Sep 22 was a tough day. It is always painful when a ‘birthday’ gets converted into an ‘birth anniversary.’ But the pain is especially tough to bear when the person in question exited the world prematurely. Such was the case with my dear friend and brother, Ramadhyani Narayanan – Dhyans, to me - who had passed on in 2020, aged just 40. Not that we ever forget the departed souls. But days such as Dhyans’ birthday or the day he passed on are tough reminders of a reality that, whether we choose to acknowledge, is…real. I can look away. I can even shut my eyes. But as much as I wish for the gift to rewind to the moment before his death and prevent it, no, the clock doesn’t move in reverse. Instead, I feel locked in a curiously designed time machine where the body is in the present, but the mind is in the past. It is a time machine in which I feel suffocated and claustrophobic because of the uneasy dichotomy between the pleasantness of the shared past and harshness of the lonely present. Have you been there? Have you felt that? Is there anything that can be done about it? Let’s explore.
One of the best lines from Shankar’s Muthalvan is one uttered by Arjun’s father. He wistfully says, “Life-la mattum our rewind button irundha evlo nalla irukum.” (“It will be ideal if life too, had a rewind button.”) Minutes later, he loses his life in a ghastly bomb blast. In deep anguish, that is one of the lines that instantly comes to Arjun’s mind. It is a powerful scene, packed with genuine sentiment. Let’s come up with an alternate version of that line – “It will be ideal if life too, had a fast-forward button.” I say that because there is a sense of dread when a birth (or a death) anniversary of a loved one approaches. On that day, our mind is brimming with thoughts and memories, almost waiting for the clock to turn to the next day so that the pain eases a little. In the past few years when I have lost my Aunt (49) and friend (40) to premature deaths, I have realized that there is no benefit to be had from flinching from the thought of entering that uncomfortable time machine. Is there an alternative?
Yes, there is. Firstly, we must willingly get into that time machine. And more importantly, we need to look around to see who is grieving as much as or more than us. And make sure that we strap them into their seat belts before we get on. Because it is vitally important to take a genuine assessment of the people who are hit the hardest. And make sure that we humbly acknowledge what we owe to them versus what we can expect in terms of commiseration and consolation.
We must engineer the time machine to not just have two modes – past and present – but also a third one, the future. In other words, we need to concretize our grief in a manner where we eye the future and find ways to make the departed soul live on. I remember when director Vasanth visited my grandma the first Diwali after my Aunt had passed on, he said to her, “I know that you will not be celebrating Diwali. But why don’t you make her favorite dish?” My grandma was immensely touched by his gesture. (So was I.) Last year, Dhyans’ brother and I instituted an annual award for excellence in Math to celebrate the life of Dhyans who was a natural at Math. These are but a couple of examples. Your memories of your loved ones may be very different, leading to gestures that are unique, special, and deeply fulfilling to you.
At the end of the day, the process of grieving is intensely personal. One size does not fit all. But my sincere opinion is that failing to acknowledge the pain, especially when it is amplified on certain days, is not a way to deal with it. By looking at these days as opportunities to willingly pause to reflect, rejoice and recollect can be a surprisingly rewarding experience. By investing our efforts in meaningful thoughts or gestures that pay a tribute to the ones who are no longer with us, we can make sure that the time machine also enables us to look at the future. A future where we make our loved ones live on. When we have taken mortality – at least in spirit - out of a supreme power’s hands, we not only empower ourselves but also the ones who are grieving the most. Consequently, the ride in the time machine will feel uplifting, not suffocating and comfortable, not claustrophobic.