The Circus Called Grief

We stick out for tradition, for the right way of doing things, even for something as spontaneous as grief.

When my childhood friend died last year, a bunch of strangers sent me messages asking, ‘How did it happen?’ (which, in current times, is code for ‘was it a suicide?’).

It reminded me of a dawn in 2006, when a friend’s mother passed away. While we ran beside the stretcher carrying her body to the van, hordes of strangers encircled us. I was quizzed on her gender, her marital status, and most importantly, her surname – perhaps because caste identity doesn’t even spare a cold body.

In both cases, I watched people dissect the family’s expressions, their activities, looking to place their grief on a scale ranging from shockingly fine to completely broken.

I remember hovering beside my friend’s casket, holding her hand to say goodbye, and praying that she was in a better place than the one I was witnessing.

When pictures of Sushant Singh Rajput’s body were flooding the internet, I felt a similar pang. Except, this time, it would not do to simply block two or three friends. It was the entire internet. It would not suffice to reprimand or glare down 10-20 overly curious bystanders. It was everywhere. In the corners of shopping malls, attendants would whisper conspiracy theories while you tried to pick out a new shirt. It was in my parents’ WhatsApp groups, in their morning walk addas, in family get-togethers – just a relentless tirade of dissecting death.

Now, I see the same treatment being meted out to Rhea Chakraborty. When she says, “Sabko line pe khada karke goli maar do (Line up my family and shoot them)”, I can only imagine her exhaustion at having to establish the authenticity of her grief. Her month-long radio silence pegs her as a remorseless murderer, rather than one overwhelmed by shock. Her photos, her WhatsApp chats, her possible association with marijuana – all notions of privacy torn apart in an unforgiving witch hunt.

When my grandmother passed away, I was a little girl. Her sudden demise had shocked me so much that I could not quite bring myself to speak, cry, or find an alternate outlet for my grief. I stood like a pole, while various people – I only remember a blur of faces – clung to me, screamed, howled and complained to whatever god they believed in.

Instinctively, they would raise their palms to wipe my cheeks and, upon finding them dry, they would stifle their shock with a nod and walk away. In the days that followed, I would often chance upon my mother justifying that behaviour to those who called: “O khub koshto peyeche, dekhaye na (She is very hurt, just doesn’t show it)”. I found it strange that callers were not only leaving condolences, but also checking in to see if I had conveyed mine. 

Maybe if my grandmother had been a huge celebrity, I too would have been answerable to thousands of people. I would be put on interview stools in the midst of my grieving process, fielding invasive questions, most of which started with – “but she wasn’t sick even one day ago…”

Maybe they too would have studied my social media profiles – none of which have her pictures – and questioned the authenticity of my love.

I think of how I lay awake all night, the day she died, beating myself up for not visiting her more often. I think of how all of my therapists have heard about her, about the regret I project onto each of my future relationships, by giving too much to compensate for the one time I probably didn’t give enough.

When Sridevi passed away in early 2018, the media had conducted a similar trial on Boney Kapoor’s stoic face (meaning, he had killed her), or on Jahnvi Kapoor’s outfit (meaning, she wasn’t sad at all). With processes of death being crafted on screen (think ‘Maut ka Bathtub’ and the media recreating a noose), and the grieving put under a scanner, there is no dignity left to the dead or the living. It is as if, in death, their life becomes everybody else’s – spilling into drawing rooms over cups of tea, shifting and changing into whatever others want it to be.

In 2017, when my friend lost her father, I watched somebody at the hospital record her crying over the body. Was it to preserve the grief in all of its sanctity? To preserve those moments of terrifying loss? Does death give bystanders the authority to become voyeurs in the garb of documenting sadness?

Grief tourism refers to how, with rampant disrespect to the history of the oppressed, tourists pose in front of Auschwitz gas chambers, or the Bastille jail, reducing torture to a photo-op. This is where the current media ethics stands, but this attitude isn’t restricted to the bright, obnoxious news rooms.  It stems from our own drawing rooms, where we criticise a widow who turns up in flashy jewellery or a sari that hasn’t been worn down to a rag.

It fuels the interests of men like the one who filmed my friend grieving over her father’s body. This culture of fetishising death seeks to eternalise the period of grieving, ensuring that death does not simply occur to the ones who die.

Meghalee Mitra is a littérateur and hopes to change the world, one word at a time.

Featured image credit: Amelia Brown/Unsplash