A moment that changed me: Should I laugh or cry? When I scattered my grandmother’s ashes, I did both

<span>‘I realised there’s more than one way to say goodbye’ …Kalia in Haridwar, India.</span><span>Photograph: Courtesy of Ammar Kalia</span>
‘I realised there’s more than one way to say goodbye’ …Kalia in Haridwar, India.Photograph: Courtesy of Ammar Kalia

In October 2019, I was in India, standing by the dusty banks of the Ganges on a quest to spread my grandmother’s ashes. She hadn’t lived in the country for the last 50 years and hadn’t even set foot in it for a decade at least. My parents had never lived there and neither had my brother and I. This wasn’t a homecoming. It was a chore borne from her final request: to perform her last rites in the place she had barely clung on to. It was a strange holiday.

At 25, I had already experienced my fair share of goodbyes. The deceased were second cousins, granduncles, grandparents, even school classmates, and the ritual was always the same. We would visit their home to see the coffin and hear the wails of the surrounding mourners before heading to the local crematorium in Hounslow, west London. Regardless of the weather outside, the lofty chapel always felt grey and chilly. Close family members would weep through the eulogies while I looked on and blinked. The curtains would then close dramatically in front of the coffin, marking a symbolic departure to another world.

A chosen, brave few would journey to the back of the crematorium complex where the furnace lay, watching through a tiny box window as a person was reduced to ash and memory. The rest of us would head straight to the wake, eat our fill, get drunk and make small talk, scrupulously avoiding the details of what we had just seen.

I was 19 when I attended my mum’s funeral. On a hot, humid day in late summer we sent her body into the raging fires of the crematorium. I don’t remember crying. It’s not that I wasn’t sad – I was devastated – but I had spent the four years since she was first given her terminal cancer diagnosis readying myself for this loss. I had been grieving her death while she was still very much alive. When she died in her tiny hospice bed in August 2013, looking like a marble figurine sunken into crumpled white sheets, a flood of tears raced through me. They poured out so thick and heavy I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to stop and breathe properly again. When the funeral came, those tears had dried up.

In India, though, things were different. Before you can immerse ashes into the holy waters of the Ganges, there is a long and complicated process that Hindus are meant to undertake. First, you have to find your holy man, or pandit. In the small town of Haridwar, where the Ganges winds its way down from the foothills, there are hundreds of pandits whose job it is to administer the ritual passing of life to afterlife. Each occupies an office-cum-hole in the wall lined with vast scrolls.

These unfurling onion skin pages bear the records of thousands of family trees, and it is your job, when you find yourself in Haridwar lugging your grandma around in a tote bag, to find the pandit that has your family history. Once you find him, he inscribes the name of the deceased on your page and then takes you to the water’s edge where his prayers guide the final immersion of the remains.

The problem was that I had travelled to India with my father, brother, uncle, aunt and several cousins to undertake this ritual without any of us knowing who our pandit was. When we stepped off the coach in Haridwar, we had to walk from door to door in 30-degree heat like lost children asking if anyone knew where our parents were.

Hot, exhausted and covered in mosquito bites a few hours later, we finally found a pandit up an enormous flight of stairs who said he could help us. He didn’t have our family record but said that our guy had likely died or moved away and that he would locate it eventually. He could have been lying, but at this point the ritual had become a job that desperately needed finishing before the sun set.

My dad palmed him a cash donation and he led us to the waterside, picking up a box of rose petals on the way. We stood on the slick stones as the Ganges lapped softly, lifted the plastic sack containing my grandma out of her box and began dropping gritty fistfuls of her into the water as he recited Sanskrit prayers that we couldn’t hear, thanks to pounding music coming from a nearby loudspeaker.

Once the box was emptied, I barely took a breath before two uniformed men ordered my dad and uncle to sign a yellow document and deliver more cash. I stood in the purple dusk light, unable to respond, and felt something loosen in me. My eyes pricked with tears and I started to laugh.

I felt overwhelmed by the thought of the previous generations of my family who would have also stood on these slippery steps, each embarking on their own quest for closure and connecting with ritual ancestry in the process, touching the scrolls that bore their names. I cried thinking about their efforts to survive and eventually journey over uncertain waters to enable my life in the UK, where I felt so removed from their history. I had no idea if we had done our part “right”, and I laughed because that also seemed the point. We had come all this way to honour death and instead found ourselves deep in the chaos of life, the hustle of existence.

I realised that there was no one way to say goodbye and that there are so many different acts of remembrance. I decided to start writing this all down, a personal account that gradually evolved into a novel that tells the imagined story of these ancestors on their own quests to survive across continents and generations.

I think I was in shock at my mum’s funeral, unable to process the momentousness of a parent’s death, something we will all go through. Now, I felt it, along with the deaths of my grandma, second cousins, granduncles, classmates – all those goodbyes I had said before. As I put my arm around my brother and watched him wipe his own tears from his face, I pictured them all together somewhere, chuckling at us trying our best to live.

A Person Is A Prayer by Ammar Kalia is published by Oldcastle Books (£18.99). To support the Guardian order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.