For so many of us, 2016 has been a cruel year. I almost know nobody unaffected, negatively, by what transpired this year. So many of the people we never thought would die, died. On the 6th of January, our janitor, whom everyone called Kaka, died. Just like that. I had not even paid him for his last day’s work, when the next morning I was told he vomited through the night and died of dehydration. Here in Calcutta. 2016. Digital India, deal with this first. Unbelievable. Nobody knew where his family was, and yet implicitly trusted him, never needing to keep our valuables safe. I used to sometimes leave while he worked and he would do his work and leave.
Just as I was getting used to a Kaka-less existence, finding none of the younger domestics as sincere and hardworking as him, I was made to writhe in guilt as my mother came and told me one day that the carpenter I had shouted at for messing up the bookshelf I had asked him to do a month back had also, well, just died. More guilt. I need to check my temper more resolutely. 2017 resolution.
And then my dad started getting more than a little ill. Months when his fever just refused to go, and he refused to eat much. Months when he had one distressing infection after another, the antibiotics kept changing, bringing some respite and then it would be back again. Months when he was fussing over food so much and eating so poorly, we were plying him with whatever he had just a little of. Grapes, fruit juice, even mangoes when they were barely here. That messed up his sugar levels and threw his diabetes all over the place, uncontrolled. And then that scary night when his blood reports were so off we had to get him hospitalized. When the doctor came and told me he was septicemic and might not make it. When I made the call to my brother and asked him to come over, when I rang my mother and asked her to be strong, because Baba’s life was hanging by a thread going bare. But amazingly, he made it that time, we got him home. Which oddly reinforced my belief that he would never die, his voice would never be gone from this world. I knew he would, and yet I didn’t. Through the next couple of months, another close friend was struggling with her fast deteriorating mother. We knew what real fear meant and we tried to buck each other up. Not speaking so much, but just knowing we were going through similar impending calamity, made me feel closer to her. But the friend’s mother passed on too, scaring me even as I grieved with her and for her quietly amusing, lovable mother. My father, my imperious, proud, honest-to-a-fault father, the one who looked so anachronistically dapper in his suit and tie, was waif-like in his bed, wasted away to a wisp, had hallucinations each time his potassium levels fell, and he would sit on the marble floor and ask us not to come in his way as he looked for the screws and tools which he thought were all strewn over. He began talking about Malay Mukherjee kaku repeatedly, to the point where I rang up kaku and got him to speak to Baba, and he promised me he would call again to speak to Baba; he spoke of Konar Kaku, bosom friends who shared an uncanny lot of things, including a sometimes irascible temper, an inability to suffer fools, a general disdain and quirky sense of humour. Both of them perforated injustice and stupidity every time they encountered it. He also spoke to and of his older sister, my mejopishi. She was too weak to come visit him, but would ring almost every day and they would talk. I would often be there to hear him talk and a lot of the times it made no sense to me. But it did to the two siblings. He would speak to my two mashis – his favourite shalis – about old songs, about how small they were when he got married and how one mama shat in his pants at the wedding (this has gone into family lore, and I am not quite sure how true it is). He spoke of his brothers, one gone already, much to his sorrow. He had some trouble getting used to that – that his younger brother preceded him in death. But this family knows a lot about young preceding the old in death, so I could never understand his particular sorrow. And his younger sister, my sejopishi, that wonderful, wonderful person who laughed more than anyone I ever knew, at the stupidest things. When my cousins came to visit him at the hospital, he recognized them all, as he did his friend’s daughters. Alzheimer’s had taken a hike as other physical ailments took over. When my cousin, Runa came down to see him and promised him she would take him to Egypt, he sadly shook his head and told her he loved her for the offer but did not think he would make it. I knew that too, but well. He spoke to and about his grandchildren, very alert at times, wondering what they would do with their careers. If he was hallucinating, his mind knew the trick well, because while I do know he would have preferred his grandsons to be either doctors or engineers, he gave my son solid advice on how a focus is what is required for any career, barely a day before he died. He sang long-forgotten songs and Dilip Roy, Uma Bose, Kanika Bandypadhyay etc came up for discussions again and at odd moments, his Alzheimer’s was almost not there. I even got out my now-tuneless harmonium to sing for him. I am so glad I tried.
My brother and I would hold him tight as he hallucinated and his hands made contortions we did not understand; but he would relax, as though the warmth of our love and our bodies reached him in some primordial way. But he died anyway, and I watched in horror and disbelief and held his hand as it grew cold and hard. I looked at him and thought of the several times I had dreams that he was dead, my mother was dead, dreams that delivered a grief as potent and irresistible as laughing gas. Yet now, trapped in the sheath of reality, I could scarcely believe it.Perpetual darkness fell upon our house and there would be no one any more to light all my lamps and repair all my clocks. I thought of the fireflies of my childhood, not seen anymore here, breaking the impenetrable darkness of our beautiful illusive evenings as we sat in the lawn, treading carefully not to step on snakes, and waiting for the heat to relent just a tad so we could go indoors. In my father’s world of integrity, it meant we went without luxuries of air-conditioners. Nobody would take care of the bonsai plants, his lemon grass plant, plants whose names I did not know but which would blossom cheerfully each winter in a riot of colours. And the blossoms would wither and fall, I told myself, getting an odd relief in that thought.
That night, after all the work was done and my flat housed just the immediate family, I finally had time to check my phone. I stared at a message and read it out disbelievingly to my brother. He didn’t believe it either, so took the phone. Ewa, my Polish sister, daughter of a dear old man who called me his Indian daughter, wrote telling me Biesek uncle died that afternoon. Nearing 50, I tried to map my coordinates in a world which had rid itself, on one day, of these two extremely important people from my life. I said a silent thank you to whatever instinct it was that had made me visit Poland the previous year. As I had hugged his suddenly too-gaunt frame, Biesek uncle told me he was very very happy I had visited that year. Brushing the comment aside flippantly – while silently and fearfully acknowledging the very real possibility – I told him I would come next year too. He shook his head, kissed my forehead as I hugged him tight again, and told me, with his accented-soft-t English, “But Lali, I won’t be there next year”. I rang and spoke to Ewa, both wondering how it was even possible that this happened. Two sisters, different fathers, gone the same day.
My brother and I discussed how earlier tragedies in the family had made the thought of dying easier. The door opened and much younger, loved family members walked through that door. The land of the dead was a peopled place now, with many family members there. That’s another thing I realized. Family. And who your real family were and who you just imagined were. A difficult-to-suddenly-grasp reality, but one that I think will stay.
We all must die. Accept, accept.
Yet how can you? Barely over a fortnight later, we got news that my cousin, ever giggly, her eyes scrunching shut each time her face transformed into million laughter lines, was now dead. No warning. Some blood-vomiting, and death. She wasn’t that much older than me. There was a time when our age-difference seemed enormous, but during our later acquaintance, it didn’t and the gap compressed and we had become peers and now she was gone, leaving her young daughters motherless. My aunt, younger than my mother, died after we watched her struggling to live for days. She had that no-one-gets-out-of this-alive stage of that cancer. It was heartbreaking to see her, to see my cousin as he sat, day after long day, not a whiff of emotion showing on his handsome face. We almost wished she died, but didn’t want it, wanting some miracle to happen. It didn’t, of course. Miracles rarely do. And my aunt, my nervous aunt who displayed so much fortitude and strength in her later life; my aunt who used to obsess about the landlord not giving her enough water, who started counting heads as soon as the larger family assembled anywhere, mostly Bankura, because she needed to sort out sleeping arrangements while we faffed around. That aunt was her bravest in death.
You thought that was it, did you? Nope. Not quite. Wait. One of my favourite brothers-in-law, my cousin’s husband, was alive one moment, and some chest pain and a few minutes later, was gone. Words,phrases, hazy recollections between moments of clarity, kept coming back. He looked tense the last time I saw him, less than a year back. But situations had resolved themselves, so why did he have to die? My cousin cried inconsolably when we went to her, but we had no answer. No one does.
And while all of this was happening in our lives, people in the lives of my close friends, a friend’s much loved sister suddenly died, right when recovery seemed a possibility, another’s loved father -in-law, one’s mother, a couple’s fathers, people I knew and respected, quite apart from sharing their children’s grief in their deaths. A much younger friend has a cerebral stroke and is struggling to overcome, quite bravely, the paralysis of her entire left side. One of my closest friend’s partner has cancer and I am carrying the soft dread in the pit of my stomach as we await results from the treatment, fingers, toes and all extremities crossed. Relationships broke, lives torn asunder and truth revealed, for a few I love and cherish.
And Arijitda. Once one of my most favourite people in the world, the giver of gift-cheques of Rs 50 for my birthdays and rakhi, for years and years, to the envy of many friends – in those days when that could buy me major luxuries – easily one of the most handsome and intelligent person I have ever known. Before age and our different lives took over and we grew apart, still on each other’s radar but not in constant touch. To think that that razor sharp mind and quick wit is now inside a person who is a shell of himself, looking like the same person, but not giving any signs that he is here with us. There are a few dozen times every day that I think of him, that I wonder about my cousin, her incredible loneliness and the suddenly bleak future. I keep hoping that with each day, with our long and slow remembering, Arijitda’s recovery might be gaining the strength it requires for him to open his eyes and smile that wonderful smile. Surely the inertial power of love, the hours, the weeks and years harmoniously spent by my cousin and Arijitda in each other’s company and love was greater than the circumstances of the mere present? Why didn’t love generate its own reserves?
I became 50 somewhere in all of this, but it made no difference to me. And some difference to a few others, but only a few. The plunging skies of adulthood had long rid me of my dreams about people, many facades were gone, but now I had horizons embraced by fog, un-understanding many people I loved. I was already revisiting my past anyway, living in a mist of half-shared unreliable perceptions, realizing mistakes I made, relationships I had invested in deeply, slapping me on my face, if not by death then by deliberate moving apart. As I turned 50, I did not find myself crossing any threshold, nor did the ground drop away beneath me to swallow me in although I entered the lofty space in which I could observe these things not happening.
There are several positives – nothing gigantic, but significant nevertheless. I bonded with cousins with whom I had lost touch, and realized how much shared family stories and memories could mean in life. I met old friends and shared cackly midnight laughter with, as we snuggled in our duvets, wondering about our long lost selves – why did I faint so much, how one friend would hunt around for spoons and thrust it in between my teeth, how that person one went out with in school was such a jerk and thank god that relationship did not work out. My son has grown and become a cheeky, irreverent but generally a nice person, not showing his disdain through hostile body language. As he and his father constantly emphasize on my lack of waist, I have realized that maintaining a sense of humour is the final frontier or at least the saving grace as we age.
I stop and stare at the sky which plunges into my soul in a burst of hypothermia. The world has become more irresponsible and ugly this last year. The relatively safe place we thought our world was has disintegrated and a peculiar exhaustion and grief mingle in my life in some strange way. This has been a strange year, seeing the culling, almost, of so many people, as though there was someone forcing them to drop dead, their last songs unheard, last cries un-cried, their last lines in their last plays, unuttered. This year, there is no chance of getting anyone else you love to come cry with you in the aftermath of your loss, because there is no chance of actions of solidarity, as most are battling their own demons.
2016, I will not miss you. I will miss the people you took away, the ones I so took for granted.
I need to live in the moment long enough, since all too soon the moment gets only captured in photographs. 2017, that is my promise to you.