One of my first close encounters with grief came on a ripe June night in Tokyo during my semester abroad. I was at my host family’s house, near coastal Chiba prefecture, when I heard soft sobbing sounds float from the traditional Japanese-style quarters adjacent to my bedroom. Sliding the yellowed paper panels of the fusuma ajar, I found okaasan, my 70-something-year-old host mother, crouched in the dimly lit washitsu, a trembling heap prostrated on the coarse tatami mats that covered the linoleum floor corner to corner. Her face looked terribly pale as it peeked out from wire-thin arms, like a colourless arc of moon shadowed by fragile tree branches after a rainstorm.
“Okaasan…,” I ventured, hesitant. “Daijoubu desuka?” (Are you okay?)
Before the last syllable escaped my lips, okaasan began weeping profusely. I scurried towards her and let my knees buckle immediately, finding my place near her quivering frame. Tears pooling in the hard cushions, okaasan murmured feebly, “Haha wa kyuu ni nakunachatta.”
Her mother had died – suddenly, without warning.
In the month and a half that I had spent at my host parents’ residence, okaasan had spoken of her mother dearly. Most remarkably, perhaps, okaasan’s mother had urged her to attend college in an era that heavily discouraged women from doing so. I admired her, and longed to meet her. Although she had lived in a nursing home just a few train stations away, I never got to.
I did not know what was appropriate to say in such a situation – weeks of orientation at my host institution and years of Japanese language classes had not prepared me for this eventuality. I fumbled for the right words, mentally combing through the pages of every single Japanese textbook I had encountered, searching wildly for some phrase of condolence that, rather than sounding hollow and artificial, might contain the semblance of meaning.
The contours of mourning are shaped by culture and language – just as much as they are by our raw, essential humanity – and my many Japanese language and culture classes had not bestowed upon me any knowledge of the semiotics of pain. I worried that the sometimes sticky syntax of Japanese might contort my tongue into jagged shapes, producing – against my will – sharp and caustic utterances that would only make everything worse. I was starved for words that might begin to soothe okaasan’s incurable sorrow, or speak to her suffering with honesty and compassion.
Resolved to my silent fate, I reached out and held okaasan as she continued to cry. We stayed completely still for several hours, sculptures entwined in wordless embrace, until the too-bright Tokyo sun eventually bathed the small room in abundant light.
Now, it has been more than a year since okaasan’s mother died. I left Tokyo, resumed college in the US and earned my bachelor’s degree. Two weeks ago, my grandfather on my mother’s side, my nana, passed away. I am bitterly aware that I did not and still do not have the right words – in this instance, not because of culture or language, but for reasons of space and time.
My grandfather was one of midnight’s children, coming of age on the cusp of Partition and independence, during the peak of political and social tumult in northern India. As an intrepid young boy from a Hindu family in Gurdaspur, a heavily contested territory in pre-Partition Punjab, many of his dear friends were Sikh and Muslim. Having experienced firsthand the wanton bloodshed of Partition, my grandfather became an eloquent spokesperson for equity and fraternity – religious, ethnic and caste-based alike. He frequently articulated the scrupulous secular visions of India that today, as Hindu-nationalist sentiments bubble riotously to the surface, seem lost to an idealised past.
Later, after joining the Indian Foreign Services, marrying my grandmother and becoming a father to my aunt and mother, he traversed far and wide, thirsting for every experience that the newly pried open world could offer him. From Vientiane to Mogadishu, and Rome to Port Louis, my grandfather documented his journey extensively in a series of leather-bound diaries, jotting down in his elegantly rendered nastaliq (Arabic script) the minutiae of everyday existence and the political contingencies that shaped them so viscerally.
I cannot, to my dismay, comprehend the contents of my grandfather’s decades-long inventory, because he wrote it in his fast vanishing dialect of Hindustani. Hindustani– its calligraphic script, and vocabulary, soaked in the rich essences of Persian, Arabic and Sanskrit alike – was forcibly split into Hindi and Urdu after Partition. My grandfather may well have been amongst the last to still dream in that disappearing register of Hindustani, his uniquely forked tongue a vestige of an irretrievable era.
Beyond having been a polyglot and world traveller, my grandfather was also the truest ‘global citizen’ I can imagine. His sense of the world, and of his position within it, were informed equally by his roots and routes. His deep understanding of geopolitics, history, diaspora and migration were complemented by his ceaseless compassion and humility – and a quick temper in the face of dishonesty and deception. From him, I learned what it means to approach another with empathy, even in the face of hatred. My grandfather taught me, above all, what it means to be a person in a hurting world.
The last time I spoke to my grandfather, it was the day of my graduation, hours short of the festivities. He teared up on the other side of the tenuous phone line as he told me how proud he was of me, and how much he wished he could have been there in the flesh to see me walk across the stage to claim my diploma. Along with my grandmother, he live-streamed the three-hour-long ceremony from start to finish until 2 am, in his home in Delhi. We stood separated by over 1,200 kilometres and a 10-and-a-half-hour time difference, bound to each other only by two-dimensional images dancing along a screen, pegged uncertainly to cyberspace by corroding cables buried undersea.
When I received the WhatsApp message from my father that my nana had suffered fatal cardiac arrest in his sleep, I was brushing my teeth, preparing to go to bed. At the moment that my grandfather breathed his very last, I was engulfed by the everyday business of living, getting ready for my own finite, daily death. The exact technologies of communication that had enabled connection now seemed only to intensify that final disconnection.
The message left me speechless. I confronted the vast array of keyboards installed on my phone – from emojis to phonetic Hindi – tormented by their stark insufficiency. I found myself wondering if there even exist any ‘right words’ for mourning. Even if we pooled our collective resources of communication, spanning the entire spectrum of syllabaries and symbols, would we still come up short, when time and space disunite, when words are our only course? When faced with grief so profound and wounds so cavernous, is all language inevitably broken?
It would have taken mere milliseconds to shoot a note in response and have it received on the other side of the globe – a perfunctory, instinctive action one performs day in and day out – but what was there to say? I called my mother up, and together with my grandmother, we wept on speakerphone. With the help of social media, I can broadcast myself eating ramen, sell every belonging or find a fresh lover for the night, but I could not find the space to mourn. I could not be present even for those united in the same mourning – except across a flimsy phone line.
Because of my perilous visa status, I was not able to travel to Delhi for my grandfather’s last rites. Since I am transitioning from a student visa to being able to work legally in the US, I cannot risk leaving the country, for I may not be welcomed back. I am a so-called ‘non-resident alien’, ensnared by the foul-smelling maws of America: greedy beyond measure, and yet, woefully starved. It is a monstrous predicament in which to grieve.
The morning after my grandfather passed, my mother sent me a photo from the crematorium – an image of the funeral pyre. I was, once again, relegated to utter silence, submerged in grief. I responded the only way I knew how – “I’m here” I typed, knowing full well the cruelty of the lie, and the weight of my conspicuous absence. I chanted my mediated presence like a mantra, even though she and I both knew that I am here and not there, looped into Central Time even as she aches for her departed father in Indian Standard Time. Between falling asleep too early and waking up too late, I managed to miss my grandmother and mother’s subsequent phone calls – I missed the moments in which my nana’s funeral pyre was set aflame, and his ashes finally floated in the Ganga. I did not get to hold my family close as they bid my grandfather goodbye.
We are hounded by utopian visions of a seamless world, animated by fantasies of speed, and unceasing, unhindered connectivity across far-flung time zones and geographies. This collective reverie obscures the tangible consequences of borders, the sadism of their maintenance and the elemental precariousness of all connections. In truth, our world is ever more bordered, and the more or less arbitrary lines dividing nation-states ever more policed. Moments of absolute disconnection still punctuate life – and its ultimate conclusion.
Like many inventions – the telegraph, the phone and the internet, to name a few – social media, has been glorified for its capacity to melt borders and fashion an idyllic ‘global village’. Social media, purportedly, annihilates time and space.
As I mourn the loss of my grandfather, it destroys me that I cannot be with my mother and grandmother, grieving alongside them. I am devastated by the fact that I cannot, like I did with okaasan even in my egregious loss for words, reach my arms out to embrace them. I am alone in my grief, as they are alone in theirs. Even with the most advanced communication technologies at my disposal, it is precisely time and space that annihilate me.
Aarohi Narain is a recent graduate from Macalester College, US. Find her on Instagram @aarohi.narain
Featured image credit: Joanna Kosinska/Unsplash