An anxious crowd is gathered around the thickly covered body of a really familiar looking man. Nothing of his body is visible except his face which is devoid of emotion. He appears to be fast asleep. Beside him, hunching on the floor, is my mum, one of my aunts, and my Nani (my maternal grandma). The three of them are wailing and weeping, sobbing so hard they might never be able to stop. I am not allowed to go near them. All I know is that something isn’t right.
The people in the crowd may not have been there for all I know. It’s like all life exists in those three grief-stricken women. None of the onlookers are doing anything to calm their shaking bodies. I see brine glistening in many eyes. I cannot avert my gaze from the man in the midst of it all, lying there tightly bound, not moving. He looks really calm like he doesn’t care about the various people who are coming and gently stroking his face.
I walk away from them all, far back from it where my grandpa is sitting on a chair, looking just as sane as ever, just as calm. He takes me in his arms when I arrive.
“Who is that man, Baba?” I ask him.
He peers at me from behind his spectacles, and explains briefly, “He is your Nana Ji.”
“My Nana Ji?” I repeat. No wonder he looked so familiar.
“Yes,” he says. “Don’t you see?”
“Why is he lying like that, then. Why isn’t he moving?”
“He won’t move anymore,” Baba says.
“His time in this world has ended. He will live with God now. He won’t live in this world anymore. He will live above,” he says, pointing up. “God has taken him.”
“What do you mean, Baba?”
“Everyone comes to live on this earth for a specific time. His time has ended, so he will not live here anymore.”
“But why isn’t he moving?”
“He can’t breathe. So, he can’t move.”
“You mean he is not breathing?” I say with wide eyes.
“He is dead, Vani. He will not breathe, not ever again.”
“You cannot breathe when you die?” I say, now no longer in his arms.
“Never,” he says.
“But how could he live without breathing!?”
“He cannot, that’s why he is dead. He has lived with us. Now, he will live with God.”
I don’t speak for a while so he turns his attention back to the crowd.
“Baba?” I say then.
“Why does he have to die?”
“He can’t live forever, none of us do. Everyone will die in the end. God will take all of us in the end.”
“Everyone?” I say, my breathing becoming rapid.
“Yes.” That’s all he says.
One of the people I loved the most in the whole wide world had just planted in me the seed of explanation of something that would grow swiftly and would haunt me for a really long time. I walk away, unable to get it all. My six-year-old brain failing to comprehend it all. I didn’t understand it. Not then.
Eight Years Later:
I break down in the back seat of the car. The stress of the day has been too much for me and I can’t take it anymore. I don’t even try to hide my tears so our driver sees me and exclaims, “Vani, why are you crying!?”
I can’t answer because what is there to say.
“Vani, why are you…tell me!” he says again, sounding astonished.
“You don’t know what it’s like,” I manage to say. “It’s such a stressful environment. The whole day has just been…” I falter.
“He’ll be alright,” he says, finally understanding. “You are such a wise girl, why should you cry?”
He calls my father then and tells me that he will meet me on the way. We stop at Synergy Hospital, I don’t go inside. My father appears then. He doesn’t look tensed, just a little preoccupied.
They both watch me, and my dad talks about stuff that I feel doesn’t matter anymore, like what did I do at my friend’s house, how was my day. There are more things to worry about. I speak less, it’s hard to speak openly when my insides are closing with refrain from showing my emotions. I finally say, but it comes out more like a croak, “Papa, will Baba be alright?”
“Yes, of course,” is his instant response. He goes on to explain just how better his condition has gotten, and just like that, I feel better talking to him, hearing him speak with that tone of his that could never suggest anything but the best. Yet when the car moves on and I am back in the company of my own thoughts, I can’t shake off the feeling that all won’t be alright.
I understand now, all of it, more than I ever want to. And, in a sense, I wish I didn’t.