Ancient Egyptians believed that upon death they would be asked two questions and their answers would determine whether they could continue their journey in the afterlife.  
The first question was, "Did you bring joy?"  
The second was, "Did you find joy?"

Friday, February 25, 2011


I've been taking the day off.  Lounging around my little apartment in Santiniketan.  Eva and Barbara left today, so I have the place all to myself.

I now have a little modem that hooks up to my computer like a pen-drive.  It's not running at full speed yet. In India, the guy at the wireless shop comes to your house, checks that the modem technology will work with your computer (if you have a mac, that is), then lets you use his 2g sim card while he goes back to the shop to do the paperwork that will get you the 3g sim card, which, in my case,  he will deliver in the morning.  AT&T could learn a thing or two from this guy.

Lunch and dinner were delivered to me from Chandana's house.  Fresh vegetarian cooking, hot and ready to eat, twice a day.  I drank lime sodas and caught up on the Huffington Post.  I deliberately decided that I wouldn't write until tomorrow.  I figured a day off needed to be a complete day of rest.

But then I got a call from Nicole.  A friend of hers is staying at Leelu's and this friend called to say that Udayan, Leelu and Roy's "Boy", died today.

I was joking the other day with Barbara, Eva, and Chandana that when I was Indian, in a past life, that I must have been "working" class, which is a nice way of saying that if I really was Indian in a past life, I was probably a poor, low caste, servant.  I've come to this conclusion because all of the "help" at Leelu's, Mathew's, and now, here, have taken a particular shine to me.  So much so, that I've wondered if they recognize me as one of their own.  Chompa, the lady who lives behind the house here in Santiniketan, hugged me several times when she discovered that I was staying on.  That's kind of a bold move.  I don't imagine she takes those kind of liberties with all the people who stay here.  Randa, the cleaning lady at Leelu's, offered to let me stay at her house when she found out that I was leaving....she thought Leelu and Roy were kicking me out.  Appayan, the cook at Mathew's, wanted my address so that his daughters could write to me.

I cherish each of these honors.

Udayan liked me, too, I hope, but not in a particularly special way.  I thought he was great.  Udayan had been the house-boy, gardener, cook, dog-walker/groomer, late-night door answerer for Leelu and Roy for over 25 years.  He must have been a teenager when he started.  A slight, very quiet, warm-hearted soul, he plugged away day after day after day taking care of a family that wasn't his.  He must have sent money to his wife and three daughters who lived a couple of hours away.  He saw them a few weeks ago, during my first stay in Fort Cochin.  He went home to go to a family wedding.  Leelu and Roy had to make the eggs in the morning for two days.  It wasn't the same.  But then Udayan returned to his kitchen and resumed cooking, gardening, washing the dog, and sleeping in the pantry on a mat.  I noticed one day that there was an old discarded stool next to his rolled up bed.  On the stool were a razor and an ancient radio.  There were a few shirts folded nearby.  Other than that, there was nothing that spoke of him or his needs or his existence.

I made him smile a few times.  The first was when Roy taught me how to say, "Udayan, annekay oru kuppi venam vellum."  Or, "Udayan, I would like one bottle of water."  It was my first full sentence of Malayalam and Udayan was suitably impressed and surprised.  He did, of course, refill my water bottle.

The second time, I had gone into the pantry late in the evening to fill up my own water bottle.  I'd called out to Udayan to make sure he wasn't in the pantry or the kitchen.  I didn't want to disturb him.  He wasn't there, so I went in.  After my bottle was filled, I stepped out of the pantry just as Udayan was coming into the kitchen and we both jumped.  Then we both laughed.  Even before the news today, it was one of my favorite moments in Fort Cochin because it was so human, a shared unguarded encounter that left me feeling glad to be alive.

Lastly, when I left Leelu's the first time, I bought treats at the bakery for Udayan and Randa, the cleaning lady.  Randa wasn't there, so I gave both pastries to Udayan.  He looked in the bag and only sort of smiled.

I said, "Do you like those?"

He nodded vigorously and then really smiled.

Roy and Leelu were taking a nap when my car came to take me to Alleppy and the backwater tour.  Udayan was sitting in a chair by the front door.  I said, "I'm going."  Even though I'd given him sweets, the language barrier was such that he hadn't understood that they were a farewell gift.  So, he said, "Ohhhh," and shook his head a little sadly.  He ceremoniously got up from his chair and offered his hand.  I took it.  We shook hands.  It was as touching as a hug.

When I returned for those few days after staying in the hills, Udayan was not feeling well.  He wasn't smiling at anything, though he was by no means unpleasant.  I found out that his finger was bothering him and he'd been to the doctor.  Leelu had had to chop all the vegetables for her cooking class the night before, so her back was bothering her.  Roy was going back to Dubai where he works much of the year.  The whole house was discombobulated.  I tried to keep to myself and didn't really mingle with the household on the second leg of my Fort Cochin stay.

But, I remember wondering what would make Udayan's finger hurt so badly that he had to go to the doctor.  There was no cut.  I asked him what was wrong and he indicated that it was something like a hangnail.

I have no idea if what was wrong with Udayan's hand is related to his death.  It seems he was feeling so unwell yesterday that he went to the hospital, but they could find nothing wrong and sent him back to Leelu and Roy's.

It is a strange and complicated set of feelings I have right now as I try to articulate something of this man I hardly knew.  My affection for him is wrapped up in the jumble of emotions about class and caste, poverty and wealth that I struggle to understand every day in India.  It is impossible not to think about the softness of my days and the hardness of his.

I can joke about why it is that I've been so blessed with the kindnesses of the people who have been waiting on me, working to make my days so gentle and well tended.  "I must have been like them in a past life.  Poor girl makes good in the next life...."  But even if that was true, and we will never know, the fact is, in this lifetime Udayan never knew the kind of relaxed day I had today and that makes me sad.

My sadness is nothing compared to the utter shock and devastation his wife and children must feel, and his other family of Leelu, Roy and their three sons.  So, I hope you will send a little love to them today.

And I hope you will hold the Udayans of your life a little closer, those souls who make life more comfortable for others while asking for so little for themselves.


auntiemao said...

Thanks for putting me in mind of my dad. I'll think of him and I will think of your friend, Udayon...xo..

Kirstin said...

I would say rest in peace but with respect to what he likely believed, he's probably already on to his next life and the rewards for this last life well lived. My thoughts go out to you and his family. Love, K