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.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Wanted child of the universe

Loss is brutal. It breaks you…into little pieces. I have been broken thrice…first by Shekhar’s sudden departure, two years later by Mom’s and two weeks after her, my father-in-law. The toll has been exponential…it is now coming up to six years since Shekhar, during which time I have felt victimized, emotionally mugged and physically bruised…with a reduced field of vision and a remarkably constricted scale of life. I have focused only on the next moment, the next step, the next action, the next…the next…until at the five year mark, I looked up. I am glad I did.

In January of 2013, I entered the Passions Contest of Mills & Boon India with a very brief first chapter of a romance novel, not for a moment thinking that my truncated writing would stand a chance in the competition. I made the top three and as a part of the reward, won a mentoring opportunity with the UK editors of Harlequin… A six month struggle to write romance while toggling my core writing on development later, my editor sent me a mail that made looking up worth it... They liked the manuscript. They would publish it in a two-book deal! For the first time in years, I felt like a wanted child of the universe.

Now, as the book hits the shelves* this week…I am setting it free to travel on its karmic journey…it is symbolic of my own traverse up the mountain of grief and down the other side. That’s the insight, there is the other side…but more important is the realization that I am a wanted child of the universe and…someone up there definitely loves me…

Here’s raising a toast to romancing the night…Shekhar, Mom, Dad…I hope you’ll join me.

Salud! Cheers! Chin, Chin!

*The book is available online at Harlequin India , Infibeam and Flipkart and will hit bookshelves across India in the coming week.


Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Invictus by William Ernest Henley

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Wrestling with demons

©Jyoti Singh Visvanath
As one year ends and another begins, there is a sense of change, of letting go, of looking forward, of making the past year a part of the repository of your life.

I find that as the years accumulate after Shekhar, calendar time does not really have the same meaning for me. In some ways, I am still in the same place I was nearly six years ago and in others, I have travelled so far that even memory does not serve me well. This treading of two worlds is exhausting. I am told to move on, let go…but what does it really mean?

How do you really move on from your essence, your definition? How do you let go of the best part of yourself? What if you don’t like the person you are becoming? The questions are demons…they come at you in the quiet of the night, slipping into your dreams and rearing their ugly heads each time you think you have them under control. I wrestle and find myself wanting. So far, it has not been a fair fight because I am vulnerable, fragile and weak…something’s got to give but what and how?
To hark back to the infamous dialogue from the film Jerry McGuire…Shekhar completed me, as I did him. That was because we were young and finding ourselves together…but that has changed. I no longer seek or need completion. It’s balance that I yearn for. I miss the other voice, the perspective of another vantage, the point of view and support of the better parent…this is a lonely place and the challenges are many. I wrestle and find myself wanting.
As I wake in the morning and face another day, life calls in different ways. Time folds telescopically, appearing on my face and body, in the growing bodies of the boys, in marked folders in the storehouse of memory and life, in spaces and voids…in a cumulative past. My default state is to hide and never leave the comfort of my safe place but it is time to wrestle with the demons…it may not be a fair fight…I may forever be vulnerable, fragile and weak but as long as I am here I owe it to myself to embrace this shadow of my previous self, to take that first step into the unknown world of moving on and letting go…making the effort to die empty. Who knows where this new journey will take me? I can only commit to one little step right now…the rest lies in anticipation that the demons will find someone else to wrestle with…


When you get what you want, but not what you need
When you feel so tired, but you can't sleep
Stuck in reverse

And the tears come streaming down your face
When you lose something you can't replace
When you love someone, but it goes to waste
Could it be worse?

…When you're too in love to let it go
But if you never try you'll never know
Just what you're worth…

From the lyrics of “Fix you” by Coldplay

Look into my eyes
It's where my demons hide
Don't get too close
It's dark inside
It's where my demons hide

They say it's what you make
I say it's up to fate
It's woven in my soul
I need to let you go

From the lyrics of “Demons” by Imagine Dragons