It’s the season of death. The air is thick with the news of people dying everywhere; people who have been reduced to just a number, a statistic devoid of feelings.
The last two days, death stopped being a statistic for a moment with the demise of Bollywood actors Irrfan Khan and Rishi Kapoor. Social media is flooded with tributes from all over the world for the two actors – who died without being able to get a proper final goodbye from their fans. It was terribly sad to see tiny funeral gatherings for the two men.
The news of Irrfan Khan’s death had me grieving like I had lost someone I knew. I spent hours on the internet reading about him, watching old interviews, adding his movies to watch lists. I don’t know if I was mourning the loss of his craft or his personality. Maybe as a fan, it is futile to try separating the two.
I slept with lines from Ang Lee’s Life of Pi:
“I suppose in the end, the whole of life becomes an act of letting go, but what always hurts the most is not taking a moment to say goodbye.”
I then woke up to the news of Rishi Kapoor’s death. A death which also seems personal – but for entirely different reasons. A death I want to mourn but don’t know how.
Rishi Kapoor never quite felt like a star to me – even though I know he was a favourite with generations older than I. Maybe this was because his career as a star was already over by the time I was born and I remember him mostly from performances in supporting roles. There is no doubt he was a good actor but it’s his offscreen persona that makes you feel like you know this person.
We all have that ‘Chintu uncle‘ in our family who, at his best, is funny, loves to party, gives unsolicited advice to all young people. He is a joy to be around – but he’s also temperamental and reveals his dark abusive side from time to time. There is still talk in the family about those not so pleasant things he did in his prime. We have also heard various ‘Chintu uncles’ saying cringeworthy things to people they consider their subordinates.
Also read: Letter to My Right-Wing Uncle
We’ve seen his streak of sexism, casteism and racism. We love his zest for life but hate his sense of entitlement. We love the fact that he goes out of his way to be there for people he loves, but hate the fact that he can be pretty nasty and demeaning too.
What do we do with ‘Chintu uncle’? Since we can’t change him, we learn to accept him at his best and ignore him at his worst.
Is there a guide to mourning problematic uncles we share a love-hate relationship with?
Having that guide would make this far easier. But there aren’t any available and we’ve been left to swim in this ocean of grief we aren’t even sure we want to be in. But here we are, trying the balancing act of swimming and drowning at the same time.
In Rishi Kapoor’s death, I am reliving the deaths of multiple problematic men in my life. This includes my grandfather, who died 15 years ago. His influence was monumental in my life and it took me many years to come to terms with the fact that he was abusive towards my grandmother.
When he died, I was convinced that he was the greatest man who ever who lived. Death glorified him and made him perfect. It was only much later that I began to juxtapose the great parts with the not-so great parts, producing a completely different version of my grandfather which no longer moved me to tears. I felt guilty of mourning an abusive man who had brought so much pain to my grandmother.
But what does one do with all the joy that he brought into my life? Is that joy less real than the pain? How do I call out the pain but still celebrate the joy? Why do I have to choose?
As I ask these questions, I am deeply aware that joy and the pain are not just emotions rising out of a vacuum. They are deeply rooted in a culture of oppression furthered and championed by men like Rishi Kapoor and my grandfather – who are never held accountable for their troublesome views and actions towards those less privileged than them because, hey, they are nice men and there is always somebody worse.
Do we need to change that? Yes.
But can this be changed by putting up a list of offences committed by Chintu uncle and his ilk, on the day of their deaths even before their bodies have been laid to rest? Probably not.
The night my grandfather died, my grandmother held all of us grandchildren and watched over us in our grief. A few years later, when she opened up about the dark side of her husband that we were completely oblivious to, I asked her, “Why didn’t you tell us anything when he died? It must have hurt you to see us mourning a man who gave you so much pain.”
“By asking you to hate my husband, I didn’t want to take away your right to grieve your grandfather’s passing. Everyone should be allowed to grieve the death of those they love. But remember, grieving is not forgiving,” she told me.
I find solace in my grandmother’s words that it is possible to mourn someone without forgiving them. Maybe that’s what we need to remember when we take this moment to say goodbye to ‘Chintu uncle’.
Bhawna Jaimini is an architect and activist in making. She works closely with the residents of one of the most marginalised neighbourhoods to improve their built environment.
Featured image credit: Reuters