Readers Write In #284: Bereavements, a Memoir

Posted on October 19, 2020

7


(by G Waugh)

I was 16 then. At 7 in the morning on a Sunday, my dad was woken up by a phone call from Theni. He could divine from the way the landline rang that it was an STD call.

“Pitchaimani here, Hey, Raja tell me. What happened?”

A break of silence.

A deep breath. A slight noise. He must have placed the receiver on the phone and walked across to the sofa.

I and my mother were still in the bed and mom was increasingly puzzled because dad had not returned to the bedroom to tell us about the subject of the phone call yet. It could have been normal had it been a local call but this was STD. So mother slowly moved out of the bed but was stunned by a shrill wail let out by my father. I was chilled. Soon after she joined him in the hall, she too started letting cries of shock and anguish. I couldn’t hold myself anymore and I rushed out.

“Dad, what happened?”

My dad told me in a broken voice, “My brother has died. Heart-attack it seems”

How do you think I would have reacted then? You can expect a standing me choked with shock with hands searching for a support to keep myself in balance. But do you know what I did?

“What? Periappa died? How is it possible?” I just laughed my words out with a smirk of incredulity.

But thankfully, I wasn’t chastised for my ‘lack of feeling’ then. My parents were too overcome with grief that they didn’t notice my expression. But this was how I was throughout our journey to Theni, showing absolutely no grief or anguish. My Periappa was just 59 and till then I hadn’t heard of people of that age passing away all of a sudden. I was a cinema buff after all and most natural deaths in films happened only for people who had grey hairs all over and those who must have been at least 70 or 80. My lack of proper reaction to the situation was something that confused me throughout our journey in the Vaigai Express and I couldn’t get enough convincing answers for that.

I kept reminding myself of the memories I had with my Periappa, desperately trying to feel sad. He was a nice man who was twelve years senior to my dad. Since my grandfather had neglected his parental duties even before my father was born due to a problem of plenty (my dad was my grandfather’s 13th son), it was my Periappa who had taken care of him right from his childhood. He had joined military service as early as eighteen years of age and had taken care of the families’ responsibilities and expenses without thinking about himself.

Periappa was a very gentle person to me and whenever he came to visit us from Theni, he used to get me a lot of toys and sweets. He never once had scolded me and I had secretly wished to move to his house permanently whenever he used to ask me mischievously, “Will you come and stay with Periamma and Raja in Theni?” From what I had seen of him, he never had the habit of bargaining with toy-sellers and auto-wallahs unlike my dad and this was one big reason why I liked him so much.

But look at me, the news of his death had reached me four hours ago, but still I was not able to conjure even one tear out of my eyes. In fact, I was opening an Ananda Vikatan placed in the seat of my dozing neighbor in the train and going through an interview given by my hero Chiyaan Vikram on the eve of his 2004 release Arul.

Only after we reached my Periappa’s Theni house I was able to cry a bit and that too only after seeing a lot of relatives crying their hearts out there. When I went to bed that night, I felt terribly guilty.

Am I such a bad, unfeeling guy? Will not Periappa feel bad when he knew I didn’t cry for him enough on his death? Am I too unattached and indifferent to all my loved ones? I have derived a lot of advantages from Periappa but when he went away I am not worried about him at all. If this is not selfishness, what is it then?”

***

It was March 2009. One of my school friends, Srikanth was injured in a bike accident. It was a head injury. He reportedly went into a ‘coma’, a term which I had heard only in the movies till then and I was asked by one of my friends to go and talk to him in the ICU. The doctors had told us that if someone close could speak to him, there was a chance of him gaining back his consciousness. I promptly went near and spoke a few words to him lying that his idols Sachin Tendulkar and Rajnikanth had come to see him, but he didn’t respond.

Within a week, my friend, school-mate and college-mate Naveen called and informed me about his death.

“Dei, come to his house at 2 pm tomorrow, they are bringing him home from the hospital by 1:30”

I replied, “I have college tomorrow and I can’t come” and I hung up.

I went to college the next day but something kept rankling inside me and I was forced to get a half-day’s leave. When I reached Srikanth’s house, his body had already been taken away to the grave and I returned home confused as to how to react to it.

That very night I opened The Shawshank Redemption in my computer which I had downloaded a week ago and saw it for the first time. Throughout the film, something kept pestering me.

Your friend has died and you are out here watching a movie”

I told myself, “So what? He has died and no one could change anything about that. Why should that stop me from living my life?”

“You didn’t even have the decency to attend his funeral and used college as a lame excuse. Did you at least cry for a few minutes for him? What kind of man are you?”

The next day, Naveen came to my house and started chastising me. “Srikanth was more close to you than me but you said you had college and couldn’t attend his funeral. So even if I die tomorrow, will you treat me like this? I never thought you would be such a selfish fellow” I could see why Naveen was so angry upon me and I too would have reacted like that had I been in his shoes.

For the next few days, Naveen didn’t talk with me and refused joining me whenever I called him forgoing out. I heard that he had stopped visiting temples too, having lost faith in God for failing to prevent the death of our beloved Srikanth. I knew he was sad and sullen during his classes and whenever he saw me joking with my classmates casually in college, I used to stop and check myself.

***

But within a few months, Naveen came around and we were back together by the beginning of 2010. Mentions about Srikanth started becoming far and few and we were back talking about Ganguly, Vijay, Vikram and MS Dhoni all the time.

But only I knew how terrible the months that followed Srikanth’s death up to the beginning of 2010, were for me. It was not just the guilt of not having attended his funeral that kept disturbing me. Whenever I used to cross the Apollo Hospital in Teynampet where he spent his last days, I used to look away wincing. Whenever I passed the Nanganallur subway where Srikanth had been injured, I used to be stung by a sharp pinch of sadness and guilt. The same year, I had a chance to catch Surya’s Ayan in the theatres and found myself misting up when Surya’s friend Jagan meets a horrific death in the second half. When the song ‘Nenje Nenje’ immediately followed Jagan’s death, no one in the theatre would have been more confused than me as to how to react to it.

Soon I was surprised to find myself misting up even at the slightest occasion to feel sad about something. My mind, I found out was waiting to pounce on some excuses to cry and as days passed, the gloom in my mind was only congealing more and more. I began to grow sullen even if many of my friends like Naveen had apparently moved on and after weeks I realized that the relief I used to enjoy every time I woke up from sleep was suddenly nowhere to be found. News about my father getting a promotion the following month, our successful repayment of the home loan that July, none of that seemed capable of cheering me up. And one fine day in September, I saw the Hindu Magazine which bore an article about mental wellness. It was the first time in my life that I was reading about things like trauma, depression and anxiety. I still remember the words that were printed in a small table highlighted in bullet-points.

“If you are feeling sad without a proper reason, it is a sign of depression”

***

When I think about those days now, a lot of things do fall in place and I am able to understand myself better. There is only one reason why I couldn’t react properly to my Periappa’s death and that of Srikanth. When my Periappa died at the age of 59, I couldn’t bring myself to believe that instantly, only because I had never associated that man with something as strange as death before. Death according to me,was something that happened to people in the movies or those whose stories appeared in the newspapers or only to those who were too old. The same thing happened with respect to Srikanth. Not once before had I dreamed that I would be seeing my friend die at such a young age and when that happened, in just a short span of time, my mind was not ready to break out of its inertia and accept the reality. If your manager comes to you someday and reveals that he is an alien masquerading as a human being all along, will you be able to process and accept that instantly? It was something as wild as that, to me at that age.

And when I remained largely undisturbed at my friend’s death during the initial weeks, I remember some of my classmates appreciating me for being so strong and mature at that time. In fact, even I was fooled into believing their words for a while. But it took me a few weeks to realise that my lack of reaction had actually nothing to do with my internal strength or composure. The reason why I remained undisturbed was only because I had a lazy mind that could process and understand‘dramatic’ events only slowly and such a curious ‘wiring’ I came to realize, brought along only terrible disadvantages with it. People with minds that are quick to grasp the situation and react accordingly are higher in numbers than people like me and their abilities to breakdown immediately and pour out all their grief only end up accumulating our guilt. In India, it is your responsibility to shed at least a few tears publicly whenever you take part in funerals and related public functions and the possession of a cold exterior could only end up as a big embarrassment to your whole family.

Another great advantage, people with ‘quicker’ minds enjoy is the relatively briefer period of their intense engagement with the sorrow. These people by being able to cry their hearts out, purge themselves of all their painfully associative memories with the ‘departed’ which in turn helps them to make peace with the reality, quicker than people like me. Within days or weeks, these people are back where they left off and this gives them the opportunity to carry on with their lives and work with ease and freedom as before. But people like me who are endowed with a much sturdier external, brood over the tragic event, build superstitious attachments with things and places that are associated with the ‘departed’, cry and sob long after the tragedy has passed under totally unwarranted circumstances and even end up messing up our duties and responsibilities. There is a Woody Allen quote that comes to my mind when I write about this, “I don’t know how to express anger. I grow a tumour instead”. Replace anger with sorrow here and you get a fair idea of what people like me undergo in times of sorrow and bereavement.

***

Recently Kamal Haasan had told that he didn’t have a habit of attending funerals when one of TN’s biggest dignitaries had died. Being an introvert I was never a person who had patience for small talk and symbols and conventions. Even if one part of me still feels guilty for not having attended my friend’s funeral, there is another which tells me not to worry much about it. There might be a logic behind funerals and rites which give the near and the dear ones, an opportunity to pour all their grief out once and for all and get on with their lives. But the logic simply does not apply to people like me. If Srikanth could see from somewhere that I had missed his funeral and took offence at my indifference, he would have also had the opportunity to see how much I had felt for him in the following months. I still keep missing him and my habit of skipping the Anna Salai junction at Teynampet to avoid the Apollo there, continue to this day. There are a lot of occasions I still think about him whenever I see a film or watch a game of cricket or reach a higher position in office.

If some people pay respects to the departed by beating their chests and shedding tears, some of us do that in our own way. And we don’t even consider grieving about them in terms of ‘paying respects’. I still think there is no reason why you should pay your respect to them since they are already dead and have no ways to know about what you are doing for them. People like Srikanth are never going to leave my memory and I don’t want to pay my respect and bid him good-bye once and for all. If some people think that they are more attached to the departed one because they were able to conjure a lot of tears and attend a few more ceremonies on time, I would only like to announce my decision to bow out of the ‘competition for establishing allegiances to the departed ones’. And if they think that we people are living largely undisturbed lives full of bliss and unencumbered joy, they couldn’t be more wrong. After all, similar to them we too have lost a loved one and it is going to be an arduous struggle to adapt to a life suddenly without that person with whom we have lived our lives all along. And the sufferings such struggles entail are just too personal and exclusive for the sufferer alone, which nobody else can have literally any idea about.