Bhai Tika Or November

29 October 2014
Mumbai, Maharashtra

The rains are over, the hot October heat passing by, and in three days it will be November in Mumbai — well, Mumbai and the rest of the world. I don’t know how the rest of the world feels about November, but for me it looms large every year, something solid and heavy, visceral, when I hear the word: November. In Chicago, Seattle and New York, Indiana, Iowa, and Colorado, leaves are changing and falling, the air is brisk if not down-right cold in the mornings. The days are growing shorter. Frost covers docks at first light, sumacs blaze red, larches gold, aspens yellow, and moss grows green in the last moments before snow fall.

November means change and hope, endings and beginning. Fall comes on strong, making way for winter in middle America. Lake Michigan turns over, geese fly south. Juncos start appearing more regularly at the feeder, and every so often the smell of arctic air and snow presses through the morning chill. Cross country runners will lace their spikes for one final meet, their feet churning through mud and grass and white lines chalked on the ground. Farmers will close up their greenhouses, cover beds with leaves and straw, maybe plant a last row of garlic for the spring. One friend will start a new job, while another will finish chemo and go in for surgery. My ma will start baking bread, my sisters will stir up Daddy Ken’s chili recipe in the crockpot, and Daddy Ken – he’ll keep making burgers on the grill, roasting chicken in the oven and slow cooking ribs all day long, generally making sure no one goes hungry for lack animal protein, ha ha. If Adam were alive, he’d be gearing up for the Holiday Season retail-style. He’d be working late, sleeping in, smoking too many cigarettes while walking his dog in the dark…

But he’s not here, and so along with the quickening I feel in my heart for everything that November brings at home – winter squash, warm fires, precious Peg, pictures of Halloween costumes and fresh pressed mugs of cider shared across oceans and continents – I can’t help but also feel a deep ache for all that November takes, and took. 27 November 2011. AJJB.

If I sound sad, it’s because I am, and that’s okay. Sadness happens. Tears happen. Heartbreak happens, and still life goes on. And sometimes – Sometimes! – it’s worth the difficulty to stop and acknowledge the pain, the twist in the belly, the unconscious clutching of the chest.

Twice since I’ve been in India there has been a celebration of the love between a sister and brother – the first, Raksha Bandhan, was only weeks after I arrived in Mumbai. On this day sisters tie rakhis on their brother’s wrist, and the brothers promise to protect their sister, always. New to the city, new to festival celebrations, I felt only a twinge of discomfort (maybe jealousy?) when brothers came to school with their rakhis and colleagues shared pictures of their children celebrating together. The second brother-sister festival – Bhai tika (in Sikkim and Nepal) or Bhai/Bhav Bij in Maharashtra – was just recently observed on the last day of Diwali. Again sisters decorate their brothers, this time by applying a long, slender, multicoloured tilak (mark on the forehead). Some may comb their brother’s hair, perfume him with oils, and all certainly prepare food for their brother and whisper prayers for his long life and happiness. Witnessing this holiday in Darjeeling left me newly conscious of the gap my brother left in my life when he died, reminded me of his small, crooked smile, big head and strong hands, and the feeling of his hair when I kissed him the last time on his head before he turned to ash.

Did I love him enough while he was alive? Did he know it? I think so. I have to believe so. Did I pray for him, shout his name to the gods when he was in trouble? Did I, in my own way, tie on rakhis and paint his forehead with love? I must have, I must have! And do I feel him here in India with me? Most certainly, every day – in the kites that soar through the air, landing outside my classroom window to feast on fresh fish – in the street dogs who roam free and bold, knowing Adam would try to rescue them all, saying in a squished up baby voice, “Whosagoodpuppywhosagooddog?” – in the chubby cheeked, glasses wearing boy in the fifth standard, smart as can be with a gentle kindness in his eyes and a penchant for mischief  – in the crazy driving rickshawalas, one foot on the gas, the other foot out the door, signaling a lane change – and (now, let’s be honest) in the abundance of cheap, delicious food at every corner, sour-salty roasted masala corn, aloo paratha, and buttery rotis and naan…yes, he’s with me, always, even when November comes, even when November’s gone.

He is no more, as they say in India of the dead, and still he is everywhere. So I welcome the change, give thanks for the past, and say a prayer for each day that follows.  My brother sits with me sometimes, and other times he holds me up.  Always he is by my side, my teammate, my protector. And here – here in Mumbai – the wetland is drying up, and the egrets fly in huge flocks.  The mornings are cooler but not cold, and the planting season is just underway. I’m planning a garden on the balcony, seeding starts in the window, and trying to learn what I didn’t know I didn’t know in this foreign land where now I make my life. Change is coming, change is here, but so is hope and new beginnings. There is much to be thankful for, and my sadness – though it will pass – lets me know I am living well, and have loved and am loved. May you know the same! Happy Fall and Happy November!
May you be happy and healthy.
May you be safe and free.
May you take care of yourself with ease.

Love and joy – namaste.


Three Lazy Dogs sleep in Darjeeling near Chowkrasta.

Three Lazy Dogs sleep in Darjeeling near Chowkrasta.

Adam's view from Tiger Hill, Darjeeling.

Adam’s view from Tiger Hill, Darjeeling.

4 thoughts on “Bhai Tika Or November

  1. Ah my dear Emily. Thank you for posting this. So many of your thoughts resonate with me. I love you so much and I am so glad you are experiencing so much on this journey.

  2. Oh my God. How did you manage to say everything that is in my heart while you are thousands of miles away. Did you love him enough yes. Did we all love him enough yes. Was he always easy to love no. My son was usually kind and funny and strong and warm yes… Except when he wasn’t. I have tears running down my face right now but that is alright. I need to take time to acknowledge my grief and sit in it a bit and then let it go. Yes November is a strange and heavy time. But here in the Midwest it is been full of extravagant beauty… Leaves of red and yellow and orange and brown coating the ground like a painting. And yes your dad is still cooking animal protein for me. Really good tilapia last night! And I made big puffy beautiful bread to eat with the stew that I made. And every day I think …, Wouldn’t Adam love this bread! He would eat so much of it I’d tell him that he must stop so others can have some. And the stew? He would eat all the meat out of it and leave the vegetables for us. Do I miss him? Every minute of every day.
    And my dear Emily, I miss you every day but it’s so different knowing where you are and when you’re coming back here and what you’re doing. I am so happy for your opportunities
    And the places and things are seen in the people you’re meeting. I love you, Mom.

  3. Beautiful words and thoughts Emily. I’m so glad you are over in India, wrapped in the arms of all those gods and all those people. There is so much love and wisdom in your voice and I’m glad your brother is there to keep you company.


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