January 04, 2009
Reacting to death
On Monday, my paternal grandfather passed away in Chennai. He was 88 and had been ailing for a while. While I felt really sad for my grandmother and their children (i.e. my father and his 6 brothers & 1 sister), I actually didn't get emotional about the death per se. Maybe it was because I'd been expecting it subconsciously for a while. Maybe it was because of my two grandfathers, I'd always had a much stronger bonding with my maternal grandfather.
Essentially whether I feel extremely emotional about someone's death depends on 3 questions: Was I close to the person who died? Could I have done anything about it? Was it unexpected? If the answer to any of these 3 questions is 'yes', I'd feel terribly bad about the death for sure.
The timing was quite ironic. Bed-time reading for Jaagruthi the week before my grandfather died was a book that had a section on family trees, ancestors, etc. and she recollected she had two great-grandfathers and four great-grandmothers. Last Saturday (I think), I even drew up a family tree for Jaagruthi. It was tough to explain to her that he's dead. Actually, she'll figure it out eventually. There's really no point in explaining to a 4.5 year old about the fact that she won't see that great-grandfather again.
My birthday was the day after he died. I had no qualms about celebrating it, in whatever manner we chose to. To me, a death and a birthday celebration are, to use probability terms, mutually exclusive and independent events. Yet, hardly anyone else, including my parents and Krithi's parents seemed to think so. I'm fairly sure they were devastated as well and I'd have most certainly empathized with them forgetting about the birthday, or remembering it but not talking about it at all, given their state of mind. Yet, they hadn't actually forgotten. Since they were "in mourning", they kept talking to others about my birthday but didn't wish me. That actually made me very angry. It wasn't about being wished - that was secondary. But if you're anyway going to talk about my birthday what stops you from wishing me?
We (Krithi, Jaagruthi, Nandhitha & I) ended up making a rushed 1-day trip to Madras on 1 Jan mainly because I'd exhausted whatever little leave I had. Folks there were actually aghast I was returning that night, since they'd expected us to stay on until all the ceremonies were over. Why is turning up an indicator of whether we share their grief or not? If anyone told me they're feeling really down and they'd love to have me around, I'll most certainly make it. But I hate turning up just because the scriptures or family traditions demand it.
As it turns out, I'm now being forced to make a 1-day trip (this time only me) this Saturday for the 'grekiyam' ceremony held on the 13th day after his death, which indicates the end of the mourning period.
There're so many things farcical about this.
- Who decides when someone is done with their mourning? My grandmother and her children will take years to get over his death. My grandmother had been married to him for 72 years, from the time she was maybe 12. It has literally been a lifetime's journey.
Will 13 days of mourning be enough for her to move on when there are so many existential questions that she will need to find answers to? She'd have concerns about where she'd live, if she will be dependent on her children, if she will be treated with the same respect that was accorded to her before her husband died, etc. She'd have concerns and doubts over her own mortality.
My eldest uncle is 65 and the youngest is 51. They have lost a huge part of their lives. Can they move on after 13 days? Shouldn't the end of the mourning period be an individual decision rather than one imposed by scriptures?
True, you cant be in mourning (at least not consistently in the same manner) forever. But really, the day when you say "Ok, I think I've got around to accepting the absence. I'll still miss him/her though" is when your mourning period really ends. Hence, by extension, since it differs from person to person, there can't be a concept of a 'grekiyam'!
- Lunch at my grandparents' home now (during the mourning period) is pretty much a 3-course meal with 2-3 vegetables and a sweet as well. How ridiculous is that? Aren't folks supposed to be sad? Then what's the big deal about the 13th day function to "Declare the mourning period closed"? During the grekiyam, family members will be given return gifts (clothes or other household items, for e.g.). Is this some garden party?
- I asked my father why there was a feast on the 13th day as though we were all rejoicing. He said that the sastrigal who performs the daily ceremonies gave some fundas that every act of ours helps my grandfather reach the 'pitru' status. That's when I put it all together - Post-death ceremonies are meant to benefit only the sastrigals and the caterers.
Since I'm away from the scene of action, I'm not in a position to actually influence happenings in Madras. I'd really love to call the bluff on so much of the nonsense that's going on in the name of religious traditions. But I know that things will take at least another 20-25 yrs (a generation) to change. There need to be more agents of change, but what scares me is that there are actually quite a few from our generation who're more than happy to abide by 'traditions' blindly!
In passing (pun intended), here's the last picture I took of my grandfather, 15 days before he died.