25 years gone…

Grandmother gone too soon

Every year I tell myself I will be fine on this day. Time should have done the healing job by now. It has been 25 years. Yet the failure of Time’s healing hits harder every following year. The hurricane of memories flood very ounce of my being despite the resistance I keep putting up to avoid the inevitable implosion that mark the 16th of April, year after year. As I put these words down, I am failing at stopping the stream of tears that are clogging my vision. I keep wondering if I will ever get over this feeling of abandonment, or stop wondering about the million ‘what-if-she-was-here’ moments or ever make peace with the fact that she is gone never to return. Will I ever move past the 10-year-old-me standing shocked at the sight of her lifeless body, and letting the numbness wash over her fragile emotional self? I never handled that grief well and keeps hurting more and more with each passing year. I wake up, on this day every year, and ask no one in particular – if it is ever going to be okay? And the only response I get, is an echo of my own question. My emotional self battles with all its might against the rational side not to accept the void. As if the very acceptance would be a complete betrayal of my love for her. 25 years and counting…. Doesn’t hurt any less than like it happened 25 hours ago. Yet I live in that distant hope of attaining a balance between the grief of her loss and living with her memories.

The adult in me tries to tell the 10-year-old-me to bottle it all up and move on with the innumerable meeting to attend for the day and endless to-do list piling away. The emotional tussle becomes tiresome until I slam the door on the outpouring pain and walk away to deal with life. I keep repeating it to myself like a mantra – I cannot bring her back and the memories are all that is there to hold onto.

But I cannot come to terms with it. May be one day I will. Today is not the day for it.

Negotiations with knees

I haven’t always shared the best relationship with my knees. In the last five years, my knees have crashed from full functionality to bare minimum and then have gradually improved to the present state which is capable of doing most things. The full functionality meant classical dancer for 20 years, martial artist, trekking up every mountain/hill that could be spotted and a solo biker perpetually on long distance rides. As I approached 30, I decided to give running a marathon a shot. Before I could reach half way during the prep, my knees were not happy. I slowed down and restarted multiple times. Yet the knees gave way eventually.

On a friday morning, as I lay in the MRI room for two hours getting both my knees scanned, my anxiety knew no bounds. Then, of course, the long wait for the reports and the consultation with the Ortho surgeon. At this point, I couldn’t walk on uneven surfaces without significant discomfort to the knees. Less than a year ago, I had climbed the cliff side Himalayan monastery in Paro, Taksang Monastery, without a problem and here I am waiting in anticipation for the fate of my knees. An hour later the report was out and my family of doctors poured their energy into it declaring that both knees were equally damaged and I cannot jump, jog, run or hike. Bottomline is anything that increases the load on the knees apart from regular weight bearing jobs is banned. The anxiety in the MRI room had tested me in ways I had no clue and tears came streaming down when I heard the things that I enjoyed the most had to be stopped. I didn’t know until then what caused it. It was already a lot to handle. The physical restrictions at the age of 30!!!

Finally I went to see the Ortho surgeon. For the initial few minutes he quietly sat looking through the reports. It appeared like he was going to declare a death sentence on me anytime. After what seemed like forever, he raised his head, removed his reading glasses and, as a matter of fact, informed me that both my knee cartilages were damaged upto 60% and cartilages did not heal. And 10% more damage would lead to surgery. I was screaming out of despair in my head yet the initial outburst in front of the family had helped keep my external calm. The surgeon also declared that this was a very common problem in flat footed young females who are physically active. Wait!!! Why didn’t I know this yet considering I am aware of my flat feet. Too late to wonder all of this. Damages are done. 

He prescribed specific exercises and anti-inflammatory tablets and I left the hospital with a sullen face. The silver lining was the doc was surprised that despite the extent of damages, I had not resorted to painkillers yet. That gave me hope. But for the next 2 years, I continued having swelling around my knees on and off and I always carried a pair of knee caps. The perpetual state of negotiations with my knees was taking a toll on me. I had convinced myself that I can’t do much physically with the state of knees. To an extent that I refused to go out for walks blaming the uneven pedestrian paths of the cities. 

I was tired of the enforced diet restrictions to control every growing weight and intermittent working out sessions. My self confidence was hiding behind new layers of fat. Fast forward to 3 years since the fateful day inside the MRI room, I took up walking, first slowly and then faster along with some amount of yoga that wouldn’t make me fold my knees too much. And the lockdown began. I happened to come across the Nike Training App and I haven’t looked back. It has been 4 months now and I have graduated to high intensity, advanced levels workouts without any trouble and have successfully lost the extra kilos I had put on in the last few years.

The ongoing fat loss and muscle built up pushes the confidence as an individual a notch higher. I have a long way to go to reach my goals and I still can’t run. Maybe I won’t ever run a marathon but I am glad I hadn’t given up hope. Maybe someday I will fulfill the dream of climbing the hills and mountains to sit and enjoy the view from the top.  

Justified or not?

We are living through extremely uncertain times. Lives have been suspended in most cases and we are all waiting for ‘normalcy’ to return. There is no clarity on how long this kind of life is going to go on and if what we knew as normal is ever going to come back. The present state is the new normal. Apart from the immediate fears and uncertainties, few of us already know that the short lived memory of our race will help most of the population to recover in a year’s time and go about their lives as if nothing ever happened. The minority of the population who will never be able to forget the deep traumas and wounded souls that will come out on the other side of it, will suffer for the rest of their living days. 

The minority here are the frontline warriors and casualties. It is not only the healthcare or the essential workers but also the families and friends who have endured a loved one’s suffering or loss. And there is another category of people who have screamed at the top of their voices to follow the basic rules of handling the virus and stay safe for their own sake and the community’s sake. To all the nay-sayers, I hope it was as simple as you learning your individual lessons. But because of the absence of the tiniest sensitivities or empathy, others suffer. The slightest carelessness can lead to life threatening complications in an otherwise perfectly healthy person and this somehow seems a very difficult proposition for the majority of the population to understand.

In one case, the last message said “my oxygen levels are sinking further and I will get on a ventilator. Talk to you later”. Unfortunately, there was no later. The wife continued her home quarantine, and never got a chance to say a final goodbye to her husband. Only a burial that she witnessed over a video call. No one held her while she mourned the loss of her husband to this unpredictable virus even though he was winning the fight against cancer. 

For another acquaintance, the treating doctors said, “there are signs of improvement in your husband’s condition, yet the danger of crashing is still hanging around”, a fortnight gone by and she is still waiting for her husband to come out of danger. Despite being a doctor, she cannot predict her husband’s state and she has no clue what to tell her 5 year old daughter.

Another friend got a call from his younger brother in the early hours of the morning, complaining of shortness of breath and that he was tested positive 6 days ago. His whole life flashed in front of his eyes and he quietly apologised to his kids for not being there to see them through their teens or adulthood. His only mistake was he assumed the pandemic was a hype and he wouldn’t be affected by it but now he was trapped in an apartment alone in an unknown city, far away from home and was probably not going to make it. He was saved, though after a week of hospitalization and timely pumping of steroids into his system. No one knows what long lasting damages (both mental and physical) he will come home with. 

There are many more stories of suffering and there are equally high numbers of instances of our race attaining new heights of insensitivity and stupidity. Literacy has never mattered in such times. And common sense has become a rarity. Comparing the present pandemic to the Spanish flu, a century ago, doesn’t make any sense because we have better resources to handle health issues now yet our collective IQs have taken a nosedive into the ocean of complete idiocy. Four months and counting… I live in morbid fear for my senior citizen doctor parents who are bound to continue their work and the critical care specialist brother and sis-in-law who attend to their moral and professional obligation of dragging people out from the clutches of death. I can’t seem to escape the endless nightmare…

Tryst with South East Asian stories

As I grow older, I venture deeper into my roots. I have lived away from my hometown and family for more than 15 years now. My fleeting connection to the family stories has come back to bother me in recent times. My maternal grandmother passed away when I was 10 and grandfather when I was 15. Hence, knowing them as an adult was never an option. Whatever I know of them is through stories that my mother has passed on which were as scattered as one can imagine. I realised it is probably a very cultural problem in Asian families where parents shoulder the responsibility of children until they are adults and protect them from the difficulties they have dealt with as parents or adults. In most cases, like mine, we as children of our parents don’t even know what makes our parents the individuals they are. What was their childhood like, or their fears and worries as parents, or if they ever wonder what their lives would have been had they taken the road less travelled? We will never know it because Asian parents think it is either not worth sharing their stories or they wouldn’t want to burden their children with the tough pasts they had. Such was the story in a book that I read recently.

It is ‘The Bonesetter’s Daughter’ by Amy Tan. I had never heard of this author but I was willing to give it a shot. On a rainy afternoon, I started reading this book and couldn’t put it down. It felt too close to home. An Asian mother working hard to bring up the perfect child without the taboos that she left behind in China yet making sure that she passes on the cultural values from the homeland. Battling her own traumatic past and searching for her identity as her memory fails, and simultaneously trying to protect her daughter from any of the past influences.  She tries to make sure her daughter doesn’t grow so deeply into the American life that she forgets her roots in China. It sounds like a typical immigrant family with their share of problems but the endearing way of storytelling was what drives home the emotional intensity. I can’t say I feel differently about my mother and grandmother but our family stories are being lost in the modern day races to make ends meet. I am glad Amy Tan decided to finish the book on a high note. Else I would have been plunging deep into the troubled waters of our westernised society and the lost traditional values. 

I read ‘Norwegian Woods’ almost a decade ago. Followed by ‘Kafka on the shore’ and ‘The Windup Bird Chronicle’. All the three held my attention through every page. Haruki Murakami is an excellent narrator and being a South East Asian, one relates to the stories very well. But at the same time, I stopped reading Murakami because it drained me out emotionally. I love reading fiction but the price I was paying for Murakami’s books was a lot to handle. It was as if the moment the book begins, the narrator has plunged his hand into your rib cage and grabbed hold of your heart tight enough for it to crush into pieces. And that stopped me from venturing into Murakami and other SE Asian authored books.

A decade later a visit to a friend’s place led me to borrow two books by Ishiguro and ‘The Bonesetter’s Daughter’. A week later I went to the same friend’s house to return the book and she gave me another Japanese author’s book ‘Asleep’ by Banana Yoshimoto. The emotional aspect deeply intertwined with the superstitions and typical Asian values was more like hearing one of your aunts tell you this story on a fine evening over a glass of wine. My re-introduction to Asian writers almost a decade later felt like coming home. I hope I see Ishiguro through to the end along with many more that are waiting to be discovered. 

Street Art

Walking along the streets of any major city of the world, one cannot miss the graffiti on the walls of buildings or boundaries. Traditionally, graffiti has been used as a form of a protest and in a lot of cases it is still the same cause and in others, it has been beautification for the arterial roads of cities. For instance, a small city in the eastern part of India, that happens to be my hometown, hosted the Men’s Hockey World Cup in 2018. I couldn’t get enough of the vibrant graffiti on the walls that added an aesthetic value to all the major roads leading to the venue of the world cup.

In an attempt to learn sketchnoting and getting faster and better at it, I am trying to be a regular at the virtual sketchnote hangouts. This time we discussed the street art in some of the major cities of the world- Milan, Berlin, Phuket and Cairo. The walls have posed as large canvases for conveying messages of love, peace and harmony in various forms. Abstract or concrete, pictures or words (calligraphy), many of these forms and more have been used for graffiti.

Ocean will never be the same

It has been a while since I devoured a book at a stretch without thinking about a break. In fact, the thought of taking a break for lunch was an unpleasant one. As I began the book, “The ocean at the end of the lane”, I was expecting a version of fictional autobiography. I am not sure what that means but that is what I have understood from the innumerable interviews and conversations I have heard of Neil Gaiman in regard to this book. This was supposed to be an accidental novel that came into being while tugging at the strings of nostalgia.

I tried hard but by the end of a marathon reading, I cried. It was deep melancholy intertwined with a strange sense of peace but that feeling was so far off it seemed like I floated in a void without a sense of reality. The book wasn’t only tugging but yanking emotions in directions that I didn’t know existed or felt. The roller coaster of emotions ran through fear and peace, joy and sadness, guilt and worry but through every bit ran an underlying sense of belonging.

I will probably go back to the book again if I ever think I have lost my empathetic being. But right now I cannot thank Gaiman enough for such a heart wrenchingly beautiful narrative.

Learning a new skill

Two months into lockdown and wondering if life is going to be back to ‘normal’ ever. I started working out like a mad person to keep my mind off from the highs and lows of nothingness. One good thing– the workout has helped achieve goals that I have been procrastinating for the last 3 years. The 10kgs weight loss that I had been planning (more hoping) has finally made some headway. A little over 8 kilos lost. That is a significant loss considering my laziness and the obvious mastery of procrastination.

That wasn’t enough to keep myself occupied throughout the day and like everybody else I was doom scrolling in the initial days of lockdown. But social media has helped in certain ways. I bumped into people who do ‘sketch noting’. I had no clue such a word existed and that there is a whole bunch of people in the world who do this for a living. Discovering this way of recording was as amazing. I am still learning baby steps and I am yet to find an optimum balance of what to put-on the paper while sketch noting. But it works perfect for a person like me who is scarred by the pursuit of perfection and hence never gets anything done. At least this way, I managed to put my imperfections on the paper yet convey the required message. Added a couple of sketch notes from the learning sessions with Rob Dimeo who generously spent his lunchtime teaching people how to go about sketch noting from scratch.

Webinars galore

I talk to my parents twice a week. They are doctors and too busy with their work and social life. I have no complains, in fact, I love the fact that they are such busy bees, because I have no clue what we might talk about if we have to call each other everyday. Thankfully, they have brought us up to be totally independent because that is how they love their lives, not only in their professional lives but social circle too.

Recently, I called her mid morning to convey some message from an uncle who I spoke to before that. She cancelled my call and I sat wondering what is keeping her so occupied on a Sunday morning during the lockdown. I got a call from her few hours later saying she was busy with a webinar. My jaws dropped. Did my technologically challenged mother tell me that she was attending a webinar? This is someone who uses a smartphone to receive calls and for WhatsApp.

In the past couple of months, my mother has figured out how to download and use Pinterest, Zoom and many more apps. Also learnt how to pay the utility bills online. That I think is adaptation to the situation at its best. I have always appreciated my mother for her ability to adapt with the changing times but she might not have bothered sending that gene my way.

The research and the knowledge that is shared freely now is exponentially higher than what happened in the pre-pandemic era. I wonder if a pandemic is the only way that would teach us to be humane and shed the materialistic skin that we have wore for a while. The insane amount of stress on the whole mankind has exposed the best and the worst aspects of us as individuals and as a society.

The ongoing pandemic has changed the way the world works. Every sector that could possibly manage things online, has shifted its functionality onto the virtual medium. And that adds to the stress of everybody who handles interactions better in person rather than over video calls or worse, chats. Assuming that a millennial can handle these better than the senior citizens is misplaced. Even though every age group has a part of the population that is hyper social during normal times, the absence of human interactions physically around each other is harrowing for the same group.

The new ‘normal’ is not so normal for most people but as a species we have evolved for better survival and we will continue to do so. That doesn’t mean we would succeed right away but might stumble along a bit until we succeed or perish.

I have always loved the Darwinian theory of “Struggle for existence, survival of the fittest.” His observations were based on his studies of the natural world where he probably counted humans. But I don’t think he ever imagined his theory at play in the rawest form aimed at our very own existence.

Lost and never found

The mist hung around, dense and impenetrable. There was a deafening silence to the place, like that of underwater. In addition to that, numb fingertips made it three non functional senses – vision, hearing, touch. The absence of smell hadn’t dawned upon her yet. The non functionality of the senses made her surrounding appear still. She tried looking through the mist for some clue of what this place might be. Her memory of how she landed here was non existent. She couldn’t remember what was the last thing she was doing before she opened her eyes to the present scene. She continued digging into her recent memory to trace some connection to her current state. Her efforts met with more silence. The lack of any sound on the inside and the outside was unnerving. She was clawing into her memories for a thread of recognition. 

The dark grey wall of mist made the scenery appear endless yet a claustrophobic restricted space. It did not help in figuring the time of the day. At the slightest noise of a cloth flapping, she turned around with a start, only to realise that it was her own skirt fluttering in the breeze. There was nothing else moving to indicate the slightest of the winds. Absolute silence enveloped her, along with the chilly damp breeze. It was as if the breeze was only around her body and did not extend to anything beyond. Her senses adjusting to the surroundings made her crave for some visual cue. She looked around for some sign of life… some sort of movement. Nothing obliged. The place didn’t feel right. She wasn’t sure what prickled the back of her mind but it gave her the shivers. 

Questions and doubts flooded her mind. What was this place? And more concerning, what was she doing here? How did she get here?

The only information she had- she was standing on hard ground. At a certain height, the mist started. So the ground had a wider view than at the eye level. The ground appeared damp and dark in patches. 

“Is that blood?”

A scream rose from her stomach, silenced at the throat for the fear of whatever had spilled blood here. Invisible beyond her nose, the mist hung around close… too close for comfort, blinding her from anything and everything around. She gathered her courage and took a step in some direction. She had to crouch to get a closer and clearer view of ground beneath her feet. Her hands found a cold wet metallic mound-like object which needed a slight tugging to pull it off the ground. A soldier’s helmet! Dark and shiny with the condensing dew on the metal. As if her popping joints might give her presence away in a hostile environment, she stood up as slowly as she could, and began to investigate the helmet in her hand. “But dew isn’t sticky”, she thought to herself and flinched at the realisation that it wasn’t condensed dew but blood. Partially dry, the blood along with grime stuck to the surface of the helmet. Reflexively she dropped it and followed a loud metallic clang. She froze at her place, anticipating consequences of her carelessness. Few moments later, the silence was back with a full blow.

Promising herself to be careful yet helpless in the face of curiosity, she bent down to see what is it that the helmet fell on as it hit the ground. And there it was. Glazing metal and partly buried, as if it had been there for more than a few months, lay a hip flask. The initials “B. D.” scraped on the side. She wondered what was the owner called, or was it a loved ones initials that he held onto. Momentarily lost in her imagination of what life did the owner of the hip flask might have had lived, she took the risk of indulging in weaving a life of the man, she assumed was referred to as BD. Unfortunately, possessions do not help in placing an identity to the respective owner and her sense of unknown geography didn’t help assuming a face. But the life of BD might have been similar to what a typical soldier’s life is like. Prolonged periods of absence from the family home and the sword of uncertainty hanging over his head at all times. More scenes danced in front of her eyes from the innumerable movies she had watched. Unsure of whether to leave the flask back in its place, she chose to carry it forward onto her next step. 

She stepped on something. A buckle. Probably, belonged to a helmet. It had bloody fingerprints on it. She ran her fingertips along those, that gave her goosebumps. Did the man survive or perish after he pulled this buckle off him? Did someone respond to his call for help? Did they bury him or never found him? But if they never found the bodies scattered in this place, where did they disappear? There was no sign of any life yet she knew all kinds of life forms had crossed this place. Fear of the unknown crept into her being slowly through every pore of her skin. “What is this place?”, she wondered. 

Calling upon the universal forces of bravery, she took a few more steps picking up a ring, a blackened disfigured coin of some sort, frames with shattered glasses, a torn wallet with creases of prolonged use but empty otherwise. None of those things gave her any confirmation of which part of the world she might be. Or what timeline was it? “How did she come here?”, the question was nagging her louder now.

A battlefield of sorts. That’s where she stood. A battle long over and she walked around rummaging the remains of the men who fought it. The mist seemed to fade away into distance with time. Yet all she saw was possessions of possibly dead soldiers scattered everywhere. The fact that men had been killed at the spot she stood, made her uncomfortable. Thankfully, the place had only belongings and not the corpses of the owners scattered. The very thought of dead bodies around made her knees wobble but she held onto whatever strength she managed and kept her senses wide open.

She racked her consciousness to remember news of any recent wars that she had come across. Though there was no logical explanation of how she had landed wherever she was, the threads of information were sewing the place for her bit by bit. The images from a visit to the World War II cemetery in a corner of the country surfaced up in her memory. And came along the overwhelming sadness that she felt while she knelt beside the graves of the men whose names stood evidence as their presence in the battlefields. Everything else lost. How did they identify bodies? She knew for some they had only put names because they couldn’t find anything else that belonged to them. How did the families react to not knowing where their sons or husbands had disappeared? When so many men died in wars, how did anybody know which side the body belonged to? Not the soldier but by the time they were discovered, it was a stiff cold body.

The silence that she thought had been following her suddenly started jarring her with the image of what had happened here. People running from every possible side, some wounded, some ready to charge, some battling for the last breathe, some waiting for help, some looking for shelter from the destruction. “Oh dear lord! Where have I landed?”. She didn’t know where to hide. She heard non stop firing from somewhere close. The vibrations that followed the explosions made it all feel more real than ever. Her heart clenched like a fist, the pain unbearable as if she was trampled by emotions overwhelming her of the loss and the tragedy. Her knees gave away and she shut her eyes tight hoping that this is all an illusion. Nothing happened. She screamed for the fear that she was drowning in. The chaos around her threatened to crush her and her paralyzed self struggled to pull her hands onto her ears in an attempt to shut the noise. It seemed to die away instantly. Except a distant hum which seemed familiar. Yet she didn’t dare open her eyes for the fear of what she might witness, for the fear of what she might not be able to escape, for the fear of the scene that she has no recollection of walking into, for the fear of dying and not being able to let her loved ones know, for the fear of being lost to an unknown cause, in an unknown world, in a battle uncalled for. Is that what the soldiers fighting here or any other battle felt when they knew they would never see their families? The concern of lost individuals and their lost identities plagued her…

(more later)…

Chasing shadows

The crunching of dry leaves made her turn around and check for whatever was following her. I stood there, bare feet smiling at her. She smiled back with concern in her eyes. “You are not supposed to be walking bare feet in the garden. Your mother is not going to like it.”

“Please don’t tell her. I couldn’t find my chappals and I had to catch up with you”, I said. 

She walked back to me with the warmest of the smiles, took my hand in hers and we headed towards the house. “Don’t you have to pick flowers for the puja?”, I asked her confused about the direction we were moving. “Yes”, she replied, “we will go back into the garden but first, we need to find you a pair of chappals.” I didn’t mind the walk up and down from the house to the garden as long as I could shadow my grandmother. We went back to pick a few flowers for her daily puja and then holed up in the puja room for two hours. I had no role to play yet I wouldn’t let her out of my sight.

This was a daily routine. Dad would drop me at Bou’s house around 10 am after morning school and pick me up after a few hours. One could make me do anything with the greed of taking me to see Bou (maternal grandmother). Her house was the warm comfort space that every child looks for… until she was gone and the house stood as a cold reminder of her. 

After her passing away, we moved into that house. Every day, every moment, for the next six years, was torturous to navigate through emotionally. But as a 10 year old child, one doesn’t understand grief, except that it is a dark sinking feeling that you find painful yet cannot pinpoint at it. I wondered if I had done something silly for her to abandon me abruptly or if there was a way I could apologise and coax her to come back. Little did I know that it was goodbye forever without saying it explicitly.

Bou (maternal grandmother), sometime in the late 1970s when
she was the headmistress of a girls high school

It’s been 24 years, yet the loss pricks like it happened yesterday. Certain losses become a tacit mourning for eternity. There is no time limit on how long it takes to come to terms with the void carved by the absence of a loved one. At times of complete despair, I reach into the void, looking for her presence that would warm up even the coldest of the souls. Not necessarily the yearning is fulfilled but I cannot resist the urge to dive into that vastness with the hope of finding her. I was used to being Bou’s shadow and shadows don’t exist without the subject that casts them. At the loss of my anchor, I never stopped grieving but life went on and I walked along with it, hoping someday I will find something to hold onto. Twenty four years and counting….my search continues.