It had been a quiet, peaceful, uneventful, everyday sort of day. I had been winding up the routine chores around the house, clearing the last pile of laundry in particular, as I remember. The phone rang and I reached out to answer it in an immediate instinctive reflex, a half folded shirt in my hands. My father’s voice came through, “Hello! Rohini?” and I answered as was my wont, “Hello, Dada! Tell me?” Only, it wasn’t him, but an old family friend who had been trying to reach my husband. The spell was broken and I talked to the friend. Coherently, I believe.
My father had passed away years ago but at that moment it had been his unmistakable voice in my ear. Gruff, strong, assertive, distinctive. Not that friend’s. I tried to shake off the oddness of the incident as an auditory illusion and returned to the ordinariness around me. But something within me had been jerked alive. A tingling, unsettling sense of the extraordinary. And as I worked through the rest of my day a question flitted in and out of my head: Why would that friend’s voice which I was familiar with suddenly come masked as my father’s?
That evening while sitting down to my customary riyaz, I embraced nostalgia like a warm, comforting shawl. Bandishes that my father had loved listening to surged through in my consciousness and I wallowed in them as one would in memories that are both vividly and vibrantly alive yet steeped in swirling sentiment. Dada had been a staunch Bhimsen Joshi fan, and the maestro’s Sakhi, Shyam nahi aaye in Chhaya Malhar was much loved. He would point out to my mother excitedly, “Do you see how he calls out to sakhi? A different approach every time!” and they would both listen to that old LP, over and over again, completely enraptured. I too tried to emulate Bhimseji’s sakhi but, of course, there is none like him and his sakhi was also equally unique. But that evening I came as close to him as was possible for me, remembering and reproducing the fine variations he introduced every time he sang the word, the lilting love, the sense of urgency, the insistence, or then the resigned acceptance of Shyam’s disappointing non-appearance. Hope and loss playing hide and seek, Shyam’s sakhi and Dada’s daughter swivelling from the one to the other, back and forth on the tides of unrestrained emotion. That night after dinner I ate a small bowl of mango ice cream, again a firm favourite with Dada. It felt appropriate, feeding myself, feeding that dearly beloved parent of mine who had reminded me once again that he had never really left.
Well, both my parents have passed on. I miss them, of course. That is the inescapable quotient of attachment and bereavement, being reminded of what once was when one’s dearly beloved were still by one’s side. In fact, I miss the air that they breathed with me, the sunshine that would bathe their skin and mine, the mildly fragrant breeze that fanned the summer evenings in our garden, the song of the koyal that we heard together. The sun rises and sets as always, the seasons follow each other as before, gardens bloom and birds sing, and I appreciate it all every day, yet there is that fine edge to all my experiences and emotions today, an awareness of the difference in the seeming sameness. The undeniable presence of loss.
Both my parents, Ai and Dada, lived full lives, loved each other, their children and life itself to the fullest. In retrospect, I know and accept that their passing was inevitable, perhaps timely too. But I remain their child, a greedy one at that, still hankering for that one more moment of togetherness, wanting to bury my head in Ai’s lap, inhale the caressing love that she exuded with every breath, hold Dada’s hand and step out into the lane outside our old house where I grew up, step out into the world as it were knowing that he would always have my back. Hear them call my name. Hear their response when I called theirs’. Hear them talk, laugh, hear the sound of their footsteps, the rustle of the newspapers they read, the sound of their TV, their rhythmic breathing when catching an afternoon nap. Smell his eau de cologne, her fragrant hair oil. See the faint depression on the sofa chairs they vacated. Pick up the phone to call them, talk to them. Drive over to their place and see her standing on her balcony, waiting in welcome. Not to be. Not anymore.
But is it all really final? There are instances when I feel that all I need to do is close my eyes and call out to them and I know that they will be there. Friends tell me that spirits of people live on, that death is certainly not the end. There are philosophies I have explored that are based on the continuing existence of the soul, of cycles of birth, death and rebirth, where the body is the garment that the soul wears during a particular life period, that garments change over the cycles of birth and rebirth, but the true spiritual essence, the soul, lives on. Until it is absorbed into the infinite, supreme, divine power that is God. That nothing is final, that death is just a separating façade, that we need to look beyond it. That all is a continual ceaseless flow, that the sentient and insentient may metamorphose and evolve, but never disappear. That just as matter and all that is material is constant in its sum, the spirit is equally indestructible.
There are times when I am sorely tempted to imagine that the souls of those I have loved and whose earthly presence has ended, linger on around me, like a nurturing loving wrap or a protective guiding ambient light. But I stop short of belief. For I do not know. I remain a hopeless sceptic. But, and this is just as important, I do not disbelieve either. For while I accept that souls, rebirths, god, salvation and so on are concepts born of the human intellect driven by a striving to pierce through the limiting walls of our pitiably finite knowledge, to make sense of this world and our life in it, I do not know for a fact that they are fallacious. My Ai and Dada may still be there, floating somewhere in this infinite universe, hopefully blissfully. Or, they may not. The dear young nephew I lost a few years ago, and my dear dear sister, my dearest confidante, friend, philosopher and guide, who followed some months later, may still be floating too, perhaps still invested in those that they tragically left behind. Maybe. Maybe not. The fact of the matter is that I do not know. And I am mostly okay with that.
For the essence of who and what they were still lives on in me. I carry them with me in everything I think, feel, do. As time passes and the jagged edges of memories get rounded and smoothed, comfortable and mellow in warm sepia, those that live on therein grow more loving, more forgiving, more endearing. And I grow increasingly loyal to them, fiercely possessive of every word they spoke, stoutly defending or even espousing every value, moral or ideal they lived by, tenaciously guarding every single thing they left behind for me, be they letters, books, photos, sarees or memories.
There have been days when I have been preparing something in the kitchen, a recipe that Ai had taught me, and I call out to her. Aloud. Ai, dearest, come and taste this, tell me if this exactly how it is supposed to be. No, she doesn’t answer, but that has never really mattered. For I still hear the echoes of all her previous approvals and affirmations, her genuine heartfelt appreciation of every single thing I ever did, whether it was a cake I had baked or a plateful of pakoras I had fried, a Raga that I had been singing or a story I had just written. There are days when I look at my reflection in the mirror and I see my mother’s eyes smiling at me. I wave out to her quietly, happily. And we both smile. That umbilical cord that once tied me to her still holds on.
I am still awash with the impact of an incident that occurred soon after her passing. Pune had been reeling under exceptionally heavy though late monsoon showers, I had been driving to my French class, the wipers swinging furiously to and fro, the radio playing old Hindi songs, and my eyes streaming unstoppable tears of overwhelming grief. In the secluded privacy of my car I hollered out to her. Ai, how could you leave so suddenly? How could you not even wish me a goodbye? This is so unfair! Where are you, Ai? Show me where you are. Now! The radio crackled and a rather inane song that she had been inexplicably fond of started playing, dheere dheere bol koi sun na le. Speak softly, else … My heart flooded with gratitude.
Memories, illusions, moments of willing delusions, there is nothing tangible or measureable about them, is there? It’s all in the mind, as they say. An intense yearning to reach out to those who have left, a bullish resistance to accepting that they are no more, a bewildering vulnerability in their absence, a refusal to accept that death is unshakeable or a wild hope that there may be ways in which we could outsmart it and continue to communicate with those it has taken away. Any or all of that could be responsible for the games that our minds may play with us.
But just because it’s all in the mind, is it less real? I agree that my random moments of connection with my deceased parents could well be mere illusions, but does that negate their validity for me? When Darcy insults Elizabeth in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, I fondly and perhaps foolishly believe that the tears that gather in my eyes are actually my sister Pratima’s, the ones that she had shed for the wounded pride of her loved and admired Austen heroine. That may be completely irrational. But is the heartache that I feel irrational too? Is it unreal? That erupting anger against the arrogant young man, is it exclusively mine or is it laced with what was once hers? Every girl and woman who has read and watched this classic wants Elizabeth vindicated, I more so because Pratima wanted it too. And Pratima is not sitting here with me feeling angry or wretched or sad or relieved or happy or satisfied. No, she trusts me to feel all of that by myself and on her behalf too. That may be my self-deluding assumption, but is my enduring love and longing for her to reclaim her earthly space a delusion? No.
Parting and grief teach one as much about togetherness as togetherness itself. More, I suspect. Loving intensely makes losing that much harder to bear. But we survive, don’t we? Beautifully and gloriously, I think. For there is then wrought in us a refinement of our very humanity. Our capacity for empathy and compassion grows. Our appreciation of all that life has to offer is keener, heightened, for we know that life itself is ephemeral, our experience of loss and sorrow has handed us that wisdom. We value and cherish all those who stay on with us, holding our hand, leading us from crushing grief to a lightness of being and then on to an embracing of our everyday joys with as much lust as before. To be ready to love and lose again. And again.
And every happy or bizarre experience that reconnects me to those of my family and friends that I loved and continue to love dearly, those whose love for me survives in the memory of every cell of my being even after their physical presence has faded away, is like a precious gift. My lurking cynicism warns me that I am probably gifting these experiences to myself. Maybe. But I see no reason to refuse those gifts. If there were to be another time when my father was to miraculously speak to me on the phone, I would not turn away from him or remind him that he’s dead, just a sentimental memory I am clinging to, a vestige of my attachment taking refuge in my head, and that he has no earthly business to call me from the beyond. If there is a beyond.
The beyond may not exist. But are we sure that the here and now is not an illusion too? All is Maya as our sages insisted through the ages. Well, give me the Maya, I say. Any day. Every day. It is my inalienable birth-right as a human, the Maya of fulfilling love and of equally fulfilling illusions. Then death shall not do us apart.