Saturday, September 18, 2010

Tenth Day

For ten days after a person dies, their family makes offerings to them every single day. On the tenth day, their appetites are satisfied and the soul can freely transmigrate to its next destination. Freeing the spirit of the one they love is an act of tough love for the bereaved family which must not do anything that tempts the departing one to linger.
And so my not-quite-42 years old cousin, Sivasankari, would have started her transit to another life yesterday.

I am told that we spent a lot of time visiting Sankari and my atthai when she was a baby.
Sankari was born after her father’s premature death. He had gone to the hospital to admit his ailing mother for treatment, but suffered a stroke and died. My atthai was more than eight months pregnant at that point. Sankari never knew her father and grew up in the care of her maternal grandparents—my father’s parents—and her mother in Gudiyattam.
My mother says that soon after she was born, we visited and spent whole days with my grieving aunt. I don’t remember any of that.

I don’t remember any of that. But I don’t remember a time when Shekhar Anna and Sankari’s presence in my universe were not real to me. I may not have met them much. I may not know much about who they were, have been, are… what made and makes them tick. But they were real and they were there and there was always affection for them.

Visits by us to Gudiyattam were rare and brief. My father was not one to linger over anything (he did not linger over death either). And we seldom travelled; my parents shouldered too many responsibilities for that.
Visits by my aunt and Sankari were also rare but they stayed longer. And that is probably my first real memory of my younger cousin.

My clearest, earliest memories of Sankari are actually of a long summer holiday when she was around 5 and my sister around 4. They were inseparable, insisted on dressing alike, played together from dawn till dusk and danced like our flat was a giant stage. I remember the giggling of two little girls and the twirling of their colourful pavadais.
At the end of that summer, my sister forgot every language but Tamil. With the facility of very little children, she had completely absorbed the vocabulary and inflexions of her slightly older playmate.

That summer, looking through my photograph albums, I remember Sankari asking our grandmother, “Why are there no photographs of us in this album?” Like most children, I was and remain much closer to my mother’s family.
But I have never forgotten that question. Or the hurt in her voice that she may not even have realised herself.
And till date, I don’t share photographs with people if they are not featured (actually, I rarely share photographs at all). I am deeply conscious that I may have unconsciously excluded them.

Our visits to Chennai got more frequent in the late 1980s. By this time, my aunt and her family had moved base to the city so we also got to see them more frequently.
Sankari was in college, then studying cost accountancy—the first person I had met in that field and introducing us to the costume jewellery treasure-trove that was Pondy Bazar.

Sankari got married when I was living in the US. For more than a decade, I have barely seen her. To be honest, our lives and interests barely touched, though strung along a single thread of familial affection. We saw my aunt more often, even her brother who lives abroad.
She married into a large close-knit family, had a successful career, two lovely daughters and moved around India with her husband and children.
In a family that is practical and honest in its relationships, we did not call each other out of politeness, subconsciously accepting the lack of intersect and understanding it did not mean disconnect.

I think I last saw her at the first birthday celebration of her younger daughter. That was seven years ago. It was a warm reunion and we were happy to see each other after a long time.
But we have not met since.

Two years ago, when our nephew has his upanayanam, Sankari could not attend. She was very ill and had to have emergency surgery. The surgical would did not heal well, and infection spread through her diminutive body. She suffered great pain and discomfort, spells of hospitalisation and finally loss of consciousness.
My aunt called us two weeks ago. “She is suffering. She is not well at all.” She did not tell us exactly what the matter was. Nor did she dramatise the gravity of the situation. People were flying in to see her—“vandu paathutu peita,” she said (“They have come and seen her”). We were puzzled by the phrasing but did not press. My aunt also said, “If there is a cure, let her be cured. If there is no cure, let her not suffer.”
Perhaps she was trying to tell us her daughter was dying. But it is not in our nature to probe; people will tell us what they need us to know.
Besides, we were still sure she would pull through.

Sankari had been finding it difficult to speak. She was communicating with her family by writing notes. When my aunt called us, she was already slipping in and out of consciousness. Her eyes would open briefly, then close.
As they did for the last time on early Tuesday morning, September 8, 2010, around 3:15 a.m..

Sivasankari is survived by her husband, two very young daughters, a doting elder brother, sister-in-law, nephew, niece, many in-laws, many cousins, many friends and a mother who has seen and struggled too much.

I barely knew her. Really, I barely knew her. And neither of us had been moved to simulate closeness or stimulate contact over the years.
But her illness and passing have cast a long shadow over my days. She will not know that.

She desperately wanted to be well.
I remember Sankari as a girl with many dreams and desires. Strange that I do, because it is not as if we had conversations in which she expressed these or enough time together to have known it. It is as if, unbeknownst to either of us, her yearning for happiness communicated itself to me. To others as well, no doubt.
I believe she was very happy to find herself married into a large, loving, inclusive family. I believe she had every happiness she could have dreamt of.
But I think: Would ten days of pinda offerings satisfy all her appetite for life? Will she see her dreams for her children realised? Will she do all the things she wanted to—maybe travel, maybe have a large garden, maybe kacheri-hop—with her husband when they both retired?

I am deeply, deeply saddened by Sankari’s death. I could not have predicted how much.
It’s not just the waste of a life that still had a lot of living left in it. It’s that cliché: Blood is thicker than water.

Your ten days are up, Sankari, and for Hindus, there’s no resting in peace. You must move on and so must we.
I can only wish for you a journey of fragrance and light. And immeasurable love and happiness in lives ahead.

September 16, 2010

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