Improper Grief: Who Will Cast the First Stone? (A Mother of Five, Apparently)

This is a guest-post from Lali Chattoraj Sengupta, in response to the conviction of the victim’s parents in the much-written about Arushi murder case. Another suspect in young Arushi’s murder was Hemraj, the help, who was murdered himself.

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Shobha De: “… the response of Aarushi’s parents has been puzzling and bizarre , to say the least. Grieving parents behave in a different manner.”

Spare me some time today while I attack some presuppositions we mire ourselves in. My friends and Facebook acquaintances would know how the  issues of Aarushi Talwar and Tehelka have affected me. I don’t know why it is so, but it is. No, I lie, I do know why it is so. This article though, is not about the merits or otherwise of their cases, but how unthinking and unfeeling we can be as a society. The quote above is of Shobhaa De, a mother of five herself. And yet it does not stop her from passing value judgments on the way the Talwars have conducted themselves after their daughter’s death. Their only child’s death.

Grieving parents do not grieve in a set manner. There are no written rules to how one should cry and behave. Their broken spirit might not be something they are dying (wrong choice of word, but well) for others to see. They don’t care. [People] need to grieve and they will grieve their own way, thanks very much. I lost my brother, as those of you who read my blogs by now already know, to a drowning accident. It was a picnic organized as a farewell do for my then boyfriend-now-husband, who was supposed to go to Ahmedabad for his MD.  At that point, my parents were not even very happy about my ‘affair’ with my husband. And now they dote on him, but that’s another story.

6 went, 2 never came back. I had to tell my parents their 21 year old son had died, after we deluded ourselves through the night that he was in the ICU (and thinking back, I wonder, often, why my dad or mum never questioned that or why they did not take the car out and want to go to Medical College ICU? Of course, they knew. But it was so much easier pretending in the stormy September night that he really was in the ICU. Defensive delusions. Pretending helps one continue, or at least grasp for a way to continue. Because if it amounted to nothing, what was the logic, the order, the meaning of our broken lives? I knew it for a fact he was dead, but even I remember thinking, I will take care of him all his life, please lord, even if no one else does, even if he is becomes a paraplegic, but let him just live, etc etc).

And then relatives and friends started pouring in as the sun rose. My brother and his friend were taken for post-mortem. I remember telling the mates of his college that he should not be brought home. My older brother was in the US, doing his post doc. I just knew that I would have to live with my parents in this house and if my brother was brought there, we would never again be able to. I remember coolly asking my parents, one at a time, if they wanted to come to the Medical College. My dad said he did not, and my mom said she did. I also remember, quite calmly telling my parents that they might be filled with regrets all their lives, so what they decided now would be crucial, but they stuck to their decision. When we reached the college and the hearses were there, though, I could not proceed further. Someone opened the door and prodded us to touch his feet, as the rest of him was covered. I didn’t. I am wracked with guilt and regret to this day about that. Maybe I could have carried the feel of his feet in my tactile memory. I remember suddenly deciding, once we reached home, that  all the relatives would want a picture of his to enlarge and frame and I did not want this huge large portrait of his staring down at us and eating us alive. So I put all the albums we had in a wardrobe and kept the keys to myself. I feigned ignorance when people asked for his pictures. Was I being unnaturally calculating? Maybe. But unfeeling I was not, that much I do know. My mother started cooking and doing all the housework from the 7th day itself, when there were plenty relatives to do those chores. Was she abnormal? By Shobhaa De’s terms, who knows, yes? My dad would come home drunk, night after night, fighting his own demons. No one knew about them, not the relatives, not even the friends. We were protective with our secret. But was my dad a bad man? No one can call him that ever. He recovered. Then does that make him unfeeling, if the first was wrong, was his recovery proof that his loss wasn’t great?

Later on, when all the relatives and friends had gone and even visits from the local ones were dwindling and the four of us were left dealing with our private griefs, we seldom cried. My dad cried at times. My brother had come back from the US and was now working in Jamshedpur and took the job there because he wanted to be able to come over during weekends and only NML offered a 2 day weekend. One day, my mum had a chest ache. My dad (who had a history of cardiac problems then already) and I said, ‘have the Sorbitrate, if it goes down, we will know its cardiac in nature’. Yes, when families have doctors, they all know or think they know, some medicine. She had it and within 5-10 minutes I saw her swaying, holding the open fridge door – it looked as though she would fall with the entire fridge on her. My dad is useless in a crisis and the commotion he creates is worse than the crisis itself. The phone wasn’t working, of course. However, we managed to get ma to lie down while I ran, ran with all my might and speed, all the way to my husband’s parents place, as it was a weekend and he would be home. On our way back from there, I remember thinking to myself, – and I kid you not, this is the exact sequence of thoughts – Well, Ma is probably dead already, and now if my aunts and uncles realize my dad gave the medicine to my mum, they will blame him and he will go to jail and I will be without any parent. So I must tell him not to shout out that he had given the medicine. I just have to. I can’t lose them both. And then I told myself, this can’t really be happening to me, these things happen to others, in movies, in books. And then I thought, no, they do, have happened to people I know, so shut up, Lali. By the time we reached home, ma had already recovered, – it was a reaction to that particular drug.

For months and years on end, – and to an extent even now, – we cannot talk about or of him. Not between us. I can talk about him with others who did not know him, but never with people who were close to him. The high falutin term for it is closure, I am told – we never had closure, as they say. 3 months or so later, when I first came out of the house, it seemed like I was a masochist – every street corner, every road, every shop seemed to have a memory of us doing something together. But I went looking for a job because I realized if I stayed at home, it would drive me crazy. Was I abnormal? I remember sometimes being resentful when folks came to me and ask me to look after my parents. No one seemed to care about what was going inside me. Hello? He was my best friend, they knew that – who’s going to take care of me? I am always one minute away from my life with my brother, – I can never rid myself of that feeling. I am always aware of the gulf that keeps widening with every minute. Perversely, I also remember being resentful when one day ma said she needed to go out and buy a couple of sarees for herself for everyday wear. Uncharitably, I thought, how can she think of sarees now? What is wrong with her?

But my point is, people deal with their own crises their own way. We can’t feel their feelings for them. The fact that my mum was cooking, tying my hair up, being presentable when guests arrived, and that my dad was going to work from within a week, that I was working in some advertising agency writing clever lines and jingles, – does any of this nullify the sense we continually had that there was no hope of ever waking up from this endlessly painful nightmare? We had no idea how we were being normal, doing our quotidian duties. But we were. Sometimes we even laughed. Leave my parents, – their pain doesn’t bear thinking about- but even I was in unimaginable pain. All the time we were in intense pain, always wishing it was possible to just close our eyes and never open them again. The hopelessness was impossible to argue out of – it did seem like an end of everything good ever possible. And all the time there was also a sort of a denial and difficulty in understanding –  an impossible thought, a hope maybe. But you wouldn’t know that looking at us.

Number two. People are arguing about the Tehelka journalist being very normal for days before she complained. I had been continually abused by an uncle of mine –  no distant third- cousin- twice- removed. And then, by my dad’s close friend, our family friend, people who practically saw me since birth. I never had the courage to tell anyone for years and years and only spoke about it to my husband much later – and even he does not know about the uncle. I went through hell those normative years and only now have the wherewithal to think of it objectively and had to go through counselling, anti-depressants, the whole enchilada. While I was dealing with the scars of a tortured childhood, not even my closest friends could know what private hell I was going through. Maybe writing this today is a kind of catharsis I needed. Maybe. Or maybe I will always remain broken.

It’s very easy to hide feelings, you see. And deceive people. Because people’s problems and griefs and tragedies are very rarely well handled by other people. Grief and tragedies and problems, they stink. And people don’t want to be part of it after a polite point. So they ignore the signs, assuming there are some. That way the illusion of normality – our comfort zones – are untouched, and we can go about our merry lives.

We need to think before we cast stones at people whose lives we have no idea about. Just saying.

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