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Literature of loss

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Grief is inspiration; art, catharsis.

Anumber of readers have written me to in the last couple of months about how moved they were by the last two columns. Many commented on how much they could relate to the emotions expressed since they experienced similar feelings after losing loved ones. I thank you all for your kind words. Sadly, losing a loved one is one of the most universal human experiences. Few of us are going to journey to space or save the world or commit an act of extreme valour. But all of us are going to lose loved ones over the course of our lives.

In the last few weeks, I have been mulling over why loss is such a great source of inspiration in art. I am reminded of the words of the ghazal great Jagjit Singh who was asked why so many of his songs deal with grief. He replied that sorrow possesses the kind of depth that happiness lacks. I can certainly vouch for that, given the gamut of emotions I have gone through since my brother Vijay died. First, there was numbing disbelief, followed by waves of despair that wouldn’t stop. Even more than two months later, despair laps close by, capable of sweeping over me in a tidal wave at any given moment. Then there is the posse of questions and regrets that won’t go away. Why did it happen? Could it have been prevented if we were more vigilant about his health? If we had forced him to be more regular with his medical checkups? My sister-in-law, who is far more spiritually inclined than I am, wonders where Vijay is now. She reads anything she can lay her hands on about the spirit world…You don’t go through half as much soul-searching when you’re happy. You don’t, for instance, question why you are happy. You don’t have the time. You are far too busy being happy.

Tim O’Brien, a Vietnam War vet who has emerged as America’s most important writer about that war, once said, ‘For years I’d felt a certain smugness about how easily I had made the transition from war to peace. A nice smooth glide — no flashbacks or midnight sweats…I took pride in sliding gracefully from Vietnam to graduate school, from Chu Lai to Harvard, from one world to another. In ordinary conversation I never spoke much about the war, certainly not in detail, and yet ever since my return I had been talking about it virtually nonstop through my writing. Telling stories seemed a natural, inevitable process, like clearing the throat. Partly catharsis, partly communication…’

Even without being in an actual war zone, I feel like I have inhabited one after Vijay’s death. Life has been all about getting from one day to the next; about evading the hopelessness and despair that shadow me like an enemy patrol; about hanging on to hope with the kind of desperation with which a soldier hangs on to his weapon; about surviving rather than living. Still, as the days pass, I find myself talking less and less about his death to other people. With strangers, I rush through it in a few words with the minimum possible detail. Yet when I sit down to write, it is pretty much all I write about. When I write, my paramount concern is to be authentic rather than manipulate an audience. If it weren’t authentic, it just wouldn’t be worth the bother. Maybe it is this desire to be authentic that makes talking about it in writing, as O’Brien said, in some way cathartic. When it comes to reaching out to readers, certainly the literature of loss only resonates when it is authentic. Falseness leaves the reader cold, no matter how cleverly evoked.

As Jagjit Singh observed, grief’s reserves are bottomless. Almost nine years ago, after our father died, Vijay came up with the idea of planting trees in memory of our parents. (Our mother died six years before our father.) He chose a patch in the garden of the Brar Square cremation ground in Delhi, where we cremated our dad, as the ideal spot. He wanted it to be a place where we could go, from time to time, to feel close to our parents as well as pay respects.

Today is our father’s birth anniversary. I went there to pay my respects in the morning. All I have been able to think of all day, though, is the conversation I had with the caretaker about planting a tree in Vijay’s memory. I never thought I would have to do something like that, not for another 20 years.

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