On one of the early days of my recently concluded India visit I showed my parents some old photographs I had recently scanned. They were pictures of relatives from the previous generations – my parents and their parents – and these were the first from a set of old photos I wanted to digitize. As always, the pictures brought back memories and father, who never misses a chance to tell a tale, had a story behind many pictures. After a while we came to a group photo – a picture with uncles, aunts, cousins and grandparents. When an initial round of identification was complete, father did something that astonished me: he began to count the dead. It took some moments, during which the count seemed to go on and on; the final number came to seven. “Seven of them already dead,” father said, as if it were the most natural comment that could result from a photograph.
Death has been on father’s mind since his younger brother was killed in an accident earlier this year. Although he has dealt with it in a practical manner – focusing mainly on the bureaucratic hurdles one has to cross in completing the paperwork following a death by accident – there have been moments when his psychological defenses have broken down. And this incident with the photograph showed that something in him had changed – it was as if he had crossed a border beyond which topic of death slowly expands its influence on the consciousness and invades the mind from within.
For most of us younger people thoughts on death occur mainly upon external stimuli – when we hear, see or read about it. It does not gnaw us from within – we are, for the most part, pre-occupied with dealing with the complexities of day-to-day life. So death, for many of us, is an alien concept. I couldn’t help thinking this while reading Joan Didion’s The year of magical thinking – a book that has moved millions with its account of the author coming to terms with the sudden demise of her husband and the terminal illness of her daughter. The book failed to strike a chord within me – never having gone through such an experience, I found it difficult to relate to her emotions following the death of a loved one. As I read on, I wondered what the hype about the book was all about – after all, there are millions who lose their families in more miserable circumstances, and here was someone living comfortably in the U.S. talking about the pains following the death of her husband due to cardiac arrest.
This morning I got the news – via SMS, which isn’t always a medium for frivolous communication – that another of father’s brothers had passed away, after a recent surgery. “Two wickets down,” was how my father later put it. I was at this uncle’s home last week in Hyderabad, and we had chatted as always, he commenting on my weight and I remarking that nothing about it would ever change. Today, in this distant country, I cannot comprehend the meaning behind this piece of news. My remarks expressing condolences and offering consolations to my cousins seem hollow – I am unable to glimpse their misery, unable to partake in their grief. Death continues to be an alien concept.
I realize that I had missed the point about Didion’s book. Grief following death is intensely personal. It does not matter if you are living in the suburbs of New York or the slums of Mumbai – the vacuum created by the death of a loved one is no different. Didion’s attempts to cope with her emotions represent a universal struggle, and her descriptions give us something to hold onto during such phases, something that aids our search for meaning in moments where the world around us seems to lack it.