Letters to the Grave
A Patchy Road to Acknowledging Grief and Death
In life, death speaks of the poignancy of one’s existence, and after life, it gives life completion. Or so do we hope. We tremble before it with our yearn for absolution. For it to render our story whole. But what if death is not linear in the way we perceive it. What if death is not the end of life but the absence of it. If you look at it in that manner, then death defies the logic of time. Death flows in both directions from the moment of its conception. It exists both before and after life.
In all places where pain resides, death slides by slyly with its ebony cloak of deception. Death has a penchant for victory where human suffering reigns. Death threatens us with the possibility of our non-existence. But death is a friend to those who surmount their circumstances to survive. Death comes mercifully to those who death regards as worthy, and violently to those who death resents. Death is the master of its unfoldings. Death makes judgment before the heavens. That is one thing that cannot be taken away from death. And maybe that’s why many cultures consider death to be deserving of awe and reverence.
I had two grandmothers like everyone else, paternal and maternal. Amma and Dida. And I loved both of them dearly. It is hard to remember a time when they did not exist. My existence has always been deeply entangled with theirs. I would have practically not existed if even one of them did not exist. They gave birth to my parents who gave birth to me. And now that makes me think of my future children. That makes me wonder about their little curled toes and big eyelashes over their round baby eyes. Where will they be traveling from, and who must they become? Would they be born after knowing death too? Would they go back to the cradles of death one day as everyone else does? But why must I snatch them from the embrace of death only to expose them to the same game of destiny? Why must I birth them only for them to be slowly consumed by entropy? Do we birth children because we chose, or is it they who rebelled for existence? My mother told me she wasn’t aware that she was expecting me when she realized she was pregnant for the second time. I think I might have found my way back into this world simply because I missed being human.
When an idea has lost its novelty, it goes into a pile of other discarded abstractions. But consciousness is not an idea. It is our everyday ability to comprehend reality beyond our sense of self. The intelligence that works from behind our impermanent physical body is an indestructible flow of energy. It keeps changing its conduit to channel its creativity. This energy is not an entity of the physical world and hence is not influenced by the principles of entropy. I truly believe that.
I am very bad at handling grief. The first time I happen to encounter grief was when my Dida died. I was 1200 miles away in the hills preparing for my semester exams. I had no friends around who I could talk about it. Back at home, my mother was in pieces. I still feel the guilt of not being there with her that day. My sister was there. She is always there when things go downhill in the family. I feel grateful for that. I let a huge black hole of unprocessed grief fester inside of me for a long time. I searched in my old diaries to find the entry about that day, but nothing surfaced. All I discovered is this huge pile of emotional mess that I was back then. It was more funny than grim to look back and laugh at how seriously I took myself. All the raving about how I felt but not a word about my grandmother’s death. I am ashamed of wasting so many words on indifferent strangers instead of spending them on my beloved Dida. But I loved her so much, then why haven’t I grieved and vented about her as I did about everything else?
In an attempt to reconcile with my past I recently wrote down a letter to her. If she was here, she would have made an innocent joke about not understanding the language.
Your lost land of Bangladesh haunts me. Back then, I never understood why you felt like an outsider in your neighborhood. I was born in this land, in this country. These people were mine. I understood their language, their ways of life, and the nuances of their culture. But how strange it all must have felt to you? You were a bird of a different land. You were loved and raised by different people. The language they spoke, the food they ate, and the folksongs they hummed sounded different to your young ears. Even after decades of assimilation, this country and its people were still a mystery to you. You were such a simple soul. Mamma told me new anecdotes about your younger years. I wish I knew more about you from you, but I was so young to ask you questions about womanhood.
Do you remember the house of your in-laws in the village of Ranaghat? Mamma promised we will visit there during the winter when freshly cut palm bark oozes out nectar every dawn. But she warned me that I have to rise before the sun to drink it or else it will ferment and will taste acidic. This sweet palm nectar was then poured and steamed in the fire in gigantic pots for hours to turn them into delicious jaggery. It must have been hard labor to stir those enormous bamboo ladles through the thickening liquid for hours, given the tiny person that you are. Small pieces of freshly made flat bread dipped in the sweet liquid palm molasses, I am assured, is the food of Gods. Did grandpa’s widow sister stay at home because her in-laws have driven her out? The earthen plate in which she used to eat cracked when you were rinsing it at the lake. You didn’t do it intentionally, but she was mad at you. I think you eventually forgave her for being unkind to you. To punish you, she starved you all night. A grieving outcast is often unkind because the world has been unkind to her. Like you, she was also a victim of misogyny. Why, in the first place, does a poor woman have to eat out of an earthen bowl when the kitchen is full of brass utensils. Just because she is a widow? I visibly struggle to comprehend the plight of women folk back in those days. I often feel angered by it, but I mostly feel sad. I have some glass and ceramic cutlery at home. I wouldn’t be mad at anyone who breaks them accidentally. I can buy another. However, grandpa’s sister was not a woman of education and accomplishment. She was out of sorts when her plate broke. She was a dependent woman. She did not own money to buy a new one. That is why she was angry, more at the world than at you. But you were the only one on whom she could vent it, so she did. If you understood that, you would have forgiven her. I am sure you did.
How many laps did you use to swim in the pond behind your humble shelter? I bet you used to feel inspired when your strong shoulders used to meet the ripples of cold water. I remember the pond to be overgrown with lotus leaves, but there was a time it wasn’t. Mamma said you once saved her from drowning when she was playing near the pond and accidentally slipped. It was fenced with sharp broken edges of technicolored glass bottles. How could you have missed that? Because when mamma came back to her senses, she remembered the blood flowing from your jagged feet staining her white summer tunic. You must have lost your bodily cognizance when you saw your child in danger. Is this what motherhood looks like? Messy, bloody, and demanding of your presence at all cost. The gravity between two humans who were once connected through an umbilical cord is mysterious. It creates whole swirling galaxies of complex human emotions in the shared worlds of the mother and the child. I think it takes more than our human will to live beyond the years of our loved one’s departure. It takes worlds of love that you left behind that helped mamma cope with your loss. Dida you have gone like the way you existed, loudly oh so loudly. The spaces in which you existed are loud with your silence. It is unimaginable for me that mamma has survived the impact of your absence. She loves you more than I think she loves herself, even now after you are gone. In her life, the empty spaces that you left behind are now filled with her devotion to religion. But those huge spaces can never be full.
I dream of you often. I wake up thinking about all the tender sorrows of this treacherous world. How would a simple woman like you have perceived the complexities of life? The folds of your cotton saree collected unevenly on your slender legs when you crossed your feet like a yogini and sat on the bed. These days when I hold similar sarees, they don’t feel as comforting as they felt when I rested my head on your lap for stories. The smell of the moist snuff tobacco always lingered on you. I think that smell is the comfort that I have been looking for in shops. It is not their fault they could not sell me what I wanted to buy. Memories are not sold like street corner kaleidoscope shows. I wish they were. I would have paid specifically for this one memory with a soft cotton saree smelling like moist snuff tobacco. Was it tough being a woman? Would you do it all again if given a chance?
I know I was just another grandchild for you, but you were my only Dida. Even if you had the flexibility of forgetting me, I never had that opportunity. Nor did I ever want it. I want to remember you like one remembers the back of their hands. I never wanted to see you go, and so I didn’t come down to see you go. I believe a serious consequence of that action is to live with no closure. I don’t mind it though. I would rather live my entire life remembering you the way you were in life. Chirpy, exuberant, and a complete badass. You will not read this, but the part of you that remains with me in the deepest parts of my psyche already has. I needed to tell you that though we all grieve your death, we always laugh often when we talk about you. You still bring smiles to the faces of your beloved children. And I cannot think of a better accomplishment for a mother. You were a good mother and a good grandmother. And the gravity of galaxies that you have spun with your liberating love will always bind me to you. So I will keep looking for you in this life and the next one as my constant source of power. I have established a place for you in the most sacred corner of my inner life. So that whenever I connect to my authentic self, I can access your wisdom.
Thank you for once having existed in this bleak world of collapsing dreams. Thank you for making it a better place for the people you loved. I have loved you in this world, and I will love you in many more.