death of the man-child they never knew.
Deb and the man were the only people remaining now. The strip mall across the street was desolate, empty aside from their cars, which were parked on opposite ends of the lot.
“The darkness is eating up our Mini Mahal, “ the man said, looking at the sky. She started. She’d forgotten he was next to her.
“Who were you carving the tile for?” The man asked.
“He was cremated too?”
“Cremations don’t allow closure, do they? Something is always left incomplete.”
“There’s always something left to mourn,” she said.
“Yes,” he said quietly. “And no end to the guilt, either. You can’t make up for neglect once someone is dead.”
It was not unusual, he knew, to fall out of love with your wife once your children left home. Even with the two of them living in it, their home became an empty space. His childhood home in Kolkata, filled with bustle and the aroma of food and incense at every corner, had real impact. With Deepa, he’d done his best to replicate that kind of liveliness for their own children. But when the last of their three children left for Boston to attend college, the vitality of their home was gone, and nothing could resuscitate it. They cooked together, trying to create noise with the clamor of pots and pans. At night, the sound of Bollywood music nearly blasted their eardrums as they watched their favorite Indian movies, the ones with Amitabh Bachchan and Madhuri Dixit that they’d seen in the theater during their courtship. Nothing restored the vitality of the space they shared.
He never cheated, or left. But even in her presence he became absent. Deepa began escaping into hot air balloon rides—they had a friend who gave them a discount. He accompanied her only once. Deepa closed her eyes as the balloon was being inflated and tipped her face towards the sun. As they rose into the sky and floated into the clouds under the cover of the balloon, she smiled. “There’s something about the wind carrying us that is so beautiful. We have absolutely no control.”
On the day of her death, Deepa only said she was taking time for herself. She went on another balloon ride without telling him. And then he received the call. With her death came the certainty that all that was lost between them would never be restored.
After her death, he compulsively brought life into the home they’d built together. Parrots. Four gerbils. Seven goldfish. He began to buy living creatures as often as he bought groceries. His house was full of animals. Sometimes, there was too much life in too small a space. At other times, there was no life at all, and he wanted to lend shelter to every stray so he could remain enveloped in noise: barks, yawns, cries surrounding him.
“Look at this building,” he said. “The body of the original Taj Mahal has been done away with entirely. Kids confuse this for the Astrodome. I have a grandson now. He’ll be visiting with my daughter next week. He asked me over the phone yesterday if I’d take him to see a game in the Mini Mahal.”
He stood and shuffled toward the building. Deb walked alongside him. “This building,” he said, “looks like a tall man forced to stoop over on his hands and knees.”
She studied it. From a distance, and only a distance, it looked preserved.
The man said: “Part of me fears that this building will be torn down in the next year or so. And another part of me is afraid that it will remain intact.”
“The woman who died,” Deb said. “We should carve a tile for her. What was her name?”
“I didn’t catch it,” he said.
Deb followed the man as he climbed the steps leading to the entrance and pulled on the door. It was locked. Of course it was, she realized. Napaste had left hours ago.
“It can’t be closed,” the man mumbled, almost to himself. “My tile was half finished. They couldn’t have left them to dry without telling us.”
Deb walked down the stairs and to the side window. As she peered into the dimly lit room, she couldn’t make out the spot where she’d started carving her father’s name. The man’s tile was nearer. “DE,” the first two letters of his former wife’s name, were cut in block letters. Deb looked back at the man, small in the darkness, banging on the door, desperate to finish carving his concrete before it dried with only half of his wife’s name printed upon it.
KEYA MITRA is an assistant professor of creative writing and literature at Pacific University and graduated in 2010 with a doctorate from the University of Houston’s Creative Writing Program, where she also earned her MFA. In 2008 Keya spent a year in India on a Fulbright grant in creative writing. Her fiction is forthcoming in The Kenyon Review, The Southwest Review, Arts and Letters, and Bellevue Literary Review and has appeared in The Kenyon Review, Best New American Voices, Ontario Review, Orchid, Event, Fourteen Hills, Torpedo, and Confrontation. She has completed a novel (under representation), a short-story collection, and a memoir.