by Paras Arora
In a time scarred with an undying thirst for quick, statistically-sound, clinically-tested and to-the-point answers, this piece of writing might disappoint you. Instead, this piece reflects on questions of mourning in the times of corona, through emotions and dilemmas. What kinds of ethical crises does one encounter while mourning the death of one’s intimate other during a pandemic? How does one mourn up close? How does one mourn from a distance? Has the virus forced us to reimagine the work of mourning? Here, I ask these questions after recently learning of my grandfather’s death, my Daadu. In asking these questions and describing my experience, I hope I speak to readers who have already faced similar circumstances, are currently amidst such an experience, or unfortunately might face them in the future.
Every morning around 5 am Daadu would wake up in our home in Delhi, make chai for himself, and greet every one of his 1500 WhatsApp contacts with forwarded messages. For me, however, he never used a WhatsApp forward. Perhaps that was because once when he sent me what people with my political sensibilities call “state propaganda”, I threatened to never talk to him and came out to him as a harsh critic of his ideological commitments. Regardless of that face-off, which several of my peers have had to engage in with their loved ones, his love for me was always evident in the freshly typed message that he would send me every morning – “Ram Ram Jee” (praise to you and lord Rama). Recently, I had been going to bed without finishing dissertation related work, which I had told myself was absolutely necessary for that day. On these nights, seeing messages from Daadu before bed would instil a sense of accountability in me – “I have to finish this dissertation on time so that I can go back home.”
Since the 8th of June, I had stopped receiving any messages from him. As I checked my chat records for writing this piece, I saw that the last conversation we had was about my marriage. On the 6th of June, he had asked me to start thinking about my marriage. Now, as a resolute feminist critic of the institution of marriage, I, of course, lash out at anyone who suggests the inevitability of a patriarchal set-up for everyone. But as an anthropologist who studies family, kinship, marriage, and care, I have come to acknowledge, the hard way, that marriage for my interlocutors of my (dissertation) fieldwork, mothers of autistic adults in Delhi (including my own mother), is a contested site where the gendered subject actively participates with(in) the patriarchal-societal script, engages in self-interpellation and simultaneously culls out a fleeting space to (re)claim her voice and agency in an embedded fashion. In other words, marriage is complicated. So, with a certain degree of sensitivity at that time, I simply passed the weight of his expectations onto my elder cousins. “I am the youngest in the family. Ask some other cousin”, I said. While, technically, my brother is the youngest, he is not imagined as a marital subject in our local ecology of relations because he has autism. Daadu didn’t reply. He loved joking with me about things like marriage, companionship, and male-female friendships. But this message was different. He probably knew that he was about to leave us 15 days later and wanted me to at least start thinking about the next stage of my life, as he was eventually getting ready to embrace his. He most probably knew about it. He was an astrologer, after all. Moreover, it is said that those who are about to go (“jaane waale jo hote hai”) come to possess a voice that becomes imbued with otherworldly insights (“vichitr gyaan”).
As the messages were waning, I did notice that the number of messages sent on our family group by my parents too were dwindling. Almost two weeks ago, my parents told me that Daadu was a bit unwell, but it was probably normal because of his long-standing heart condition. Daadu’s heart was working only at a 20% capacity for the last two years. It was nothing new. But I could gather a sense of concealment in the Whatsapp replies and voices of my parents. As usual, they did not want me to stress out about what was happening back home. “You have to focus on studying, Paras. Don’t worry about anything here. We are here, no?” But are the home and school really ever distinct? While for a majority of students, the pandemic has quite literally fused the school and the home. For people like me, who began their intellectual projects by treating the domestic as the political, the home has always been inextricably linked to studies.
Then, one day, when I was writing about my brother and mother’s intimate verbal exchanges for a chapter draft that had to be sent to my supervisor, I received a call from my mother. Distressed about keeping things from me any longer, she finally told me that Daadu was slowly losing control over his urinary and respiratory systems. My father was on his way back from office with a packet of adult diapers. She asked me not to worry.
I did not switch off my phone since that call. I did not let the phone battery drop below 90%. My WhatsApp web tab had continuously been up and running on my laptop. I could not possibly miss the next call.
Two days later, my father called and asked me, once again, not to worry. “Don’t worry, bhai. Everyone has to go someday. And, anyway, it is not like you can come back right now.” My father has always affably called me bhai (brother/male compatriot) in opposition to beta (son/child). While I never liked being referred to as bhai because it almost snatched my childhood away from me (in opposition to my brother, who would always be a beta), throughout this call, the bhai stung me more deeply than usual. Being referred to as bhai was not just a reminder that it was finally time for me to grow up and accept the fact that my loved ones too would grow up (and wither away). But the acidic nature of the word stemmed from my worries, about not being able to fulfil the ritual obligations of a symbolic bhai to my father or a pota (grandson) to my Daadu if something unfortunate were to happen.
Death, where I come from (or anywhere for that matter), is not a singular experience or moment. It is a rupture in the everyday around which (both before and after) the wider kin is obligated to come together to knit back life into a viable rhythm using elaborate and dangerously tactile rituals (especially during a pandemic) that might seem pointless to a liberal critic. Everyone present has a role, albeit divided across lines of age, gender, and position in kinship. Everyone must play their respective roles to participate in acknowledging the death of the individual as a social individual who was embedded in a local ecology of relations. Among these obligations, the role played by the male heir is particularly central. Despite my critical relationship with the gendering of selves in my cultural context, I, of course, wanted to be there so that my Daadu’s soul could leave the mortal remains easily. One is not fully dead, and therefore hasn’t fully lived, if the rituals aren’t appropriately performed. So, whenever my father called me bhai in that call, I was stung by an unparalleled amount of guilt for not being there for this only male sibling (my father) next to him to carry my Daadu’s arthi (bier) on my shoulders if that call was to come. When he said that it was not as if I could just come back home, he probably did hope that I could. He hoped that I could simply close my bank account, end my lease, finish my dissertation, meet my professors for the last time, and get on a flight overnight. But he could not say it. As a trader, proficient in the worldly affairs, he knew that he could not ask me for too much during these testing times.
Daadu passed away a day after that call on the 23rd of June.
While my father was busy calling up the relatives and cremation grounds immediately after my Daadu’s death, I was on a call with my mother, crying profusely. Instead of telling me that it was okay, she said to me that according to kinship rules, grandsons had a particularly central role in performing the final rites, which ensured that the soul of the departed could truly leave this abode.
“You should have been here. But what can we do? Next time, probably.”
Why did my mother say this to me? She was someone who wanted me to lead a life away from home (which was a site of eternal care work responsibilities according to her) like almost all the mothers that I had conducted fieldwork with last year. Mothers of adults with autism often blamed themselves for entrusting a heavy bond of siblinghood on their non-autistic children. The autistic adult is never imagined as an adult but as a child who will always have to be taken care of by either their parents or siblings (after the parents are no more). Through small ordinary ethical acts like sending their non-autistic children away at “the right time” (for education abroad in some cases), the mothers sought repentance by giving their children momentary independence from familial responsibilities which they themselves could never enjoy. In all my interviews, mothers told me that while the parents are around, the sibling should stay away and lead an independent life. But the parents cannot always chip in, right? The role of the missing son/grandson/sibling cannot always be filled with someone else. My brother, for instance, would not want to perform these rituals, and even if he wanted to, he would not be allowed to. The point was clear – my absence cannot always be excused. While my mother wanted to give me the freedom that she herself did not enjoy, she was herself a subject of a kinship system and lifeworld that necessitated the heir to be ritualistically present for the dead to be truly dead. I still wonder with an anxiety-inducing fear what my mother meant by “next time, probably”. Was she talking about herself and my father not being there the next time? And how, then, I would have to come somehow, virus or no virus.
This obligation to be there, relates to a pressing ethical dilemma of our truly extraordinary times. How does one be there for the ceremonial work of mourning during a pandemic? How does one mourn up close when we are told that we are supposed to follow rules of social distancing? One of my fears was how in the world would my relatives show up for the cremation? How will Daadu receive the appropriate treatment to die, fully and ethically? My parents told me that everyone would show up and that I shouldn’t worry. And everyone did show up.
Virus or no virus, to not show up for the final rites would be to eclipse the possibility of a shared future with one’s kin which would constitute a (social) death for the absentee, much worse than the one which could be inflicted by the virus. This might be baffling or even enraging to an outsider. But that is how life is lived, ended, and imagined in this local ecology of relations. This ethical impulse to be there and mourn, virus or no virus, reminded me of how all mothers, during my fieldwork, equivocally refused to refer to the official biomedical autism diagnosis of their child as a moment of rupture in their lives. For all the mothers, it was the betrayals by their relatives like not providing appropriate natal care to them during pregnancy or minute moments of insensitivity like staring at how clumsily the autistic child ate his food that became world-annihilating moments for these mothers making them question their very existence. In other words, the threat to the everyday life comes from within it. That is, it is not merely an autism diagnosis, COVID-positive test, or death by cardiac arrest itself that would traumatize a human subject in this cultural world. Instead, the possibility of one’s own people turning their face away when one needs them (for mourning) is what would cast a form of unparalleled violence. These unsaid rules, made all my relatives from in and outside Delhi physically attend Daadu’s final rites.
But how was I to mourn from a distance? Unlike others who were close enough to show up, despite their own substantial share of ethical and logistical dilemmas, I had to do something. I tried my best to reimagine mourning.
I had decided that I would do everything I could do from a distance. I would do whatever my parents asked me to do. But they asked me for just one thing – an obituary. They wanted me to write a small WhatsApp message that could be virtually circulated, for the time being, to let our relatives know about Daadu’s demise. That was all I could do from a distance. I had to write the best possible obituary! But how does one write about death? My English teacher from school never taught me that one needs to know the “correct format” of an obituary. Was there a format? Is it supposed to be personal? How can it not be personal? Moreover, which photograph of Daadu will accompany the message? The one he liked (presumably his current WhatsApp display picture) or the one we think is more appropriate? I wrote something and added his present WhatsApp picture to the message.
In haste, I did not notice that Daadu’s middle name (“Lal”) got incorrectly autocorrected to “Lala” before sharing it. My parents embarrassedly asked me to correct the spelling. This made me feel so disappointed that I tried to take up some other ways of mourning. And along this uneasy path to mourn, I found unparalleled support from my chosen families. First of all, I refused to sleep until my Daadu was cremated. I did not tell my parents this, because they would have asked me not to bother. My best friend stayed up with me from India on a call that lasted 6 hours. Throughout the call, I would suddenly feel bouts of grief coming up to my throat from my gut. Talking to him, calmed me down. Secondly, given that food is not cooked in a household for at least a day if there has been a death, I thought I should also not turn my stove on, for at least that one day, here in Geneva. Once again, I did not tell my parents that I was doing this. They would have asked me not to bother, given that all I sometimes have to cope with my loneliness, is food. The next day when I asked them about cremation, my parents told me that they had to cook because ordering in food for all the 25 guests wasn’t tenable given the worsening COVID situation back home. This way, at least one household followed the necessary rules. However, it still hadn’t been 24 hours in Geneva since Daadu’s death. The night drew closer, I hadn’t eaten anything substantial and didn’t even feel like it, when suddenly my doorbell rang. Another close friend from India, who did not even know that I was not turning the stove on for the day, had asked her friend to bake a cake for me. Daadu was mildly diabetic and often slyly ate some mithai (sweetmeats) every night before going to bed. Just for a moment, the cake brought me close to him even though I was, and still am, at least thirteen thousand kilometres away from him.
I do not wish to think of the kindness of chosen families and the small acts of mourning from a distance as viable alternatives to all that I just described. However, I do wish, at least, to gesture to the emerging need to look for those other ordinary ways of mourning that have become essential in these genuinely extraordinary times.
Paras, with cake smeared over his face, is celebrating his birthday in 2016 with his grandfather, Shri Nand Lal Arora.
Featured painting depicts a scene from the epic Ramayana, Rama’s father is on his deathbed, as he declares him his successor. This item has a Creative Commons license for re-use, and can be found here.
Paras Arora is a second-year Master’s candidate and Hans Wilsdorf scholar at the Department of Anthropology & Sociology. He is currently trying to write his MA thesis on disability, gender, and local ecologies of care in Delhi, India, titled- ‘Caring for a Child Who Never Grows Up? Towards an Ethnography of Care work for Autistic Adults in Delhi, India’.