The inheritance of loss
Writers are at their most thoughtful, but also unguarded and honest selves when they write about mortality.
A senior literacy activist once told me about how the great Shivaram Karanth wrote a set of stories in the 1950s to help illiterate adults learn to read. It was for a UNESCO project in Mysuru. Whether for children or adults, stories must be interesting if learners are to be engaged. It would be patronising to ask adult learners to read children’s books; at the same time, as beginning readers, they could not straightaway attempt Karanth’s novels.
Hearing this, Karanth stayed up one night to write a set of new stories specifically meant for adult learners. The next morning, a pile of discarded drafts on the floor showed how carefully he had worked on these stories.
Decades later, these stories by Karanth, illustrated with beautiful line drawings by the artist K.K. Hebbar, became part of the Dakshina Kannada literacy campaign. Karanth told the literacy activists that the books should be small in size and easy to hold, with large print for adult learners who would use them to learn to read. Like children’s picture books, but with deeply philosophical stories to which adults could relate.
Parables of the mustard seed
One of the stories in Karanth’s primers was a retelling from the tales of the Buddha: the parable of Kisa Gotami and the mustard seeds. A woman came weeping to the Buddha one day because her son had died. She pleaded with the Buddha to give her some medicine to revive the child. The Buddha asked her to bring him a few mustard seeds from a house where there had been no death. Going from house to house in search of one where no one had died, the woman heard story after story of grief and loss — until she realised that death came inevitably to every home. Thus her grief was calmed.
I imagined the learners sitting in a circle in some volunteer’s house, exhausted after a day of daily-wage labour but with a hunger to learn to read, slowly decoding the words, looking at the illustrations, making meaning out of the sentences, feeling a kinship with the grieving mother at the story’s heart.
I thought again of the story of Kisa Gotami and the mustard seeds on the day my mother died in a cancer hospital in Mumbai eight years ago. We had known for days, weeks even, that the end was near. My mother had slipped into a coma and the oncologist told us gently that her organs were shutting down one by one. There are standard phrases for these situations: “she is sinking”; “the end is near”; “it will soon be over”.
We had not taken enough reading material to the hospital. I had a Muriel Spark novel; my husband read Alice Munro’s story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” on his phone. The next morning I brought more books.
And yet when ‘it’ came — ‘the end’ — I was unprepared. The death rituals gave us things to do and matters to arrange while our minds were elsewhere. Earthen pots were procured. Flower garlands. A bowl of rice grains. Coins. In the morning, my mother’s body was sent into the furnace at the electric crematorium at Chandanwadi. That evening, we poured the still-warm pot of ashes into the sea at Breach Candy. No food was cooked in the house. A neighbour sent idlis, someone sent paranthas. A small mud lamp flickered in a corner all night and all day. On the tenth day, a young priest — he worked night shifts as a BPO staffer — texted on his phone while chanting shlokas. We arranged rice balls and unsalted food on a banana leaf and waited for the crows in order to (the priests said) turn my mother’s drifting soul away from earth and towards heaven.
As I imagined my mother’s winged soul flying further and further away, I felt a mother-shaped hole open up in my heart. Would I ever see my mother again? Her tired smile, her quizzical look? Would she ever discuss Bertie Wooster stories with my husband again? Would I be able to joke with her saying, ‘I knew you would say that!’ the way we did? Would I ever be her daughter, and she my mother, again?
We all need our parables of the mustard seed.
The mystery of death
I thought of the story again when I read Amitava Kumar’s moving essay “Pyre”, about his mother’s death in Patna. The image that accompanies the memoir in Granta is one of marigolds — a broken garland, some petals — floating on water. I felt my stomach lurch when I saw this image. I remembered how we poured my mother’s ashes, including pieces of bone, into the water, along with thick fistfuls of marigold petals.
Because it isn’t when the doctor is signing a death certificate, or when your mother’s body goes into the fire, but only when you have poured the ashes into the water and tossed all the flowers into it and your hands are finally empty — it is only then that you begin to comprehend the loss. Your mother is no longer on this earth.
“I dealt with my sorrow by writing in my notebook,” says Kumar. There is a long tradition of writing about mortality. Faced with the end, the writer reflects upon the life that preceded it. Joan Didion about her husband’s death and her daughter’s illness ( The Year of Magical Thinking); Cheryl Strayed about the loss of her mother and her subsequent journey of self-discovery ( Wild); Paul Kalanithi’s memoir about his own mortality ( When Breath Becomes Air); and most recently, Jenny Diski’s cancer posts. Each one’s treatment of the subject is vastly different. Didion’s prose is filled with taut clarity; Strayed’s narrative is spirited, adventurous, wild; Kalanithi’s the measured, precise account of a medical professional. No syrupy self-help, no cliché, no false promises in these memoirs. The writers are at their most thoughtful, but also unguarded and honest as they come up against the final mystery of death.
In his essay, Kumar reflects on another short story, A.K. Ramanujan’s “Annayya’s Anthropology”. A young Indian graduate student at the University of Chicago, sitting in a library engrossed in a book by an American anthropologist, sees a picture of a funeral ritual. On closer inspection, he discovers that it is his father’s body which is on the pyre. He realises that his father is dead.
Apart from Ramanujan’s profoundly ironical point about Indian self-discovery in Western knowledge, adds Kumar: “The story tugs at the immigrant’s dread that distance will prevent his fulfilment of filial duty.” Not to mention the distance that lies beyond. Death is an individual grief; for others it may have only academic interest.
“I had been luckier than Annayya,” reflects Kumar. But there is sadness in his words.
Uma Mahadevan Dasgupta is in the Indian Administrative Service and currently based in Bengaluru.