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The Strangeness of It All

Monday, July 15, 2013

Yesterday, my cousins and I went to enjoy the Ramazan food festival in my neighbourhood.In the melee, I found myself wanting to capture photographs of the various sights at the stalls. But part of feeling the female Muslim and traditional Indian is wrapping your dupatta tight around yourself and shifting in closer to the females in your group, so that well, you don't end up squashed in a bearded and capped throng. Even if I did end up squashed, I was not too worried, because I was certain that the 'brothers' would find a way to guide the 'sister' to a safe place. Much like the brothers on Shaadi.com looking for a 'sister' to marry them! But regardless, I passed on the task to my cousin, the actual 'brother'. As I yelled out to him (very unladylike) to take a shot of "that thingy with the smoke spewing out where they are making that thingy'... a man close by found it absolutely hilarious, laughing aloud he proclaimed "That thingy is patthar ka ghost, those are people who have come all the way from Hyderabad to prepare it! Don't just call it 'that thingy'." And I laughed with him telling him I didn't know what was being made there. He took this as an invitation to join the family, walking up close to my cousin and laughing with him, helping him as he clicked the photo of the man in a Superman T-shirt manning a stall that read boisterously on its poster "Allah ka Karam hai, Biryani garam hai!". Some time later we had a kid volunteering to take a photo of us all, in fact - insisting upon it so that we could all be together in one frame. It had me wondering once again about something that's been nagging me for the last few months - how it's easier to be with strangers in today's times when somehow every relationship has become a task, a job.

For six months my family and I were caught up in an intense effort to keep my father from fading away from us, but you can't stop what is meant to be. During this time I was overwhelmed by the support shown by our family, but even more so by the kindness shown by strangers. I remember this man who stopped an already choked traffic by standing right in the middle of the road and spreading out his arms, just so that I could make that U-turn I was struggling to make to reach the hospital. The smallest of mercies and help in a time when every force in the universe seemed against us. When my dad needed blood, complete strangers came up to us with help, the response was so overwhelming, I was touched beyond words. But what will stay with me is the time when I stood outside the ICU, waiting for the doctors to release my father so we could take him back home for his final days. Before being shifted to the ICU, he had shared a room with another patient. I had not been too happy about the fact that we couldn't get a private room. It was hard enough to be dealing with our own trauma, but to have to encounter someone else's sickness was something I didn't want. So for the two days that we shared the room with the other patient, I studiously avoided any conversation with his attenders. I didn't even look up when they passed us by. But I did learn through the conversations that the man had the cancer of the gut, and doctor's discussions involved how they would create a passage for the food to pass his system. And while my dad's struggles were equally traumatic, I still couldn't imagine what the family must be going through. The last day that we shared the room was the last day that my dad was conscious, but completely delirious - rambling rather loudly. In his compromised state of mind, he started speaking in Tamil - not a word of which that I understood, and a girl came over from the other side, responding to him in Tamil and for a bit she put his mind at ease. I was immensely thankful, and managed to venture an apology for disturbing them, but she was kind and dismissed it.Three days later, I was waiting by the ICU when I saw a frail man being wheeled in post-op. It was the other patient from the room, I had never seen him before. His daughter trailed him. A little later, she spotted me and came over inquiring. I told her that we were taking my dad back, because it was over. She abruptly rushed away, but came back in a few minutes, tears streaming down her face. "I didn't want to cry in front of you." she said, squeezing my hand. "I am so sorry, but he was okay when I saw him last...,".

"Yeah, I responded. But he's not now. There's nothing more that can be done." and then she hugged me and wept. I had no space for tears and found myself distantly consoling her. "It's okay, it's better for him this way. He suffered a lot." But she wept harder, for me, for my pain, for my loss. Then I finally let go myself, and so I wept too, for her pain, for her loss that I knew was coming soon as well. And there we stood, amidst that crowd, two strangers weeping for each other. Shouldering a little bit of each other's burden. A little while later, I left to see the doctor. I did not see her again. I do not know her name.

After my father passed away, I discovered that while death is not easy upon the ones who experience it closely, it's harder for those who are distanced from it. People offered condolences in strange ways. One liner SMSes/facebook messages were the ones that boggled my mind. From close friends that too. Even more baffling were those who completely avoided the topic, pretending like it never happened. The absolute ridiculous stuff actually came from relatives. "What happened to you, why do you look so washed out?". All I could give in return was a tilt of my eyebrow that said it all "Did you forget that I just lost my father? How else am I expected to look?". Initially I just couldn't understand this, but then I realized that people just don't know how to react possibly or perhaps death itself is not as big an event as it seemed to me. Perhaps I had gotten it all wrong. Perhaps even courtesy is a fading phenomenon.I remember again, every single stranger who came forth to offer a hand and lend a shoulder. I remember again that girl who wept for me, when I couldn't weep for myself. I never expected that. What I did expect from some of my known ones ... well it never happened.

And so I really can't help but wonder, at the strangeness of it all.


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