Kimaya Kulkarni

On the eleventh day after Nani’s passing, I took my body to buy a hazelnut cream doughnut on my scooter. I had been surviving on only cake since the seventh day, waiting to see if I could get my life back together by the thirteenth. Apparently, it takes thirteen official days for the soul to become completely free of its earthly detachments, according to Hindu ritual. My body is still allowed to mourn while Nani’s attachment to my world still remains, I told myself.

An Instagram infographic popped up on my algorithm, explaining in a cyclical diagram the relation between cortisol levels and stress eating. It hasn’t felt like I have eaten out of hunger since Nani died. All my meals have been a direct response to my grief. A bowl of sugary milk with boiled ratale for breakfast—to quell the waves of loneliness that erupt from the plates underneath the heart; two packets of potato wafers and one entire giant-sized bar of chocolate for lunch—to pacify the nihilism I thought I had grown out of by now; coffee, another coffee, then two slices of chocolate cake and four slices of pepperoni pizza for dinner—to suppress images of Nani in the incinerator that still invade the mind when I let it rest.

My mother has been seeing me, frowning and shaking her head at the way I live my life. “Who buys cake when their grandmother has passed away? Do you think this is some kind of celebration? What if someone had seen you stepping out of the cake shop?” Her words cut. She means for them to. She can’t fathom that chocolate and sugar can be great companions to grief. She is the kind of woman who mindfully gives her body what it needs in a time of crisis—nutrients and vitamins. She is the kind of woman who gave up coffee after she saw the doctor refuse Nani the sweetened cup of coffee she was begging for in her last week. She’s the kind of woman who—“Look at me,” mother says. “Do you see me moping around because my mother died? I have thrown myself into work and am dealing with life like an adult,” she says with pride. Mother always makes sure her contempt lands without missing.

As I wolfed down my hazelnut cream doughnut, I imagined Nani looking at me, pitiful and feeling bad about the fact that she didn’t live to see me get married or have children. “Aai, you have to keep on living,” my mother used to try and motivate her in her last days, “You have to be present at your granddaughter’s wedding. You have to give her away dhoom dhamat (with pomp and style). Be strong.” I used to play along with the lie. I never had the heart to tell Nani outright that I’ll probably never marry in the way she wants me to, although I know that, in her heart of hearts, she knew that her granddaughter was an outlier of tradition, a closeted rebel who could not be convinced to falter towards the side of convention. Otherwise she wouldn’t have enclosed a pocket copy of the Bhagvad Geeta in my hand when I went to say goodbye before leaving for the UK, four years ago. She knew I would never read it, she just wanted the text to protect me from myself.

In her last days, Nani was barely lucid. She stared at the TV with glassy eyes and smiled vacantly when anyone tried to strike up a conversation with her. She didn’t speak unless she wanted to go to the bathroom or wanted a glass of water. One day, as I was feeding her pumpkin soup, she said, “Coleridge la Kubla Khan ardhavat zopet suchli hoti” (“Coleridge thought up ‘Kubla Khan’ while he was half-asleep”) Presuming she was in the mood to discuss English Literature and her college days, I waited for more. But the glassy look in her eyes was back. I asked her why she brought up Coleridge. Why was she thinking about Kubla Khan now? No response. She stared at me and smiled, like a one-month-old baby with no teeth.

I tell myself it’s fine, her death. It’s okay. She lived a full, rich life and passed away peacefully despite being in the ICU, she passed in her sleep. But my body doesn’t know how to exist without the person who birthed my mother. It craves being awake through the night, rejecting any attempts to feed it with any real nutrients during the day. It threw up the salad it was forced to swallow and will only demand more chocolate cake.

On the day of Nani’s passing, I stood my body beside hers, seconds after she had breathed her last, amidst white curtains and doctors and nurses walking hurriedly yet quietly through the different sectioned-off compartments that held patients in critical stages. Her body looked splayed, frail, lifeless, oblivious, and at some kind of alien peace. This girl was twenty and in the belly of life once. Her strong hips have borne my mother once. My mother has known the caresses and slaps of these hands, now lying flat and dead on this bed. My body shuddered, shedding tears. I wished Nani a smooth passage to wherever she was headed post-life.

Later that day, my body used its muscle strength to bring Nani’s body inside the house for the family, loved ones, neighbours and friends who wished to visit Nani one final delayed time. Later that day, my body held my mother as she watched the priest perform the first of the last rites on my Nani’s body. Later that day, my body stood amidst a crowd of people and watched Nani’s body burn, while the crowd of people next to us watched the person they lost burn in the adjacent incinerator. Hindu ritual says the soul only finds true freedom once the lifeless body is burned in the holy pyre.

On the thirteenth day, I took my body to my Nani’s house where the final last rites were performed by four pot-bellied priests, reciting the stotra and shruti from the bottom of their spacious gut, filling the house with the sound of God, gotra, religion and caste. Once I came back, I found myself obsessively reading Kubla Khan. I am trying to piece together what Nani must’ve wanted to say in her dreamery. Was she having visions in her last dreams? What were the fragments that came to her?

I try to trace back her life as I have come to know of it. She grew up in Lahore, an only child. And then at eight years old, she survived the Partition, her little heart thumping as she hid from goons frenzied by fundamentalist ideals, her parents hauling her over the top of a train packed with people desperately wanting to reunite with families still living within the boundaries of secular India. When she narrates those experiences, her eyes fill with an alien fear. Then she grew up in Nagpur and graduated in Marathi, Sanskrit and English, and got married to my Nana. Then she was with child. Then she miscarried. Then she was with child. Then she miscarried. Then she was with child. Then she miscarried. Then she was with the child that would become my mother. Cue, my maushi and mama. In the midst of all the child-bearing and the child-rearing, my Nani got her PhD in the Saint Literature of Maharashtra, and wrote a memoir and several books on Marathi Saint Literature. My Nani is an Eknath scholar and a writer, an ace cook, a giving friend, the most loving grandmother, and the person who taught me how to make sense of the angsty, fizzing ball of nerves and blood pressure that is my mother.

Four years before Nani’s passing, we are at Stonehenge, my mother and I. It’s Christmas vacation and my mother has come down to visit my miserable, depressed body in the UK, as I struggle to finish my fucking MSc in fucking Comp Lit from the University of Kent. For three weeks, before she arrives, I have been on a diet of chocolate cake, pepperoni pizza and the occasional bowl of berries from Tesco. My body has been grieving being away from the motherland, from the mother tongue, from the mothering presence that occasionally seeps out of my mother when she is most at peace with herself. My body has been simultaneously holding and purging all the sorrow of being stranded in a foreign country, while I desperately scrap together an essay, trying to sound intelligent in something about The Master and Margarita and the carnivalesque, exhausted at having to hold itself in front of British strangers talking about Derrida in Film. My body has become heavy with cake and fatigue. My mother has dragged my body to London and across England as she goes sightseeing. My body has dragged its feet inside the Tate, eyes staring sleepily at gigantic splashes of colour, and sat at the Globe Theatre, barely registering what is going on. And before my body travelled to Stratford-upon-Avon and listened to my mother judge and question the educated-ness of our fellow white tourists as the bus drove through Cotswolds, my body and my mother are standing in front of Stonehenge facing each other like two wild cats about to tackle each other to the ground.
“STOP BEING SO SAD ALL THE TIME,” she yells at me, all in pure Marathi, of course. “I came all the way to England to visit you and this is how you behave! You are SO spoilt.” I am about to lose it back now.
“FUCK YOU,” I unleash my fury, “I have been telling you how hard it has been for me and you have made this entire trip about you.”
“Stop acting like a spoiled little child. You chose this life for yourself. Now why are you complaining about it?”
I start crying. “You are my mother, you are supposed to help me when I’m sad.” I feel stupid and silly and pathetic saying that.
“Ithe tamashe ghalu nakos,” she says, threatening me to stop making a scene in such a public place, immediately aware of people’s gazes as tears freely fall freely down my face, expressing her fury in a quieter tone now.
All we did for the rest of December was fight and bicker and press each other’s buttons to push each other towards anger that burst out in more verbal jabs and punches. Neither of us remembers Stonehenge well, although both of us still talk fondly about the T-shirt I bought at the gift shop every time I wear it. It displays the words “Stonehenge ROCKS” across the chest, placed above a graphic of Stonehenge against an orange sun.

My mother is the most dissatisfied person I know. It makes her an absent friend, a frustrated cook, a dazed workaholic, and an intolerably annoying presence for me. I become my worst self around her the way I become my best self around Nani. Nani turns me into a saint, a precious, loving person who is the epitome of friendliness and altruism. I feel like pursuing my forgotten passions when I hang out with her. I feel like picking up the harmonium again. It makes me forget that, as gentle, kind and giving as Nani is with me, she was never those things for my mother. As a mother, Nani was also strict, negligent, abusive and demanding. The wound that my mother and I share is that we don’t know how to help each other through the grief of having lost two completely different people. The wound that I bear alone is that my mother’s idea of how to be a good mother will never exceed the limits of how much unlike her own mother she is.

I wonder what Nani’s version of Kubla Khan is. As a person at the centre of the world, viewing the rest of the world from within her own subjectivity, the way Coleridge did, what wonders does Nani dream of, what landscapes haunt her visions, what mystical creatures and persons frequent her spaces of ecstasy, of pleasure, of holy dread. Instinctively, I wish to visit the romantic chasms that Nani has built. But then, I realise, I am not meant to see her Vision in a Dream. I am an eternal alien to her Fragments. All she wants me to know is that Kubla Khan came to Coleridge when he was half-asleep, that she is always half-awake and the other half of her is always roaming literary realms that only she can rule over, nourish and expand, that even at her least lucid she is still capable of contextualising her selfhood within literary history.

On the fourteenth day, I find my body repulsed at the idea of chocolate cake. I take the remaining, untouched slice of cake sitting in the fridge to my mother sitting upstairs at her computer, wringing her grief out one excel sheet at a time. She takes it without a word, plunges the spoon in the cake’s spongy body and envelops the tiny piece with her mouth. She lets her eyes close as the gooey chocolate spreads over her tongue, teeth, gums, the walls of her cheeks, the roof of her mouth, and as it steadily unlocks her grief, releasing the tears that have been held prisoner inside her body. My body stands there, stunned, as my mother wails uncontrollably. Who is supposed to mother her now?

Kimaya Kulkarni (she/her/hers) is a writer and editor living in and being constantly inspired by her hometown, Pune. She is an editor at Bilori Journal, Spooky Gaze and decoloniszing our bookshelves (dob), and holds an MSc in Comparative Literature from the University of Edinburgh. Her prose has appeared in Wizards in Space, Honey and Lime, Cobra Milk, Lily Poetry Review and ROM Mag, and is forthcoming in the fiction anthology by Four Palaces Publishing.