Even now, nine months after khalamoni's* passing, I cannot believe it is true. I was alone in the apartment in New York. On the stovetop sat a pan of catfish cooked with onions and peas, daal, rice, and a pot of cabbage. A cucumber salad was cooling in the fridge. We would eat once Alok came home. I was catching a few laughs over Will & Grace when I was interrupted by the shrill ringing of the phone. Usually I would let the answering machine pick up, but assuming it was Alok, who had gone to the Columbia University Library to pick up some books for me, I reluctantly walked across the kitchen to the study to answer it.
The caller ID box displayed my sister's phone number in San Diego. I answered expecting a routine weekend "catch up" session. The pitch and anxiety in my brother-in-law's voice signaled bad news. This was all too familiar. Seven years ago, I received news of my father's death in Bangladesh in much the same way. Then I was in Columbus, Ohio, one term short of completing my master of arts.
Now in that long second as I waited to hear the inevitable, my heart skipped a beat and my stomach tightened. "Listen, Mizan Bhai called three minutes ago." As Raza Bhai continued, a host of possibilities flashed through my mind: Could something have happened to my mother? My eldest sister, in Dhaka? "Your khalamoni has died." Raza Bhai's voice sliced into my wandering mind. I hadn't stopped to turn on the lights in the study before answering the phone. The darkness of the room seemed indistinguishable from the more powerful one enveloping me.
I remember gasping inwardly at the finality of that statement in the long moment before the circumstances of khalamoni's death were explained to me. [End Page 113] "She went to Pakshi, developed a fever, and died this morning." It sounded like someone else's voice when I responded after a long pause, "She died in Pakshi?" Even as disbelief and shock overwhelmed me, I knew that it was real. That it had happened. That khalamoni was no longer.
"No, she had gone to Pakshi a couple of days back and developed a fever when she returned. She died at home this morning."
Dry sobs wracked my body as I collapsed on to the wooden folding chair next to the bureau where the phone sat.
I heard the tears in my sister's voice as she described in short definitive sentences what happened earlier that morning in the Shahjahanpur Railway Officers' Quarters in Dhaka where our aunt had lived for fourteen years with her husband and two daughters. I don't remember now what exactly Jhuma said next, only that she repeated what Raza Bhai had already explained. "I can't get ahold of chotomama. I've been trying to find him but he's not at home." Jhuma had rung our uncle, khalamoni's older brother in Minneapolis, first. It had happened only an hour ago. "I called Dhaka and talked to apuni. Everybody is screaming on the other side. There are a lot of people screaming. Are you going to call there now?" asked Jhuma.
"Yes," I responded, realizing that is what I should do next.
"Can you tell Ruma to take care of amma? I don't think amma should be in khalamoni's house right now. Tell Ruma to take amma somewhere quiet and safe." I nodded in silence. My mind was blank, my body numb.
"Do you have khalamoni's phone number?" asked Jhuma. She recited it before waiting for an answer.
"Yes, I know it," I said quietly. How could I not? At home in Dhaka I dialed it daily, sometimes multiple times a day.
I dialed Alok's cell number first. My voice must have given away the urgency. "Is something wrong?" Alok asked...