This is a picture of my parents, in times when our lives were still untouched by tragedy.
When the scent of death hadn’t pervaded our lives and settled into the very bones of our bodies, never to be extricated from our veins and skin. Inhaled every day, settling into the lungs like a chain smoker’s X Ray.
Every time my chronic allergic cough resurfaces, doctors are puzzled by my lung X-Rays. They look me up and down in astonishment and then ask, rather hesitantly, ‘Do you smoke?’ (Asking this of a woman in hijab seems strange enough in itself, you see.)
No, doctor, I do not smoke. What you see inside my body is the residue of death. I have been smoking death since I was 9.
You see, a young, untimely death isn’t something you ever grow out of. It isn’t something you ever put behind you. It’s a trick- wound. Appears healed on the outside, but no sooner does a sharp push or unconscious shove land on it that it starts bleeding instantaneously. The shove could be anything. A movie. A poem. A song. A separation. Another death.
With every new death, the smoke billows afresh. Like a Cherokee’s smoke signal. Grief returning home to nest.
We have felt death acutely in every waking moment of our lives.
Lately, though, I realised that my mother had stopped speaking of my father. Where earlier not a day went by without a mention of him- your father this and your father that, now, she has a new interest. Allah. She’d been religious from the beginning, but this is something else altogether. It is what consumes her day in and day out, it is the only thing she wishes to talk about now. My father no longer occupies centrestage. After two decades of hanging his shirts and his ties in her cupboard, two decades of his nameplate hanging on our door right beside her own nameplate, two decades of every lunch and dinner conversation tinged by memories of him, I found her talking less and less about him, until the mentions all but disappeared.
I was hurt, to be honest, when I first sensed it. But by and by, I realised that this is what closure looks like. Perhaps this is what it is like to move on. And it ought to have happened a long time ago, really. For how long should one carry around the weight of grief?
Some of us though, carry grief around in large, mysterious knapsacks. Grief and wound and memory and longing. All bound together.
As a child of 6 or 7, I loved watching a children’s programme on Doordarshan, whose jingle spoke about ‘Chunnu ka Baba’ with a huge ‘Potli’, a large sack, of stories. The old Baba with a snow white beard always had a story to pull out of his potli. When I was little, I used to imagine myself as Chunnu, the one who heard the stories. Now that I have a child of my own, I feel more like the ‘Baba’. With my own little potli of stories; a potli of grief and shards of broken heart.
Perhaps this is how some of us choose to live. With a jute sack of memories that oftentimes weighs us down. But we’d rather not abandon it. We’d sling it on our backs or hold it cuddled up in our arms, close to our heart. We’d rather carry the weight of memories as we puff on death and separation and incessant heartache, and let the fumes settle deep inside us, to be discovered by X Rays. Some of us make memories a way of life. Until we vanish into the ethers and turn into puffs of memory ourselves.
Postscript: I wrote this piece almost 3 months ago. Last month though, when my sister got married, something happened. We watched her walk down dressed as a bride and all of us- her mother, her sister and her cousins- nearly all of us had tears in our eyes. I had them because it was overwhelming to see the kiddo whose diapers I had changed, grow up and get married. Our mother, when I later spoke to her about it, said this:
“I wept because I missed your father. He should have been here to see his little girl.”
The first thing that struck me about Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, when I first read it in 2017, was the heart-stopping dedication from Carl to his wife Ann Druyan.
“For Ann Druyan,” said the dedication. “In the vastness of space and the immensity of time, it is my joy to share a planet and an epoch with Annie.”
The words seemed to fill the page, enveloping the book and the reader in their embrace – in the intensity of love conveyed in a single line.
Last week - nearly three years later – I came across a post on Facebook, no doubt a popular post but one that I’d never seen before, containing the words of Ann Druyan.
Ann’s thoughts about Carl.
“When my husband died,” she said, “because he was so famous and known for not being a believer, many people would come up to me-it still sometimes happens-and ask me if Carl changed at the end and converted to a belief in an afterlife. They also frequently ask me if I think I will see him again. Carl faced his death with unflagging courage and never sought refuge in illusions. The tragedy was that we knew we would never see each other again. I don’t ever expect to be reunited with Carl. But, the great thing is that when we were together, for nearly twenty years, we lived with a vivid appreciation of how brief and precious life is. We never trivialized the meaning of death by pretending it was anything other than a final parting. Every single moment that we were alive and we were together was miraculous-not miraculous in the sense of inexplicable or supernatural. We knew we were beneficiaries of chance. . . . That pure chance could be so generous and so kind. . . . That we could find each other, as Carl wrote so beautifully in Cosmos, you know, in the vastness of space and the immensity of time. . . . That we could be together for twenty years. That is something which sustains me and it’s much more meaningful. . . . The way he treated me and the way I treated him, the way we took care of each other and our family, while he lived. That is so much more important than the idea I will see him someday. I don’t think I’ll ever see Carl again. But I saw him. We saw each other. We found each other in the cosmos, and that was wonderful.”
Let me take a moment here to catch my breath and repeat.
‘We found each other in the cosmos and that was wonderful.’
I’m not an atheist. Never have been. Spent all my years believing in the afterlife, believing in something being present beyond the here and now. But I’m also a curious, inquisitive person, and I like to look at things from various angles. And therefore, over the years several times I have tried to consciously imagine what my life would be like if I were an atheist. If I stopped believing in the things that moulded and formed my life right now, would I live any differently?
And the answer has always been that other than the prayers and community rituals, nothing would really change in my life. I’d be the same person I am now, because human values are universal.
But then, following this chain of thought I’d slowly come to the aspect of afterlife: of life after life, life beyond life. And every time I tried to imagine a world that ends here, ends definitively on this earth, my imagination would bound back with a jolt, the kind of jolt one gets from a high voltage electric fence, throwing you back with unprecedented force. Every time I tried to imagine this being the end, my mind rebelled. For one reason: my father.
I had gone through life, one day at a time, imagining him around me, beside me, asking him questions and listening to his answers. I had gone through life waiting for that moment when I would see him again, in the fathomless beyond. Every time I tried to imagine there being nothing beyond, my mind reared high like an aggressive insolent stallion, refusing to comply. And that would be the end of my atheist imaginings.
Until Ann’s words moved me to tears and I wept for a long moment. “I don’t think I’ll ever see Carl again. But I saw him. We saw each other. We found each other in the cosmos, and that was wonderful.”
This was the first time that something different gave me solace, something other than the thought of the afterlife, of seeing my father again.
I saw him. We saw each other.
He was my father and I knew him for 9 years. In the vastness of space and the immensity of time, how beautiful it was that I had him as my father – a man like him, so ahead of his times, so full of energy and vitality, brimming with joy and cheer, and yet steeped in profound philosophy, in poetry, in spirituality – in sync with the rhythm of the universe. It was my joy to share a planet and an epoch with him, to know him and to learn from him, if only for a little while. We found each other in the cosmos and that was wonderful.
This was the first explanation that soothed me, without promising life beyond life. I tried to turn the thought over and over in my mind, absorbing it from various angles.
And then I thought of little Hasan.
My sensitive, philosophical 7 year old, who already reflects so much on life and death, on life after death. And even more than that, cries for his grandfather whom he never met. My astonishing little boy who sheds actual tears for a man he never knew, never saw, never spoke to. He cries for my father because “Why did I never meet my Nana?”
And this is where Ann Druyan’s words fall short. For me, perhaps, her words may work. I saw him. We saw each other.
But what of Hasan? His grandfather never saw him. He never saw his grandfather. They did not have a chance to spend years together. They did not find the opportunity to share a planet and an epoch together, at the same time. What of that?
I think then, that we – Hasan and I — we’ll have to hold on to the idea of afterlife a little longer. To feel and to know that my father – his grandfather – is still there, and even though Hasan did not see him, he sees Hasan. He watches over him, guides him, and answers his questions, like he has answered mine for twenty years now.
We will wait then, I think.
Wait for the time when we can find each other in the cosmos again – for the cosmos is not merely the parts that you can see, is it?
Every person you ever truly loved will find you again. In the vastness of space and the immensity of time; vastness that stretches far beyond human imagination.
The last time I visited my father was in March this year. I was in Allahabad to attend my cousin’s wedding.
I was visiting him after 6 years. There was much to say.
When I visit my father, I prefer being alone. Because not
everyone understands the depth and significance of father-daughter
conversations. Especially when one of us lies beneath the earth.
Even if they do understand, I still prefer being alone. So I
can have a heart to heart conversation.
The last time I came here, I insisted upon my mother, sister and husband leaving me alone at the grave, and going on ahead to the adjacent mosque without me. My mother protested—she couldn’t fathom this at all—but my sister who understands me better than my mother, and can deal more firmly with our mom, insisted on leading her away.
I don’t think I spoke to him at all then. The tears wouldn’t
stop long enough for me to speak. I sat and cried to my heart’s content, if one
could call it that. I hadn’t ever properly cried for my father, I think.
I was 9 when he passed away. It was a car accident. We were
all in the car, traveling at night. It was an Ambassador, the car given to
civil servants, with the driver behind the wheel, a gunner and an orderly sitting
beside the driver on the long front seat of the car. Our family of four sat in
I was asleep when the truck rammed into our Ambassador and
made short work of it.
I remember nothing. All I know now is by hearing other
people’s accounts—my mother’s and the driver’s.
In the hospital, I was in and out of consciousness for about
3 days while my injuries were taken care of. Upon asking repeatedly about my
father I was told that his condition was far more critical than ours and he had
therefore been taken to Delhi for treatment. Meerut being barely a couple of
hours away from Delhi, I began to insist on being taken to him. Which is when I
was told that he had a critical head injury and had to be whisked away to the
US for treatment.
The United States of America was far enough to put an end to
But for the next couple of months, after I got home from the
hospital, I would be found mostly hovering around the telephone, hoping to get
that one awaited call. The one call telling us that he was better and would now
be coming back.
The constant stream of friends and relatives offering their condolences were told, with sharp nods and winks, not to mention my father’s passing in my presence. And yet there was something… an air of stifled secrets… somehow always on the verge of splitting at the seams and giving themselves away. I was beginning to suspect.
Two months later I finally found out, quite by accident,
when I overheard my mother discussing things with her father. It wasn’t a
shock. I knew already, almost. It was just a confirmation.
Perhaps the two month gap of finding him gone and
waiting—with some glimmer of hope—softened the blow. Or perhaps, a 9 year old
doesn’t really grasp the reality of death.
The gravity of it. The extent of it.
The enormity of it.
I don’t think I cried much for my father then. There was no
format or structure available to cry for him. I hadn’t even attended his
The earliest tears I remember happened when a person from the
household staff spoke of Papa’s funeral to me. Of him being carried on a state
plane to Allahabad. Of him getting an official send-off with guns and other
Of my father in a white shroud.
My mother was furious with the man for telling me all this.
On hindsight, I am grateful I never got to attend his funeral. That is not an image of him I’d have wanted to live with. The image I have now is the one that’s best suited to his memory. Impeccably dressed as always, handsome and splendid and cheerful, with his booming, infectious laugh. Opening his arms to me and sweeping me up every time I rushed towards him, even when I was 9. Lighting up any room by his mere presence. That’s the man I remember.
There was no crying for him then. The crying came in intermittent bursts over the years, when the enormity of death began to sink in, year by year. Crying while reading a book that reminded me of him. Crying while watching old videos of my birthday parties. Crying while listening to old casettes of nauhas that were recited in my ancestral home. Crying while listening to poetry.
Trying not to cry when looking at a friend’s father reminded me of what I didn’t have. Trying not to cry when I brought home medals and awards.
I’ve been grieving backwards for two decades now; grieving with heightened intensity as time takes me farther away. The chronology of grief is strangely fashioned. The more time passes, the deeper it takes root.
The first time I visited my father as a grown up, the crying
was still not proper. It was of the choking, surreptitious kind, the kind that
you wish to hide from others—the kind that is so private you do not want people
to see. The involuntary, incessant flow of tears like blood flowing ceaselessly
from a gaping wound. I wanted to stay back and ask the others to leave. I
The second time around, I had come prepared. Prepared to
weep. Prepared to grieve. To be alone and cry. Which is just what I did, caressing
the earth of his grave with my palms.
And now, this time, this year, I had known again what it was I wanted to do. I wanted to talk to him now. Tell him of the things I held inside. A dear friend had told me recently about how he visited his grandparents’ graves and sat and conversed with them, speaking to them of all that he held within his heart. Instantaneously, I knew that this was also what I wanted to do. I wanted to go to my father and talk to him. The way I would always have talked. The way I had not been able to, for 20 long years.
And then I did.
Sending the others ahead into the mosque I sat once more
beside him. And talked to him like I hadn’t talked in two decades.
I complained to him of my mom. Huffily telling him how
difficult it was getting to reason with her and how much more stubborn she was
now than when she had been with him. Told him of the wedding and the
festivities. Of how everyone was. What they were doing in life. Who had how
many kids. Where everyone was. Who missed him the most.
About my son and how he loved hearing about Nana.
About my book that I was working on. My articles. My
travels. My successes and my failures.
The innermost crevices of my heart.
Somewhere along the way, the tears came back. I put my palms
upon his feet.
Suddenly I felt very tired. Weary of the world. Of life. I
was overcome by a desire to lie down right there, right next to the earth upon
his grave. Lie down like I needed rest, and put my arm over him.
I looked around to see if the graveyard was empty. It
There were a few men standing and talking in the distance. They’d easily spot me lying down within the rectangular boundary of the grave and most likely think that I’d become possessed by some djinn or evil spirit. Most unhelpful.
I sighed. Maybe next time, then.
Kissed my fingertips and placed them upon him.
Until next time, Papa. Always in my heart.
Happy Father’s Day to all the fathers and daughters, sons whose bond transcends worlds and survives even death.
The first post of the New Year. I’ve been wanting to write this for quite some time now, and I wanted this post to be about love.
As it happens, though, this post is about death.
Today morning, the first message I saw on my phone opened
all by itself. I picked up the phone to check the time, but what appeared on
the screen was this message instead. It was from a religious site called
Ali-Walay. I get messages every day from them, but I think I almost never check
My relationship with religion can best be defined, in
Facebook terms, as: ‘It’s complicated.’
Religion has been my refuge and my anchor, but it’s also
been my anguish and my conflict. I have been both consoled by it and tormented
by it. It is my sanctum sanctorum, my ‘safe space’ in this world—the place I go
to when I feel ambushed and weary and defeated and lost. The place I seek
solace in, like a mother’s lap. Or more appropriately in my case, like a
father’s arms, for my mother says I never called out to her whenever I fell
down— I always called out to my father.
I find my solace in prayer, in abiding by the guidelines of
the illuminated path. But also constantly keep pushing against it, trying all
the while to evaluate and test the boundaries, seeking the truth of what has
actually been revealed, attempting to sift from what has merely been passed
down as a filtered narrow version. It reminds me a little of the 6 year old
headstrong son of mine, how he keeps questioning every word I say, probing and
probing and pushing against the boundaries until he is absolutely convinced. It
doesn’t, in any way, lessen his love for me, or the comfort he finds in my
So too it is with me and faith. A constant symphony of
solace and angst, a choreography of embracing and withdrawing.
Tending more towards a gentler spirituality than a strict religiosity, I have strived hard, often maddeningly and torturously, to find a balance wherein I can be religious without being restrictive, and try, at least try, to be moral (somewhat, I suppose, though that’s not for me to say) without being judgemental, attempting to stay rooted while remaining open to the world. How far I have succeeded, I cannot say, because it is an endless, infinite journey, never a destination. The ultimate destination and the moment of evaluation can only ever be death.
Which brings me back to the message that manifested before
me today. I say manifested, because it appeared suddenly without any attempt on
my part to read it, or even to open my WhatsApp. I just unlocked my phone, and
there it was, staring at me.
“What is the first thing to be snatched from me when I die?”
said the message, which was in Urdu. “It is my name.”
“For when I die, people will not ask where I am, but they will
ask, where is the laash (corpse)? They
will not call me by my name!
When they read my namaz e janazah (funeral prayer for the departed) they will
not ask where I am, they will ask where is the janazah (dead body)? They will not take my name!
And when it’s time to bury me, they will say, bring the mayyat closer! No one will take my name!”
The lines struck my heart. Not because it was something I’d
never thought of, but because it was something I’d always thought of. The first time being in 2010. My second
rendezvous with death, the first of course being my father’s.
This second death was the death of a college-time friend.
She wasn’t my best friend or anything, and in a sense we weren’t very close. We’d
been in the same school though and even shared our last names. But it was actually
in college that we attended an inter-varsity workshop in Naintial together, and
stayed in the same room for a few days—even ending up having a fight—which
ultimately brought us closer to each other. Or at least, I felt closer to her.
Later we would sit together sometimes and share some very personal things.
Ima, for that was her name, departed from the world in
November 2010, a month after my wedding. The news of her death reached me,
ironically, as I was watching my wedding video with the entire family. It was a
Vivacious, energetic, a brilliant mind and a kind heart.
Devil-may-care attitude and a desire to live life to the fullest. Her passing
seemed a travesty of life itself. It felt like a personal brush with death to
me, as in the case of my father. Ironically, just like my Papa, Ima too passed
away in a car accident—wrenched forcefully from life.
The day that she was flown in from Bangalore to Aligarh for
the funeral, I was at my in-laws house, about to get ready for a community celebration.
I was picking out my clothes when I overheard my mother in law on the phone
with someone, saying, “The body will be here around 4 p.m.”
A sharp stab of pain pierced my heart to hear of my friend being referred to as a body!
Is the physical manifestation of a person so unimportant,
that as soon as he or she ceases to be ‘alive’, they become merely a body?
Where does this thought arise from? Is it because only the spirit is important,
only the spirit that is the truth of the person? Or is it because we are afraid
of death, of the cold pallor it spreads upon the ones it claims, of the perennial
stiffness and silence it brings in its wake? We are made so uncomfortable by
death that we distance ourselves from the ones claimed by it—we relegate them
to the status of a body, an impersonal, indifferent description, proclaiming
tacitly that we have nothing to do with this physical manifestation that has
been claimed by death. Distancing ourselves from the person, thereby distancing
ourselves from death. The spirit, pure and indestructible, belonged to our
realm—the realm of the living—and this body, weak and easily overpowered, bears
no affinity to us.
Our rejection of the earthly, physical self of those we love hides in itself an inherent fear of death. We do not want to associate ourselves with it.
And yet, for as long as I can remember, I have never once referred
to a loved one as a body. Even when they’re in their final abode, hidden beneath
For many, many years after his passing, I never even spoke
of my father in the past tense, preferring always to say, “My father is this,”
or “My father does this.” Never was.
Never did. Because he is forever
living, a constant presence in my life. I refused to allow ‘Late’ to be written
before his name even in my wedding card, as is usually done. To my family, I
explained it thus: “Those who know he has departed, don’t need to be told. And
those who don’t know, don’t need to be told either. He is here, and will always
Even now, when I speak to my husband about going to
Allahabad, I always say. “It’s been so long. I have to go to Papa.” Or “We need
to go to Papa soon.”
He was, is and will always be my Papa. In life and in death.
When my dearly beloved grandfather passed away, I winced
every time people referred to his ‘body’ being given the ritual funeral bath. I
winced when people called out: put the ‘body’ here on the bed. Why, oh why! He
is a person! He has a name. Not half an hour ago you were all calling him by
his name. How dare you call him a body! Watching my kind, gentle, pure-hearted,
poetry-loving grandfather who was always so full of life, being carried away to
his abode beneath the earth was perhaps the saddest, most deeply grievous
moment of my life. Watching his face get covered by the white cloth of the
kafan, hearing the marsiyekhaans of Jalali recite the heart-rending elegies of
Imam Husain as we stood around Baba and wept with loud wails, watching the khaake shifa on his closed eyes…they are
all the saddest moments of my life. And yet! There was such tenderness in his
death, an inexplicable gentleness that was perhaps a remnant of the kindness
pervading his soul.
He was my grandfather, my beloved Baba even in the shroud.
Even on the shoulders of the men of the family. Even in the van that carried
him away. He is my Baba, even in his final resting place. Never was he a body
to me and never shall he ever be.
For I am not repulsed by death. It does not frighten me. My
love is not restricted to the land of the living, for death is merely a
passage. And beyond death lies the truth, the land of the forever living.
A person is always a person, whether walking upon the earth
or hidden beneath it.
The ones we’ve loved deeply and truly cannot be reduced to
mere bodies, just because we cannot watch them walk or hear them talk, just
because we cannot hear their heart beat anymore, just because we cannot see
them breathing in and out. They were and will be people, real people, in life
and in death, forever ours.
I suppose I did end up writing about love, though, for love encompasses death and moves with it, beyond it, all around it.
Even the Taj Mahal, a monument to eternal love is, after all, a mausoleum.
Reading about Stephen Hawking’s death reminded me, for some reason, about my 5 year old’s obsession with death. This originated when he attended a funeral with me about 6 months ago, the funeral of a very young mother who left behind two kids quite close to my son’s age. It originated from him watching her still body and everyone else crying around it. It is far, far too early for him to be watching this spectacle. My mom never let me go to funerals and the first funeral I attended was after my marriage. I still remember how crushed I felt at seeing the silent face in the shroud, even though the lady was not closely related to me. For a 5 year old, the spectacle must have a profound impact.
Since then he often asks me whether I will die and whether he will, too. Importantly, the questions on death are always about him and me, never anyone else. And I tell him, yes, we will. Everyone dies. But I soften the blow by saying that we won’t die until we live to be a hundred years. I will be a hundred at least before I die, and you will be a hundred or more before you do ! He is satisfied for the time being, but the next day he will talk of death again– his and mine.
I hear him out patiently and answer his questions again. Questions on the body, questions on the spirit, questions on graves and questions on the afterlife. And one day, his baby-sitter who lives with us could bear it no more.
“Kyun karte rehte ho aisi batein?” She interjected restlessly, clearly distressed. Why do you keep saying such things?
And I was struck by how I, despite being his mother, never stopped him and never felt disturbed by his talks of our deaths. Talking and thinking of death has been a way of life with me. I am not perturbed by this, I do not consider it an ill omen and I do not feel afraid. I can talk calmly about death. Because I have been dealing with it since I was 9.
And yet it is sometimes surprising to me that my son can talk about it at 5.
In all of these 5 years, for the first time I realised what I enjoy the most with my boy. Quiet, heart to heart talks on topics far too philosophical for 5 year olds.
And I remember then, that I used to call him ‘little philosopher’ , for the expression on his face when he was 5 days old.