The Inadequacy of Grief

I grieve that grief can teach me nothing, nor carry me one step into real nature.

Emerson, ‘Experience’

On weekdays, my wife gets up at five: we have a teenage son whose school van arrives a little before seven. I get up a short time after her. I like being up early.  It’s quiet. I answer my mail and prepare for class. On a good day, I can even write a little. On 12 September 2014, for no reason that I know, I woke up suddenly. After lying in the dark for an hour or so, trying to find sleep, I decided to get up. It was about four.

I worked on my laptop. My wife got up at her usual time; I could hear her in the kitchen. Then my cellphone rang. It was my sister Daisy. There is some very bad news, she began. ‘Probin is no more.’

My wife, who overhears part of the conversation, rushes to me and asks what the matter is. I tell her. I do not know what to do. Should we leave at once for Langharjan Tea Estate in Dibrugarh district where Probin lived and worked? Daisy, who is in Guwahati, doesn’t know what to do. Our mother has been ill for some time. Daisy and Ivy, my just-widowed sister, have been looking after Ma. Ma cannot make the journey to Dibrugarh. So I must go. Ivy has begun – she has been told that her husband is seriously ill. Later on, she will tell us that she discovered that Probin was gone when she began to get calls on her cell. So much for shielding her.

For some minutes, a feeling of not wanting to move or do anything possesses me. But once the difficult decision, we must go at once, has been taken, I opt to rent a car. I like to drive but today I feel it would be too much for me to do so.  I tell the Registrar, who is my neighbour on campus, of my loss. He expresses his condolences – the first of the day. There is a meeting in New Delhi a few days later which the Vice-Chancellor has deputed me to attend. I tell the Registrar that I will be attending. I am now wound up and ready to take decisions. My wife has called her mother in Guwahati. Our plan is to come back after the cremation since our son, who will accompany us, has his school examinations. My mother-in-law will look after him when we go back, a week later, for the sraddha ceremony.

We are expecting the car to arrive by ten. I go to my office in the university; there are matters to attend to. I write a couple of routine but essential emails. A colleague calls to discuss an examination scheduled for the day. I tell her about my brother-in-law. She asks me to take care. Because she sounds genuinely shocked, I am touched. At ten-thirty, our car finally leaves the university campus. I see a tall girl student walking rapidly towards the English Department. She is going to my class.

Daisy is relieved when I tell her that we have started. She is now making arrangements for Ma and will leave the next day. Ivy is ahead of us, on the highway to Dibrugarh.  Our own journey, after some time, begins to acquire a normal aspect. We stop for petrol, pay at the toll-gate, make the occasional comment to the driver, look at the on-coming cars, buses and trucks, the peaceful green paddy fields, the flocks of birds, the grazing cattle, and the hills in the distance. All this lulls us into forgetting why we are travelling.  At Sivasagar we stop for a meal at a wayside restaurant. We are not really hungry but the driver must eat. Boy waiters appear, displaying the airs of adult ones. The incongruity makes us laugh. It seems strange that we can laugh even on a day like this.

Ivy reaches Langharjan and calls to ask how far we are. Moran, I tell her.  It is late afternoon. ‘We’ll wait for you,’ she replies. It is fifty kilometres to the tea estate. At every bend we think we are near. The driver gets confused and announces several times that we ought to be reaching in ten minutes. It is getting dark. I become restless: will we make it in time? Then I realize that I have my sunglasses on. When I take them off, I find that there is still some light.

In the past, arrival at the tea estate was something to look forward to: the pleasure of meeting after a long separation, a shower, a cup of tea, and then a drink – something Probin relished. Now there is a crowd waiting on the lawns. The crowd is huge. There are tea people from gardens in the district, friends and well-wishers from Naharkatia, Dibrugarh, and Tinsukia and other nearby towns. ‘Is that Ivy’s brother?’ I hear someone ask. I look at Probin lying on the lawn. There is a small smile on his face, as though he is not sorry to die. Probin was doing his morning exercises, was on his stepper in fact, when he had a massive heart attack.

I go upstairs to see my sister. She is on the bungalow’s verandah on the first floor, surrounded by women. I am acutely conscious of their eyes watching us:  the bereaved brother meeting his widowed sister. Ivy is composed but, for the first time, tears come into my eyes. I don’t remember what I said to her (maybe I said nothing) before hurrying downstairs – they are waiting for me. When I reach the lawn someone gives me flowers, while others make way for me so that I can shoulder the bier. The crowd starts to surge forward. People jostle to carry the bier to the truck. Probin was a manager here for over thirty years; there is a general feeling that the garden will never be quite the same without him.  The cremation site, half a kilometre away, has been readied. I follow the truck. It stops at the tea garden office. Then the crowd moves on, singing bhajans, while I follow. Someone would have given me a ride, if I had asked. But I want to walk. My son is with me. I want him to see and feel all this. When we reach, the crowd is larger and, unusually, there are women – the tea garden labourers. I notice an old lady in a corner, quietly wiping her tears.

Everyone wants a piece of firewood to place on the pyre. Someone takes me to where it is, making sure I can pass through the crowd. I see Probin’s feet. The rest of him is covered by wood. Three of Probin’s closest friends are there. We meet gravely. I was introduced to them twenty eight years ago when they came for the wedding in Shillong. In the intervening years we had met a couple of times but very briefly. And now Probin’s death had brought us together again, as though we were destined to meet only on the momentous occasions of his life.  One of them has experienced the death of his son, a fine and talented young man.  Such an event must give you a perspective on life. Perhaps that is why he is so calm now.

In the near dark, Bonny lights the pyre. He was asleep when his father died. Probin always had a nimbupani after exercising. When he did not call, the bearer decided to investigate and found him lying. The garden doctor came but it was too late. Bonny must have been woken up by the commotion. I try to imagine his state, waiting the whole day with his dead father in the house, waiting for his mother to arrive.  I also think about Bonu, the younger son who is in distant Bengaluru, blindsided by the news of his father’s death. He will reach Langharjan tomorrow and so will miss the cremation. When Ivy had arrived (my wife learns this from the servants) she had hugged Probin’s body and cried. Though they talked to each other every day, the last time they had actually met was in July when Probin had come to Guwahati to visit my mother in the hospital.  It was the last time I saw him, too. His hair had turned almost completely grey but he appeared fit. Seeing Probin, you would guess he was a former sportsman (he was a good football player in his youth). I remember looking down at his shoes. Nicely polished, as always.

Reducing a body to ashes can take hours. (This is why my driver has quietly chosen to avoid the cremation.) Once the cremation gets underway, people start to leave. Many of them have come from distant places. Probin’s friends ask Bonny to go back to the bungalow.  There is really no need to stay till the end, they tell him. It’s been a terrible day for him and he should be taking care of his mother. They will collect the ashes in a pot. Bonny asks me if I want to go back with him. To me, that seems like dishonouring the dead. So, I say no. But I urge him to leave: ‘Go – be with your mother.’

After another hour or so, I feel my irrelevance. Also, my son is with me, he is hungry, though he doesn’t say so. Most of the cars are gone. I walk back with Rahul; it seems fitting to walk (rather than taking a ride).

Biraj, my brother-in-law, has arrived. He is subdued. Ivy is relieved that that my tradition-knowing wife has taken over household responsibilities and is arranging what Bonny and Bonu will eat. Bonny is not a very willing participant; he keeps questioning the scientific validity of rituals. But he’s young.  I am for following each and every ritual, though I to do not believe in them. Perhaps it’s the solemnity which they are conducted that satisfies my notion of expressing grief.

We sit in the dining hall, round the big table. We have had many meals here when we visited. There are several relatives; one of them is insensitive enough to sit at the head of the table – Probin’s place. Nobody says anything (it is angrily discussed later). We wait for food cooked in the Deputy Manager’s house to arrive. We wait and wait. It seems natural to converse and Biraj tells us about the menu of the vegetarian hotel he stopped at in Jorhat. As in the car in the morning, an air of normality seems to pervade, despite the fact that there are more people in the house today and the house itself (usually so well ordered) is rather disorganized.  The food comes at last. I am hungry. Ivy, of course, doesn’t eat.

We go upstairs. It is close to midnight. There are no visitors now, only family and a few close relatives. My wife and I will sleep in the guest room. Bonny tells us there is some problem with the AC. It seems odd that he is thinking of our comfort on a night like this. The silence in the garden reminds me of relaxed nights in the past when we gathered in in the master bedroom to watch TV. It is the first night in thirty years that Probin isn’t here (not counting of course the times he was away on holiday or business). I see Probin’s watches and cell phones lying on the chest of drawers and suddenly realize I’ll never see him again. I want to do or feel something commensurate with this appalling absence.

I wake up early. Ivy, who slept for an hour or so, is already up. From the verandah, I can see the tea garden labourers plucking leaves, the tractors going to the factory, and traffic on the highway in the distance. A servant brings me tea, another is dusting the furniture. Probin’s jeep is parked downstairs. It’s as though he has come home for breakfast after making his early morning round of the factory and garden. Ivy bursts into tears. A little later Bonny wakes up, sees the jeep and cries for the same reason.

On Probin’s first death anniversary, we placed a memorial notice in the Assam Tribune and the Telegraph. It had these lines:

Those we miss don’t go away

They walk beside us every day

Unseen, unheard, but always there,

Still missed, still loved, still very dear.

It occurred to me that we, including his sons, would remember him only as long as we ourselves are alive. When we are no longer there to remember him, Probin will be truly gone.

Life goes on – and on. (When had it stopped?)  Soon after his father’s death, Bonny got a job in a tea estate in the Dooars. It saddened me that Probin was not alive to see his son follow in his footsteps. Bonu is preparing for his entrance examinations. He is a serious kid and should do well. Ivy lives in the Guwahati apartment which she and Probin bought and furnished some years ago. She feels depressed sometimes. Ma has recovered from her illness (we expect her to have a long life) and is currently living in our family home in Shillong. When winter arrives and it gets cold there, she will probably come down to Guwahati and stay with Ivy. Ivy, Daisy and Bonny went to Langharjan after a year for a function in Probin’s memory. They found no great change; the tea estate was running more or less as before. It hasn’t gone downhill, as some thought it would.

Do we meet our dead when we die? Will we see Probin again? When I try to imagine that undefined, unimaginable country (from whose bourne no traveller returns) all I come up with are memories of earthly reunions in Langharjan when Probin was alive. I remember the evenings in the dining hall, the bedroom, the upstairs verandah, evenings of conversation and laughter and a few drinks. Perhaps this inability to imagine an afterlife has to do with the fact that I am an agnostic and have been since my last years in school.

The feelings I am attempting to express here are not new. They first came to me two decades ago when my father passed away.  Not long after a neighbour died, a man my father had known for many years. After attending the cremation, I wrote this poem:


Neighbour’s Death


Our neighbour died this morning.

Soon, over the widow’s wails

you could hear the sound

of bamboo being cut.

I put on my shoes

knowing now it would not be long

before they carried him past our house.


On the way curious shopkeepers

leaned out of windows

to ask the dead man’s name.

And at the cremation ground

it was good to see his other friends

who’d taken leave for the day.


There was a fine breeze blowing

but to turn a man to ashes takes time.

It was afternoon when I left.

Too late to go to the bank

or pay the electricity bill

so I only bought the eggs

for tomorrow morning.

That evening my younger self was trying to convey what I am struggling to express now: the absolute blankness of death and its strange silencing by life’s ceaseless flow.

Ray Bradbury. R.I.P.

Ray Bradbury has died. I read almost everything but, for some reason, science fiction leaves me cold. So I came to Bradbury’s famous novel Fahrenheit 451 (1953) late (I read it last year). It made a real impression on me.

This dystopian novel can be aligned with other famous works featuring book burning like Don Quixote and Jean Rhy’s ‘The Day They Burned the Books’. Fahrenheit 451 (to quote that unimpeachable academic source Wikipedia) is about ‘a future American society in which the masses are hedonistic and critical thought through reading is outlawed’. That’s interesting for two reasons: (1) the book is a defense of books and reading (more needed now in the age of the internet, social networking, and mass media) and (2) unlike Walter Benjamin, who thought technology would lead to a more progressive art and society, Ray Bradbury thought the opposite. In a 2007 interview, Bradbury said that the book explored the effects of television and mass media on the reading of literature. That puts him on the same side as Wordsworth (the Preface where he talked of the cheap sensationalism of Gothic novels) and Marxists like Frederic Jameson.

I was particularly impressed by Bradbury’s prescient depiction of Mildred Montag’s immersion in ‘an electronic ocean of sound’ through the little Seashells or tiny radios clamped to her ears. When I came to Boston earlier this year, travelling by subway was a little disorienting for me:  I wondered about the immersion of my fellow passengers in their IPods or IPhones and their brutal indifference to their surroundings and the guy sitting next to them. Mildred also watches programs on her large TV screen (think of our Indian homes). Bradbury’s critique of the anti-intellectual, hedonistic American society he depicts has a social dimension (the novel was written in the Cold War, post-World War II era):

We’ve started and won two atomic wars since 2022! Is it because we are having so much fun at home we’ve forgotten the world? Is it because we’re so rich and the rest of the world’s so poor and we just don’t care if they are? I’ve heard rumors; the world is starving, but we’re well fed.

When I read this, I couldn’t but relate it to contemporary India where we (the middle classes) are so delighted with our new prosperity (of course shining India has lost much of its sheen lately) that no one any longer talks of the poor. (I’d have to add the caveat that socialist India may have been hypocritical in its concern for the poor).

My favourite quote from Fahrenheit 451 is: ‘There must be something in books, things we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; …You don’t stay for nothing’.