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I never imagined my own father would die in his motherland with a pandemic raging.
I last saw my 80-year-old father in November, 2019, just before my brother drove him to the airport. Only his new walker belied his age. There was always a fear when he left for six months to India that we would not see his return, but it felt only hypothetical. When I wept at our goodbyes, he always reassured me that he would be fine. I always believed him.
My dad did not die of COVID-19, though he saw many succumb to it these past few weeks.
The impact of COVID-19 does not end with death. Last rites and rituals are also lost to the virus. As India breaks the record for the highest number of daily deaths at 4,529 for any country, an unprecedented number of cremations light its skies on fire – last rites are often forgone. People have even taken to burning their loved ones on their footpaths. With no holy ending, there is a feeling that loved ones are not being laid to rest in peace. For Hindus, it means souls not freed from rebirth.
For the last 15 years my father would spend half the year in his spiritual home, Dayalbagh, a small community in metropolitan Agra (home to the Taj Mahal) bounded by the Yamuna river in Western Uttar Pradesh. He lived as a devoted Radhasoami satsangi, to experience the ultimate truth, and would rejoin his family in Toronto in the summers. At least he did until April, 2020, when he chose not to leave Dayalbagh.
Dayalbagh means “garden of the merciful” and it is a serene kibbutz-like colony of about 3,000 devoted inhabitants with a living guru. It has its own hospital, schools, university, agriculture, banks, shops and, most importantly, its own place of worship. Caste, colour and creed are not acknowledged. There is a large satsangi diaspora all over Agra, India, and the world, but the privilege of living in Dayalbagh is limited to a few.
My dad was born in Dayalbagh. Shortly after immigrating to Canada in the late 1960s, while working in a factory and opening Indian clothing stores in Toronto and Oshawa, he was lucky to secure land back home in Dayalbagh, despite barely making ends meet. He built a large home for his father on this land, this was a huge source of pride for him. Four generations resided in this house.
My dad stayed in Dayalbagh during the pandemic because he was most comfortable there. Prayers were incorporated into his daily routine, he could meet friends outside his doorstep, he loved doing seva (selfless service) and he was never lonely. He had good care with someone to wash his dishes, launder his clothes, clean his home and massage his legs or scratch his back – on demand. He had home-cooked meals made to his tastes.
All inhabitants and visitors of Dayalbagh focus on seva – from birth to death. Everyone belongs and everyone contributes, “work (seva) is worship,” is the mantra. During the pandemic, my dad’s seva took the form of registering people who came to work in the fields for the harvest; a job perfect for a jovial fellow who loved talking to strangers. After all, he did this as a taxi driver in Toronto for almost 20 years.
The night of my dad’s death, he listened to his 3 a.m. prayers and asked his helper to massage his legs. He then told her she could go and take whatever she wanted and that he was going to have a long sleep. He never awoke.
Dying in your home in Dayalbagh is like dying in Mecca. A red cart, lal gadi, delivers the body to the crematorium, after which the ashes are sprinkled in Dayalbagh’s well of eternal spirituality. The lal gadi means all your karmas are undone and you are finally at one with God; you have reached Nirvana. It is every satsangi’s dream to receive the lal gadi. But the rules are particular: If you live or die outside of Dayalbagh, or have COVID, you do not get the lal gadi.
In the moments after we were notified of my dad’s death, my mom’s attention was singular and razor-sharp: she had to call the right people in Dayalbagh to inquire humbly if my dad would receive the lal gadi. No tears. No emotion. And no checking in with her distressed adult children.
Before this, my brother and I had never heard of the lal gadi, or the “red car” as it’s also called. I was expecting a large red SUV, polished and shiny. My brother was expecting a regal, jewelled velvet carriage, a relic from colonization. It was neither.
From oceans away, and even though COVID protocols were in place, WhatsApp revealed the lal gadi to be a rectangular wooden box of red-painted planks on four wheels, a sacred antique cart charactered by over a hundred years of use. My mom was in awe.
We saw our father lying under colourful cotton sheets on his bed. We watched his nephew and grandnephew dress and shower him with fresh flowers before covering him completely for transfer to the waiting lal gadi. Four pallbearers can guide the cart. I longed for my brother and me to be the ones proudly parading my dad through Dayalbagh on his final journey.
At the crematorium, he was placed on stacks of logs and splashed with ghee and sandalwood. The specific prayers were sung. My brother was asked to light the fire virtually by holding the phone. The three of us huddled around the phone as we watched my dad become encased in flames.
I wish I could have flown to India to see him one last time. The South Asian diaspora in Canada is watching COVID burn throughout India with horror. Many of us have lost loved ones without any closure. In normal times, we could fly back to hold the hands of our loved ones in their final breaths or at least see their body and ensure last rites were performed, a task even more important than being there.
It is hard to believe Dad is gone. I wanted to be the one who dressed him in a freshly pressed new turmeric-coloured kurta and shower him with marigold flowers; to trim his eyebrows and lie in bed with him one last time. But there was this relief that his soul was freed the way he wished, via the lal gadi, in his sanctuary, Dayalbagh.
Radha Kohly lives in Toronto.
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