The unbearable sadness of quiet grief

There is no grief like the grief that does not speak. -Henry Wordsworth

I was less than 10 years old when the Chasnala mining disaster happened and a couple of my father’s friends died, apart from nearly 400 others,- an accident which at the time shook the nation. It was the first time I witnessed grief. In the six months it took for the company to declare that Mr. B was one of those whose bodies could not be identified, we saw Mrs. B, in her mid – 20s then, with two sons, one 3.5 years and the other eight months old, – have all her hair turn grey. Her hair spoke of her grief as she ached within. In those six odd months before they left Chasnala, however, we never saw her cry. She just sat in her garden in the evenings, softly talking to everyone, looking as though a huge part of her had been misplaced; but no tear fell. She could never even give her sorrow words. She staunchly refused to be photographed, but even in those days when TV had not entered our lives and we did not even know what paparazzi meant,  there were a couple of sly journalists who published her picture in the front pages of newspapers. She got even more silent.

A little more than a month later, my grandfather died. He was 83, but my grandmother beat her chest and cried and cried – as did we all. Crying of that kind makes crying easy to do. I was not sure of what I felt – I know I missed him much more when I grew older, when I realized things about him and his love. Relatives, neighbours in the suburban town that was my grandparents’ home, would come and the groundswell of crying, the keening would begin all over again. He had a full life, a successful doctor, all children married and settled. The younger grandchildren like some of my cousins and I managed to even go to safe corners of the house and play and giggle, stifling them lest we be scolded for insensitivity.

Several years later, my own brother died in a freak drowning accident when he was still in college doing medicine. He and another friend just walked up in the sea to fetch a Frisbee and within seconds, both disappeared, found at different times and places later, post mortem report saying it was dry-drowning; heart-failure, in layman-speak. When we were informed about what was still being called ‘an accident, we are getting them to medical college’…which slowly through the dead of that dark September night became.. ‘he is in the ICU, we will go and see him as soon as it’s morning’ my father thrashed around and banged and bloodied his head with a steel ashtray, but not once did he say he wanted to go to the hospital to see his son. The car was right there, he used to drive it himself, but he never did. None of us did. Inside, we knew he was dead, but the night made the pretence necessary. I still don’t exactly know why.

For years and years after, in our house there had been incoherence in the air among the rest of our tight-knit family, the smell of loss and decay hung in our rooms. Leave alone my parents, even I carry around my grief like a big fat brick in my pocket, which makes walking a little difficult for me, but the brick is well-hidden, no one can see my difficulty. So I hope the famed columnist who made sanctimonious statement in 2011 about the monstrosity that were the Talwars, not even bothering to edit and correct the name of the father (oh the illusion of invincibility  – of the pen or the sword), is down in some little hole where she buried herself out of public gaze, now that more and more dialogue is happening and awareness growing that it is by no means impossible that the Talwars might not have been the killers. Here’s what she wrote in 2013, after the court judgment – in a sickening glee of supposed vindication – ‘Grieving parents behave in a different manner. They are broken in spirit and rendered almost incoherent with grief at the loss of a loved one. An only child, at that. Not these two, though. Sorry if this sounds like pop psychology gone wrong, but the conduct displayed by Mr and Mrs. Talwar appears a bit too calculated, even cold blooded to viewers. It conveys just one thing: catch us if you can.’ Also, aging mothers of adult children don’t write soft porn, but that, I realize, is neither here nor there. Insensitivity among those on pretentious high horses is the preserve that breaks all socio-economic barriers.

Well, guess what, the truth is catching up. Hopefully. Avirook Sen’s book changed that. About time too. It’s time people stopped getting their daily fill of salacious gossip and intrigue from the story of this unfortunate family. “Did she come across a dark and dirty family secret? Did she become an ‘inconvenience’ to her parents?” People – and they are legion, even if we exclude this scribe and her opinions – did not give any thought that it could also be a classic case of the heart-rending helplessness of a family standing against the almost impossible prejudice of people who are quick to make assumptions, without weighing evidence, without even questioning the quality of the investigation carried out. It is as though these sorts of departmental goof-ups don’t happen in this country. Which make-believe world do we think India is? I have reached an age – and experience – when I know that everything, including justice, can be bought in this place. But sadly and funnily (yes, at the same time too) I am still surprised by the number of people who so readily latched on to the stereotypes of the morally corrupt elitist couple killing their daughter in collusion with each other and then dressing the scene to hide their deed, but never once thought of how genuinely unnatural it was for parents smiling and gifting their child the birthday gift and then killing her, and then carrying on the charade of  being grieving parents.

Only – and here is where the picture gets skewed – they did not act like grieving parents, beating their chest ‘rudaali’ style and displaying their grief. And the Talwar-grief just did not measure up. Nupur Talwar did not behave like Nirupa Roy in countless hindi movies. Nupur Talwar ate in jail, she showed an ‘unnatural’ loyalty towards her husband. If your world collapses around you, you are supposed to lie down in a heap and wait for arms to pick you up, you are not allowed to dust yourself and get up without help. When I told my mother, that fateful morning, that her son was dead, she fell in a heap, as though she imploded. None of the dramatic noisy fall, the banging of head on furniture, or floor. And then I crossed her and went to drink some water, leaving her lying there for the relatives to pick up, because I just had the single seminal and life altering moment of my life –it changed me like nothing else has, ever.

My head burning, feeling spaced out, I went to get myself some water. I did not cry, I just quickly collected all pictures of my brother we had anywhere and locked them in the almirah and kept the keys with me. It was a cold and calculating act – does that mean I loved my brother less? I did not want anyone enlarging his pictures and gilt-framing them. I should have been sitting there, shouting out to my mother, asking her not to collapse, watch her cry.  I did realize that this was something which completely overwhelmed our careful armour but I would not fling or let my family fling, our naked selves to the world. I yearned for the tenderness of my mother’s arms to hold me, yearned to weep, face hidden in her lap, but we were too busy saving each other more pain and we quickly got on to pretending we were capable of dealing with it and carrying on. My older brother had come down from the US, so my mother started cooking for him, very soon. We were all latching ourselves on to imaginary hooks from which we would never let ourselves off. My father went to work from the 7th day. People at work were uncomfortable having him around so soon, but that never deterred him. People can tolerate and sympathize with other people’s grief only up to a point, after which, they want to back off.

When I see Nupur Talwar’s face and the steely determination in it, I know where that comes from. From a need to act normal when nothing around is. But the camera of the voyeuristic media can only see the apparent hardness of her face. She does not fit the soft, pliant, helpless mother we would all like her to be. And the fact that she is not, throws our thoughts off-kilter. She is being blamed for not remembering where she kept her keys, – how on earth can any parent remember such a minor detail in a time like that? – but, and here’s what’s so odd, at the same time she is being called hard, more determined than a bereaved mother should be. We expect them to show deep grief, not bother about the little things that help one get through the day.

Because, they are not supposed to get through the day. Their life is supposed to stop. It has stopped, but we are not willing to see that. They are not interested in getting out of the prison for the joy of it, but simply because they want justice for their daughter. We can’t tolerate that this couple is getting on with miserable remnants of their meaningless life, and gritting their teeth and not letting the hurt and vulnerability show. Their lives have been thrown asunder in the most heart-wrenching manner possible, and yet across many drawing rooms of the country and outside, there are people nodding their heads and decrying the supposed vileness of the parents, wanting in some perverse fashion, to see them broken.

Someday, hopefully soon, the truth will out. Till then, we should let them be. They have nothing else to lose save their dignity. Is that so much to ask?

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2 thoughts on “The unbearable sadness of quiet grief

  1. The strain of being shown around as a child would, in all your writings is comfortingly there. At least I read you like a gawping child being lead by the finger hanging on to each word as their progression opens new insights. This one was from much closer to the heart. And the viewpoint struck like a hammer, heave to lift crash to strike and lift again.

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