Posted on: December 4, 2014
I lost my grandfather three months ago. Thirteen years after my grandmother. Now that they are gone I feel like a big part of my childhood is lost forever.
People ask me if I was close to him. I don’t know what to say. In the last few years, I didn’t see him everyday, and when I did, I didn’t know what to talk to him about. But he was my grandfather, and now my mother is an orphan.
I walked into his room and everything was still the same: his bed, his glasses on the side table, the two paintings of Mahatma Gandhi and Lord Krishna, side by side above the bed. He was there too, his body wrapped up in a white sheet like an Egyptian mummy. From the moment I saw him like that I knew I would never be able to let go of that image.
The next day we took him to the cremation ground. Before leaving, each of the family members had to walk around his body, his face now uncovered, and put flowers on his feet as our last offering to him.
The blazing fire of the cremation pyre is a scene I have seen a thousand times in movies and on bad soap operas. It never really struck me as anything out of the ordinary. It was just another custom, just something that had to be done. Standing a few feet away from the burning body of my grandfather, I could not fully comprehend that it was him in there. It was just like one of those fires on the TV screen. I saw everything that was happening, all the rituals; I held my crying mother, but I could not cry.
With that fire we are supposed to let his soul go on and find peace, but all I could think of was the past.
When my grandmother died suddenly, the entire family was shaken up. Even then, I could not cry at all, maybe because I was still too young to have a clear concept of death. Looking back, I think it was also because I was watching my mother completely fall apart and I had no room for my own emotions. For months she would get up in the middle of the night and go to an empty room, so as not to disturb my father, and cry. She still doesn’t know I could hear her.
She also doesn’t know I found her note.
Once when she was out of town, my father asked me to take out some money from my mother’s drawer because he always forgot where she hid her keys. Next to the money I found a piece of paper with her handwriting. She had written a goodbye letter addressed to my brother and me. Not only did the letter shock me because it sounded like she was going to die soon, she had also written she loved us in it. For the longest time, my mother had been unable to say that to us in words. She couldn’t tell us she loved us. It was simply implied and we were supposed to pick up on it on our own. I put the letter back in its place and never mentioned it to anyone. Some months later it was gone.
To this day, I don’t know if it was some sort of suicide note or just her way of trying to be prepared in case she died unexpectedly, like her mother.
Maybe finding her letter is the reason why I often write letters to people even when I know I will never send them. The way my mother could never say, “I love you” to her children, I am unable to say so many things to people around me. I just write to them, without them knowing it.
I tear up handwritten letters. I spend weeks carefully editing emails and then delete them permanently. Some things I have buried, some I’ve even burned because I don’t know how to say them.
I don’t know how to say:
“I’m tired of looking after you, look after me for a change.” Or
“You let a perfectly good friendship end because of one fight. And I hate knowing how little I matter to you because I still miss you.” Or
“That joke you made four years ago still hurts me even though you think I’ve completely forgotten about it.” Or
“I moved to the other end of the world to get away from you.”
Sometimes, I even write notes to myself:
“When you leave, don’t look back.”
In the days after the cremation, relatives and friends visited my Uncle’s house to convey their condolences to the family. One of my mother’s cousins started talking about the journey of the soul after the death of the body. She talked about reincarnation; she talked about how my grandfather could feel us mourning. I knew she had lost her young son some years back and all I could hear in everything she was saying was her inability to accept the permanence of her loss. She had found every way possible to convince herself that her son was not really gone but continued to exist in some form, in some world or the other.
While some of the family members found comfort in her ideas, I was able to understand the real motive behind the funerary customs we had just gone through. They were not for the peace of the departed but for the living. Every step was supposed to bring us closer to acknowledging the loss and letting go. The fire, the immersion of the ashes into the Ganges, the giving away of all the belongings, it is all so that we have nothing left to hold on to.
It’s like the letters that I write. I burn them because I no longer want to feel the feelings that I write about. A cremation, followed by a mourning and then, hopefully, a move forward.
Written by: Vrinda Agrawal
Photograph by: Sydney Singhass
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