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A Living Otherness

There is something about these days…there is a living otherness to them.

They are about her vivid thoughts.

A bellying pool of memories. Some predictable, others not. Of her life in Rangoon in the 1930s (she is adamant about not calling Rangoon by its new name Yangon, saying the new name is no name as far as she is concerned). Of there being no flush-out toilets, running water or electricity. Where transportation meant a ride in the Victoria, a low bodied vehicle with one forward-facing seat for two passengers and a raised driver's seat supported by an iron frame, all beneath a calash top. She recalls how she and her siblings sat huddled on the floor with other children of the neighborhood while her parents sat elegantly on the long seat. She talks of her growing-up years in Nagpur in central India with a flock of cousins and an indulgent aunt and uncle, and her schooling there in a local Tamil-medium school, and of being cycled daily, lovingly, to the gate by her uncle. Then come her recollections of her marriage in Bombay (she will again not say Mumbai, its current name), the birth of her two children, her active working life, her twenty-six years in New Delhi, and her grand-mothering days. Then there are those delirious visions of her husband, my father, appearing every night, young and splendorous as he was when she first met him. Saying this and saying that. Never does her old, grizzled husband, who left her twelve years ago, appear. It is always his young, splendid avatar.

They are about her surges into the present.

Her deliberate pulling back of her spinning out-of-control thoughts, by latitudes and then by degrees, as she bumps into her present-day life again. Of her stacking and re-stacking of newspapers by date. Of her pushing their edges into alignment. Perhaps, in a bid to guarantee to her life a shape of order and nimbleness to her mind. Of her talking to her son, my brother, of daily happenings in the country, conversations based on careful notes made in her diary, in her spidery writing, from newspaper and polemic television reports. This, maybe, to avert nights in the middle of the day, the mushroomy cloudbursts of grey, dull bursts of gloom, as the continual indeterminate anxiety and the crests of fear. Things that bubble within and consumes her on days, resulting in bad tears, one she sheds within, a thing that only I know about, dry-eyed as she remains to the outsiders.

They are about the inglorious routines of feeding, cleaning, using the toilet, and putting her to bed.

To give her energy and purpose to push back. Yet with no hope that she will spring back, fluffy in spirit and light on the foot as she used to be. Or that her loose skin will return to any of its earlier contours. It casts everything, every action, into nonsense as her body morphs into something else and a walker becomes her life support. Entangled thus she loses her sense of identity and independence. Walkers and wheelchairs to her have always been symbols of dependence and helplessness, not instruments of liberation, as some others would say. And the making her private duties known to others is appalling to her.

They are about us protecting her from COVID 19 but not from loneliness.

Her isolation with only me as her caretaker is safe but insulating in these pandemic days. The lack of social contact and interaction could become dangerous for her as the underestimating the power of a touch, a hug, a listening ear. Aloneness, after all, is known to become a disease of its own.

They are about a messy mix of her past, my brother’s, his wife’s and my and my spouse’s present, and her two granddaughters’ future.

This as we all scramble and flounder to get her to some sort of wellness, put back her dissembled life into some kind of order. I by being with her in her room always, my spouse by being there for me unobtrusively, my brother and wife calling every day to check on our well-being, and her two grand-daughters using video calls, to own their source, their source of influence, as they try to hold on to its shape, sound, texture, gesture, its very last remnants, in every way they can. Ironically, even though both her granddaughters work in the healthcare sector they know they can do little about the brick-faced fate that awaits her, one that holds out degeneration and worse. Discussions about hospitalization for her taper off when they understand that she has been explicit in her desire to leave for the beyond from home, from her bed, not from some sterilized, impersonal hospital ward of chrome, marble and disinfectant, where at best an adopted air of friendliness and care would prevail, one that would leave her feeling cold, scared, lonely and uncared for. That it is from ‘now’ to be all about her needs, at ninety-one, not ours, or of ‘what ifs’, however right and strongly we feel about our convictions.

They are about our love being physical and yet pivoting on responsibility and practicality.

We as a family are all bound by fate, let’s say by an accident of birth, as we are by circumstances, into a teetering partnership of sorts. Medicines, money requirements, bank accounts, last day logistics requiring today’s attention, doctor’s cause of death certificate, pyre wood, priests, disproportionate caring burdens…are all part of this crazy, uneasy familial batter, part of the exchange, in the situation we are trapped in, that we shape with words sometimes but do not in many more cases, each of our thoughts remaining ours only, lurking darkly in our minds, awkward, muted, festering, and put away into dark, deep vaults, so as not to be uttered even among us. They would be vulgar and pre-mature, right? Though we all know that we really should be open and pragmatic about these issues. And, yet sometimes, without warning, these thoughts erupt sharply, in an on-the-nose kind of manner, making the utterer seem a tad harsh and uncivilized.

They are about prayers, not on her lips, but mine. And the others in the family.

That she should fade away painlessly, unknowingly into the space beyond. That the boundaries of her personhood should melt into the larger consciousness, into a symbiosis with her surroundings, in a way that is happily transformative for her. That her inter-being with the larger form of existence be easy. That I should not be the one left alone to see her gasping for life, with a gulping feeling of her going suddenly into nothing, my moments sodden with fear and frozen with inaction, a caregiver’s eternal worry. And, that nothing else, no other disaster, should boomerang simultaneously as we see her to the finish line.

They are about wanting to hold on to her. In any form that she is in.

Yet there is the realization among us that with dissolution and decay fringing her life, it is better to not hold back the tides. It is better to let them wash over her when it is time. When the quality of her life becomes problematic and beyond containment. Tubes can maybe keep the breath going but not the spirit. The loss of her life and legacy will be felt. We know our pain will be raw, brutal and messy. And that all her five sisters will share in our pain, as will our larger family. We will all need to collectively grapple with our sense of helplessness, our own mortality, our realisation that where there is life there will be death. Will the belief that death is the finish line, that nothing emerges from the ashes, hold? Or will our faith that she will reach out to us from beyond the ashes and the veil of the unknown prevail?

Chitra Gopalakrishnan, a New Delhi-based journalist and a social development communications consultant, uses her ardour for writing, wing to wing, to break firewalls between nonfiction and fiction, narratology and psychoanalysis, marginalia and manuscript and tree-ism and capitalism.

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