When my father dies, he's in a nursing home, seated upright in a chair. He hasn't been out on the ocean, in a boat, in years, maybe decades, and I know he's not a beach person. He hates the sand and wet and cold. But days before his death, he can remember this clearly enough to reminisce in his hoarse voice: wearing a jacket and a scarf despite it being early spring in America, taking a ferry to the Statue of Liberty, then Ellis Island. Walking past all those names. None like his own. And yet he never doubted that he and his younger brother and my mother, who all lived together in a tiny apartment after I was born, had arrived in America, and would be welcomed in one way or another.
His journey to the water started in the late 1960s, early 1970s. He had come here after the assassination of Martin Luther King, many years before my birth, the birth he had imagined, hoped, would be of a son. Was New York safe then for Asians? I try and imagine. There were 45,000 South Asians in the United States by then, a small fraction of the nearly one million strong tristate area desi community today. He wouldn't have felt entirely alone, though most in that first wave of immigration — the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act giving preference to those with professional training — were doctors, engineers, or successful businessmen with relatives already here to sponsor them. My dad was none of these. He was ambitious about emigrating to America but lackadaisical about academics during his student years in India, more interested in acting in plays and going to parties than career planning. Yet he married a doctor, my mother, who gave him passage here.
There are Polaroids, somewhat faded now, of my parents wearing garish fashions: orange, yellow, paisley prints and bouffant hair. A young Chinese American woman at a restaurant, posed between my beaming father and recalcitrant mother, her identity never explained to me when we sifted through old albums. All the women in cat-eye glasses, mostly unafraid, mostly enjoying America. In 1965, laws that invited Asian immigration seemed to let them in. All over the city, evidence of Asian America, present and future. Frank Chin, producing the first Asian-American play in a New York theater in the early '70s. Protests against housing discrimination erupted across Chinatown. Asian Americans joined civil rights marches, and Asian Americans for Equal Employment convened. My dad, secretly proud of his "light skin," considered whether to change his first name from Munuswami to Mike or Michael.
Was New York safe then for Asians? I try and imagine.
Jackson Heights in Queens was known to my father, of course. It was where he could see a Bollywood movie, grab a snack, do grocery shopping for my mother to make Indian meals for him, my uncle, and eventually for me. But he was never satisfied, or comfortable, being around "too many" Indians. Instead, the Empire State building; Wall Street; Pace University, where my father in his late twenties took an MBA, bounded by South Street Seaport and the Brooklyn Bridge — these were his haunts. Bodies of water in New York and long walks on the pier were as familiar to him as the Bay of Bengal lapping the hot sand of Golden Beach in Chennai, where men of all ages smoked and walked at all hours, the earliest flickers of sunrise or late at night, dirty jokes and laughter shocking in the dark.
What is the antyesti and what is it doing in Brooklyn? This question, a version of which was hurled at my parents when they came and had trouble finding a landlord who would rent to them (What are you, what are you doing here?), was answered quietly, gracefully, and with beauty the morning of September 30, 2021 — a few days after my father's sudden death from a stroke, and not long after a slew of anti-Asian attacks against people like my dad who were frail, elderly Asians but also decades-long New Yorkers.
He'd gotten an American degree and his English was comfortable, fluent, and yet his name, skin and decided lack of connections made his first attempts to find work frustrating. Longing to be and feel American at 29, taking himself to steakhouses and tailors of 'Western" bespoke suits (like Gandhi once had in London, just as eager for assimilation, several decades before), my immigrant father walked alone, unemployed, around the same Brooklyn pier where his ashes would eventually be scattered.
What is the antyesti and what is it doing in Brooklyn?
The antyesti is an important phase of Hindu death ritual. After cleansing, prayers, processions, only ashes remain, to be dissolved in sacred water. Antyesti is this scattering of ashes. Talked about most often with reference to the Ganges river, perhaps it's a less known fact that thousands of Hindus in the tristate area participate in the antyesti off Seaview Boulevard, where more than one small-boat company (most of them run by Italian-Americans proud of their many generations in Brooklyn) also offer a sensitive and compassionate boat journey long enough for families to say the right prayers, scatter ashes along with rose petals, stare out at the glimmering waters, and silently commemorate.
The phone call comes, in Korean-accented English, from short-term rehab, his place to recover after being hospitalized for post-stroke pneumonia. The medical rehab in Flushing is almost 100 percent Asian American, all its occupants well over age 70. When I go there to visit — including for the last time, to pick up all his things after his death — I'm haunted by how visible a target for hate it is.
After the first few days of confusion and sadness, not to mention stirrings of family disagreements that feel impossible to resolve, I put aside the newspaper accounts of violence against Asian Americans of all ages, but particularly those aged and perceived as vulnerable. One in particular haunts me: a Sri Lankan immigrant man, 68, on his way to work on the subway when he was beaten. Years before his death, while standing on a sidewalk in Queens, my father was shoved hard by a stranger, his wallet snatched out of his hand. He quickly recovered, leaned on his cane and summoned help. He was "fine, more than fine," he quickly reassured me. He did not change his walking habits, refusing to be distracted by what he thought of as "routine muggings."
But the man who was attacked while riding the subway in March 2021, less than six months before my father's death, when (perhaps thankfully) my father was too weak to think of getting out of bed by himself, much less ever getting on a train again — that man was punched in the head and face so many times he couldn't get up. His image, the shape of his head like my father's, color of his skin identical, burned into me: a white- and grey-haired old man, face and neck bleeding and beaten, able to do nothing more than sit as still as he could while waiting for help. I stared at the image of his poor bloodied face looking down and saw my father in his chair. Narayange Bodhi, the victim, could have been him.
The morning of the antyesti ritual for my father, the last time any of us will have a physical connection to him, I take the subway to Brooklyn from Penn Station, afraid. Too afraid to sit near anyone, remembering my growing-up years of taking the subway to and from high school every day, Queens to the Upper East Side and back, fearless, excited, inserting myself in the dense crowds, taking the frequent and expected racial or gendered racial slur ("fucking dink slut," "Hindoo bitch," "look, it's Gandhi") in stride, because they were familiar words that hadn't permanently gotten in my way. Never imagining all the ways we could be crushed.
Improbably, an Uber driver comes for me on time to the station — a Latinx Brooklynite as caring as George Okrepkie, a 9/11 survivor and white man who called the ambulance for the Sri Lankan elderly immigrant, waited with him and took photos with his phone that he shared with police.
The scattering of my father's ashes in Jamaica Bay, near Canarsie Park, is a sacred reversal, a form of healing of the loss and sacrifice of "crossing the seven seas," which Hindus are not supposed to do.
Inside the car, the fist that is my heart opens. My back, warm against the black leather seat, can finally relax. When the Midget Squadron Yacht Club gate is closed, the Uber driver helps me find a fitness club nearby where I can wait. The front desk worker, a Haitian-American teenager, makes conversation about the water and the boats, the weather this time of year, how he still speaks Haitian Creole with his parents the way I spoke Tamil with mine.
My mother's impatience with her two sisters when they arrive; my brother's watchful silence, at times suspicion-filled — these are familiar, expected. What takes me by surprise is the warmth of the boatmen, Italian American, old, kind, used to Hindu families carrying out the ritual of scattering ashes on water. The older of two men watches over me, seeing that I step safely from ground to dock to boat, helping make sure my mother and her sisters do not fall. The older women in our family all wear bindis, red dots on their foreheads that, while innocuous, are capable of inciting rage in hate groups like the Dotbusters, a violent white nationalist gang that attacked South Asians in New Jersey and New York in 1970-'90s. But somehow on the water, we don't feel oppressed by hate.
The scattering of my father's ashes in Jamaica Bay, near Canarsie Park — named for the Indigenous American Canarsee tribe — is a sacred reversal, a form of healing of the loss and sacrifice of "crossing the seven seas," which Hindus are not supposed to do. The step of scattering the ashes completes the antyesti as a whole, which starts with preparation of the body for cremation, the burning, and then this. Some families cry. I see a few wiping away tears while getting off their boats. I didn't, though once we were out on the water, awed by the moment of inclusivity, of respect, I am surprised into silence, comforted by following the rules: Hold the railing tightly, balance here, watch my step like the two boat owners said. They let us do this, I can't help thinking, they let us come here to do this, in that moment of grief, joy and gratitude, completing a task my father wished us to do. Forgetting, for the moment, as he often did, though he died a naturalized citizen, that there isn't some "they" of strangers more entitled than us to be here. I am part of "they" who were born in New York.
But still. We are quiet, relentlessly hopeful, listening to the small talk of the boat owners, looking at the coastal landmarks they point out, that what we do today brings peace. In the moment the Bay opens before us, cut by the sharp bow of the small ship, the water parts and makes a shape like the great fin of an animal. Not a shark but one of the mythical sea animals associated with Vishnu, the god believed to be asleep for all time, somewhere in the ocean, holding up the earth. Incarnate as a beautiful man, handsome with symmetric features like those my father was so proud of having — the imprint of his face, with his eyes closed, pressed down on waves, saying goodbye — or swimming away, down in the deep like Vishnu does in avatars, like the great fish or an invisible sea turtle holding up entire oceans, like the one under this beloved city.
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