May 13, 1996
It was around 10 am on a hot and humid summer day in May. My family lived in a modest two-bedroom house in a somewhat-fancy apartment in Mylapore in central Madras. Just a few months shy of turning eight, I was playing badminton inside the master bedroom with my niece who was two years older than me. If you’re wondering how that’s possible – it is if your parents have much older siblings and therefore, you have older cousins who had children before you were even born.
We used the bed as the net. I hit a smash shot that ended up breaking the black clock on the wall. The glass shattered and the clock fell with a thud.
My father, who was in the living room, came rushing in to check what had happened. It was a Monday, but I can’t remember why he wasn’t at work. He used to work at the Madras Rubber Factory (MRF).
I don’t think he ever shouted when he got additional work on the days he was supposed to be off. In general, he was a bit short-tempered – he once yelled at a photographer for taking a grumpy-looking photo of mine when I was a year old (I was a cheery, ever-smiling baby). He had shouted, “You bastard. How could you do this!”
The rest of the events that unfolded on that fateful Monday (another reason I absolutely loathe Mondays) have mostly been reconstructed from my mother’s telling. My father left the house to attend to our shop – my parents ran an ice-cream parlour as a side-hustle. My mother and brother got a call from my dad complaining of chest pain. They both rushed to the shop immediately in an auto-rickshaw and took my dad to a nearby hospital that he chose. There were much better hospitals in the vicinity, but somehow my dad chose this one.
My dad then had a massive heart attack and passed away.
Meanwhile, I was taken to my mama’s (my mother’s older brother) house and was asked to stay there for a few hours. I think my mother/brother didn’t want me to be involved in the post-death rituals. I was sitting in a room at my mama’s house with nothing to do, unsure of what I was doing there all of a sudden. But, I didn’t question anyone. I complied.
Sometime in the evening post 7 pm, I was brought back home – again, I can’t recall who dropped me back. As I entered the apartment gate, my mama picked me up and said these exact words in Tamil, “Your father has joined the gods.”
Although I was small, I knew what this meant – don’t ask me how. I came undone. My mama carried me back home, which was by now crowded with relatives and friends.
Oh, my mother! I couldn’t bear the sight of my mother crying next to my father’s lifeless body. I went to her and kept repeating, “Don’t cry, ma!” for the next few hours.
It’s been 25 years since that day. But I just have to close my eyes to remember – the details are etched in my memory forever. I want them to go away, I try very hard to push them out but unfortunately I can’t. I cried the whole time as I wrote this article. I still get a lump in my throat thinking of the lives that could have been – my father’s, my lovely mother’s, my brother’s and mine. But this one single incident altered the course of all our lives. There is so much sadness inside me – it’s like a deep well that never runs out of water.
I may be a good human being in some ways – I respect those around me and am generous to the best of my abilities. But sometimes, I can’t help but wonder if my father’s death made me apathetic in some ways. Today, I don’t feel too many emotions towards death in general – when an 80-year-old dies, I don’t get so bothered. In fact, when a 102-year-old family member died a few years back, I felt a little relieved. When people die, I say, “May they rest in peace.” I can’t say, “This is sad” – unless the death leaves a seven-year-old girl fatherless and a 42-year-old spouseless.
These events were way too personal for me to share with anyone – until now, when I see what happened to me happen to many around the world due to the pandemic. I think the only person I shared these events with was my ex-boyfriend. He hugged me tightly when I was done.
As I finish writing this, I need that hug now.
Inspired by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay ‘Notes on Grief’
Preethi R. Iyer is a product manager at an e-commerce company. She is an aspiring writer, who has set a personal goal this year to improve her writing skills and write a book of short stories. You can find her on Twitter @_rpreethi and Instagram @preitr
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