I love the song Seventeen Going Under by British artist Sam Fender. These particular lyrics really strike a chord with me –
“That’s the thing with anger
It begs to stick around”
I was angry, very angry, even if I didn’t show it. No, sorry, let’s rewind a bit.
I am comfortable being away from home. My home is a home away from my home. It’s what I’ve seen and been taught. In our family, if you live outside your home, you are considered to be doing something ‘worthwhile’. The increase in your value is directly proportional to the increase in geographical distance. I used to think that it’s easier to build relationships when you’re physically closer to people. But after living away from home in Bombay for some years, I began to respect and enjoy the distance. I started to like people from afar. I used to get homesick for Bombay after spending some days in my hometown. Don’t get me wrong, I love the city of Kolkata, and although I have an attachment to the place, living there was like trying to answer questions which were out of the syllabus.
This was the result of my staying away from home for 16 years. However, things changed in 2020.
The coronavirus had one positive by-product: it connected many people to their hometowns. Owing to the work-from-home policy, many people were jolted out of their state of being nuclear and separated and forced to live together with their families. I didn’t think so positively in 2020 though. So, just like many of you, I, who valued my independence and privacy, also went back to my hometown – Kolkata. I was home, but I was scared of the work I had to do and this work was not related to my office.
The thing about home is, this is a place where the dust settles. We might shake the dust off when we are travelling from place to place, but at home, it leisurely falls on the floor like small raindrops in a slow drizzle. I was worried about whether I would be able to fit into this system, and especially whether I would be able to get along with my grandmother. I grew up with her till I was about eleven years old. The best thing about childhood is that you assume, not assume, you know for sure that everything and everyone is inherently good. Maybe, they are. However, adulthood helps you recognise shades in people, and I found some shades in my grandmother which troubled me deeply. I am not someone who holds grudges as I don’t like to poison myself, but in some instances like this, the heart’s fervour does win over the mind’s rationality.
2021 came with a breeze of toxicity, not just in the air literally – in the form of lo and behold Covid variants – but in the form of my grandmother as well. My whole family, apart from me, was hospitalised with the virus. Thankfully, we made it through. My grandmother returned from the hospital to an almost empty house (as the others were admitted at that time) with an afflicted grandchild. Crisis either brings out the best in us, or the worst and for my grandmother, it was unfortunately the latter. She made me angry and this is an emotion I had given up a long time ago. I was angry, very angry, even if I didn’t show it. What was the deal with my grandmother and me? I don’t want to go through the ordeal as it’s at least four episodes of a Hindi television soap opera. Saving that for another day.
Fast forward to a few months, post-Covid complications took her. She vanished, just like that. This was the first death I had experienced and this affected me in ways I didn’t even imagine. Let me tell you how.
Some months after my grandmother’s death, I had to return to Bombay as offices reopened after the second wave. At first, I was just happy to go back – as you know by now – Bombay meant home. As the days went by, I started to fall into some kind of a daze. I didn’t understand why because this time, I was living near my office and I loved my work. How does it get any better, right? However, there was this existential burden coupled with homesickness. The former was something I had never felt before, while the latter was something I thought I had outgrown. These feelings came with a vengeance. I realised that staying away from my family in Kolkata for so many years, I had missed a lot of deaths. Yes, I experienced a profound FOMO on these occasions, because there is a certain closure and peace that comes from bidding farewell to a loved one for the last time. My existentialism was linked to my parents as I did not want to miss out on this inevitability. After some panic attack-laden months in Bombay, I finally packed my bags and returned to Kolkata, from where I am writing this piece. A few years back, this move would have been impossible. Death made the impossible possible, something which I thought only existed in films. It stirred me into taking action.
Here’s why I regret not being around when my loved ones died. When my grandmother died, my father and I both had the duty to carry out the rituals. This was new territory for me as I had never seen a body being burnt in front of me, let alone seeing the burning anatomy of someone I love. The day after my grandmother was declared dead by the hospital, we decided to carry out the rituals within 24 hours. This was again something I was not prepared for. Again, something out of syllabus. I went with dad to the cremation ghat of the Ganges, and I saw that like the living, the dead were also lined up for their own journey, akin to the scores of people waiting in line to buy a local train ticket at Dadar station in Bombay. Again, much like life, there is a rush here, so the bodies are put in giant incinerators to fasten the process. In a way, there is a turn-around-time for grief as well: burn the body, cry and move along as the next family is waiting.
After waiting for nearly three hours, my dad and I pushed her body inside the incinerator. There was a slight delay of maybe three to four seconds between the fire starting to engulf the body and the door of the incinerator shutting. I could see the flesh of my grandmother wither away from her body for merely a second and at that very moment, I could feel all my grudges leaving my body. It’s as if the poison was being sucked away from my pores by the same smoke which I could see coming out of the small chimney of the incinerator. After that day, I don’t hold grudges anymore, as I have started to see human beings as being mortal. Up until that moment when the doors of the incinerator shut down, there was a naïve part of me which believed that we will be here for quite a long time, like there will be just enough time for me to hold my grudge, heal, and still re-establish my relationship with that person against whom I harbour these legitimate and negative feelings. Well, that didn’t go as planned.
I will not be absent for any more deaths. We should not look away from death, rather, face it. Death hurts, not hurts, it hollows you out, for some time at least. I still feel my grandmother calling out to me at times like she did when I was a kid. I still don’t think I have healed from the fact that she is no more. But, there is another call here, that is, a call to action, certain measures I wouldn’t ever have taken if I didn’t face death.
I got to know about the term “Call To Action” (CTA) during my tenure at a digital marketing agency where I was working when my grandmother died. I never got around to using the terms, to be honest. However, the funny part is, I truly understood the meaning of this phrase at the most unlikely of places – the crematorium – surrounded by the nervous and continuous waves of the Ganges, while holding an urn containing the remnants of someone I still hold dear. If you would have asked me a few years back, I would have written “held” before “dear” instead of “hold,” but that is exactly the action that death prompted me to take so I could make this minor change in a sentence, which is a direct result of a major alteration in my life.
A communication professional and trainer, Ayushman is working on building a consultancy while donning the hat of a digital creator and podcaster. He does not see life in a linear pattern as he is always interested in branching out into various domains to learn and understand new avenues. Starting his career as ground staff at Delhi airport where he helped passengers with their baggage, Ayushman moved onto journalism, marketing communications and public/corporate communications. He then went on to release his own music, and author a poetry book. He is interested in understanding the essence of human connection and all his work is just a way to gain more perspectives about the whats, whens, whys and hows of human connectedness.