One among the few blessings of having a nomadic childhood was the shield against facing death of family members. Having spent most of my childhood outside my home-town meant that I did not get to witness the dead body of near and dear ones. The news of someone’s death would arrive in the form of nerve-wrecking mid-night telegrams or mostly inaudible telephonic trunk-calls. As a result, at times, the mourning would be for a hail and hearty relative instead of the actual dear departed. This would also result in mild arguments if it was ‘Khoka Dada’ or ‘Chota Dada’ who had heeded to the heavenly call and made his departure. My participation in the grief and mourning would be to pass on glasses of water to my emotional mother who would genuinely cry her heart out till her nose would turn blood-red and the eyes would almost be ready to pop out! The worse side of the grief would be in the form of eating only vegetarian meals till the period of mourning was over. I suspect, mostly as a compensation for their absence at the side of the grief-struck relatives, my parents would take extra care to organise a bland, vegetarian mourning period. The only treat during this time would be the little memoirs surrounding the departed soul which my parents would share with us. This would be followed by the arrival of a detailed letter from my grand-mother via a blue Inland Letter. A writer that she was, she would pen each and every detail of the days and moments before and after the death – inviting yet another barrage of tears from my mother. This time I too would join in the tear-shedding ceremony . Being an imaginative kid, I would almost see the heart-wrenching final moments being played out before my eyes – tickling my tear glands to shed enough tears.
Looking back, it had it’s own flip side too. Having been away from such mourning and witnessing-the-final-moments, I’ve always struggled to face death as such. As I grew up I found it hard to accept death as a natural process. Every night I would sit to pray, reading out the names of the probable list of relatives whom I would suspect to be counting their days. Then I would pray with all my might to keep them ‘safe, healthy and happy’ for ‘another hundred years’. But God obviously had different plans and most often than not, names would be struck off in random order with alarming rapidity.
The first time I faced death was when I was in sixth or seventh class. We were unfortunately stationed in my hometown for those years. That day it had rained hard. At school we hardly paid attention to our class – keeping our gaze fixed outside the window. It rained incessantly, dollops of black clouds created disarrayed maze in the sky – promising more rains. When the school gave up we made it a point to find out each and every water-filled pothole and waddle into those dirty waters with our canvass shoes. And that would mean travelling by school bus with naked feet –pretending to keep the shoes aside to ‘dry’. That was a strange kind of romanticism – comparing the size of toes with each other, discovering chipped off nail-polish in some of our toes-nails, trying to hide bruises…..
As my school bus halted at my stoppage, I found my cousin sister standing with an umbrella. It was unusual for her to come to pick me up but I happily dangled my wet shoes to the hook of my fingers and hopped down from the bus.
“Come fast, there is a disaster back home”, she pulled me along with a sense of urgency.
The wind has turned tumultuous, making it difficult to keep the umbrella upright. The rain had become fast and nosier. And with my shoes still dangling from my finger, my wet socks in my pocket, I ran with my bare feet. As I entered our premises I saw people and more people. The crowd had gathered not in front of our house exactly, but in front of the next house. Sighting me, my mother came out sobbing.
“Your ‘Gachh Dadu’ is no more”, she hugged me tight.
‘Gachh Dadu’ was my grandma’s sister’s husband. Strict though he was, we had an immense attraction towards him and his garden. He loved gardening immensely and hence we called him ‘Gachh Dadu’ – ‘Tree Grandpa’.
I had met him that very morning – trying to trim off leaves that had turned yellow. How can a man simply die! For my eleven years it was an unfathomable mystery! I tiptoed to the room where his body was kept. There were sound of sobs, wails, murmurs of reminiscing his last moments. I looked at his face closely. He seemed asleep – there was no pain, no anguish. A small dish with two green chillies and a neatly sliced lemon waited for the unfinished meal. I tried to observe if by chance there was any movement in his body. There was none. I waited for tears, I waited for sadness to engulf me but I was too stunned to react. Rather I tiptoed away to his garden. The untimely squall had left his garden in a rummage. The petals of Balsam – once planted in a neat array of colors – lay strewn here, there and everywhere. The rain was incessant. Like a girl possessed I picked up the wet petals – as many as I could- withing the squeeze of my small palms. The petals would slip away every now and then but I wouldn’t give up. Somehow I kept feeling that the garden was mourning it’s master. For a baffled me, that was the only way I could carry on the continuity of the cinema called Life. Looking back, it seems strange what I did but perhaps that was the only way an eleven year old could mourn.
From then on I had witnessed several deaths. Being a part of a joint family meant an alarming regularity in births and deaths. But what I can perhaps never forget is the death of my paternal grandparents. Being brought up by them, I was too close to them. So, the grief is still intact.
My grandfather died few months after the birth of my son. Though he would talk of death often, that Christmas he called everyone –including the ones who worked in our office. From hs little wallet he took out money for each asking them to buy a Christmas gift of their choice.
“This will my last Christmas”, he had smiled.
“Come on grandpa, you are healthy and hearty”, we had laughed.
But true to his words, from Christmas onwards, his health began to fail. He had no disease as such but he gradually became bed-ridden – kind of surrendering to his old age.
Around March beginning he wouldn’t get up from his bed. He would have very little food.
‘He has to be given nutrition, otherwise….”. my doctor uncle had pronounced.
So, we had family meetings every now and then to discuss the different food options. This resulted in the fact that each of his children and grand-children would bring in a variety of food – from fresh fish from the pond to light stew to watery soup. One of us even brought in Spirullina formulation. A quiet and gentle person that he was, he willingly surrendered to the whims of his caregivers. Only the Spirullina was a bit too much for him. Having taken a mouthful, his faced transformed to that of horror till he literally spewed out the contents of his mouth – much to his own dismay.
It was a Sunday. And one of our well-wishers had brought home the priest. “I think we should give him a final communion”, the priest had pronounced. The word ‘final’ hit us hard – my cousin sister and me.
“What does he mean by Final? Whose final?”, my cousin had fumed in anger.
“He will kill grandpa with his words”, I had shot back angrily.
Thankfully we were not within his ear-shot.
Most of us were reluctant but grandma insisted.
“Would you be able to take communion?”, my grandma whispered into his ears.
He smiled and nodded his head in affirmation.
The priest prayed the prayer of Holy Communion, barely audible, grandpa’s lips moved to join in the prayers. Lying in his death bed, he opened his mouth to take in the Holy Communion. He then closed his eyes with a sort of satisfaction.
That day my mother had cooked a mild stew which he had had to his heart’s content – though just a spoonful or so. That day my mother had also cooked a special sea-fish for us. I don’t know why but I still remember the exact taste – that special garlicky flavour. Almost no one ate that day. But I ate. Contrary to my usual practice, I took almost three heaped helpings of rice. I felt ashamed but I ate. I do not know, perhaps that was my way of finding solace.
At around 2:00 pm, grandpa opened his eyes once. He tried hard to look at the clock.
“What time is it?”, he whispered in the lowest of voices.
“It is almost 2’o clock Dadu”
“Have you all had your food?”, he asked in almost inaudible voice.
Having known that we have all had our food, he shut his eyes again.
We all sat surrounding him. One of my cousins who had work elsewhere came rushing. She was the only one remaining to arrive.
My grandpa opened his eyes once again.
“Have you come?”, he asked softly.
“Yes grandpa”. She held his frail hand.
“Praise the Lord”, he used all his might to utter the line that was on his lips forever.
It was 4:00 pm by then. His breathing became softer, scantier. In another half an hour he was gone – surrounded by his ever loving family.
My second aunt held on to me and sobbed, “You know, till I grew up I used to sleep with father. I had this strange habit of tucking my nose in his bosom and sleep. He had a strange soft smell in his body. I used to call that ‘my Baba smell’. Just now, as I was bending down over his body I could still get that smell – my Baba smell”. Of the many things, I have never forgotten this line.
Five years after my grandpa’s death my grandma died. In line with her strong character, she never exhibited emotional outbursts after grandpa’s death. Infact she was the one who had arranged for everyone’s food the day grandpa had died. But somehow, somewhere there was something mildly different about grandma post his death. She clung on to his belongings – his radio, torch, com, diary……She wouldn’t show but she was breaking bit by bit. Arrogant that she was, she would never have medicines regularly, nor visit the doctor.
“You people don’t have to worry. I am too impatient to suffer. I would simply fall on the road and die”, she had declared proudly.
But contrary to her belief, she spent almost two weeks in the hospital.
When I went to see her at the hospital I wouldn’t believe that my robust, arrogant, know-all grandma would lie so limp and frail in the hospital bed with an oxygen mask over her face. Eyeing me, she signed me to come close to her.
“My diary. Can you get my diary?”
“No, no grandma. They will not allow you to write. Once you go home you can write”, I tried to explain.
“Then can you atleast bring a piece of paper and a pen?”, she struggles as she spoke.
I was not sure why she wanted that but I ran outside to find out if there was any pen or paper available. One of my aunts tore the white part of an envelope and gave me. Another one gave me a pen.
As I took those to her, she seemed visibly happy.
With whatever remaining strength, she pulled up her hand fixed with saline drip. Balancing her hand and the pen somehow she scribbled a message.
“For all of you”, she smiled, handing over the little note.
Already emotional that I was I couldn’t bear to wait any further. I rushed out with the note. I opened the piece of paper. Inside it, were scribbled these words: “May you all be well and happy forever by the grace of God”.
A week after these my grandma passed away. Her umpteen knick-knacks stayed behind – her unfinished pickle in a secret jar, her hair-oil infused comb with a string of her hair still stuck, her numerous diaries, her wild blue-bell plant that she had tried grow in a coke can, the drawings that she had made with my son…..
And among her diaries I found a piece of writing – her own obituary.
On the day of her memorial service , with tears flowing down my eyes I read out the tiny piece of obituary.
“For all my life, amidst the hustle-bustle of a full family of children, grand-children, sisters, bothers, I have waited for my flute-man! Amidst the cries of noisy toddlers, cranky teenagers and robust laughter I’ve waited all my life to hear the soft tune of his flute. I have no regrets about my life – with my great grand child playing with me I have no regrets whatsoever. But there have always been the longing. I’ve been that lover waiting to cross the river to reach to her beloved. As I sit at the banks of the river, I can see my boatman arrive – to help me cross over to my destination. And as I prepare to take that much awaited journey, I can hear the strings of a hymn – faint at first, much louder now……
Nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!
Even though it be a cross that raiseth me,
Still all my song shall be,
Nearer, my God, to thee;
Nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!
Though like the wanderer, the sun gone down,
Darkness be over me, my rest a stone;
Yet in my dreams I’d be
Nearer, my God, to thee;
Nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!
There let the way appear, steps unto heaven;
All that thou sendest me, in mercy given;
Angels to beckon me
Nearer, my God, to thee;
Nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee! “
Epilogue:I have lost many, many, many near and dear ones over the years. Some too early perhaps. I’ve grown older, a bit wiser perhaps but this is one reality I have never really come to terms with. I live on with the hope that perhaps somewhere, someday I would still find them – my grandpa sitting with his pet radio, my grandma writing stories with a pillow tucked under her chest, my youngest aunt sitting with her harmonium-her eyes closed in devotion…..