Photo by Yangfan Gan

On the morning of the funeral, I’m asked to dig a hole. My mom’s already picked out a spot in Naniji’s backyard. “That was her favorite tree,” she says, pointing through the kitchen windows at the only tree on the property. In fairness, the tree is impressive: a Japanese dogwood that flowers lavishly in spring. It’s green now, drooping with August humidity, and I can see the box of ashes sitting underneath it like a signpost. A bit of déjà vu. I dug a similar hole for my dad’s ashes a few years ago — also, incidentally, under a tree.

There isn’t a real shovel in Naniji’s garage. All I can find is a rusted old spade, which seems excessively ghoulish. I grab it and make my way across the back patio, where my aunt Anjuli is leashing her Siberian cat Vanya to a banister. Everything but Vanya’s face and tail are shaved close. He looks like he has an ill-kempt goatee and a tail like a corn dog.

“I hate it,” Anjuli says. “The groomer was like, ‘Nope, sorry, all we do is the Lion Cut.’”

My mom and I are staying here for a couple days with Anjuli, who’s recently moved into the apartment upstairs. Today’s plan is for everyone to gather on the patio with baked goods and Earl Grey tea. My mom’s going to read a poem she agonized over choosing, and then she’ll give others a chance to speak. The emphasis of this makeshift COVID-19 funeral is on the distant past because Anjuli and my mom’s fondest memories of their mother are the oldest ones.

In theory, I know that Naniji was once a likable person. Since I was a kid, she has been the subject of family lore. She escaped Pakistan in the tumult of India’s partition and wound up becoming a radio personality in Boston. In the ’60s, she hosted classical music programs for local NPR affiliates, and was admired citywide for her faintly accented English. She was often recognized in aerobics classes and restaurants by the sound of her voice. After she and my grandfather, Pépé, divorced, she sought a more lucrative career. She became a real estate agent and, at the time of her death, owned four or five houses in Cambridge — subdivided Victorians she lent out to young families and graduate students from Harvard and MIT. The Empire. She printed money.

My late father once described this later version of Naniji as pickled. He developed a consistent mythology around the idea and dispensed it like a fairytale, a thing to tell kids to keep them from wandering off into the woods alone. The pickling happens when you become too rich and too powerful. People grovel to you, and you in turn start looking down on them. In other words, the power makes you mean. And that meanness is like a brine. It preserves the body, keeping you alive for much longer than expected, but sours everything. This, according to my dad anyway, accounted for Naniji’s almost 90 years of life, the last decade of which she endured in a state of constant agitation: her memory shot, her body broken, alone at the seat of her Empire in Cambridge. Pickled.

I dig a hole I think is the right size. I test it by placing the plastic bag of chalky ashes inside, but Anjuli waves another bag of cremains. “There’s mine too,” she says.

Naniji’s daughters have split the ashes into thirds, which is ripe with vaudevillian symbolism. Her estate is divided into thirds, too, and her death has severed the last uncertain ties between two rival factions: my mom and Anjuli in one camp, and their sister Kiran in another. The relationship between my aunts is contentious enough I’ve felt compelled to change their names. A great deal has been made over the fact that Kiran was seen villainously drinking champagne on the eve of Naniji’s death, in Naniji’s own kitchen. “There were other bottles, you know,” my mom insists. “Red wine, white wine. She went with champagne.” Rumor has it Kiran plans to travel to India to spill her bag of Naniji’s ashes into the flowing water of the Ganges, as is the Sikh tradition. But to everyone in our camp, it feels like a PR move.

Naniji wasn’t a huge fan of India. She left Delhi for the West in her teens, and was the staunchest of Anglophiles. Audiences coveted her voice not for its Hindi rhythms but for a certain British refinement, polished up in Naniji’s youth by a gaggle of English nuns. As an adult, she occasionally cooked pakoras or put on some classical Punjabi music, but her disposition ran, in the main, European and conservative. Naniji loved German composers and Bill O’Reilly. She tipped her waiters ten percent and celebrated wildly the day rent control was abolished in Cambridge. Burying her here, in gentrified Harvard Square, is vastly more appropriate than the Ganges.

Inside the house, I get a drink of water and find my mother still sorting through Naniji’s effects. A couple weeks ago, Kiran combed through the house, placing pink Post-it Notes on the items she intends to claim. The most contentious thing so far is a box of Naniji’s saris. Kiran’s claimed the whole box, but my mom isn’t having it. She’s sitting on the floor in the office, sticking her own blue Post-its to the saris themselves.

“I swear I bought her this olive one,” she says, holding the sari aloft. She places it down and considers it with her head cocked, her thumb and forefinger pawing reflexively at the corners of her mouth. I crouch beside her and examine another sari, a pink one speckled with white enamel. The fabric feels like nothing special to me, almost like the kurta I wore as ring bearer in Kiran’s wedding, back before questions over Naniji’s money opened the filial rift: Who’s getting which house? Whose student loans have been clandestinely recompensed? Whose grandchildren have lived in which apartment, and for how long, and what is the opportunity cost associated with the forfeited rent from said interval? Et cetera. All of this is exacerbated by the fact that Naniji made little effort to be transparent, or fair.

“You don’t even wear saris,” I remind my mom.

“Who knows, though?” she says, not breaking concentration. “We could make a dress for Erin with the fabric.”

Erin is my girlfriend, and there is zero chance this hypothetical dress will get made.

“Maybe,” I say, feeling the impulse to leave.

I find an old reel-to-reel tape recorder in a closet, and a paint-splotched hat that is just tacky enough to have been my dad’s. He worked as Naniji’s handyman the year we lived in Boston. It’s hard to let objects go when they might have belonged to your dead parent. This goes for opinions, too. I can’t seem to shake my animus toward Naniji, even though I’ve borrowed it wholesale from my father. I know of her transgressions mostly secondhand. How she rented dingy apartments and didn’t care much about her tenants. How she used her wealth as a bargaining chip and manipulated her daughters. How she uttered subtle cruelties at the breakfast table. Never to me, though.

It was my father, incidentally, who cautioned my family against “speaking ill of the dead.” He said it once to universal surprise after the death of our standard poodle. The dog had been a nightmare in its waking life — too clever by half and always humping other animals at the dog park. My dad had been the dog’s most fervent detractor, but after the dog died he refused to entertain even lighthearted insults, possibly a remnant of Irish Catholic superstition. Or maybe he truly believed that if there’s ever an occasion to forgive someone, it’s after they’ve gone.

I go back inside the office, set the hat aside, plant myself in Naniji’s old desk chair, and hit play, hoping the tape machine will run. “I don’t think I ever told you this,” my mom says, leafing through a box of letters. “But that year we lived here, the plan was for us to move for good. For my mom’s sake. The idea was I would help her with the business so that she didn’t have to juggle everything on her own. And then maybe we’d move into this house. Just to take care of her when she got old. Did I tell you about that?”

“I don’t think so,” I say. The tape machine is a dud. I turn it over and over, as if I know what to look for.

“Well she was basically like, ‘Nice try.’ Like I was trying to usurp her or something. She thought I was scheming. And so we moved back to Toronto. Can you believe that?”

I can. But I take her meaning. It wasn’t uncharacteristic behavior for Naniji, but it made no sense. After all, the money was eventually going to her daughters anyway — to my mother, to me. My mom, Erin, and I have discussed buying a two-family house with our share of the estate, under the exact kind of arrangement Naniji apparently balked at all those years ago. It’s surreal: Erin and me, two Millennial grad students living off measly teaching stipends and with an unshakable fondness for avocado toast, having a house. But because Naniji guarded her fortune so closely, and sought to enlarge it with such single-minded intensity, the money is hard to accept. I’m worried that becoming property owners will sour the lot of us. I’m ashamed of living comfortably from someone else’s hard work — all those rent checks paid by diligent employees and wearied students.

“Do you remember Jeff?” says my mom.

Jeff lived in the upstairs apartment, the one Anjuli occupies now, during the year we spent in Boston. An enormous and generously bearded man, brimming with warmth and confidence, he is easy to remember.

“Yeah,” I say.

“I’ll never forget what Jeff said about your grandmother,” says my mom, looking at me now. “He said she was the most practical woman he’d ever met.”

She pauses for suspense, even though I’ve heard the anecdote several times before. I know what she’s going to say next.

“He said that to Ani, once. And she was like: what do you mean by that? That word, practical. You know what he said? He said, ‘Anjuli, it means all she cares about is money.’”

I nod. “You’ve told me that one.”

“Well, it’s just that now Ani is using that word, too. That exact word. She keeps saying she wants to do the practical thing.”

Anjuli will be getting this house, which of all Naniji’s properties is most indelibly marked by the machinations of the Empire. Naniji didn’t keep up any of her buildings. The houses were so well-located, near subway lines and cafés and organic grocery stores, that it didn’t matter. The rents went up, and people kept paying. But her tenants were always navigating rotting stairways, fiddling with ancient appliances, hiding from drafty windows during harsh New England winters. Almost masochistically, and despite her wealth, Naniji lived under nearly identical conditions. She was always more interested in having the money than in spending it.

My mom and I have been trying to convince Anjuli since we arrived that she should sell the place and move on. Walk away from the Empire with a handful of impersonal cash. Last night, we sat in Anjuli’s living room to talk it over, my mother working her cuticles and staring off into the anxious void. But it was obvious that Anjuli, with the help of her new boyfriend Gary, had already steeled herself against the idea. She responded in a rehearsed sort of cadence, like she’d been practicing in the mirror before we arrived.

“Gary and I have talked about it, Reets. He thinks we can totally redo the apartment, so it looks nothing like it did when she lived here. We can fix this place up, and make it really livable for the tenants. I’m actually looking forward to coming up with creative ways to be an ethical landlord!”

“It’s not only the ethics of it, though,” I said, playing wingman for my mom. I wanted to tell her not to worry about ethics, that she should worry about the pickling. “Don’t you think owning these houses is what made Naniji the person she became?”

“I get it,” said Anjuli. “But I’m not my mother. I will never be my mother.”

* * *

Simran, my brother, lives in Boston and is the first to arrive. He and I sit on the porch with scones and iced coffee and watch the cat explore the yard. Vanya approaches the hole I dug, but runs out of leash and gets tugged back towards the house. Soon he’s twisted his way around the chairs we’ve spread out on the patio. Simran gets up to untangle the cat.

Simran didn’t want to be here. For one thing, he’s a self-identified Communist, and thus uniquely despises Naniji’s worldview and former occupation. He’s made it clear he’ll cut ties with us if we become landlords. He’s talked about donating his share of the estate to a tenants’ rights organization in an act of symbolic retribution. I’m jealous of his commitment, and quietly bitter about it, too. He’s been working for a tech company for years and has a large amount of savings. He has no interest in starting a family. In other words, he can afford to wash his hands of her entirely.

Simran is also, more than anyone else, dreading the arrival of Pépé, our grandfather, whose villainy is less ambiguous than his ex-wife’s. Pépé openly supported the Nazi-backed Vichy government in France during World War II and served jail time for his support after the War. Pépé is a grade-A asshole, but he’s the only member of his generation invited to the makeshift funeral. We didn’t invite Naniji’s friends, because if they’re alive, they’re immunocompromised. We’re not worried about Pépé, though, because Pépé — a retired Boston College professor and a miserly property owner himself — is also pickled.

Simran’s plan was to eschew Naniji’s funeral entirely, so as to avoid seeing our grandfather. He was holding firm, too, until a round of Monopoly a few days ago (my brother paradoxically adores the game), during which my mom wistfully said: “You and Naniji used to play this together. You loved playing with her.” The point of the funeral is to mourn who she was before the Empire, not commemorate who she became. But Simran and I can’t remember that person.

Gary arrives after Pepe, and we engage in stilted small talk, all of us masked. Gary is nervous; he wears a collared shirt that’s too big for him, tucked into his pants. He’s brought a bouquet of flowers, which my mom places on the memorial in the entryway, next to some yellow roses and a few pictures of Naniji, one of which depicts her reading over the air in the WBUR studios.

Soon my mom’s people arrive: Judy and Faye, friends from her childhood who have the luxury of remembering Naniji only in kinder light.

“Your grandmother used to have these big dinner parties,” Faye tells me. Faye is a slender blonde woman with a fluttering head voice and softened Rs, a principal at a Montessori school gearing up for a challenging year. “She would invite her tenants over, and us kids. I always looked forward to those dinners. Her voice was always playing in my house.”

I find myself wanting to be a fly on that wall. To glimpse Naniji before the pickling. To feel this pit of resentment in me soften just a little. I am too much like my father, though, or since his death have felt obliged to be more like him — to hold his grudges. It’s a fact that Naniji was never kind to him, that she never permitted herself to respect him. My dad was a romantic, an aspiring potter when he and my mom met. He was a Salem State grad and a divorcé. Not at all the type of man Naniji envisioned for her daughter. He ran the copy room in my mom’s office. In fact, we often speculate that it was all those years working Xerox machines that gave him cancer, but there’s no evidence for that. Just a thing you say in hospital waiting rooms.

When my father worked for Naniji, he constantly pushed her to improve her buildings. To make them decent for the people living in them, to clean out the mold in the basements. One day he drove up to her house on Clinton Street, near Central Square, and found Naniji had hired someone else to replace all the windows in the house, ones he’d refused to touch. They were original, dating back to the late 1800’s, and it broke my dad’s heart to see such beautiful, impractical glass smashed to make way for something cheaper and easier to maintain. He worked for her for free back then, to subsidize our family’s lodging. And as such, he maintained, any work he did was meaningless to her. Unpaid, it had no dollar value, which was the only value she acknowledged. When my dad was really sick, his body almost skeletal, he cursed her. His eyes were wild and desperate, his crooked teeth bared: “Don’t count on a dime from that woman. It’s rotten money.”

This money is now sitting in our accounts, though. And, rotten or not, it could mean a better life for us. I know the money is dirty; I’m convinced of that. But you can clean dirty money. You don’t have to leverage it for profit. You can buy a house and live inside it and work hard and try to be good to the people you encounter in the world. Make amends. But what can you do with something rotten? I wonder what my father would have us do with it, if he were here.

My mom stands up and clears her throat. She waits for the conversations to putter.

“Okay,” she starts, the sky suitably grey behind her. “Thank you all for being here.”

She recounts some childhood memories — going to the theatre with Naniji, to the museum, to India. And then she unfolds a sheet of paper, the poem she was so long in choosing. She reads with halting solemnity. Meanwhile Vanya, the leashed Siberian, is irreverent. He slithers between our ankles, and each of us takes a turn touching his fur, or untangling his leash from the legs of our chairs. Before my mom sits down again, she offers the space to anyone who has something to say about Naniji.

“My ex-wife,” Pépé grumbles, his voice sandy and his vowels widened by French. He slowly manages to stand. “Many of you will remember her as a very traditional woman. And in line with what my daughter has said about her, I would like to tell you about her younger days. Because back then she was quite the radical. I suspect many of you do not know that.”

But he starts with the story all of us know. The one that defines her. In her teens, she lived through a civil war. She escaped a country in which her kind was unwanted, where her father’s turban became a bull’s-eye overnight. She arrived uninjured to the refugee camps of New Delhi and made a grand life for herself.

“In New Delhi,” he says, “her father wanted her to learn math, so he hired a tutor for her — an older boy, starting college. She was only 15 at the time. She was developing as a woman. And had developed certain urges, as young women do.”

My mother removes her glasses and sighs deeply. Her body folds a little, and she rests her elbows on her knees. There is no stopping Pépé now. He can’t hear. He doesn’t want to.

“She began an affair with her tutor.”

“Jesus Christ,” my brother says under his breath. My mom looks at her dad with desperation.

“Which, of course,” Pépé goes on, “was not appreciated at all by her parents. It created quite a lot of friction, in fact. But she was, as I’ve said, she was not traditional back then. She had a rebellious spirit.”

Simran’s head is bowed, and the cat is winding itself into knots beneath him.

“She eventually married the son of a German diplomat, against the will of her parents. They moved to Harvard. Both of us were married when we met. But you know…” Pépé begins to lose focus. “I suppose it was rebellious of her to divorce her husband. And it was certainly rebellious of her to seek work on the radio! Her voice was so beautiful in its prime.”

Pépé goes on to tell how Naniji ended up on the radio, how she could perfectly pronounce the names of German composers. Most of us have already tuned him out.

When he’s finished, my mother says, “Okay, Dad.” She stands up, and looks into the void. “Okay.”

* * *

We walk together to the hole under the dogwood tree.

My mom takes her plastic bag out first and pours the ashes into the ground. The last few ashes stick to the bag. She shakes it, but there’s only so much she can do. It’s unavoidable; some of these pieces of Naniji are going to stay in that bag. They’ll end up in the trash can in the kitchen. Though the ceremony focuses on spirits, you can’t eliminate the body, no matter how hard you try. The physicality of death will intercede, the reality of the deceased lingering, decomposing in real time.

My mom takes Anjuli’s bag, too, and pours it in. Shakes it.

And now it’s my turn.

I can scarcely remember a time when I liked my grandmother, but there were moments when I thought I understood her. The summer after my dad died I was finishing my first (and ultimately last) year of music school at Berklee, in Boston’s Back Bay. My mom was in town, visiting her mother, so I went over to Naniji’s place to record her for a podcast I wanted to make about grandmother’s story, the one I’d heard throughout my childhood about her escape and, now, her radio work. I was proud of this story. In some ways it was also my story — the origin of my Punjabi name, proof of whatever loose connection I had to India. But the story wasn’t how I remembered it. I had always pictured the desperation of a working-class family, carried through by ingenuity and luck. An underdog story. At one point in the telling of it, Naniji paused and said, “I can’t remember if our chauffeur was driving.”

This, I realized, was when Naniji learned the extent of money’s power: that you can buy survival if you have enough. Her family was fortunate enough to have a car and a servant to drive it. Her father was a doctor, a well-connected man of means. And they were escorted out of Pakistan that day by a friend of the family, a sergeant in the military’s Corps of Engineers, driving an armored truck. Had they been poor, or lower-caste, they never would have made it out alive. What allowed her family to survive partition was the same thing that eventually corrupted her. I thought, then, that I had finally figured her out.

Just as we finished our recording session, my mother walked by, and Naniji made a pained noise I struggle now to describe. She said to me, the microphone safely stowed, “I wish she would come home.” I can remember her voice with perfect clarity, because I have no idea how to reconcile what she said with everything else I know. This feeling about my mother, whose care Naniji only ever rejected. That sound she made was the sound of weakness, of mortality — a version of her supposedly long-since cured by the brine.

Beneath the dogwood tree, my body chills as I scrape the earth over what’s left of her. I know this feeling. I felt it when we buried my dad. I wasn’t expecting to feel it now, though. I’m not here to mourn. I’m here to make my mom happy. I’m here to pay respects to a person I am indebted to, haunted by. Still, I get caught up in the ceremony for a second — this practice of tending to another person’s remains, this fine powder. These ashes could be anyone’s.

It’s impractical, I think, to do this. It’s totally impractical.