Grief, Fossils and Biryani

It was the eighth day of Durga Puja celebrations in 2009. My parents and I had come home late from the pandal. The dhaak still resounding in my ear, I fell asleep. I woke up in the middle of the night to my grandmother’s wails. Her muffled cries on the other end of the phone made my heart race. My uncle had just passed away – her son, my mother’s brother.

We flew to Kolkata.

I stood at the door of my grandmother’s room. In front of me lay women in sober colours scattered along the lengths and breadths of the space. The light blue walls reflected the white tube lights flickering slightly with the women’s cries. Among the sea of lamentation, my grandmother sat, hunched over on her brown plastic chair, clutching her handkerchief. She looked up at me and her eyes drew me in. I held her, not fully understanding why she grasped me as though I was her last straw. I was too young to understand the wails, the mourns, the cries.

During my childhood, my grandmother’s house was where my family gathered to celebrate. Adhering comfortably to a Bengali trope, all of them were musicians. With my uncle leading on the harmonium, they would sing together. Whiskey flowed generously as my aunt whipped up biryani, kebabs, cutlets, noodles, baked fish and mishti. On more silent nights, we would get orange popsicles while watching TV, sucking the juice out of them till all that was left was ice. The summers would include kulfi, kochuri, jileepi (jalebi) and Dermicool talcum powder. Kolkata existed between those blue walls of my grandmother’s house and the cat-pee-corridor leading up to it.

My father swooped in and took me away from the house; a child shouldn’t be near so much sadness it seemed. For the first time I saw the city beyond those walls. We saw Dalhousie, Tirreta Bazaar, he showed me old pagodas where Chinese spies would hide during the Opium Wars. We wandered through the by-lanes of his memories, ate luchi for Rs 20, and visited fossils in museums.

It is hard to miss the rickety old buildings splashed with the typical Calcutta red, black corners and edges, each shape carrying history, a story, a colonial hangover. Calcutta lives in the past. It is a city of fossils with each bare-backed rickshaw driver carrying its struggles. With each of its bhadralok flaunting its history. With each of its children escaping its present. It didn’t take too long before my bright summers were cloaked in mourning. My grandmother’s house bore the weight of its sorrows, its losses, its grief. It never left.

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How can life not go on, I wondered. How can you dedicate your life to mourning?

Jamie Anderson, the writer of Doctor Who once said, “Grief is just love with no place to go.”

It turns up in house corners, in tears, in words. It turns up as exhaustion, as the need to sleep at 7 pm when you woke up at 12 pm. It turns up as sleeplessness. It weighs, it weighs immeasurably. It dissipates and dissolves, delving deeper into your dreams. It hurts, it frees, it relieves, it becomes a crutch. Grief wanders through your fingertips and out onto keyboards, as it is now. Grief is a victim to time, and only time can heal.


On the day we reached my grandmother’s I tried to cry. I stood in the bathroom and thought of how much I missed him. Heavy tears fell from my eyes. At that age, grief is crying and once the tears stop, grief does too.

I became better acquainted with grief many years later.

On February 28 2020, my dog got diagnosed with liver cancer. We lost him two months later. I wept for two months prior, and for one month after. I had lost a part of me, he was part of the family.

In the following months, family members passed away one after the other. A year dedicated to loss, mourning, illness and uncertainty dealt a heavy blow. My house was no longer my house, it was a place of mourning. It was just me and my family. Once we overcame one hurdle, one wave of grief, the news of another death came. I got up every day, my spine feeling heavier than the day before, my heart feeling emptier, my head pounding. But we carried on. We made three meals; we ate them. We fought with each other, we made up. We did our work, we cleaned the house, we even smiled.

For the first few days, grief feels like you’re floating on water. Your body knows what to do, when to cry, how to express, what you need, what you don’t. Following that grief creeps up on you in moments you least expect it. When you’re having a bath, doing gardening, putting away the medicines, finding a place for the dog bowl, changing your meat shop order because “ya, we don’t need the chicken bones anymore”.

After that, grief has no shape or form or channel. It wanders recklessly through your life. Etching away at the fabric of your being, you can lose yourself to grief. I saw it. I saw why my grandmother never stopped mourning. I saw why the house grew older and less like itself. I saw myself, a skeleton of what I was, with so much love for the ones I had lost, but nowhere to put it. So, I carried it in a small suitcase by my side.

Also read: Book Review | A Saga of Unending Maternal Grief in Kashmir

I tried all of last year to write an essay on grief. I thought, writing it out would be closing its chapter. I tried but I never could. There would never be enough words and yet every word I had written, I had written before. I was repeating myself, the pain, the heaviness, the pain, the heaviness, the pain, the heaviness – rehearsed.

What you have read I have rehearsed for a year. There is still more to this monologue that I have not written yet. More to this elegy that is yet to come. But the words here are witness to the fact that the wound is healing. That grief is finding its way. That time is a holding ground. That energy is returning to my body. That I don’t sleep as much anymore. That I can finish my work, the dishes, have conversations and watch a film, all in the same day. That I can concentrate. That I am not becoming a fossil at the ripe old age of 23. Yes, I am young, but in my defence, I do have a few grey hairs. As Anderson wrote:

“Grief, I’ve learned, is really just love. It’s all the love you want to give but cannot. All that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go.”

But you can put them in photographs, in food, in music, in writing, in art, in yourself. You can always carry the scent of joy in biryani and kebabs, and the scent of them in that joy. Just make sure they aren’t dusty or stale, or fossils.

Eshna Benegal is writer, editor and dancer based out of Bangalore, India. Her early rendezvous with Ogden Nash, Agatha Christie, Sadat Hasan Manto and Karan Johar has led to her inhabiting a relatively flavourful mind. Thus, she comes to the battlefield armed with obscure references, a lot of passion and nonsense. Her writing has been featured on platforms such as The LiveWire, “Unselves: An Anthology of poetry” and soon, many more!

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty