Posted on April 07, 2008
My dad passed away on Feb 21st, 2008, in Delhi -- sudden cardiac arrest. He was 68 years old. Born in a tiny village called Naithana in the Himalayas, he was the most positive and eternally optimistic person that I have ever known in my life.
This post is meant to be a recollection of the tragic event and a homage to my dad. So if you don't like reading this kind of personal and tragic stuff, please move on.
The Bad News
I got the phone call at around 3:00 pm on Feb 20 PT, while I was at work. A sudden rush of emotions engulfed me as I dropped everything and rushed home to my wife and kids. I barely managed to inform one of my managers before leaving the building. It was a totally unexpected news for me. With tears rolling down my eyes, the elevator ride through the 16 floors seemed like an eternity. By the time I reached my car in the garage, I was sobbing uncontrollably. Once inside the car, I just let my emotions lose. It was only after a few minutes that I gathered myself again, cranked up the engine and started to drive home, tears still rolling down my eyes. After a quick check with my wife and kids, I started calling the travel agents for a ticket to Delhi.
I took the 9:50 pm Lufthansa from SFO to DEL via Munich. It was Lunar Eclipse that night and the eclipse had just ended a few minutes ago in the west coast. As the flight took off from runway 28L, I could see the full moon in the clear skies above. A beautiful view that unfortunately I could not enjoy at that moment. For me, it was going to be a long 19 hours flight.
The Last Rites
I reached our home in Delhi at 9:45 am the following morning, just in time to begin the ceremonial last rites. Dad was kept on the floor wrapped in a white piece of cloth. There was a large crowd of friends and relatives gathered around. I could not believe that all that was happening. As I walked into the room, I kneeled besides my dad and caressed his hair. He was cold. So cold. I got up and hugged my uncle very very tight and let it all out.
I checked in with my mom and brother in as vacant room. I wanted to learn all that happened during the last moments the previous night. Long story short, my dad had passed away quickly and peacefully in my mom's arms, before the ambulance could arrive.
Soon we began preparing for the last rites. The priest was waiting. Being the eldest son, it was my privilege and duty to perform the last rites -- kriya. The rituals were quite elaborate. Although, I consider myself a very non-religious person, it was interesting how I became very receptive to learn the meaning of each and every ritual at that time.
After a long morning of multiple rites and rituals, we all went to the banks of river Yamuna. A pyre was erected around my dad's body and I lit it up while the priest chanted holy mantras . The fire burnt for around three hours. Meanwhile, I, my brother and my dad's brothers got our head and facial hair shaved off -- all part of the rituals.
The pyre burnt for 3 hours. I and my brother Vineet and all our friends and relatives patiently waited for the fire to burn out. In the end what was left was just ashes. The body was gone. Vanished. My dad was gone. Nothing could undo that. The finality of the event sunk in into me. I would never see or talk to my dad ever again.
The Elaborate Hindu Rituals -- 13 Days And More
The Hindu religion has this set of rituals that go on for 13 days after the demise. And then some. I guess the idea is to help the family members go through the grieving process in a more systematic way. And in some ways it really helps in the emotional healing. The rituals include a daily reading of a few chapters of Garud Puraan -- an ancient scripture that narrates that passage of the departed soul from the Earth to Heaven through a bunch of intermediate Nark's or Hells. At the end of the 13th day, the soul reaches Heaven, and all friends and relatives are invited for a simple lunch. This concludes the main rituals.
A Stone In Memory Of Each Thapliyal
At the end of one month of the demise, another little ceremony is scheduled. This one is for establishing a stone in the memory of the deceased. And this is performed in the native village, the birthplace of my dad.
Apparently, similar stones can be found for many of my ancestors in the same site in our native village. See pictures below. I did just that for my dad as well. We picked up a small stone from the banks of the river Alaknanda and put it along with the other ancestral stones. For this part, I traveled to our native village Naithana in Garhwal Himalayas. This ceremony really put things in perspective about my lineage and ancestry. There are about 25 stones in place, each representing one of my ancestor. Truly valuable and historic for all Thapliyal's.
Life Story Of My Dad
The story of my dad's life is very unique. He joined the Indian armed forces soon after completing his graduate studies. He fought against the Pakistan aggression in 1965 war. But that is not really what is interesting.
In 1968, he was on a training mission to learn about explosives. Sitting in a trench with another soldier, he was observing the working of an explosive on an I-beam. The bomb was a safe distance away. Or so he presumed, crouched inside the well dug trench. In a freak occurrence, some splinters ricocheted and struck the right side of his head. The protective helmet was not enough to prevent a deep gash on his skull. He was rushed to the hospital and the splinters were removed and his life was saved.
However, due to this brain injury, he was paralyzed on his left side. For life. He was just 28 years old.
It was the beginning of a struggle that would last another 40 years. A struggle that would see a bright young army officer limp for the rest of his life. A struggle that would confine a dashing young man to a sedentary office job in the administrative wing of a paramilitary force. A struggle that would make him see his peers grow to far reaching military ranks, while he remained an entry level commissioned officer.
Yet, he was the epitome of human spirit, life and optimism. I would never find him talk about any of these negativities in front of myself or my siblings. He was always a powerhouse for us. He was a brave fighter. Despite his handicap, he always maintained a dignified posture of an army man. He was also an eternal learner. He was famous amongst his friends and relatives for knowing the botanical names of every flower grown in the region. He had keen interest in Hindustani Classical Music or Shastriya Sangeet. He would immediately identify if a song playing on the radio was based on a raaga. He loved to hum along the original raaga along with the newer song that was playing. He had a passion for dogs and training dogs. He had dog training manuals dating back to the 60's. His general political knowledge was far above average and I believe he was a news junkie -- I seem to have inherited that trait from him. When in US, he would love to devour the SF Chronicle each day. In the evening he would discuss with me all about the local politics here, including the antics of mayor Gavin Newsom at that time. He loved the Americans for their passion for gardening and their manicured gardens, especially in the by-lanes of Redwood Shores. Fond memories of my dad... Ah.
My Mom's Relentless Struggle
The story of my dad would remain incomplete without the mention of my mom. She is the epitome of devotion. They had been married only 3 years when the accident happened with my dad in 1968. Since then she had been taking care of him like a baby. She would feed him, bathe him, dress him up, take care of his medicines and even administer the twice-a-day insulin injections that were part of his life for the last 15 years. My dad was diabetic, and my mom was his nurse. He could not survive a single moment without her.
Here is a little bit of statistics to challenge you. My mom and dad never lived apart for more than 40 years. Not even few hours. They were always together -- mainly because my dad acutely depended on her. Again -- not even for few hours did they live separately. For 40 years. Glued together.
Can you beat that?
I can not even begin to comprehend how much she would be missing dad now.
The Cycle Of Life
With time, I have begun to digest the fact that my dad is gone. I guess, time is the biggest healer in this situation. The one rule of this game is that everyone has to go one day. No one can change that. Now I have 2 young sons. It is their turn to begin their lives. It just completes the whole circle.
Rest in peace, papa.