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We Need the Dead

When the dead depart, it’s the living who are left behind, fractured beyond recognition

The following essay includes mention of suicidal ideation.

Within fifteen years, my aunt, grandfather, and grandmother, Hindu Punjabis who immigrated to New York in the 1980s, were cremated in Queens.

“We have to let your aunt go, to let her soul continue on. It’s our duty to detach.” My mother whispered these words to me, a week before I turned thirteen, while we stood inside a stifling crematorium set on the grounds of a cemetery. It was this bare semblance of a conversation, after my mother’s younger sister took her life, that my memory reproduced over a decade later, when my mother’s father and mother died. On each occasion, I watched as a shrinking number of family members averted their gaze outside a roaring chamber the moment flames began to lick the window of a large iron door. By freeing atman from body, cremation, I learned, enabled one’s spirit to pass into its next reincarnation. Moksha described one’s ultimate release from a cycle of lives, each of which is characterized by amhas, a Sanskrit word meaning “trouble” or “captivity.” My family never stayed long enough, though, to see the fire die out. Leaving our dead in the care of strangers, I remember my family’s first steps toward the car as the onset of our detachment.

My aunt’s death upset me the most. As I watched my mother grieve her sister, I myself was passing through a lonely and wordless landscape. Our loss, I felt with no small amount of chagrin, had foreclosed my own wish to die. Despite my mother’s struggle to let go, I feared a future in which I could no longer cling to my own longing. The thought of losing the possibility to end my life made my face hot. Yet I hid my desire as well as my despair at giving it up. Was it amhas, then, the pain of living, that my mother saw in my adolescent body, or was it this other, darker facet of me that she addressed that day?

For an hour each afternoon in the semi-basement apartment where I grew up, a few miles outside Boston, sunlight filled our rooms, exploding against my parents’ mirrored closet doors, flooding my ten-year-old eyes with a doubled intensity. In the hour after the sun left, I buried myself into nylon sleeping bags and bedspreads woven from Indian cotton, creating a pocket of space inside my parents’ closet to read for hours by flashlight. What little air existed was musty, tinged with mildew. I quieted my breathing enough to hear the sound of blood passing through my temples, a sound not unlike that of eyelashes caressing a pillow. Staying silent for stretches of an afternoon, intent on vanishing on my parents, I delighted in my superpower to go missing. When my father or mother came upon me, however, thwarting my hopes of disappearing, I sighed, for I didn’t trust that I’d wanted to be found. All the same, their discovery brought me the relief of no longer rehearsing my own death.

My father gently pulled me by the arm and encouraged me to play outside. At the edges of our condominium complex lay large, desolate fields and densely wooded areas, vacant spaces into which I sometimes wandered. Next to the dumpsters was a clearing in the trees littered with refuse, tires, and unkempt weeds. One August afternoon, I peered through the opening that lay five hundred feet from our front door, before slipping through, alone, a shiver of foreboding running along my nerves. Ascending a steep hill, I saw phalanxes of ordered gray and brown teeth gridding the perfectly mowed lawns, monuments sprouting from the ground like bishops on a chessboard, flat slabs of polished stone, reaching hardly higher than the surface of the grass, set at precisely the same angle and all catching the glinting sunlight. A sign that read “Mt. Benedict” was followed by the date “1851.” When I stepped on a branch, the crack of wood shattered my solitude, returning me to my timid self. I rushed home, leaving behind that picturesque scene.

When I told my parents where I’d gone, they replied, “Don’t go back there.”

My gaze fell to the carpet. Were they afraid I might bring the specter of death home?

In the years before my aunt’s suicide, I perceived, between age ten and twelve, the fading of my own sense of wonder. As a student, I learned to depend on an education that rewarded me for right answers. In my search for approval, the whole world became both knowable and beyond knowing. But the more facts I amassed in the classroom, the more inscrutable I appeared to myself, making my loneliness swell to an unbearable size. It was, I understood, up to me to figure out how to talk about myself. Anxiety, however, arose out of a nagging disappointment with my own ignorance, incompetence, or inexperience, which only suffused me with shame. A pale shadow fell over my eyes, hovering everywhere I turned my attention and in turn turning me inward. Time was itself a kind of terror, for it insisted I live in it. But buried within my parents’ belief in reincarnation, an idea I accepted, was a loophole I thought I could exploit whenever my distress grew too great—I didn’t have to bear this existence much longer. Death meant I could have another life. Freedom flourished when starting over seemed available to me. When dying became a choice, it also became the only thing I didn’t fear.

After our ninth-grade class read Richard Wright’s memoir Black Boy, we were asked to write about an important event that had affected each of our lives. Choosing my aunt’s suicide as the subject of my personal essay, however, turned out to be a failed exercise. For fifty minutes, one Wednesday, I listened to winter blowing past the windows, to floorboards sighing as classmates shifted in their seats, without filling more than a page of a pale blue examination book. What eluded me, at fourteen, wasn’t just the act of describing my aunt’s funeral, which had occurred a year earlier, but also the process of retrieving a more recent memory.

Six months after my aunt had died, my grandfather brought my mother, with my sister and me in tow, to the subway station where she’d thrown herself before a train. That February day in New York, as my mother told me to stand not too close to the platform edge, I glimpsed for the first time a world in which I was gone. For as long as I’d wanted to die, I hadn’t conceived of the world without me, only imagining myself as an absence. I saw the murky remnants of sunlight from the street reflected in the pallor of my mother’s face. But the anguish that place had awakened in me found no air in my essay, for I ventured no farther than the first page of my exam book, stunned by the knowledge that I had the power to hurt others. What I took to be gaps in why my aunt did what she had, gaps that kept me from finishing my essay, were, in fact, chasms in my own story that I didn’t want to look at, chasms of a black, echoing tunnel that ran both backward and forward in time.

After submitting only a sketch of a scene, I listened as Ms. Smith, a bantam woman of eighty, told us we’d revise our essays the following week. The embarrassment that I had nothing to rework crept in. When handed a fresh book, along with my original one, the following week, all I did was copy the same sentences I’d drafted the previous Wednesday. If I finished my essay, it remained deficient, for I’d been unable to commit to written word that my wish to die had perished. That I’d let go of what I wanted. That I needed a new story to trust.

During the two years that I lived with my grandparents after college, I carted books on Indian history, antiquity, and anthropology from the library in Flushing. I shied away from borrowing novels, however, under the pretense that fiction couldn’t answer questions for me, explain the world to me, or edify me. What’s more, I harbored no hopes for writing. In assignment after assignment, I’d succumbed to plagiarism—out of a fear of failure, out of a belief in my total ineptitude. And I certainly didn’t think myself an artist or, in Nabokov’s formulation, an enchanter, capable of weaving together threads of illusions that left readers spellbound.

Two years after my grandfather died, I pursued an ambition for deepening my education by enrolling, at twenty-six, in a master’s in anthropology; two years later, in the spring of 2015, I turned down an offer to begin an unfunded doctorate in the social sciences. The permission to have a writing life had been, I believed, simultaneously extended and denied. The day I did a gig that summer packing up the faculty office of my advisor’s husband, this sting hadn’t yet subsided. In the July heat, I answered my phone, fingering the wad of crisp bills lying in my pocket, and learned that my grandmother had passed. I struggled to tell the few family members who assembled for the funeral about the state of disorientation and directionlessness in which I found myself. Much as I mourned her death, though, I thought of myself and rebuked myself in silence: Had I not chosen to abandon yet another aspiration?

That fall, searching for guidance as much as for recognition, I attended an information session on applying to the Margins Fellowship. As part of introductions, each of us was asked to share what we were scared of, it being the week of Halloween.

“My potential,” I said aloud.

I saw behind everyone’s stares a single thought: who was this showoff? But in uttering two words, I’d shed an old skin. In actualizing a fear I didn’t know I carried, I experienced, that evening on West 27th Street, all the lightness of freedom. 

It took six years and six application cycles before I was awarded a Margins Fellowship. In that time, I published essays and attended writers’ workshops, never once recalling the ninth-grade English essay I’d barely been able to finish. In writing for myself, however, in feeling my way into the darkened rooms of my adult mind, a story I’d been telling myself for years took shape on the page. Drafts of personal essays showed me my isolation and loneliness had been self-inflicted. My exile from others had become a kind of living suicide.

In turn, my connection with others—namely, my mother’s parents and her sister—came to appear thin and inadequate. Panicked that my wish to die was apparent on my skin, that my mind was an open book, I drew a moat around myself, which perhaps everyone saw but hesitated to broach. I retreated so far from my grandparents before each of them died that I proliferated new silences between us. In making an island out of myself, I’d stood outside my relatives’ inner lives, comfortable in the myth that they’d always been inaccessible to me, secure in the illusion that our intimacy wasn’t an invention.

One crepuscular morning in 2019, I opened a vein and bled, pouring sentences longhand down the length of countless notebook pages. It was as if I was sharing a dream with a stranger, a dream I wished to forget about my life. Contained within those oneiric sentences was, I understood much later, the faintest outline of a novel about a Punjabi man who took his life, having left behind an unpublished Urdu tale of queer desire set in 1980s India, a rough draft that his nephew discovers in the apartment of his grandparents, where he’s come to live, following his own suicide attempt. When the sun came up, I shut my notebook. And it dawned on me that, because of the wishes I’d been relinquishing my whole life, I wouldn’t give up my desire to hear the rest of the story that, in that tranquil time before the city awoke, had just begun to enter me.

Over a year later, I visited Green-Wood Cemetery for the first time without telling my partner where I was going, some vestige of embarrassment having clung to me since childhood. Although it escaped me then, at thirty-four, a solitary excursion to a cemetery during the pandemic became a meditation on attachment and letting go. Wandering the corridors of whispers housed there, watching the sleeping landscape awaken before me on that fall morning, I meandered among tombs and catacombs, hillocks and obelisks, embarking on a journey into myself.

Resting at the margins of our imagination, graveyards remain unspeakable, spaces both concealing and concealed. A space like this had once been forbidden to me. Remembering my parents’ injunction, I realized why they’d told me to keep away when I was ten: cemeteries impose an aura of completion onto what is inherently unfinished about life. Perhaps, it occurred to me, they weren’t done grieving the people and places they themselves had lost years ago. Though not designed to shelter our bodies after we passed, I understood how a cemetery gave form to a belief I couldn’t articulate as a boy: when the dead depart, it’s the living who are left behind, fractured beyond recognition. 

Like some flâneur in a necropolis, I basked in Green-Wood’s vastness, a space so capacious it could hold not just thousands of bodies and millions of stories, but also past and future alike. The cemetery, I found, bounded fear, letting me explore the resonances of my anxiety within an Arcadian simulacrum. That the whole world was in mourning gave me permission to grieve the private loss of my grandmother five years earlier, although her remains could be found neither in the United States nor in India. Ensconced here, in the city my grandmother, her husband, and her daughter had once called home, I considered how well I’d managed to heed my mother’s words. I’d had no problem letting them all go.

As this thought was disinterred, a slender brown boy of twelve appeared in the distance. It was my child self, standing amidst a carpet of golden leaves, slipping between the headstones. But what gripped me was the sudden realization that I’d killed him decades earlier. He’d been so wrong to want to die that I’d never forgive him for what he once wanted. He’d been so disappointed that he had to keep living that I’d never dare say aloud another wish that I had. For twenty years, it eluded me that I was grieving a future I myself had foreclosed at thirteen.

We need the dead. The partial perspective with which my child self had once perceived the world poured into my eyes. Or, more accurately, my narrow ways of seeing had never perished, even if I was carrying around a deceased version of myself within me. That boy had come to show me that a story lay unfinished in me. It had been resting in my blindspots all along, hiding at the margins of my vision.

Perhaps, then, both burying and burning the dead recognize what’s incomplete about living. By rendering our dead findable, graveyards let us revisit and revise how we remember those we’ve lost. More than that, because the dead demand our attention, they are active and, thus, never truly lost. Instead, they lie close, dwelling as members of society. The ones who are lost are, in fact, the living. It’s the living who need the dead as much as they need a place to put their shattered selves back together.

Cremation, on the other hand, questions what of matter actually matters. The fifth-century Indian philosopher Bhartrihari compared the Sanskrit words chinta (“anxiety”) and chita (“pyre”), showing how the words look the same in Devanagari, save for a diacritical mark above the “t.” To leave off a small dot differentiating them is to conflate how a pyre burns the dead with how anxiety consumes the living. My mother’s advice that I let her sister’s soul go made me acutely aware of everything I concealed inside my heart. When my aunt’s body was cremated, I imagined that the worst parts of myself, fears and desires alike, had also been set ablaze. I thought that, because her ashes had been scattered into water, in a homeland my relatives had given up, my anxieties couldn’t return. That, because her body had been dealt with and rendered unfindable, I could no longer be lost to myself.

A story is always unfinished. To remember, for instance, how my relatives returned to their cars each time a body burned is to begin a story anew, to recount a tale of how love morphs into grief. As I recall what I took to be my family’s abandonment, my mother’s words, words I’ve long forgotten, suddenly echo in my ears. “Don’t look back,” she whispered when I was twelve, her hand barely grazing my shoulder to guide me out of the crematorium. It was as if turning away represented an act of courage. But I didn’t believe it in my youth, and I don’t believe it now, which is perhaps why I gaze backward, as Orpheus did, and why I seek to tell a story that in my eyes never ended. 

As I work on a novel, with the support of a Margins Fellowship, I feel called to attend to what I was told to desert. I’m moved to reimagine a deeper intimacy not only with elders who have gone but also with the boy in the basement who wanted to die. “Children,” writes Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, “know things their elders have forgotten.” What, then, does it mean to forgive oneself for giving up an imperfect wish?

This essay is the first in a series on craft and process by our 2022 Margins Fellows. Look out for more in the coming months.