Prepared for the Long Haul
On losing someone and a return to individuality
She gazes at an inconsequential spot on the floor, fully settled into a vacant stare. She barely moves, and she barely reacts to sounds around her. Her arms lie motionless on her lap, the gold bangles on her wrists making no sound. Her hair is braided, but several wisps escape it as it descends. She is wrapped — engulfed — in solitude.
Her flower-patterned saree is like a wreath around her. In a terrible irony, it continues to bring out her eyes; only this time, they are devoid of transparency. She sits slightly slumped, as if the slump that has befallen us pervades her being. Her seat of choice is a simple wooden sofa chair, specifically, the one on the right among twins that sit shoulder to shoulder in the living room.
I catch a glimpse of her like this for some time every day. After breakfast; in between reading times; before the evening tea. Any presence in the room is an irrelevant presence. The bags under her eyes sink slowly, as if the weight of a lifetime were tied to them and dropped into a quagmire. But if you look closely, there is an unwillingness gurgling under the desolation.
She doesn’t want to be like this. I know, because she told us. There is a trickle of water making its way underneath the ice.
She had promised us that very day that she would live out the next chapter of her life happily. Confidently.
He was fragile perhaps only at the very end. Through day after day of consuming sequestered oxygen and using his limbs sparingly, he was mustering enough courage to power through. He was breathing marginally better every day. He was pale, he was enfeebled, and he was afraid.
But fear is not fragility.
The intricate structures of our consciousness are founded on the bedrock of the people we call our own. Even during the final stretch, when he was alone with his thoughts, I imagine she gave him strength.
They both suffered the virus together. Her lungs had been less affected than his, but they had both been in the hospital. By the time she recovered fully, his predicament had only alleviated a little. She simply could not bring herself to leave her husband’s side and go home.
And yet, the virus was unique in its invidious advances. To human eyes, it seemed to thrive on inhumanity. The speck of molecules, which itself experiences neither life nor death, was in reality just a dumb participant. It acted only when our bodies allowed it to. Since its genes did not come equipped with impartiality, she was forced to exit their shared room and climb down the hospital staircase carrying lingering doubts.
Still, through the uncharacteristic mix of relief, confusion, foreboding, and hopefulness that she was feeling, she had taken a moment to bid the nurses goodbye and to thank them with a smile.
The absence of air precedes irrevocable change and loss, which lends it an incomparable potency. It can weaken or fortify faith. For her, a believer, it is probably the latter. Over the years, she has used her faith as a guide to living a respectable life. But she must have had to use it as a crutch at times, in order to stay the kind of alive that she wanted to be.
The collision of orthodoxy and modernity and the resulting interplay happening in the background of a spousal relationship can engender such a need. While she was a respected wife and mother, she was secretly living a life of denial.
In the world to which she belonged, she was second to her husband. Funnily, it was not that he intentionally made her second to him through comportment, or that she made herself stay second to him through subservience.
She recounts how he had always thought about her needs and her little joys and never wavered from her side. Having been married relatively young, she was able to complete her graduate education after having children because he was supportive of her. She fondly remembers their trips to their favourite eatery, and how he brought her white garlands to adorn her hair.
Perhaps she is wearing rose-tinted glasses as she reminisces, perhaps not. Even as a kid, the slightly teetering balance of power between the two of them was palpable to me. It may have been present by default, outside both of their control, but it was there nonetheless. Her wishes were always honoured, but times when her opinion was requested were few and far between.
Giving in to a survival instinct, an act of blind self-preservation, was not commensurate with her morality. If her faith had taught her anything, it was that it is impossible to preserve oneself like an island.
It seems that she chose to let go of a part of her identity and adopted a different one that she felt was best for the happiness of her husband and her family. It was her prerogative to make any choice she saw fit, but it was available to her under some, albeit unwitting, duress. This duality defined her for most of her life. During his time in the hospital, though, it came to undo her.
On hearing the ghastly news, the final blow, she said in a daze that she wanted to accompany him wherever he was going. Moments later though, after internalizing the immutability of it, and after subduing her tears, her first thought went to how the people around her must be worrying about her. The second identity, the one she had made her own, was selfless. Despite her unimaginable pain, she knew how to soothe the pain of others. She made her voice available to us, promising that she would stay strong and live her life well.
Book in hand, she always descends for her time of cerebration into the same chair — the one on the right. I think it is subliminal. Second nature. In Hinduism, the depiction of the seat of masculine power is on the right-hand side of the feminine power. Among twin chairs, she simply sits such that if he were here, he would sit to her right. But there is no longer any balance of power.
It is from this chair that she reads us age-old stories about the holy month of shravan. Her voice is soft and trembles around the edges, but she does not sound enervated. As she reads, the narratives in those pages don’t matter to me. They are no match to the story unfolding in front of my eyes.
She has read most of them in the past, but she is excited to read the ones she hasn’t. With his departure, the pall of bereavement has descended on her, but a different weight has also been lifted off her chest. Alongside tales of kings and sages, she tells us her own views — about life, relationships, family, faith, and our place in them. A childlike anticipation of learning from these readings, and from the book after book that she devours, glimmers in her eyes. She has embraced technology to be able to read even more.
She is at an age where renouncing worldly aspirations seems like a natural progression. On the contrary, she would rather have her eyes open and absorb what she can about new or old, about alive or inanimate, and about her own or of others. The duality, which had defined her for all these years, which had undone her a while ago, is now obsolete.
It is the moment of her own creation that she is re-entering, a life that offers a greater serving of individuality, equal for all by default. She has bound the sense of despair tightly to her grieving, not to leak into the rest of daily life. Her heart may be broken, but her walk towards the inevitable end of her own time is wrought with a sense of opportunity.
We think nothing of the air escaping our lungs several times every minute, until it threatens to not escape anymore. The pandemic changed that for good. The unlucky ones, the ones who didn’t prospect for solace in a field of grief, might decry the risk of the proverbial change, because they know naught of the rewards of such a toil.