Questions remain after the loss of a loved one.
In the days after you died, everything looked foreign — the old house, the neighbourhood streets, Delhi…Now, six weeks into learning to live without you, life seems to have lost none of its foreignness as we muddle through our days and nights as lost as fresh-off-the-boat immigrants.
I have been reading a book you gave me: Randy Pausch’s memoir The Last Lecture. I was drawn to it by the obvious parallels between Randy and yourself. You were both professors. You were both struck down by untimely death. You both left behind young families. The eldest of Randy’s three children was five when he died. Your son is eight. Unlike you, though, who had no idea of his death even while dying, Randy was diagnosed with 10 tumours in his liver and told he had only a few months to live. In response to that, he encapsulated his life and its lessons in a last lecture that he recorded on a DVD and gave to his wife to share with their children once they were old enough. I’m sure you’d have done something similar for your son, if you’d had the opportunity.
Your son will grow up with memories of his father. Yet there is so much more that you would have wanted to share with him. All those conversations our dad had with us, those stories and anecdotes he told us from his life. Sometimes they were simply to teach us about living. Other times he was looking to plant a bit of family history in our heads. Your son will miss out on all that.
I knew you since the day I was born, unlike your wife who knew you for 12-and-a-half years of marriage. Hence, when it comes to passing on history, I am the best equipped among the ones left behind. Writers normally give faces to history. These days I find myself giving history to faces.
Your son and I are looking at an old black-and-white photograph of you with our parents. He was born far too late to know his paternal grandparents. After I tell him a little about them, he muses, “They sound nice.” “Yes, they were,” I say. His eyes zero in on the racquet you are holding. “That’s not a tennis racquet,” he says with a shake of the head. “No, that’s a squash racquet,” I tell him. “Papa played squash in school and college.” “Squash?” he looks bemused. I smile. At his age, the only squash I knew was orange squash. I try to explain the game to him in the context of the wall tennis he routinely plays. He listens with rapt attention. Yet, at the end of my explanation, he continues to be mystified by the idea of a ball rebounding off the ceiling, side walls and a glass wall. In his world, balls only come back from walls.
That’s enough history for the day as far as he is concerned. He wants to go out and play in the driveway. “All right,” I tell him, “but make sure the ball does not go into the neighbour’s house.” “Okay, Papa,” he says and then corrects himself. It is a natural mistake. All these years he has been saying, “Okay, Papa.” To say, “Okay, chacha,” all the time is new.
I lean back in my chair. The history lesson wasn’t long. Still, now he knows a little more about from where he comes.
Outside, the evening is filling the sky and it is almost the time of day where you’d come home from work. So many evenings we sat together in this drawing room and talked over cups of tea. Now the same drawing room seems like a foreign place with your picture hanging on the wall right next to our dead parents’. I can’t look at it without thinking how wrong it is for you to be with them right now. I am sure I will continue to believe that even after I get used to your absence.
The thought of your absence fills my throat and I swallow hard. My stomach lurches, a precipitous dip that I have come to know only too well, that tells me despair is rushing to overflow my banks. Who knows for which gloomy dungeon I am headed if it weren’t for the growl of thunder outside. Through the window I can make out a threatening sky and I rise to call my nephew in before it pours.
In the past, when I wallowed in self-pity and despair, you’d say, “I wish I had the luxury to feel sorry for myself. But I don’t. I have responsibilities.” Now I look at my nephew and realise exactly what you meant.