Thursday, July 31, 2008

Grappling with Cowardice

I feel relieved. A situation that I had been dreading to face is over. Not really over but I have conquered the first and the most difficult step.

I am the youngest member of a large Hum Aapke Hain Kaun kind of family. I have lots of uncles, aunts, cousins, nieces and nephews. A 'close family only' affair in our setup usually means a minimum of fifty people. No, we don't sing 'Dhik Tana Dhik Tana in the lawns of palatial houses, or play cricket with dogs as goal-keepers and we bicker more often than not over many small and petty things, yet we still stick together. esp. in times of crisis. Crisis such as illness, misfortune or deaths.

Death. The inevitable. The inescapable. The ultimate truth. It has to happen and happen to each of us. Everything and everyone around us is transient. Yet, coping with death is the most traumatic thing for a human being. I often wonder why nature did not make us immune to death. Why have our genes not evolved so that, the emotional knowledge of death is hard-wired into us. The truth is that emotionally an average human being lives as if death does not exist. Why this delusion? It is because of this head in the sand temperament that every time death happens it causes trauma. If death is as true to existence as breathing, then why has nature not built the mechanism to not get affected by it? Is there some divine design in there?

Ever since I have been a child I have seen that deaths are times when you rally together and show support through continued physical presence. In the earlier days a death in the immediate family meant packing your bags and going and spending as much time possible with the bereaved family. It was through this extended social circle that people coped and healed. A crutch that is unfortunately disappearing in our isolated life-styles in the new world. Through family conditioning, I have learnt that this is normal and expected social behaviour under such circumstances. That is the 'right' thing to do.

However, I am also the youngest. That made me into a socially redundant kind of creature. Every time there was a call for a social duty, my presence was considered superfluous. She's a kid, she does not need to go. Or even if I did go, I was not required to offer any words of condolence. I was just to sit quietly. Rarely ever did I have to go anywhere and offer condolence as an individual. There was always someone else better equipped to do it. Thus, I grew up without having to face and deal with such situations myself.

I don't know if it is the conditioning or my basic nature that makes me into a coward. I have always been scared to face someone who has faced a tragedy. I don't know what to say, how to behave and though I feel a strong degree of continued compassion for a person in trouble, I don't know how to express it or console them. The only thing I know is to give a tight hug. But you cannot do that to everyone. Thus, there is always a conflict within me. My value system says that I need to go out of my way and be there for the person and my cowardice says run away, you are useless anyway, why face a difficult situation.

After growing up and developing a social circle of my own, away from the family I have had times where I need to face such situations. My usual escape is to take the support of common friends. I manage to get by.

But there is another more sticky side to my existence. Since I live away from the family here in the US I have become a representative of the family back in India. I need to be present at places and that too most of the times alone. This is where things get very very difficult for me. The last time a tragedy happened, I shirked and then made an extremely belated appearance. No one ever held it against me, but I still regret it. I should have picked up the courage and gone for the funeral.

This Tuesday, I was faced with the same dreaded situation again. A distant relative living here in the US suddenly passed away. Even though we were not closely related, she was a fine lady. Extremely sweet, helpful and full of life. I rarely made an effort to keep in touch, but she would call me regularly and enquire about my well-being. She carried none of the expectations and baggage that inevitably get added the moment you say 'relative'. I was genuinely fond of her. When her son called me early Tuesday morning to break the news I was shocked and distressed. My initial reaction as usual was emotional. I don't know what I said to him, but I think I said the right things.

However after that my old problems resurfaced. I went into the terrified mode again. I need to go and offer my condolences to the family... as a gesture to my bhabhi who lost her aunt, and as a gesture to the family with whom I had established an independent relationship. The truth is that unless you reach out and express your concern, no one ever knows how strongly you feel for the situation. Yet, that reaching out and expressing is what gives me nightmares. I have always been better at expressing through gestures than words. For a person who talks nineteen to the dozen and writes long articles it sounds strange. But that is true.

I have been putting off making the dreaded call since Wednesday morning. I found many excuses... they need to break the news to the father, they need to be left alone to cope, they need to be left alone to deal with the logistics... when the mind decides to conjure up excuses, it can give PC Sarkar a run for his money. The whole of yesterday I dillied and dallied.

Today morning when I woke up I knew I had to call as soon as possible. There was no way out. But the coward that I am, I put it off till afternoon, giving myself the excuse of a heavy work day. From afternoon I pushed it to early evening. Finally, in the evening something inside pulled me up harshly and said.. NOW!. I must have taken ten gulps of water, clicked on my email's 'send/recieve' button another ten times, hoping an important mail would show up to give me an escape route. But nothing happened. I finally picked up the phone and dialled, my heart thumping against my chest. The phone rang, and rang.. and deep within I hoped it would keep ringing. That would assuage my guilt complex of not having called and also relieve me of doing the talking. And that is exactly what happened. I got the voice mail. I was so relieved. I left a message and hung up.

Then in the evening, he called back.... the son. My heart thumping again I picked up the phone. 'I wanted to know when the funeral is', rushing headlong to the point and fumbling stupidly. 'Oh we did the funeral yesterday', he said simply. 'um.. a.... are you going to be performing some pooja in her memory then? I really want to be there', I know I was sounding extremely fake. 'I don't know', he said, suddenly sounding very vulnerable. 'I have no idea what needs to done, I am just following whatever instructions my aunt gave to me'. My heart went out to him. Here is another person who has suddenly found himself in a situation and he has no idea how to deal with it. Suddenly he has been pushed to a position of responsibility. I felt an instant kinship with him. Death here in the US, for many families is far more difficult to cope with. The therapeutic effect of the houseful of people in India is underestimated. It is a lonely battle here.

That broke the barrier. After that we spoke ... easily and naturally. The last time I must have spoken to him must be three years back. I hardly know him. Yet, he spoke. He spoke of his mother's last moments, her intuition about her death, his fathers reaction, how he and his brother handled it. I offered him all the inspirational support I could, straight from the heart and without any guile of 'duniyadari'. When I put the phone down, I felt sad, but I felt good. I had done the right thing.

Just before his call, my neighbour had popped in for five minutes and I was whining about how difficult it is to deal with such situations. How much I am not looking forward to making the drive on the week-end. 'Listen, I have never bought a house before, but I am going through the process of buying it, aren't I? So, even you need to do somethings for the first time'. Strange logic. But it made sense.

So, this week-end I shall make the drive. It is not going to be easy, but winning over my cowardice is making me feel like a better person. Truly, there is no other way to deal with a situation than to face it!

1 comment:

  1. Great structuring of thoughts Ritu. Very Nice