This morning I got the news of the sudden passing of an old (but young) friend's father. She and I were together in Bahrain for several years, before we moved away - I to UAE and then to Egypt, and she first to Saudi and then to Canada, the typical trajectories of trailing spouses. But we all kept in touch albeit intermittently, she and I share the baggage and the privilege if any, of being the only child of our respective parents, and therefore our connect overrides the age difference which is substantial.
I saw the message from her husband, and I rang her and we spoke for over half an hour, and at the end of the call, I realised I had said nothing of any "comfort value". I don't have words for these situations, I have never been good with the spoken word, the right ones don't come for me when I need them the most. What are the right words, even? I have no idea if the call was of any use to her at all, just that I had an immediate need to make it, I didn't think what I was doing, I rang the number blindly as soon as I finished reading the message, without checking for the time difference or things that I normally would do before making a cross border call, almost like a reflex.
Was it a self indulgence, then? Can anybody except the close family and/or people physically close provide comfort at a time like this? I don't know. I felt better for having spoken to her, whether she felt the same I will never know, but I suspect not. No matter what comfort anyone offers, grief too is something we ultimately must tackle and come to terms with alone, completely unaided. All the hype about being there for each other etc works till the halfway turnstile and stops, the rest is a trip no-one can undertake by proxy.
Never forgets her first
There is a proverb somewhere in the Mediterranean, Italy? Spain? one of those places with those TDH romantic types, which in sum means that a woman doesn't forget her first love. Maybe. But I know for certain that she doesn't forget her first brush with sudden death. I wasn't a woman, I was a girl of 6-7 years, those days we used to live in New Delhi. My father, along with two other friends, was in the process of establishing an architects' firm. We lived on the first floor of a rented house, the front three rooms were the office, the back rooms were home. The two were connected through a balcony. I sometimes disobeyed strict orders to keep away, and walked across that balcony after school into the office. The staff there indulged me with gifts of pencils, and showed me those meticulously detailed architect's models with their greensponge trees and little people with briefcases and fascinating bluerippled pools of water in teeny-tiny swimming pools.
Across the road from us was a three storied house, a large Punjabi family lived there, they had a teenage son, he vroomed in and out of the street on a motorbike. No young children, otherwise I would have remembered going there, and I never stepped into that house. My parents might have known them to say hello on the streets, but nothing more. The social barriers were more strictly observed then, my parents as young middle class people, still struggling to make ends meet, were unlikely to be on intimate terms with a rich business family which could afford motorcycles for its youngest member.
One evening there was a commotion in that house, a lot of people gathered, a whole line of cars came to be parked there. I saw men with the gravest faces, and saw - for the first time in life - grown women crying with the corners of their pallus pressed over their faces. My father stood by with an equally shocked face on our front patio. I will remember those expressions if I live to be a hundred.
I learnt that young man had died in a road accident, hit by a lorry at the AIIMS junction, no signal there then, just a roundabout. He was thrown from his bike, and he wasn't wearing a helmet, safety wasn't paramount in those days either, no fines for not wearing one, he took a direct hit on his head and died on the spot. At that time he seemed grown up to me, but he must have been what? all of 17-18 years, must have just got his licence or maybe he was riding alone on a learners' in a sudden fit of daring, breaking rules has an irresistible attraction at that age.
I saw his body being brought home late in the dark, and my father remained out on the patio with the lights off most of that night, keeping some sort of vigil with his mourning neighbours' for a young life lost so needlessly, so heart wrenchingly. He said he was unable to sleep when I asked him why he wasn't going to bed, I remember his cigarette glowing in the dark as he paced. Maybe my mother joined him after I fell asleep, perhaps she went to condole with the women after the cremation was over. Most likely she did, with the appropriate words and a mandatory basket of fruit.
"You hear of somebody in trouble, you go to them and make yourself useful," she said to me once, when I was much older but equally as unwise as I had been at 7.
"How do you know it's not an intrusion?" I had asked her sassily.
"It's what you make of it," she had replied,"If they feel like talking, you offer your attention, if they feel like tea, you make them some. You help any way you can and then come away and let them get on with it. As simple as that. I can assure you, they won't be thinking of who's gawking and who's come to help. It's not about the visitors at all, it's not about you."
My mum, unlike me, has always been good with the spoken word. Apart from being less uncertain, less diffident about things, less self-absorbed with the nitty gritties of her own perspectives. Their entire generation, it seems to me. They know when to observe those barriers, and when to topple them and reach out. They don't obsess about their degree of usefulness, they know their roles and they play them without wondering if the playwright has got it right and if the script can improved. Maybe it's their faith, in god, in an afterlife, in following scripts.
Going to the turnstile
Before my friends came to Bahrain, in August 2000 there was a ghastly air accident just off the island of Muharraq. A few hundred feet from the runway, flight GF 072 crashed into the sea. No-one survived. The passengers were a medley of nationalities, but most were Bahrainis and Egyptians. Many were children, returning to school after the summer break.
Bahrain is a tiny place, everyone knew someone on board that flight. I checked the passenger list the next day but didn't find any familiar names, big sigh of relief. But later a friend rang in tears, her nephews were on the flight, returning alone from Cairo after spending their summer holidays with friends. The mother was a wreck, the father had gone that morning to bring back the bodies. My first reaction was a shocked silence, and the second one was just the same, I wanted to drop everything and rush to her house that very minute.
Better sense prevailed and I went later in the afternoon, when the family were formally receiving condolences, and I had no need for any words, because I didn't know any language that my friend's mother, the bereaved grandmother of those two boys, spoke. I sat on the floor amongst the women, someone made tea and poured me some in the clear beakers that Arabs serve it in, and the lady sat with the weight of her grief and a dry-eyed dignity that was more heart breaking than free-flowing tears. It turned my brain inside out, the rawness of that mourning and pain in that quiet women's majlis. From there too, I had come away without knowing if my mostly-unexpressed sympathy, served any purpose. Did it matter who came to share in the mourning? Does it count who comes with you to that halfway turnstile? Do actions speak at all? Forget louder or softer than words.