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My heart remembers what I seem to have forgotten

I am surprised at how much the human heart can hold within it at the same time. How much mourning is it capable of?

The heart is infinitely capacious—it can hold both joy and mourning at the same time.
The heart is infinitely capacious—it can hold both joy and mourning at the same time.

It took us less than a week to realize that there was no time to break the news gently to the extended family. One week, my mother told me on the phone that Rajendar, my father’s youngest brother, was visiting with his sons to get some medical investigations done. On the next call, she said he had a tumour in his liver and had returned home to Jalandhar to pursue treatment. The next week, she mentioned metastatic cancer. Chachaji had very little time left.

The emotions come first. I am surprised at the waves of grief. The black hole of shock. A frantic desperation kicks in, as my cousins and we begin to search for ways to comfort him physically.

Then the lost memories begin to emerge, one story after another.

The first one is from my early adolescence—the year I turned 13. I had spent eight months that year going to the Holy Family Hospital in Delhi every day for electrical muscle stimulation and physiotherapy to revive the muscles and nerves of my right arm, which had become paralysed from a severe injury.

On most days, my father would take me to the hospital, but it always made him late for work. Some days, my mother and I would spend half a day changing public transport buses to commute to the hospital and back. During the summer break at his college, Rajendar Chachaji came to visit us from Jalandhar and volunteered to relieve both my parents by driving me to the hospital and back on my father’s scooter.

Chachaji and I were an odd couple. It was hard to tell who was leading whom. He seemed fearful and lost to me as he struggled to navigate the crowded hospital systems and unfamiliar traffic of Delhi. I would guide him about alternative routes on the road and lead him from one counter at the hospital to another as we paid bills and waited in queue for my turn.

Chachaji was there to protect me and I had the same reaction towards him. Watching his determination despite his raw nervousnesss knocked me out of my own self-pity. I was distracted from my pain, and, instead of feeling helpless like a victim, I began to feel I could take charge of our situation.

As we pooled our strengths to negotiate the city every day, I felt competent. I felt loved and useful again.

In contrast to these memories from Delhi are the ones from our earlier childhood, when we would travel to Punjab to visit my father’s family every year. Chachaji was the hero of those visits.

He was the youngest among the significant adults of our life when my brothers and I were children. He was the most openly loving. His presence protected us from the tense authoritativeness of our grandfather and father. He made everyone, specially the vulnerable, feel strong and important.

Rajendar Chachaji is the one who sneaked in the ice-cream breaks and took all the children to the movies and for boating. He got special passes and took my brother to watch Prakash Padukone play an exhibition match, cementing his love for the sport forever. When he discovered my love for books as a teenager, he took us to second-hand bookshops where I found Ernest Hemingway, G.B. Shaw, Somerset Maugham, Pearl S. Buck and Anne Frank for Rs10 each. We had to buy a new bag for my fresh stash of books.

He was my mother’s best friend in the home of her in-laws. Chachaji invested in joy. He was the gentlest man in our lives.

It is well past midnight and I am typing this in the home Chachaji had built with his wife and three sons in Jalandhar. My mother has been staying there for the past two weeks, supporting my bereaved aunt and her sons, my cousins. Today was the 13th day after Chachaji’s death and we commemorated with public prayers and sharing of memories. Chachaji is gone and yet his presence amidst us is deeper than I have ever felt before.

In his public persona, my uncle was a professor of zoology all his life. Besides being the head of department and vice-principal of Doaba College, he also coached new batches of students for medical entrance exams every year. His students had a formidable success rate at securing admissions. As we grew up and travelled, we would meet many of his ex-students who would respond to our name by asking if we were related to Prof. R.K. Badhwar of Jalandhar.

“You are the most famous Badhwar in the family," we would tease Chachaji. He was too humble to let that stick. Good teachers remain with us for life.

This is my fourth visit to Jalandhar with my parents and family in the last six weeks. As much as we are all grappling with a sense of loss, these trips are also infused with laughter and connections. A new generation of cousins are playing together. There is a nine-month-old baby in the house, my uncle’s youngest grandchild. My mother’s sisters have arrived to console her sister-in-law.

My father and I go for early morning walks together when we are here. At 75, he is still faster than me at brisk walking. He remembers routes better, makes calculations faster and stays awake longer on the 400km-drive on the highway between Delhi and Jalandhar. “I’m a mother," I console myself, picking up my new nephew. “My brain does a lot of other stuff I don’t even know I do..."

Some of us go out into the neighbourhood for a break in the evening. I introduce myself as that little girl who used to visit from Kolkata when I recognize old neighbours. My aunt had taken me to her school once, proudly showing off her little niece, dressed in a child-size sari, to her colleagues.

I am surprised at how much the human heart can hold within it at the same time. How much mourning is it capable of? How many memories can it tuck away from sight, offering them back when they are relevant again?

We are drained by loss, but also somehow replenished when we mourn it. A death in the family offers us a chance to renew our relationships. With the one who has gone, with others who are still here, and also with oneself.

Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and author of the book My Daughters’ Mum.

She tweets at @natashabadhwar

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