Monday, January 12, 2015

The lost year

Absent Presence 
It is funny how as a year ends, conversations become deeper and ruminative, harking back to what happened and the lessons learnt over its course. Then there is a date change and suddenly, hope springs with dreams of an aspirational future…this is the year to…this year I will…

For me, 2014 was a strange year…there was an odd speed to it, everything seemed rushed, hours quickly became days, days became months…and before one knew it the new year arrived. There were the usual milestones, some big accomplishments, travels and travails, emotional and physical ups and downs but in real terms, it felt ordinary…365 days of anhedonic, meaningless living in the service of a life. As this year threatens to follow suit, I feel the need to pause and take a beat…

Looking back over the years since Shekhar, I realize that when he went my tank was still full of his love, belief and trust in me…so despite the pain, I pushed myself to do what needed to be done…the paperwork, organising finances, ensuring that the children were looked after in every which way, smoothing invisible wrinkles in time and space. What I didn’t realize was that I was drawing on fuel that was not replenished…somewhere in the past year I found myself running on fumes and still I pushed…and although it feels sudden, it has been nearly seven years in the making, the engine slowed down…then came to a halt…the tank was empty. I find myself longing…no, yearning for his reassuring hug, the gentle hand moving from my forehead to my hair, the quiet concern, the warmth of deep affection, the look of acknowledgement in his eyes…all telling me he was there, everything would be alright…I was alright…I could lean or fall and he would catch me…

As I stand at this weird crossroad in unknown terrain, I only have questions, no answers… Which road do I pick and how do I travel? Where do I go from here? Do I even know this person who lives in my body anymore? Have I really grieved at all or is this a sign of healing?

In this moment of stillness, I am recalibrating my life - one moment, one day at a time…is there really any other way? I am willing to surrender to the passage of time and the narrative marks it leaves on me…I long to be quiet, to stop externalizing, to break the cycle of busyness, to end the game of whack-a-mole with my pain…to acquaint myself with this new resident in my body…to see this as Shekhar would, not an end but a beginning…

The year has turned, the maudlin call of the past needs to fade and be replaced with the hopeful clarion of the present…it is time to fill the tank with love, belief and trust in myself…maybe then the ‘check engine’ light that has been glowing on my dashboard for the past seven years will finally disappear…

2015 is the year I will…be.


“Grief ... gives life a permanently provisional feeling. It doesn't seem worth starting anything. I can't settle down. I yawn, I fidget, I smoke too much. Up till this I always had too little time. Now there is nothing but time. Almost pure time, empty successiveness.”


There are years that ask questions and years that answer.

Zora Neale Hurston

Monday, December 1, 2014

The empty seat

Shekhar had three main material aspirations, two of which he fulfilled in his lifetime. The third, to be at Wimbledon watching the matches at centre court, didn’t come to pass while he was alive. His organisation, aware of his desire, gave the boys and me four passes in his memory just after Shekhar died. “Take whoever you want as the fourth,” I was told. It was an odd suggestion and a daunting one to fulfil. Who would qualify? Why? The only person who came to mind was gone. So, instead of struggling over the decision, the boys and I went on our own. We settled into our seats in a full audience, keeping the fourth next to me conspicuously empty. For others, it may have seemed like such a wasted opportunity…but to me, it was as if Shekhar was there. That empty seat belonged to him. For that glorious day of sun, tennis, champagne, strawberries and cream, we channelled Shekhar’s excitement…for those few precious hours, he lived again.

On our family holiday this year, we met a gentleman from Canada. He was travelling alone on work. As we met on two locations, back to back, a kinship developed. One evening at dinner, the boys and I sat at a table for four, while our new friend sat at another table. I wondered if I should ask him to join us but hesitated. In a recent e-mail exchange, he echoed my hesitation but his reason gave me pause. He said he would have joined us but it felt like what seemed to be an empty seat was actually occupied…by Shekhar. It was both a touching and sensitive observation. It made me realize I carry the metaphorical empty seat within me all the time. It’s Shekhar’s real estate in my life. Only it really isn’t empty…

I often wonder if I make Shekhar out to be more than he was and remember our love as greater and more meaningful. After all, memory has its failings. Living people make mistakes, they fall, they get up, they apologise and redeem themselves but dead people become saints. We build edifices in their remembrance, monuments of their memory and create absent personas where all negativities fade. I asked my older one about it. The boys were not just the witnesses to our marriage and love, but also its true outcome and legacy. They interact more with people than I do these days. “Dad was exceptional,” he replied, “there are very few people like him in this world.” I relaxed in the truth.

What I know, and not just remember, is that Shekhar was a very special man…he was light, fun, secure,  not conflicted, whole…and he loved me with a complete acceptance of who I was/am…as I did/do him. We complemented each other, like yin and yang, reflected each other in many ways, were remarkably similar in some but most importantly, we brought out the best in each other. We became better people because of each other…and that’s what makes it hard. Who are you when an intrinsic piece of you is amputated and the phantom, is just that, a phantom?

That is the thing about grief…it can become a habit. And it is a very hard one to break. Grief focuses your attention so acutely on what is missing that life gets remaindered. Your search for lost parts of yourself, makes you miss the new ones that emerge…and they do. Shekhar defined me in many ways but he did not define my grief. I did that all by myself. And honestly, I have not done a very good job…but then, I am still alive and can redeem myself…Shekhar may yet be surprised enough to fall off his empty seat.


“I said nothing for a time, just ran my fingertips along the edge of the human-shaped emptiness that had been left inside me.”

Haruki Murakami, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman


“For in grief nothing "stays put." One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs. Round and round. Everything repeats. Am I going in circles, or dare I hope I am on a spiral?

But if a spiral, am I going up or down it?

How often -- will it be for always? -- how often will the vast emptiness astonish me like a complete novelty and make me say, "I never realized my loss till this moment"? The same leg is cut off time after time.”

C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed


Thursday, October 30, 2014

Parcelling pain

Shekhar was rather passionate about footwear, which had led to many a laugh when it came to fighting for shoe space in shared cupboards. He would spend an inordinate amount of time in their upkeep. Helping him shop for them was another story…he was like a targeted missile and knew exactly what he wanted, obsessing over it until he found just the right pair. He even used shoes as a metaphor in his training programmes…

About ten days ago, our younger son said he needed a pair of ethnic slippers for an event he was attending. His foot size is now the same as his father’s, so I suggested that we check out Shekhar’s footwear, which I had put away with an absent mind after he passed.

We pulled down the box and went through his shoes. A pair still had his socks in them, others were meticulously packed with polish and brush, still shining from his hand. It was almost as if he could walk back anytime and step into them or demand that my son stop wearing his precious shoes…we wish…

As we repacked the box for another time, the hand that was playing games with my gut let go. It felt like I had packed the pain of fresh remembrance with his shoes for now. The tears stilled with my heart. I had literally parcelled the pain. It is one lesson that I have learnt in these past six years…from the first instance when overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of his passing, everything shut down – my mind, my emotions, my breath…I have intuitively broken down the pain into metaphorical parcels. This one which revisits every time the boys reflect him, the other while cooking something he loved, yet another when something he preciously guarded reminds me of his essence…the parcels shrink with each opening…some will never be opened again…that is both the magic and tragedy of time and memory.

I read somewhere that healing is a process not an event…the parcels are my process. I pack away things, memories, pain for another time…sometimes I forget what I put away. When Shekhar was alive, this habit of squirreling was pleasant and surprising, leading to sudden discoveries, re-acquaintance and even some remorse at having bought something I already had. But now, the things I put away are parcelled pain.

After my return to India, I kept unopened boxes as a visible reminder that I was not yet home…wondering if I would ever be. In the past week, I have physically removed these boxes. A huge step for me in accepting that for now this is home, as much as any place without Shekhar can be. Like the boxes, someday, I expect that I will be brave enough to open and release the pain from the parcels. Until then, I will repack them each time with the sweetness of remembrance…not pain…that is the hope.

Death asked Life: Why does everybody love you and hate me?
Life replied: Because I am a beautiful lie and you are a painful truth.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Tilting the Universe

Someone recently told me, and this is not for the first time this reference has been made in these past six years, that we create our reality with our thoughts…a basic, ‘thinking makes it so.’ Given the context of the conversation, what galled me was my implied responsibility for Shekhar’s untimely passing…by thinking about it!

Hand on heart, tell me honestly, who hasn’t ever thought about losing a loved one suddenly? Or imagined what it would be like to receive ‘that’ call at any time of day or night? If you haven’t, I seriously question your humanity or respect your sainthood and detachment.

The truth is, about eight years into our marriage, I had a dream that has stayed with and haunted me ever since. I was in mourning white, holding my two children to my chest and lamenting the loss of Shekhar. It was like a seed planted in my consciousness. It made me aware of how precious it was when we were together, as a couple and a family. It made me worry when he travelled. It made me wonder how the boys and I would manage if he were not there. Sometimes, I would place my head on his chest and sleep to the beat of his heart and at others, watch the slow rise and fall of his breath in slumber…as reassurance that all was well. As a reflex, it was what I did the night I lost him too…only this time, there was complete and utter silence…stillness…absence…

If I were to go by the argument that I created this reality with my thoughts…I made God redundant…I tilted the Universe…and it took years to do that. The years when I prayed for his long and healthy life did not mitigate the power of my thoughts and that strange dream…the years when I had many other thoughts, prayers and dreams…most of which never materialised…and how can I discount what Shekhar thought for himself? Who got heard and why?

I think the scientific research for the self-fulfilling prophecy and Buddha’s dictum, “We are what we think,” have somewhere been hijacked by the ‘law of attraction’ and intentionality. It has made some of us believe that we have powers beyond choice and free will to tilt the Universe in our favour…or against us, depending on our thoughts. If that were so, would any love go unrequited? Any disease uncured? Any death undone? If our thoughts alone had that power, would any wish go unfulfilled?

…And if no wish were to go unfulfilled…


Har khwab jo poora ho jaaye, woh khwab hee kya?
Hasraton ki khoobsurati wahi to hai
Hamein jo zinda rakhe aur rooh ko kasakta…


(Rough translation from Urdu:

If every dream were to come true, what is the point of dreaming?
The beauty of  intense longing is just this

It keeps us alive and our soul in intermittent pain…)

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Hall of Mirrors

I often wonder what it would be like if Shekhar were still alive. It is usually around milestones like his birthday this coming week. He would be 52. Where would we be? What would we be doing? I let my imagination examine all kinds of scenarios. The question that stumps me every time is – who would I be?

As life unfolds and reveals its secrets, it becomes harder and harder to imagine yourself in a different place, time, situation as a person different from who you are at that moment. It is one of those strange distortions. Although time and memory are elastic, together they can create a hall of mirrors where it is difficult to know for sure what is real and what is an illusion. Everything is a reflection of or in relation to who you are now.

Death works a different type of magic. It traps the person forever at the age they died. So try as I might to imagine Shekhar as he would be now, I always see him as he was when he passed.

There is another twist. Over the past six years, the boys and I have built tentative scaffoldings around the voids and spaces he left behind. Gauze like covers hide these misshapen gaps in our lives…fragile webs woven from memories because the physical space has been overrun…the cupboards, the rooms, the bathroom shelves…only traces of him remain in the things he left behind. As the corporeal has faded, needing concrete triggers like a photograph, a smell, a sound for remembrance…the presence remains. Ageless, shapeless…an abstraction. His imprint endures, living and breathing in a genetic legacy.

Would Shekhar fit in our lives as they are now? It would require a dimensional warp. Too much has happened since. His presence is all we can accommodate. I cling to the last vestiges of him. It is like clinging to a shadow. Shekhar made life safe, comfortable and stable. Ours is now diametrically opposed. I crave the balance. I don’t question this longing. It is part of who I am now. I would not be this person, if he was still here. There has been growth, change, transformation…organic, circumstantial and multifarious. Like a sapling that grows under the shade of a large tree…then one day...

Before the worst happened, I was certain I would not be able to live without him. But life had other plans. It has taken some doing and is still a struggle but I have not only survived, I have thrived. I will never know who I would have been if Shekhar were still alive but I would really like to believe that he would be both surprised by and proud of who I have become…

Vish you were here…

To live in the hearts we leave behind is not to die.

Thomas Campbell

Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

From 'Love after love' by Derek Walcott

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Is your future behind you?

Heraclitus said that you can’t step in the same river twice. Its constant flow makes it impossible. One of his students added that in reality you can’t step into the same river even once…it changes as you immerse a part of your foot.

In Quantum Mechanics, Heisenberg’s Principle of Uncertainty is premised on how we change that which we observe, in this case particles, and that we cannot with certainty predict the position of a particle because its momentum changes its position even as we measure it.

Osho spoke about how time can only be seen as the past or the future because even as we acknowledge the present, it becomes the past and the future is an unknown.

See a common thread here?

Across history, science, philosophy and religion, the clarion calls have been to be present in the present. This is the very secret of living, not existing, and being happy.

Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said that the greatest source of our unhappiness is rooted in the absence from our lives – living either in the past or the future – remembering or hoping.

Grief is one such mechanism that traps you in the past, in memory, in remembering…I am its victim. Because our time together was so beautiful and defining, I often find myself living in a warped reality where Shekhar’s very absence is a persona…one I use to anchor the present…in tribute, in commemoration. I live as if my future is behind me.

But today, I got a wake-up call…neither memory nor hope mattered. The only thing that counted was the present, being here now…and I realized that now is beautiful, now is as good as it gets…the past made me and the future may unmake me…Today, I am here…I answered God’s roll call…I am present. This is it.

However, one cannot strictly call an individual unhappy who is present in hope or in memory. For what one must note here is that he is still present to himself in one of these. From which we also see that a single blow, be it ever so heavy, cannot make a person the unhappiest. For one blow can either deprive him of hope, still leaving him present in memory, or of memory, leaving him present in hope.
Soren Kierkegaard in “Either/Or”
So I suppose the best piece of advice I could give anyone is pretty simple: get a life. A real life, not a manic pursuit of the next promotion, the bigger paycheck, the larger house. Do you think you’d care so very much about those things if you developed an aneurysm one afternoon, or found a lump in your breast while in the shower? …Think of life as a terminal illness, because, if you do, you will live it with joy and passion, as it ought to be lived.
Anna Quindlen in “A Short Guide to a Happy Life”

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Detach and Release

April is a difficult month. Three dates mark milestones of time but not of the journey it took to get there... Our wedding anniversary, three days later the anniversary of his death and a week after, the funeral…today, six years ago.

While cleaning out a shelf a few weeks ago, I encountered all the mementoes of Shekhar’s funeral…the albums, the e-mails, feelings trapped in words on pages, a DVD, photographs of flower arrangements with heartfelt messages…I felt like someone had put a hand in my chest and wrenched my heart. In a daze upon my move I had tucked this motley elegy to a man into a corner. I don’t remember putting them there or even recall ever having been through them before.

In that moment, I found myself back on the floor of the crematorium, refusing to leave because I could smell him burning…the smell…the smell…layered on fragrant blossoms of a manicured garden in full bloom on a sunny day as Nazi smoke rose from the chimney. What I still cannot understand is how I could be in two places at once…there and here at the same time. There is innate tyranny in resilience…I fell, I broke, it pulled and beckoned…and I rose yet again. The only silver line, it took less time than before.

When people visited during the week before the funeral, I was surprised to find several copies of the Bhagvad Gita left behind. Being a Sikh, I didn’t understand the significance of the gesture but I was drawn to anything that would help me understand what had happened. So I tried to read one of the many copies…it was too dense for me to absorb in my addled state and I gave up until I found a version that better aligned to my sensibility…Eknath Easwaran’s simple translation with its elegant and eloquent synopsis was a revelation but I took umbrage to Krishna’s advice to let go of attachment…how does one do that in a physical world? How can you not be attached to loved ones, to the means of living, the tangible and intangible ways in which you exist? I have reread the book several times since and dip into it every now and then when I feel the need for spiritual succour…it’s only now that I have understood what he meant. I have said the words, told others but the dots only connected when I realized in a moment of insight, the detachment is not from life or the business of living…it is from the outcome…of thought, word and deed. It is very simple when you come to think of it…my grieving for Shekhar cannot possibly have an outcome…time will continue to pass and he will forever remain embedded in me like a shell in a rock, the edges wearing off until he is fossilized into my essence. If I let go of my attachment to my grief, I liberate not only my conscious self but also my soul…I live not just exist. I become present.

Assimilating the polarity of spirituality and science is the only way I can consolidate any insight. Going back to the disputed K├╝bler-Ross Model of the five emotional stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance with my newfound wisdom I found it missing a final step…release. When you accept, you still cling to a residual grief…yes, it has happened, and no, there is nothing I can do about it…now what? Release…let go…

It is not easy. It is six years and I still struggle with being in two places at one time. But carrying grief is exhausting. It is a heavy burden. It weighs you down. It sucks joy and oxygen and leaves no room for living…for being here, now.

Have I grieved enough? I honestly don’t know. Will this ghost revisit me? Most likely. A sudden gesture by one of the boys, a trace of an aftershave, a turn of a phrase, a scribbled note…anything could trigger an onslaught. Am I prepared? No. But I am tired. So for now, the only thing I can do is put my burden of grief down and rest a bit…detach and release…until next April…and who knows what might happen…


No truth can cure the sorrow we feel from losing a loved one. No truth, no sincerity, no strength, no kindness can cure that sorrow. All we can do is see it through to the end and learn something from it, but what we learn will be no help in facing the next sorrow that comes to us without warning.
 Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood

Sorrow prepares you for joy. It violently sweeps everything out of your house, so that new joy can find space to enter. It shakes the yellow leaves from the bough of your heart, so that fresh, green leaves can grow in their place. It pulls up the rotten roots, so that new roots hidden beneath have room to grow. Whatever sorrow shakes from your heart, far better things will take their place.