In October 2019, I was in India spreading my grandmother’s ashes in the Ganges. 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 ritual; a performance of last rites in the place she had barely clung onto. It was a strange holiday.
In August 2023, it will be 10 years since my mother died. When she passed, we spread her ashes around her favourite tree in a local park in West London. Home, or a familiar resting place.
Grief, when it inevitably happens, explodes outwards to touch everyone who knew the person who died. It is sticky stuff – coating the bereaved to glue us uncomfortably close together or getting gummy and fixed so that we become singularly consumed with trying to wash it off as fast as we can. It can prize us apart.
In my experience, the more time that passes after a death, the smaller and more personal this grief becomes, until we carry it with us as such unique fragments: memories, mementoes, versions of a history. If we were stuck, we now peel away from each other, and if we have always been trying to grieve alone, that effort lessens.
You feel like you will never forget, until you begin to.
A Person Is A Prayer is largely set in Haridwar, in the same place I found myself while spreading my grandmother’s ashes. It began life as I stood in the dust, traipsed towards the Ganges, and started to forget – where did my grandparents grow up? How did they meet? Why did they move multiple continents in a lifetime (from Asia to Africa to Europe)? What were their dreams? Why did I never ask them anything important?
There was no one left to ask – no answers I could seek. Those migrations had left barely any paper trail and with English as a second or even third language, questions were usually met with warped recollections or broken responses when I might have had the chance to speak. What did the past matter, my grandad would have said, we’re here to keep moving forward, for the future.
But what is the future without somewhere to come from? This novel became a way to collect the strands of the past, to pull these disparate lives together and to give me an imagined place to stand upon.
I like to call it an act of remembrance, but it’s all fiction. It’s bringing people back to life – a connection with those we can no longer reach. This is a story of a family like mine, but that isn’t mine; it is a novel about people hoping for a better future, longing for an idealised past and striving to survive in the present. It is about so many families.
Since there was no one to ask, I made up my own reasons for why we thought we had to keep moving forward. I wrote why even though none of us chooses where we are born or who we are born to, we still long for somewhere we can call home. Something to belong to.
The book is dedicated to my grandfather, who always thought I was writing a memoir about him. But he died in 2021, before I had the chance –
– June 2023, Ammar Kalia