A week of loss, grief, late night phone calls, a broken music box, a dusty chair, a delirious priest.... but ultimately, the loss of my father gave me a lesson in endurance.
Depression is like air. You can't see it, but you can feel it. There are no visible symptoms really, but it's very much around. It's an epidemic, but a silent one. And the people who suffer from it are often ignorant of it, or are scared that they must be going crazy. If you're suffering from depression, especially in India, you don't need me to tell you that life is hard.
The night before my father passed away, he somehow managed to convince the nurses at the hospital to let them talk to me. Even though he was in the ICU and needed an oxygen pipe to breathe. When he said "Hello" over the phone, I could sense guilt and regret in his voice. I can't prove it scientifically, but I trust my gut.
"Please come and visit. I just want to see you once." These were his last words to me.
The call lasted for barely a minute since he was finding it difficult to breathe without the oxygen pipe. He had only one request. He wanted to see me once. I tried to assure him that I'd visit him as soon as he got better, but he was insistent. "Please come and visit. I just want to see you once." These were his last words to me.
After I informed my mother, and my grandfather, they told me I could go and visit him the day after. They were hesitant because people as young as I was then are usually not allowed to visit patients in the ICU. But to them, my father's request mattered more than the hospital's regulations.
I received the call on a sultry Kolkata November night, a Thursday. My mother was going to take me to visit my father on Saturday morning. He passed away on Friday night, without his last request to his daughter being fulfilled. The next time I saw him his body was cold and lifeless, and my last glimpse of him was at the crematorium.
It has been over a decade now. I can't remember my father's face, unless I see him in photos. But I vividly remember the priest asking me to light the wooden torch, to set my father's body on fire. He said that since there were electric "chullahs", I didn't need to set the entire body aflame. I only needed to make sure that there were burn marks on his face -- proof that I'd done my duty as his child.
I don't know how I did it. I remember not thinking of anything, just blindly following what the priest and my relatives were telling me.
Women are usually not allowed in crematoriums but in this case, I was allowed since my grandfather, grandmother and mother couldn't come. Surrounded by relatives who I'd perhaps met two or three times in my then 14 years of existence, and them telling me how they understood my loss, I chose to be numb, completely numb.
He passed away without his last request to his daughter being fulfilled. The next time I saw him his body was cold and lifeless...
Post the rituals, my father's body was loaded into the chullah, and I remember seeing his feet before the doors closed on us. Forty-five minutes later, I was asked to go behind the chullah, collect his bones (were they even his?) and submerge them in the river.
I did as I was told without shedding a tear, and came back home and slept for 10 hours.
Six months later, while writing an essay on his favourite film, I howled and I cried for the first time since his death.
My mother is a strong woman. And that I do not say simply because she's my mother. I say this because I'm acutely aware of the courage, strong-headedness and guts that she possesses and I do not.
She is my rock.
The night my father passed away, she broke down in front of me but only for a minute or two. Her immediate concern was to call the relatives who were not there in the hospital, and inform them about the situation. Next, she made sure I had something to eat and asked me to go and sleep while she, all by herself, started to arrange for all the ingredients needed for her to become a widow.
I don't know what she did or what she felt when I left for the crematorium, leaving her behind with my grandparents and women relatives. When I returned, she was already dressed in white, her bangles gone and her sindoor washed away. She very calmly asked me how I was doing, and told me not to get scared. "I'm here with you and we're here for each other", she whispered in my ear. Then she held me tightly and said, "He's in a better place now, I know it." She didn't cry.
Three days later, when my mother and I were preparing our special lunch (we were only allowed to have boiled rice and dal once a day), I noticed a small music box lying on a corner of the table. Small, black and rectangular, it was always kept in the showcase. It was a gift from my father to my mother during their courtship period. I didn't know who had taken it out.
"I miss him, I miss him so much," is all my mother could say... It was the first time I felt that I was an utter waste.
Curiously, I left my lunch, washed my hands and took the box. I opened it. The small ballerina with one broken foot started twirling with the music. I shut the lid when she completed her turn. And then I opened it again. There was something both eerie and enticing about the music. Music that was so simple and innocent... I wanted to hear it, again and again.
I must have been playing with it for quite some time, when I realized I could hear someone sobbing. I looked up. It was my mother. Sitting on the floor, with her unwashed hands on her head, crying.
"I miss him, I miss him so much but he's never going to come back. I'm never going to see him again," is all she could say as the tears rolled down from her red eyes over her flushed cheeks.
I stood there, utterly at a loss for words. It was the first time in my life that I felt that I was an utter waste.
My grandfather was a quiet, stubborn man, who had always known what he wanted from life, from his family and from himself. Unfortunately for him, life gave him some unexpected and shocking turns of events.
When my father was alive, my grandfather could only criticize him for not being proactive, for not taking up responsibilities and for not fulfilling his dreams, both his own and my grandfather's.
When he passed away, all my grandfather could talk about was how my father had a way with the written word, how much compassion he had for the elderly and the poor, and what great potential he had as a human being.
I would see my grandfather, all alone, sitting on a dusty chair on the terrace, looking at the stars. He showed no signs of wanting to talk...
There were no visible changes in him since my father passed away. He dutifully completed his responsibilities as a husband and a father-in-law. He didn't cry when he heard the news. Instead, he focused on me, and told me all the things I should stay away from, if I wanted a better life, a life absolutely unlike my father's. He seemed calm, and quiet, like his usual self. But when they brought my father's body to our home for one last time, he broke down. He couldn't register seeing his only child leaving the world before him. But dignified as he was, he grabbed hold of his emotions soon after, and saw us off as we headed towards the crematorium.
I can still remember, even after all these years, him standing surrounded by grieving women, staring at the assemblage of ambulance and cars, carrying my father away to his last journey.
At that moment, to me, my grandfather seemed particularly lonely. And in my heart I knew he had no one to talk to anymore.
Days later, I would see him, all alone, sitting on a dusty chair on the terrace, looking at the stars. He showed no signs of wanting to talk, and I had no intention of breaking his reverie.
This was the second time when I again felt completely hopeless.
My grandmother was perhaps the only one among us who could display her emotions without any inhibitions since my father's passing. It took almost all our efforts to make this ageing and grieving mother eat and sleep on a daily basis, post the cremation.
She would howl in the middle of the night and wake up with a bad throat the next morning. In about a week, she had lost almost 5kg, and there were hideous dark circles underneath her eyes. She didn't care though. She spent her days calling up the local priests and asking for their blessings desperately.
I have vivid dreams at night, of sitting across a table from my father, and asking ruthlessly, "Why? Why? Why?" He never responds.
There was one among them who claimed that he had seen my father in his dreams. My grandmother would spend hours with the priest, soaking him in food, tea and money. "How did he look? Is he okay? Does he miss me? What did he want to tell Nandini?" her questions to him were unending and relentless. In his turn, the priest acted more and more delirious, going into trances in order to talk to my father, and bring in messages from the netherworld.
After a week of these shenanigans, I couldn't take it anymore. I went up to my grandmother, and asked her why she was doing this, when she herself was getting hurt the most by the answers.
She looked up at me, and for the first time I could see no tears in her eyes. In whispers she said, "It makes me feel good that someone is trying to reach out to him, and I can still talk to him, somehow."
I was enraged. I tried to make her see the irrationality behind it. In response, she held my hands real tight and begged me, "Please! Please don't take this away from me, this is all I've left of him."
I stood transfixed, for the third time within a week, completely clueless about what to say. As the priest went into another trance, I stood outside the door too afraid to look in, to find myself disappointed by his lies.
I have inherited a lot of my father's traits, both physically and emotionally. I have inherited his sense of guilt, fear and worthlessness; he has left me his legacy of depression.
I stand up and fight. I cry and fight. I take my medicines and fight. In the middle of the night, I wake up from my nightmares and fight.
For the longest time, I couldn't imagine what my father must have gone through when he took the final step. But in a terrifying way these days, I somehow can. Earlier I judged him for taking his own life. Now I both sympathize and empathize. And that is scary.
I have vivid dreams at night, of sitting across a table from him, and asking ruthlessly, "Why? Why? Why?" He never responds. He just stares blankly at me, and that further escalates my rage, my desperation and my fear.
In the morning, when I look at myself in the mirror, I realize I'm never going to get an answer. Never. Ever. And then I feel like giving all of it up and following in his path. But I stop myself then and there.
I stand up and fight. I cry and fight. I take my medicines and fight. In the middle of the night, I wake up from my nightmares and fight. I fall down every day, and I get up and fight again.
Because I know now the torment of inheriting loss. And the beauty of endurance.
This article is part of a project called "A Year Full of Hope". The goal is to encourage people to access mental health treatment without feeling ashamed. If you've something to share, or would like to give some feedback, reach out at email@example.com.
If you struggle with suicidal thoughts or attempts, call any of these helplines: Aasra 91-22-27546669, Sneha 04424640050, Jeevan 0091 6576453841, Pratheeksha 0484 2448830.