The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, November 26, 2000
Life Ties

Let grief run its course
By Taru Bahl

ASHUTOSH was an accountant with a foreign bank. Being a Bengali, he initially felt out of place in North India. When his wife, Mrinalini, conceived after six years of marriage they were completely at sea, not knowing what to do and how to chart their future course of action. But his colleagues reassured him and took over. Doctors were identified, a suitable ground floor house overlooking a lush green garden was found, lists were made and wives of his colleagues took turns visiting the mother-to-be, cheering her up and helping her plan the little one’s wardrobe. Whenever work took Ashutosh to Delhi or Mumbai colleagues would religiously check on his home to ensure everything was functioning smoothly. The birth of the baby was a celebration. Vani was a playful child who at two could narrate a dozen rhymes with appropriate actions. At staff picnics one could see the proud parents showing her off, for she was smarter, more energetic and articulate than kids double her age! Ashutosh’s work entailed long working hours and hectic travelling. Mrinalini’s waking hours were consumed by her parenting responsibilities. Her life revolved around her daughter.


Ashutosh got handsome returns on a small investment in shares and on friends’ advice decided to take his family on a long-overdue holiday to a hill station. He hired a car and they planned a week-long vacation in Dalhousie and Chamba. On the last leg of their journey when the car was waiting to bring them back to Chandigarh, they were busy with last-minute packing. Vani was standing on a sofa with her chubby hands pressed against the long French windows, excitedly overlooking the flower-laden valley. One minute she was singing happily and the next a solitary shriek rent the air. The window’s latch which was not securely in place had given way and she had hurtled headlong from the third floor to the cold concrete pavement of the hotel’s entrance. The sight of Vani, warmly-clad in her favourite pink and purple, jumper, silenced forever, was something that just froze in Ashutosh’s mind. Attempts to revive her proved futile. They drove back to Chandigarh, cradling the dead infant in their arms. The realisation of loss and the permanence of death had perhaps still not sunk in. They were both numb with shock. The office staff rallied around them, looking into all the nitty-gritties, and on the fourth day booked them on a flight to Calcutta for an indefinite leave.

Mrinalini was inconsolable. Her tears just wouldn’t stop. She would go through the day and her various chores in a zombie-like state and sit through the night staring vacantly into space. All attempts at drawing her into a conversation were futile. She was enduring her loss as a punishment. She walked around with heavy feet, breathed life-giving air but didn’t let it enliven her soul, sat in the sun but didn’t allow the light and heat to warm her. She had totally cut herself off from everyone, including her husband. Ashutosh was acutely conscious of his wife’s trauma but did not know how to help her come to terms with her grief. When he tried reaching out to her to comfort her, she would shrink back in horror. When he tried cheering her up by talking of something light and funny she would look stonily at him. He often searched her face for traces of accusation in those limpid eyes but he couldn’t read their expression. To the outside world they were a brave couple who had come to terms with their grief with stoicism and grace. Inside their home they were strangers who had all but forgotten to laugh and share the intimacy with which their marriage had sparkled before Vani had gone away.

They returned to Chandigarh after a month. He swallowed his grief, silenced his sobs, packed up all Vani’s toys and clothes and went back to office. He tried to block the memory of the holiday, push away his own guilt and put an end to all the questions which kept choking him — why did he have to take that holiday? Couldn’t he have put the windfall in a fixed deposit in Vani’s name? Why didn’t they check into another hotel? Why did they not take a room on the ground floor? Why had he not scrutinised their living area to make sure that it was foolproof and accident-free. Wasn’t Vani, after all, a baby who didn’t have a clear idea of what was safe and what wasn’t? Why did he allow her to lean on that French window? Why couldn’t he erase the juxtaposed images of her gurgling laughter and her final shriek from his mind? Why, oh why, did he feel so guilty and inadequate?

Since there were no answers he suppressed his emotions and substituted them with the cold comfort of numbers, figures and calculations. He intensified his work schedule and tried to lead a ‘normal’ life. When Mrinalini became pregnant, everyone, including him, their friends and family, thought that maybe now she would be able to put the past behind her. There would be something to distract her. But distances between husband and wife kept growing. It almost brought their relationship to a breaking point. They shared either cold silences or spoke in monosyllables. There were no jokes between them, no comfort in togetherness, no shared dreams of the future and no looking forward to the impending arrival of the baby. When Bhairavi arrived Ashutosh thought Mrinalini would go back to being her bubbly, fun loving, and impish self. But it didn’t happen that way. She was paranoid about the safety of her daughter. Like a shadow, she would trail her everywhere, mollycoddle her and choke her with her protective maternal love. It was unhealthy and close friends were worried how the family would normalise their relationships and settle down to a less anxious way of living.

His unconfronted guilt and sheer helplessness at not being able to anticipate and avert the tragedy had increased his feelings of negativity. He felt responsible for his wife’s inability to pick herself up. He interpreted her silence and touch-me-not attitude as a reaction to his irresponsible and inept behaviour. He was getting socially isolated, problems were beginning to surface at work and he was smoking close to 40 cigarettes a day.

He came across an article in an old issue of Reader’s Digest which talked about how one could deal with bereavement and allow healing to take place. This set him thinking. Would things have been different if they had let their individual and collective grief run its full course? Immediately after the tragedy both had tried to internalise their grief and pain. Each thought this would help the other to ‘forget’ the grief and get on with his/her life. Maybe if they had talked of Vani, gone over her pictures together, reminiscenced about the good and bad times they had shared over the two-and-a-half years she had been with them, re-visited the places she loved, fondled and caressed her favourite toys, they might have been able to cry in each other’s arms, giving vent to all their bottled up feelings. They could have given and received comfort from each other. They

might have been able to halve their sorrow and double their togetherness quotient as they learnt to live in spite of what had happened. Instead of the tragedy pushing them further away from each other it could have brought them closer. The bond could have been cemented with the arrival of the second daughter. Ashutosh decided to put everything else on the backburner and concentrate on turning the tide, resolving to bring the sunshine, warmth and hope back into their lives.

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