Monday, October 25, 2010

Playing on heartstrings

In 2004, our older son requested my friend who was coming for a visit to bring him an acoustic guitar. She obliged, much to Shekhar's consternation. We had just bought a piano earlier in the year to make it easier for the boy to practice his scales.

Full credit to him, our son slowly, and rather painfully for us, taught himself how to play the guitar. Then on his next birthday he asked for an electric guitar. Shekhar balked. The boy seemed to be going through musical instruments at alarming speed. We went to the Music Store with Shekhar whining all the way to the cash counter. During the course of the next year, the accoutrements for the guitar grew - strings, picks, capos, fancy straps, carry-bags, a special tool kit, amplifiers, a wah-pedal, named very aptly, Cry Baby...mostly acquired when Shekhar was travelling so he couldn't complain.

Our son's guitar skills continued to grow. Some days Shekhar and I would watch in awe as his still chubby fingers moved along the frets...neither of us could play an instrument and we marvelled at how this musical genius had come from us. Of course, we were proud parents; anything he played would have sounded good.

Then...he asked for drums. This time even I resisted. But Shekhar indulged him and bought him an electronic set. As the house shook to the rhythm only our son could hear, Shekhar must have regretted his decision but he never showed it.

Yesterday, our son won his first competition and Shekhar isn't here to see how he has grown into this accomplished musician who plays seven instruments with consummate ease and composes heart rending melodies dedicated to him. He does not know that he has built this beautiful talent, given it soul.

I didn't get to see our son perform yesterday, only college students could attend. I don't believe there are any such restrictions on spirits...Shekhar must have been there, with tears of pride welling in his eyes. I know...because my happiness is tinged with the salt of his tears...


Ring the bells that still ring,
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything,
That's how the light gets in.

From Anthem by Leonard Cohen

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A tiger by its tale

Some old photographs fell out of a book I pulled out from the shelf the other day. I almost did not recognize myself. There was one in which I was sitting astride a live tiger, smiling with abandon at the camera - a photo opportunity in a Far Eastern zoo. It brought back sharp memories of the instant at which it was taken. I could still smell the carrion breath of the tiger, feel its course fur beneath my fingers, the cold metal of its restraints against my arm, hear the loud beating of my heart and experience the rush of doing a brave and foolish thing impetuously. It got me thinking...

I was made brave by one man, who stood outside the frame of the camera. He held his breath and counsel, waiting to jump in should anything go wrong. Nothing did. As I jumped off the big cat with the help of its trainer, I remember Shekhar held me for a long words, no judgement just a calm reassurance that all was well. I recall many instances of being brave and foolish like that in our years together - sometimes it was me, sometimes it was Shekhar.

Psychologist Arthur Aron at Stony Brook University, New York says it is not just feelings of love and loyalty that keep couples together, he speculates that the level of commitment may depend on how much a partner enhances your life and broadens your horizons. He calls this concept 'self expansion'. It is based on how much a partner provides a source of exciting experiences, makes you a better person and how much a partner is viewed as a way to expand one's own capabilities. Aron says, "We enter relationships because the other person becomes part of ourselves and that expands us."

Being with Shekhar expanded me, my life and my mind. I was a better person with and because of him. What the research does not tell you is that after the partner is gone you are left with a life of shrinking proportions that your mind and self do not fit any more. I find myself trying to define who I am without Shekhar and it is hard to explain the sinkhole in my identity left by his sudden departure.

Now, as life expands and shrinks at the same time, I tread on uncharted territory. Some days it is like walking off a cliff without a net, on others there is a comfortable familiarity in doing things in ways that Shekhar enabled. Even without him, I have realized that I continue to grow in new and unexpected ways. In the persistent uncertainty of my life, sitting on a tiger has become a guiding metaphor. I do it in some way or another everyday...with the belief in a guardian angel, who stands outside the frame, ready to jump in should anything go wrong.


A man's mind expanded to a new idea never returns to its original dimensions.

Oliver Wendell Holmes
There was young lady of Niger
Who smiled as she rode on a tiger;
They returned from the ride
With the lady inside,
And a smile on the face of the tiger.

William Cosmo Monkhouse (1840-1901)

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

For everything else, there's MasterCard

I have found little reason to laugh in the past two years, nothing really amuses me. But then I have always been a little on the serious side. Shekhar lightened me...with him around, the house was full of laughter. His humour was gentle, witty and sometimes just plain silly but it was always funny. Even at the time that he passed, our older son thought Shekhar was playing the fool until the truth hit him. How does one laugh again after what has happened? Where is the humour? The laughter? What is funny? Then just like that one day you find...

I stood at the front door, car keys in hand; ready to leave the house on time so that our younger son could get to his cricket practice. I called out to him impatiently then stomped through the house looking for him. My irritation increased when my mobile rang just then. It was him. "Mom," he said, "Could you please open your bedroom, you've locked me in." A bubble rose through my chest and became full blown laughter as I let him out. This was the first time I found something worth a laugh in the time since Shekhar.

It hasn't got easier but the bubble has risen a couple more times since. The time when the Bhaiji at the Gurudwara misread my prayer where I had said 'adchana door karniyan' as in 'remove obstacles' and he said instead 'Bibi Archana di ardas...' as in 'Archana's prayer is...' The irony that my fervent prayers were being said in someone else's name was not lost on me.

Yesterday, after two months of fretting with our maid who just didn't get our timetable for meals, I finally lost my cool. Pointing to the clock time and again I tried to make her understand how important it was to make sure that she served our meals on time. The poor thing looked at me and nodded...then lunch was served at 4 p.m. I stood raving and ranting for a full fifteen minutes before it struck me and I asked, "Do you know how to tell the time?" and she replied, "Nobody taught me..." I felt really ashamed, then I couldn't stop laughing at the situation and myself. I had presumed that knowing how to tell the time was a universal skill. Who would have thought...

A psychologist performed an experiment where he asked one set of subjects to tap out a tune with their fingertips on a table while the other set tried to guess what the tune was. Turns out that it was virtually impossible. The explanation - the person who tapped heard the whole orchestral music in his head but the other subject only heard rhythmic tapping...

I realize that my maid just heard my tapping and I presumed that she heard my orchestra... a metaphor for my grief and a life lesson. That I could laugh about it...priceless.


There is no laughter in the natural world
Of beast or fish or bird, though no sad doubt
Of their futurity to them unfurled
Has dared to check the mirth-compelling shout.
The lion roars his solemn thunder out
To the sleeping woods. The eagle screams her cry.
Even the lark must strain a serious throat
To hurl his blest defiance at the sky.
Fear, anger, jealousy, have found a voice.
Love's pain or rapture the brute bosoms swell.
Nature has symbols for her nobler joys,
Her nobler sorrows. Who dared foretell
That only man, by some sad mockery,
Should learn to laugh who learns that he must die?

Laughter And Death by Wilfrid Scawen Blunt (1840-1922/ England)

Friday, April 23, 2010

Waiting room...

"I wish Dad had been here..." our older son said a couple of months ago. It was at the school citation ceremony, a rite of passage at the end of his journey as a school student. I was gutted by the little catch in his voice when he said it. This was a big moment in his life and it carried the pain of absence of a doting father - the missing pride, the embarrassingly loud embrace, the celebratory whoops of joy, the jolly optimism at the beginning of a new journey. I couldn't compensate. It brought home the innumerable times we had each thought it but didn't say it out loud, the many times we would think it in the moments big and small. It summed up all the times we had, with tempered grief, said, "Dad would have loved/hated this...this was Dad's favourite...Dad would have said..." trying to make the absent present.

I used to count days, now it is too small a measure. At the two year milestone, we are acutely aware that time has passed. It has accumulated in new memories, personal breakthroughs, significant incidents, small and big problems and triumphs, a calibrated response to joy and anger...time has put a number on how long we have survived without him in our lives.

I have been told several times over the past two years that time heals. Maybe it does, I will not dispute that. Personally, I believe that time passes regardless of your stillness, resistance or readiness. Hours become days, days become months and months turn into years...but true healing only happens when there is an emotional distance from a life changing event such as the death of a loved one. I have not travelled very far in those terms. I frequently find myself in the waiting room of the hospital on that seismic night, unconsciously rocking back and forth, unbidden prayers rising from my lips even as I bargain for second chances, making promises I realize will be impossible to keep. I know how it unfolds, each time is the same...yet, two years on, I still sit in the waiting room and wish Shekhar was here.


The time has not come true,
the words have not been rightly set;
only there is the agony
of wishing in my heart...

But the lamp has not been lit
and I cannot ask him into my house;
I live in the hope of meeting with him;
but this meeting is not yet.

From Waiting by Rabindranath Tagore

Monday, March 1, 2010

First, clean your house...

I have always been a reader. But like a lot of things in the past twenty-two months, the nature of my reading has changed too. I find myself strangely attracted to material on death, philosophy, psychology, spirituality...basically anything that will help make sense of what has happened. Yet the unanswered why remains.

In one of my readings about depression, I learnt that the first thing to do in order to reactivate your life is to clean your house. Sage advice. It took me a while to get the point but here I my house.

When we were moving from England, two burly Polish men supervised by a droll and sensitive Englishman carefully and gently packed the detritus of our lives into boxes, which were placed in crates, which were stacked in a container and driven off to be carried on a ship on the high seas. As the truck carrying our belongings drove away, I felt nothing. They were just things. We had been told we would be reunited in six weeks and where can things go?

In the interim, while living with the bare minimum in Delhi, I realized how little we really need to be comfortable. The same four clothes, washed and ironed were better than cupboards full of things we never wore, the limited number of dishes in the kitchen made life simpler, who needs more than two sets of anything? We create artificial choice by accumulating things. Things that enslave us. Things not just for the life we lead but what we imagine our life will be...

I received a call after six weeks to tell me our shipment could not be located and to please bear with the delay. I felt a strange sense of relief. All that fat we had accumulated could be shed just like the fat from my body had melted away. Frankly, I didn't really care.

They did find the shipment three weeks later. As the packed boxes arrived, we were horrified by the sheer obesity of our previous life. I walked around in the maze of cartons and wondered how to accommodate all the things. So as the men unpacked, I repacked...putting away things that did not fit my life any more. Some boxes were stored as is. Sealed, unopened. They contain bits of our combined history, accumulated with a future in mind. But that future has been altered forever, taking a different trajectory because of the change of one primary variable...

After moping for all these months, I finally found the courage to clean my house. Around the unopened boxes, behind them, under them but am still not ready to face what lies within. The depression has somewhat alleviated but the anxiety about the parts of my life still lying sealed bothers me. Someday, I believe I will be able to build up the nerve to release the boxed parts of my life and like Pandora, I may find hope at the bottom of at least one.


The definition of insanity is thinking that you need something you don't have. The mere fact that you exist right now without that which you think you need is proof that you don't need it.

Byron Katie, Author and Spiritual Teacher

Friday, February 12, 2010


"What is essential is invisible to the eye..." Shekhar liked to quote from The Little Prince. Why I would suddenly recall that on the way to hospital, behind the ambulance that carried Shekhar, I don't really know. It was sometime during that ride that I felt a warm flutter against my face as I sat between our sons in the back seat of our neighbour's car. I intuitively knew that the worst had happened. When we reached the Accident & Emergency Department, a nurse directed us to a waiting room as the doctors tried to resuscitate Shekhar...I involuntarily rocked myself and tried to think. It was impossible. I felt like I was outside myself, observing me, the surroundings and everybody else. Although deep inside I knew...there was a certain peace in waiting, hoping, praying...a lucid break from reality. When the death was called and they allowed us to see Shekhar, the boys and I were unbelieving until we saw him for a moment of clarity, I realized that what made that body Shekhar just wasn't there any more.

Later as the boys and I sat on our bed, dazed and uncomprehending, I looked around the room. Panic rose slowly as it hit me, we lived in a home provided by the organization Shekhar worked for, drove a car that was leased by the organization Shekhar worked for, the boys' education was funded by the organization Shekhar worked for, we were in a foreign country on dependent visas guaranteed by the organization Shekhar worked for...the entire illusion of my life as I knew it was on lease from the organization Shekhar worked for...and now our future depended on the largesse of the organization Shekhar worked for...

Dry eyed and numb, hugging Shekhar's empty jacket, I wandered around the house looking for what we could really say we owned and they were just things. Things that occupy our case, an alien rented space...things we thought were 'essential' to our lives.

When the coroner called to confirm the cause of death and say that a post mortem was not going to be necessary, I only registered the fact that at least Shekhar's body would not be disrespected any more. It was a bizarre moment when I saw him again. This time he lay cold, swollen and alone on a gurney in the Chapel of Rest, dressed in absurd purple robes...the body was Shekhar's but it didn't look like him, it didn't smell like him, it didn't feel like him...I was mourning a stranger. Yet, as his coffin was consigned to the flames, all I wanted to do was save the tangible body through which I knew and loved Shekhar.

I have now understood that life is all about our bodies. They need a home, they need clothes and things, they need to be fed, protected and looked after...just bodies. In essence, we live for our bodies rather than through them. As I look back at the moment of clarity at the time of Shekhar's passing, I realize that the only thing I truly, physically own is this body. It is where I live, it is how I am made visible...but it is just a body. A body that provides the fragile and transient logistics for living a fragile and transient life in a fragile and transient world...while leaving the essential invisible to the eye...


God gave me sunshine
Then showed me my lifeline
I was told it was all mine...

Bodies on my family
Bodies in the way of me
Bodies in the cemetery
And that's the way it's gonna be...

From "Bodies" by Robbie Williams, Brandon Christy and Craig Russo

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Strength, grace and wisdom

A woman brought her dead child to the Buddha and asked him to bring him back to life. The Buddha sent her to a village nearby, telling her to bring back a few mustard seeds from any home that had not had a death. If she did so, he would do as she asked. The woman went with hope but came back empty handed and enlightened. There was no such house in the village...

Like this woman I have spent the past twenty-one months knocking on illusory doors but although I have a quick grasp for intellectual concepts and rational thought, I am a slow learner of life lessons. Some lessons have been intuitive whispers, others gentle nudges but I have only listened to the ones that whacked me upside my head. I can understand God's frustration with me...

Someone once called me Nu Qian Ren, which in Mandarin literally means a strong female person. It gave me pause. The dissonance between my internal perception of myself and the external impression people formed of me was disturbing. How could they not see the doubt and uncertainty or the struggle and fear? I have heard the same words several times and in many different forms since Shekhar died. The dissonance is stronger and even more disturbing. Little did people understand that I felt like a boat that had lost its moorings, floating rudderless on the rapids of a life I did not orbit-less planet in a universe where the star had died.

In the immediate aftermath of Shekhar's death, I would tell anybody who would listen that I had lost my husband. The words would fall out of my mouth unbidden and inappropriate... as a sort of apology or explanation for what I could not control, to make real the unacceptable truth of his sudden and inexplicable passing away but most of all to externalize and make visible my internal pain and confusion. The pain was so intense that I could not look beyond myself. Everything only made sense in relation to what was happening to me - I could not empathize, everything became distorted, at once magnified or made trivial by the strange prism of grief - I was both human and automaton. Slowly and painfully, perspective is returning...the other side has come into view despite the death grip of memory.

The truth is that this is my life and these are the circumstances, I am living it...strength has little to do with it. It is more about much can you survive without breaking or falling apart? We all do the best we can, with what we know and understand and can bear...

A year is a wonderful metaphor for life. It begins with possibilities and resolutions, encounters the self somewhere in the middle when revisions and recalibration become acceptable and ends in regret and a still full one year dies a natural death, the new year promises rebirth and the cycle repeats itself.

Rumi, the Sufi poet and mystic, said, "Many demolitions are actually renovations." As I begin another year living in the rubble of my previous life and identity, I am renovating using strength, grace and wisdom - strength to meet the many challenges ahead of me, wisdom to embrace the new year and as Sarah Ban Breathnach says, grace to be grateful not only for what I have but also what I have escaped...but most importantly of all, I am rebuilding in congruence - where the inside is the outside and vice versa.


Memory is how we hold on to the past... Regret, hostility, anxiety, insecurity all depend upon trying to relive the past and change it. Therefore, memory blocks the flow of life in the present...The past is dead. There is no life there, even when you dwell upon a happy past.

Deepak Chopra

Sunday, January 3, 2010

First day, first show...

Shekhar was a first day, first show man, especially when it came to Amitabh Bachan movies. I preferred to wait for the first reviews to come in, for shorter queues, better seats and legally bought tickets rather than the over priced ones sold in black by touts. It was just one of those many small differences that made us balance each other.

Yet there were other times when we both preferred to wait. Like the time when I got my results for my M Sc degree. I had threatened that I would paint the town red, get drunk, be merry and stay out until the wee hours of the morning. Shekhar and the boys were all gung ho despite their inner disbelief that I could or would ever do something like that. The day came and it was pouring cats and dogs. Shekhar and I dressed up to the nines, then armed with umbrellas, the boys' blessings and a rugged determination to have fun, we hit the bars in Lan Kwai Fong at 9 p.m. Starting with a pitcherful of margheritas, we went on to have vodka shots wearing fur coats in a room made of ice and then sloshed our way to watch people dance on a bar counter in Wanchai. I remember the moment when we looked at each other in a dark, noisy bar not quite drunk, not quite having the fun we had envisaged, in wet was a silent consensus. We hailed a cab to take us home. "You had fun?" he asked as we got into the taxi. I had to think a little before I replied. "Not quite...I would rather be home with the boys." "Me too," he had said. We laughed the rest of the way.

"What's wrong with you people?" the boys had looked at us in disapproval as we walked in through the door. "Do you know what time it is?" We looked at our watches and were ashamed. 10.30 p.m... there was no redemption for people like us. As we changed into our pyjamas, threw a movie into the DVD player and watched together as a family...all was well with our world. We had decided to wait for a time when the call of home would not be as strong, fun was for later. When the bonus came, when the boys had plans of their own, when the bills were paid, when things settled down, when the weather was better, when the future was here...

A couple of hours before he died, Shekhar had said, "Tomorrow, I don't care if it's raining or not, we are going to Greenwich. I want to stand on the prime meridian..." As usual we had waited, only this time it was to no purpose. His tomorrow never came.

Now standing at the threshold of a new year, I look back and realize that we were both waiting for now to have fun...this was the time, this was the nebulous future we were holding our breaths for...but my first day, first show man had bought tickets to a different movie.

As acceptance slowly creeps in, I have decided not to wait anymore...neither for time, circumstance nor people. It has been a painful realization that whether I wait or not, time will pass, days will end, new years will begin...I still haven't thought of the how, but it is a new year and a time for resolution - of a past that cannot be carried into the future and to promise to create a future that does not involve

Press play...


...that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's way...It is this spiritual freedom - which cannot be taken away - that makes life meaningful and purposeful.

From Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl