Life, Death, and Ice-Cream

A scoop of butterscotch can solve everything.

What is it with good books and emotional spirals?

A few days back, I was reading Aimless In Banaras, where Bishwanath Ghosh, the author, tells the story of his time in India’s holiest city. The story begins with his mother’s untimely death. He then recollects, in vivid detail, the scene from the ghat where his mother was cremated. The elaborate rituals his family had to go through, the things he saw at the hallowed Manikarnika Ghat, brought back memories of a turbulent, hazy week from October 2017.

It was one of those weeks where the flight reservation website was always an open tab on my browser. My phone and laptop batteries were often charged to full, just in case I needed to rush. Grandad was in the hospital, suffering from a newly-diagnosed pancreatic cancer, and unlikely to return healthy, provided he returned at all. 

At work, I left emails to my manager and team, informing them of the possibility of an abrupt leave. At home, the ivory keys of the piano didn’t quite lend themselves to my fingers and the food felt a little bland.

On 5th October, the call came. “His body oxygen levels are sinking,” Dad said, with a voice that indicated acceptance of the fast-approaching inevitability. I am not religious, not even a believer in any supernatural power, but I probably let out a silent prayer while boarding my flight that evening. Four more hours, please. I trusted Grandad to hold on.

For most of his life, he had been the gold standard of fitness for my immediate and extended family. He was a keen sportsman as a kid and a young adult, but his love for an active lifestyle seemed to grow with age. At 75, he was the best batsman at a picnic cricket match; at 81, he test-rode my new scooty; at 83, he beat me at table-tennis. 

At 89, just a couple of months before I took that flight, he cooked me a potato roast that I can still smell and taste. He had done the shopping and preparation for that dish all by himself. After dinner, while talking about Wimbledon and Roger Federer, he cajoled me to join him for some ice-cream. I had given up ice-cream a long time back because of recurring tonsillitis, but he hadn’t given up hope of making me have some every once in a while. He tried a few times, and then relented dismissively, saying something on the lines of “What is wrong with you. You used to love it so much as a kid!”

As the flight landed at the Calcutta airport, I immediately switched on my phone to check for messages, hoping to find an empty notification tab. But there was a text message from Dad, and it felt like a punch to the gut. “Call when you land. Book a taxi to the hospital directly.” 

It was Durga Puja week, and Calcutta looked and felt the part. A familiar smell of camphor and wild sugarcane flower greeted me as soon as I exited the airport lounge. My conversations with taxi drivers were interrupted by reverberating drums from a nearby pandal. Every year, for this one pious week, Calcutta truly lives up to its moniker as The City of Joy. Riding through the neon-lit streets of Salt Lake, I was trying to place this evening into context, preparing my mind to acknowledge Grandad’s mortality while looking out of the window at grown men jostling over mutton rolls.

It was difficult to see him - motionless, eyes open wide, staring at nothing, with a beeping flatline on the screen above his bed reminding me of the finality of this meeting. The air inside the ashen ICU ward was cold and still, allowing me a moment with the man who brought me up and carried my heavy bag on his shoulders on the way back from school.

I remember very little from that night, or the morning after, but like Bishwanath, I remember the cremation process to the last detail. The priest went through the ceremony as if he was taking a stroll in a park, waving incense sticks over Grandad's pale but painted face while reciting mantras at incomprehensible speed.

The entire extended family was in attendance at the crematorium, each giving their suggestions for a fitting farewell, offering recourse to deal with death. There were all these customs that had to be followed, an entire to-do list to complete. We even had to follow a dress code. I have seen birthday parties that are less elaborate.

As I sat on the steps of the ghat, watching cargo vessels trawl through the calm Hooghly backwaters, I thought about the cruelty of this entire process, this agonising dance of faith and tradition that forced people to watch and participate while someone they had known so deeply slowly shrinks to a pile of ashes. The due diligence to be the rightful owners of someone’s certificate of death, I suppose. At places like this, like Bishwanath observed, death was a business, not a tragedy.

There was a small shop right outside the building, selling over-sweetened tea and cream biscuits. The long bench next to it gave visitors a chance to sit and put death into perspective. For cases like my grandfather’s, there was an acknowledgement of a healthy life and a relatively painless exit. For some others, maybe a moment’s respite from misery.

That night, surrounded by grim conversations about the fragility of life, I grabbed myself a spoon of ice-cream as a toast to someone with infinite love for life and frozen dessert. The tonsils returned, pounded the walls of my throat for a week, but eventually went away, dismissively. By the time I landed back in Chennai, my throat had fully healed, but a significant building block of my life was gone.

The next few days and weeks were difficult, but not devastating. Grandad’s death, you see, wasn’t a shock. He had lived an incredibly fit life before cancer took hold of his body at an age when he couldn’t fight. One of the things we spoke about at the tea shop was how he hated moping after something went terribly south. Acknowledging the void and looking forward seemed like a fitting reaction.

This made dealing with his absence easier, but only slightly. I was still thinking of him during my daily phone call home, almost asking Grandmum to pass him the phone, until one day, she told me about the tub of ice-cream that was in the freezer from his last week at home. I don’t think either of us shed tears. Instead, we spoke about the symbolism of that tub as the most sacred of his last remains and then cracked up laughing.

Over the last year or so, I have slowly resumed a journey back towards ice-cream. Chennai has some good places for such indulgence. Every Saturday, I order a 90ml cup through one of the food delivery apps, wait for it to arrive half-melted, and hope to wake up the next morning without a sore throat. So far so good.

It is possible that I’ve been using butterscotch ice-cream to deal with the absence of someone important and the fading memory of their voice. There are better and healthier ways, sure, but there are worse. Or maybe, I’m finally returning to a part of childhood that I had forcibly turned away from. Either way, the old man upstairs would be chuffed. He’d ask me to have an extra scoop if he could.