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‘Notes on Grief’ review: Grief and sorrow as a celebration of love and relationships

A rampaging virus has taken too many lives, and counting, each loss difficult to comprehend, impossible to replace. With the COVID-19 toll crossing unimaginable numbers worldwide, there is a sense of dread about the uncertain future.

The last breath and the resultant fullstop have evoked considerable literature. In recent times we have had Arun Shourie’s Preparing for Death and Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi’s Loss. Rabindranath Tagore, of course, wrote some of his most well-known songs after personal tragedy. In 1903, a year after his wife Mrinalini Debi passed away, Tagore penned these lines, “there is sorrow (dukkho), there is death (mrityu), yet there is peace (shanti), there is joy (ananda)...” Contemplating on the fear prevailing over the coronavirus, Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa says people find it difficult to accept that all of life’s beauty ultimately belongs to death, “and that at any moment it may come to an end.”

‘Permanent scattering’

June 10, 2020 was the worst day of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s life. She lost her father, James Nyowe Adichie, at a time the world was in lockdown due to COVID-19 — he was in Nigeria, the writer far away in America. He had a kidney ailment not thought to be serious, and speaking for the millions aggrieved by the virus, she wondered: “How is it that the world keeps going, breathing in and out unchanged, while in my soul there is a permanent scattering?”

In Notes on Grief, a moving intimation of loss and mortality, she writes that grief is a cruel kind of education. “You learn how ungentle mourning can be, how full of anger. You learn how glib condolences can feel. You learn how much grief is about language, the failure of language and the grasping for language.” Adichie finds it impossible to think of her father in the past tense — he was not; he is. She backs away from condolences, is deeply riled by mentions of age because that is irrelevant in grief, detests the word ‘demise’, and doesn’t feel comforted by ‘presumptuous’ words of comfort like ‘he is in a better place’ or ‘he is resting’.

Help from a biography

Is there value in the Igbo, African way of grieving, Adichie wonders, “where you take every call and tell and retell the story of what happened, where isolation is anathema and ‘stop crying’ a refrain.” As she grapples with her grief, she rereads a biography of her father, ‘the foremost professor of Statistics’, and recalls his “certain kind of colonial African education, prudent and proper, Latin-loving and rule-following.” There is no easy way to overcome her sorrow but slowly, Adichie looks at old photographs, his Sudoku books, videos and papers. She remembers hailing him as ‘Odelu-Ora Abba (one who writes for our community)’ and her father calling her ‘Nwoke Neli (roughly, the equivalent of many men)’ among other names. She is reminded of her father’s sense of humour, already dry, which “crisped deliciously as he aged”; his sense of duty, a “gentle man and a gentleman.” An ode to her father also becomes a history lesson on Nigeria and its mutinies over land, oil, people. A friend sends Adichie a line from her own novel Half of a Yellow Sun: “Grief was the celebration of love, those who could feel real grief were lucky to have loved.”

The layers of loss make life feel papery thin, writes Adichie, whose mother passed away on March 1 this year. “How Does a Heart Break Twice? How can my mother be gone forever, and so soon after my father,” she asked in a tearful tribute to Grace Ifeoma Adichie. Even metaphysical poet John Donne’s words, “Death, thou shalt die”, can be of little comfort in the time of grief.

Notes on Grief; Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, HarperCollins, ₹323 (Kindle edition).

sudipta.datta@thehindu.co.in


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