Rama's husband Ashoke Bijapurkar, adman and consultant, passed away on February 11, 2015 after a cardiac arrest. Rama is a market strategy consultant and an author.
Friends sent me Sheryl Sandberg's Facebook post, which I read with tearful resonance, like so many others around the world. Hit with a tsunami that erased my life as I knew it from the age of 20, I still yearn for, as she puts it, 'Option A' (her late husband). I admire her for being able to share coherently her innermost thoughts and feelings of the first month without Dave. I know that she has young children and the hard work of raising them ahead of her. As I sit down to write this exactly four months after Ashoke passed away on February 11, I am grateful that I am not young and my days of heavy lifting, be it professional, societal or familial, are behind me.
I have learnt these past few months that everyone has a life story to tell and collectively these stories help you accept what life is, in all its surprising twists and turns, more than even the best satsangs or bhajans can. It did surprise me though that I knew so little about the life stories of people I have interacted with over the years. Maybe it was because I never sat still for so many days, mind switched off, heart switched on, emotionally wide open. I heard stories of lots of people who had miraculously survived touch-and-go health crises with ordinary medical aid and lived to tell their tale; and then there were an equal number of stories of those unlucky ones like my own, who got to the best hospitals and had the best care that money could buy but still didn't make it. Hearing about the randomness of it all took away some of the exhaustion of asking oneself and others all the time "was there something else I could have done, should have done, that would have saved him".
A friend with four siblings, all very well placed and wonderfully well adjusted, told me about his widowed mother who raised them from a very young age, in very difficult financial circumstances by doing sewing and knitting piece work jobs and yet enabled each of them to follow their dreams. Another friend who is phenomenally successful both at work and as a homemaker told me how her father had suddenly died when she was so much younger than my daughter is today and, listening to her, I felt just a little bit less tearful that my daughter will not have her dad around to share the many moments of glory and joy that I hope she has ahead of her. My teacher told me how, after his father died, he was taken from the village by his brothers and set up to live alone at the age of 13 in one room in a nearby city, so that they could keep an eye on him as they had touring state government jobs. He cooked for himself, went to school and studied on his own. Why did they do that, I asked surprised. So that I could get a proper education, because my mother was illiterate and there were no men at home to keep a watchful eye lest I get into bad habits. There is no big deal about being alone, he gently told me. And I thought that was more reassuring than the "how will you manage" concern that also came my way.
I also remember being insanely jealous when I heard my nephew chatting late into the night with both mama and papa about his work and the antics of his little son. They were a cosy trio like we used to be but never will any more. But then my 85-year-old godmother told me that she was just a few months old when her mother was attending to her in the crib while her father, sitting in the same room, silently slumped in his chair and died. My neighbour's maid tells me that she lost her 22-year-old son who drowned in the ganapati visarjan. I am surprised because she always bows before the ganapati idol in our corridor. I ask her how she finds it in her to do this and she says but what other protector do I have? Some of my friends tell me that each one's grief is special to him or her. There's no relative scale, it doesn't become less because someone else's situation was worse. I don't know, I am still thinking about that, but yes I have often found myself many times these past few months ruefully remembering the saying "I cried that I had no shoes until I saw a man who had no feet".
Sheryl Sandberg says that the question to ask is "how are you today", and not a blanket "how are you". And that is exactly right. There are good days and bad days and no real triggers for them. On good days the world looks OK and you tell yourself that this too shall pass. On bad days, the very idea of going about life and living is so overwhelming that the tears just don't stop. Since you don't know which day will turn out which way, you warily enter the day with surrender and exit it with either relief that it is over or gratefulness that it was not a bad day. And you learn to take each day as it comes and allow yourself lots of slack in case you may not feel up to facing the world. Friends understand it completely when you say "if it's a good day I will come over, if it's a bad one, please excuse me".
I am lucky to live in India in my troubled time and I would not choose to be anywhere else for all the money in the world. At the end of the day, it is a bonded, affiliative close-knit society and I pray that it will stay this way when my daughters' generation gets to be my age. People reach out with genuine affection, care and concern and are not afraid to say "I am sorry for your loss" or "it is God's will" or "can I come and sit with you today". Professional colleagues extend helping hands in so many little and big ways that it makes the idea of going back to work less daunting. There is a steady stream of friends and batchmates — his, mine, ours — coming from all over the country or writing in from around the world to share a moment and share a memory. It reminds you of the 'we that we were' at various stages of our lives and adds splashes of laughter to the torrent of tears.
The bread man, the paperwallah, fish market lady, liftmen and watchmen at the office or home, the neighbour's dhobi all stop you in the street and express their sympathy. Till something like this happens one is annoyed with this human crush in one's life. But when you are down and out, you are thankful for it. Their theme is invariably "jo hai, so hai. Ab kya karenge, challaana hee padega himmat se", and their practicality is comforting.
So I guess it is indeed what it is, and it will take as long as it will take for time to dry the tears, and for the emotional fog to become less dense and so there's nothing left to do but to wait it out and ride it out and cry on bad days and smile on good days and try not to go down the spiral of self-pity by asking why me, why him, why now. Because there are no real answers to such questions.