This is an excerpt from a memoir. Copyright is held by the author.
South America, Guyana, October 9, 1972
AT 1:30 in the afternoon, the sky darkened, and the cheery whiteness of the clouds turned gray. The sun that had shone earlier now lay hidden in the grim sky as people crowded the cemetery.
I could hear the priest praying. “The Lord is my shepherd . . . ” I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to be praying or listening to him.
Everyone was crying except me. Maybe I should be crying. I felt no sadness, or so I thought.
I felt comforted amidst the large crowd, at the same time feeling guilty and unsure.
Maybe I should be wailing. How could I be feeling so numb, so confused, and still have all these thoughts going through my mind?
People seemed to walk by me and through me as if I didn’t exist.
I looked around, feeling scared while noticing the rows of tombstones. I couldn’t help but think of ghosts. Was my sister going to be a ghost?
The cemetery covered a huge area of land yet everyone appeared crowded in. I hadn’t realized our family was so well known. The entire school had been given the day off to attend, and every student came whether or not they knew my sister. Some attended out of love, some out of pity, and some out of curiosity. Police tried to control the crowds made up of students, teachers, family, friends, and strangers.
No one seemed to notice I was there or that I was even part of the grieving family. I momentarily felt like crying and wailing but decided it was best to stand quietly and do nothing. Maybe this was all a dream, and if I stood quietly enough, it would come to an end.
I was too young to know what my behaviour was supposed to be or what my parents expected of me. No one told me how to act at a funeral. Simply being seemed the right thing to do.
Fear crept up my spine as I watched every movement and listened to every word. I felt paralyzed. This fear was like none I had ever known. It wasn’t fear of monsters or a bad nightmare. This was different—it touched the core of my soul, and I remained haunted for years to come.
Dad looked perplexed, sad, defeated and not the big, confident businessman I knew. He looked small and thin.
He tried to comfort Mom and Priya, yet he was torn between his grief and himself as the victim. Until now, I knew he felt he had done nothing wrong. It was all us kids and Mom who were bad. He was the good one. His children would not listen to him, his wife didn’t love him, and his own mother had died only a week earlier. How was his life spinning so wildly out of control? How would he fix this? Was it even fixable? For the first time, there was no one to beat up or be angry with but himself. Priya and I were safe for now.
Mom’s expression looked very much like Dad’s: confused and hurt. She seemed stunned as though rendered unconscious by her own part in this sordid mess.
Today, the competition between Mom and Dad was at its height. Who grieved more? Who loved Neelam more? The two were always trying to outshine each other. Even at their daughter’s funeral, they put on a show.
Mom’s arms flailed as she hugged people who walked by to view the body, pulling them close as they approached the casket. Sometimes it was a rough embrace as if to pass her grief and guilt to another.
She shouted her love for Neelam. “Oh, God—my daughter is dead! Oh, God—I have no one anymore!”
She shouted at Dad. “You killed her! You killed my daughter! Nancy was right there. She could have done something! She could have stopped the beating!”
Auntie Nancy, Mom’s sister and my beloved aunt, had shown us more love than anyone I ever knew. I felt confused at what I was hearing.
Mom declared her love for Neelam over and over. She didn’t hear the voices that spoke with encouragement and sympathy.
“You have two daughters left.”?“No!” she screamed. “I want Neelam! I have nothing left! Neelam was
my right hand!”?In Mom’s eyes, “right hand” meant Neelam was always there for her and
supported her. This was not actually true. Neelam hated our parents. Why else would she kill herself?
Mom shifted her position between sitting and standing by the casket; it was easy to see the martyr role she had adopted. She was unaware of the gossip, the whispers; the finger pointing that had already started prior to Neelam’s death. She was clearly unhappy with her life, her husband, and her children. Evidently, only she had been affected by Neelam’s death.
Many family members already knew of her secret affair. Many knew she travelled to Canada for months at a time, leaving us alone with Dad. Even at that early age, my intuition told me that when this funeral was over, she would leave again and this time never return. Neelam’s death would finally give her an excuse to walk away from a life she hated.
My sister Priya’s face was filled with grief. Tears rolled down her cheeks like heavy raindrops. Her silence matched the lifeless look on her face. She had lost her sister, her best friend, her partner. She had lost one sister that day. I lost two. Priya was never the same again.
Neelam and Priya were only eighteen months apart, and they did everything together. I came along six years later, always too young to be part of their clique. They had already formed their partnership long before I decided to come into the world. I was the outsider. Priya was only fifteen and Neelam thirteen when she took her life.
Priya stood by the casket. There was a massive void left within her, a space I could never fill, although I did try for years to come.
I didn’t know then that Neelam’s death would later mean Priya’s demise—that the death of our sister would lead her down a path of dysfunctional relationships, abuse, depression, suicide attempts, and to a life of bitter resentment and anger. She one day would have nothing to do with the family, especially me. I was forever the reminder of the sister she had lost.
The crowd kept pushing me away from my parents, away from the casket, away from Priya’s side. I lost my footing but quickly regained it by holding on to the coffin. I peeked inside. Neelam lay very still. Hoping no one could see, I gingerly touched her, afraid for some reason that my caress would hurt her.
I wondered why her body felt cold through her dress. She was always so warm when I hugged her. Mom had made the dress—long and white and covered with lace, making her look like a bride. Her long black hair cascaded down the front of her chest, her lips showed the hint of a smile. Her glasses had slipped down her nose the way they always did. She looked beautiful: tall, elegant, and princess-like.
As I stood admiring my sister, a loud, clear voice spoke. “We have to close the casket now. It’s time.”
What happened next is a chaotic blur. People screamed and threw themselves on the ground. I felt myself pushed back violently from the casket; neither Mom, Dad, nor Priya were anywhere in sight.
I blinked a few times then saw them. The scene turned my horror into pure terror. Priya sobbed so hard her body shook. She was trying to stop them from closing the casket lid.
“Please, stop, please don’t take her!”?Mom was trying to climb into the casket to take Neelam out. “Don’t close it! Don’t leave her in the dark,” she begged.
Dad lifted Mom with one hand and Priya with the other. Family members stepped forward to help hold them back. I watched in silence.
The reality of what was happening struck me. My heart raced at top speed. Neelam was dead; this was all real, as real as the people pushing me to the ground.
The police had lost control, and the crowd moved chaotically, sobbing loudly.
A pair of hands pulled me up by the shoulders and hugged me in a tight embrace. My Uncle Arun sobbed, his chest heaving forcefully. My own tears followed in a torrent, and I sobbed hard and screamed into his chest. He held me close.
I don’t know how long we stood there. My last glimpse of my sister was her coffin being put into a stone vault. The front of my dress, pressed against my uncle’s shirt, was soaked with our tears.
I sobbed at the loss of my sister and the loss of my family.?I had the unsettling feeling that new paths now opened before us and
that each one of us would go our separate ways.?We could not face each other, could not help each other, and could not
love each other. The fog of grief and hurt was too thick to see through. It was every man for himself from this moment on.
At age nine, the disaster finally fell, but it had been a long time in the making.
Before I left the cemetery, I took one last look at the unkempt grass around my feet. I never suspected my suffering would take me on a journey that would come full circle 44 years later, allowing me to stand on this spot, holding Neelam in my arms one last time.