New York Times essay

AUNT SHEILA was dead. Although my family does not hold wakes by religious tradition (we are Hindu), my grandfather had picked up the practice from his British boss in India and instituted it in our family.

But, scattered across the globe, my family couldn’t meet at one place for a wake. So my eccentric cousin Vikram, known as Vicky, suggested cyberspace.

Then he chose me to deliver the eulogy, against my bitter protests and better judgment. (My fondest memory of Aunt Sheila was of her forcing us kids to drink spoonfuls of castor oil every Sunday morning.)

Why me? I demanded. ”Because nobody else will do it,” Vikram replied.

My family was already on line — 36 cousins are members of the KDS Family Newsgroup, named after the first three initials of my grandfather’s name. Byte by byte, we had reached out to each other during the last year: an E-mail kaffeeklatsch that spanned five continents.

The talk had been on many subjects. A cousin from Bangalore, India, having bought a new home, issued an electronic invitation for his house-warming party. A cousin from Sydney said that his daughter had been admitted to a prestigious Australian medical school. A cousin from Portland, Ore., wrote that he was thinking of starting a business and was looking for wealthy investors. Someone asked for information on cheap air fares to India, while someone else inquired about the job situation in Zambia. A 40-year-old uncle, famous for his reticence, wrote a long travelogue about his recent trip to the Himalayas.

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The family was more vocal in cyberspace than we ever had been in person, and that proved to be a problem. My grandparents had 10 children who each had several children of their own, of disparate ages and personalities. My uncles and aunts were spread all over India — brash New Delhi, intellectual Calcutta, mercantile Bombay and traditional Madras. My cousins from Bombay with their mini-skirts and penchant for rock ‘n’ roll disdained those of us from southern India, with our traditional Indian clothes, oiled hair and lack of makeup.

As the members of my generation grew up to be engineers, doctors, advertising copy writers, chefs, lawyers, and entrepreneurs in esoteric ventures ranging from sheep-farming to tea plantations, we put as much distance between us as geographically possible. It wasn’t that we hated each other. It was that we had little in common besides our ancestors.

But the Internet intervened. One day, I received a message inviting me to join the KDS Family Newsgroup. The moderator was my brother from London.

”You are actually seeking their company?” I asked. ”Why?” He replied, ”I am a father. Our children need to know their family, their roots.”

So it began, a trickle of E-mail that soon became a monsoon as more relatives signed on. I renewed relationships with the cousins I liked and compared careers with the ones I didn’t. Problems became apparent almost immediately. The trouble with cyberspace is that everything is a shout: the Internet didn’t allow the luxury of snide asides or giggled whispers. When my oldest cousin Dino wrote from Lyons, France, about how he had accomplished so much in his life despite the fact that nobody in the family had supported him, I couldn’t turn around to my favorite cousin, Gita, and whisper, ”pompous ass” like I usually did. Nor could I choose my conversational partners. Unless I took the trouble to find out individual E-mail addresses, I had to speak to the whole clan or not at all. That included my cousin who once (wrongly) accused me of cheating her out of her inheritance. But the real difference to meeting on line was the lack of gossip.

Cyberspace removed the context of conversation and made the most innocuous questions sound portentous. It enforced restraint in a congenitally garrulous, volatile family.

Nobody, for instance, knew what Vikram did for a living. The family hadn’t forgiven him for eloping with his high-school sweetheart and he hadn’t forgiven the family for not forgiving him. So he exiled himself in Auckland, New Zealand, and continued his rabble-rousing over the Internet. There were rumors that he ran a sheep farm for a rich heiress, that he was a kept man. Had we met at a family reunion, it would have been ridiculously easy to chat Vikram up and casually pop the question. ”Oh, Vicky. So what are you doing in Auckland?” Somehow the very same question when written in E-mail took on a confrontational tone.

We decided to put aside all old enmities for Aunt Sheila’s wake. By then, we were all using real-time chat software, so we could carry on an electronic conversation. Vikram picked 7 P.M. on a Sunday in Auckland as the time for the wake, about 3 A.M. in New York. After logging in and identifying myself, I found that everyone was present except my notoriously late cousin Dino.

”Just because he is getting a doctorate in molecular biology, he thinks he has to play the part of the always-late, absent-minded professor,” I typed in. I was groggy and grumpy and I rued the day I joined the family newsgroup.

”May I remind everyone that we are here for a sacred event?” Vikram replied pompously.

”Sorry for being late, folks. Couldn’t get out of the lab. Here I am,” Dino typed, entering the fray. ”Dearly Beloved,” began Vikram.

”This is not a wedding. This is a wake,” my brother reminded him. ”I know,” Vikram typed. ”I’ve never conducted a wake before. Have some patience, would you?”

”Hindus don’t hold wakes,” said Dino, the doctoral student. ”Besides, Aunt Sheila was cremated.”

”Don’t I know it?” Vikram was getting testy. ”All I wanted was to hold something in the spirit of a wake. You know. A moment of silence. That sort of thing. After all, she is our beloved aunt.”

”Did you say beloved?” our cousin in Bangalore asked, dripping sarcasm. ”Are we speaking of the same lady?”

”Speak no ill of the dead,”replied Dino.

”Gentlemen, ladies, Please. Couldn’t we all just try to act our age for a change?” Vikram asked. ”Now, Shoba will deliver the eulogy.”

I cleared my throat. ”Cousins, Friends, Ancestors,” I typed. ”We are gathered here to celebrate and mourn the life of our beloved Aunt Sheila who has passed into the hereafter.” The rhythmic snores of my husband and child interrupted my narrative. The computer glowed like a beacon in my dark room. The slate-black New York sky was inching toward dawn. I felt utterly ridiculous.

”Be that as it may, that she poisoned us with castor oil, making us retch, puke and in some cases, spend the day in the bathroom,” I typed. ”Be that as it may that the kindest thing that she has ever told any of us is, ‘Hey, child, get out of my way.’ Be that as it may that she never remembered any of our names, right until the very end when she became senile. The point is that dear spinsterish Aunt Sheila meant well. That is the thought that we have to hold for support as we convene to celebrate Aunt Sheila’s life.”

That was about as far as I could go. I took a deep breath, and decided I would not hang around after the eulogy.

”May her ashes rest in peace,” I finished abruptly. ”Amen,” came the heartfelt replies. I signed off.

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