This is a picture of my parents, in times when our lives were still untouched by tragedy.
When the scent of death hadn’t pervaded our lives and settled into the very bones of our bodies, never to be extricated from our veins and skin. Inhaled every day, settling into the lungs like a chain smoker’s X Ray.
Every time my chronic allergic cough resurfaces, doctors are puzzled by my lung X-Rays. They look me up and down in astonishment and then ask, rather hesitantly, ‘Do you smoke?’ (Asking this of a woman in hijab seems strange enough in itself, you see.)
No, doctor, I do not smoke. What you see inside my body is the residue of death. I have been smoking death since I was 9.
You see, a young, untimely death isn’t something you ever grow out of. It isn’t something you ever put behind you. It’s a trick- wound. Appears healed on the outside, but no sooner does a sharp push or unconscious shove land on it that it starts bleeding instantaneously.
The shove could be anything. A movie. A poem. A song. A separation. Another death.
With every new death, the smoke billows afresh. Like a Cherokee’s smoke signal. Grief returning home to nest.
We have felt death acutely in every waking moment of our lives.
Lately, though, I realised that my mother had stopped speaking of my father. Where earlier not a day went by without a mention of him- your father this and your father that, now, she has a new interest. Allah.
She’d been religious from the beginning, but this is something else altogether. It is what consumes her day in and day out, it is the only thing she wishes to talk about now.
My father no longer occupies centrestage. After two decades of hanging his shirts and his ties in her cupboard, two decades of his nameplate hanging on our door right beside her own nameplate, two decades of every lunch and dinner conversation tinged by memories of him, I found her talking less and less about him, until the mentions all but disappeared.
I was hurt, to be honest, when I first sensed it. But by and by, I realised that this is what closure looks like. Perhaps this is what it is like to move on. And it ought to have happened a long time ago, really. For how long should one carry around the weight of grief?
Some of us though, carry grief around in large, mysterious knapsacks. Grief and wound and memory and longing. All bound together.
As a child of 6 or 7, I loved watching a children’s programme on Doordarshan, whose jingle spoke about ‘Chunnu ka Baba’ with a huge ‘Potli’, a large sack, of stories. The old Baba with a snow white beard always had a story to pull out of his potli.
When I was little, I used to imagine myself as Chunnu, the one who heard the stories.
Now that I have a child of my own, I feel more like the ‘Baba’. With my own little potli of stories; a potli of grief and shards of broken heart.
Perhaps this is how some of us choose to live. With a jute sack of memories that oftentimes weighs us down. But we’d rather not abandon it. We’d sling it on our backs or hold it cuddled up in our arms, close to our heart.
We’d rather carry the weight of memories as we puff on death and separation and incessant heartache, and let the fumes settle deep inside us, to be discovered by X Rays.
Some of us make memories a way of life. Until we vanish into the ethers and turn into puffs of memory ourselves.
Postscript: I wrote this piece almost 3 months ago. Last month though, when my sister got married, something happened. We watched her walk down dressed as a bride and all of us- her mother, her sister and her cousins- nearly all of us had tears in our eyes. I had them because it was overwhelming to see the kiddo whose diapers I had changed, grow up and get married. Our mother, when I later spoke to her about it, said this:
“I wept because I missed your father. He should have been here to see his little girl.”
The potli. Always the potli.