I’ve just come back from a funeral. She was the mother of one of my dearest friends. Last night, I would have said ‘she is’. A few hours have turned her into a past tense. Still, my friend is lucky: her dad is alive. So she is not totally devoid of that crucial voice that conveys expectations as well as reprobation. The voice that rejoices more than you in your achievements, but calls you out when you do something slimy (and think you’ve got away with it).
A lot of my other friends are not that lucky. We are at the stage of life now where parents are dropping away like dry leaves. Visits to hospitals, attending funerals is the order of the day. Not a week, sometimes not even a day, goes by without a ‘bad news’ call.
Many of us now have no elders left; no home to go back to. With siblings scattered across the world, the old aunts and uncles either dead or too ill or living far away with their children, there is no way to “go back home to our young dreams of glory and of fame, back home to the escapes of time and memory”.
That changes our lives, and us, irreversibly. It doesn’t matter how old we are, or how old our parents were at the time of death. It doesn’t matter how we felt about them when they were alive, whether we respected them or resented them, were close or cold, combative or cuddly. Their passing makes all the old emotions irrelevant. Suddenly, we are cast loose to drift in loneliness, blindly feeling our way forward, clinging to lost memories. Memories of old conversations and unfettered laughter, of secrets and outings, of reasonable and unreasonable demands made, of unspoken desires mysteriously understood and fulfilled.
It also leaves us with questions that have no answers. Because the whole question of who we are and where we come from can only be answered by our parents. As can the key questions of life. Like where our ICSE certificates are kept; the name of the bookshop we frequented in Allahabad; and why Balli mama married Reshmi mami in a temple at a Tripura railway station? Also, which year did I win the prize for long jump on sports day? And which birthday did I wear the prickly peach organza dress that Masi sent from Calcutta? And while we’re about it, why did Mum always wear fancy sarees for my brother’s birthday party and plain ones for mine?
It’s not all personal. There are also all the questions that need to be fired over the phone whenever we need answers on anything mythological, historical, medical, mathematical, culinary.... It’s not everybody who knows the name of Gandhari’s father as well as the recipe for bhapa doi and what Churchill won the Nobel literature prize for.
With our personal Google gone, we’re on our own. In some way, the pressure is off: because there is no one looking over our shoulder and forcing us to behave. But the pressure is on in a zillion other ways: because we have no one to answer to but ourselves. We’re not as kind as our parents. And our minds are certainly not as encyclopaedic.