Friday, July 31, 2020

A Few Goodbyes

The English language is hilariously inadequate when it comes to naming your relatives, especially when you factor in familial quirks and histories.

Bereft is a language where aunts cannot be kunjimas and elemmas — younger mothers — or moothammas, elder mothers. How impoverished is a language that does not make room for an eleppa — uncle — who is actually your granduncle, his wizened figure so synonymous with the word eleppa that even his kids call him that? (Meanwhile, my maternal grandmother remains Mummy to her grandkids, to her nieces and nephews, and all their kids.) In English, how do you even conceive of a grandaunt who was beyya — grandmother — to everyone, so much so that she was called Kasaragod beyya, her grandmotherliness entwined with the district she planted herself in, offering shade for generations? Every time my Malayalam settles into Kasaragod slang, it's her voice (along with another grandmother-aunt's) that I hear underneath, a blueprint for all that is Kasaragod in me: merry-making and loudness and quicksilver temperament.


Two weeks ago, I persuaded umma to head back to an old family recipe for the morning of Bakrid: kozhikkadumbu. Tiny canoes of coarse rice dough, steamed, then marinated in a thick gravy of chicken. It takes a lot of time and effort to make, so on the eve of most eids, you'll usually find a circle of womenfolk sitting around a large vat of rice dough, scooping out a small chunk and rolling it in their oiled palms until it finds its shape, swapping stories and gossip as they worked. We haven't made kozhikkadumbu in our house in a long while, so I promised mom I'd get off my lazy ass and actually pitch in this time. I haven't been home for too many eids recently, after all. Mummy, you, me, Hiba — thalenn we'll sit together and make kozhikkadumbu, I pleaded. Umma agreed.

We didn't make it. Ostensibly, it's because we had trouble getting chicken and only managed to confirm availability in the last minute. Ostensibly, it was too much work. All of this is true. What is also true is that each of us feel like the wind has been taken out of our sails, because this family has witnessed three deaths in the last one week, three elders bidding their farewells. Including granduncle eleppa and Kasaragod beyya.

I don't think I ever really appreciated the centrality of presence, physical presence, to mourning until I paid my last respects to eleppa over video call. It was surreal. Without the hugs, the mindless reassurances, the murmur of the gathered crowd, without the people streaming in and out of the bereaved house, without the materiality of it all, how do we make sense of death? All that is left to us is the ant-march of inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi rajiuns across family WhatsApp groups. Its utterance is perhaps the only ritual we have left in our repertoire of grief, its performance, in an age where we're splintered across mountains and continents with no way of making it to our loved ones before they become part of the earth. To Allah we belong and to him we return. 

Whether I believe that is immaterial here. Last night, Mummy yelled out in pain as she was tucking in; thankfully, it was only a pulled muscle. Sorted in under ten minutes. When we left her room, I hugged my mom and sobbed into the crook of her neck, realising just then that I had been terrified, terrified that my grandmother's cry of pain could have been the start of an anecdote that I would rehash over the next few days in a hushed, strangled voice. I was relieved it wasn't so, and I had to burst into tears. Whether I believe in a god or a divine plan or an ordained fate was immaterial then. What is irrefutable is the jagged edge of grief.


July is a month of many birthdays, and I've been mercilessly teasing my friends and colleagues about them getting older. Vayassayi, I tell them. Praayam praaraabdham okke aayi. All you muthassans and muthassis and fossils. It helps that I'm the youngest in most groups, of course.

But it dawns on me now that all the teasing was a refusal to accept that I'm also adding another year to my bones, as a growth ring to a tree. A refusal to accept that the figures of my childhood will keep fading away, one by one. That I'll have to say my goodbyes more and more often. That I've added new words to my lexicon: love, loss, heartbreak— all of which I thought I knew, but cut me open in ways I didn't anticipate, caressed me anew. That this year's cruelties were not as singular as I'd made them out to be, but also that I'll still remember them as such, because never before has the word harrowing felt so visceral.

Never have I felt so fragile and in disarray as this, constantly on the verge of tears, ready to melt down at the slightest provocation. Never before have the words 'mental health' sounded so clinical and inept and clumsy— this was no serotonin imbalance or whatever the fuck. This week witnessed my sanity in shambles, my emotional universe fraying, unravelling.

But never have I also been reminded this strongly, this frequently, that I'll be fine. Maybe not today. Maybe not in a week. But I will be fine. I will feel every throb, every pulse and prick and slash of this grief. I will sit down with it. I will weep it. I will observe it. I will write it down, with whatever words I manage to scrounge from the place where all feeling clot and congeal.

Nee benne karayanda, mole, pedikkaan ippo enthaayi? "Don't cry simply, sweetheart; what was there to be scared of?" Umma comforted me last night. Mummy's fine, she reminds me. Maybe we don't have the energy for kozhikkadumbu, but we still make biriyani and banoffee pie for Bakrid. Well, my sister and umma and Mummy, mostly. Dad whips together the salad. I scoop out ice-cream for two cousins who drop by briefly. And now that I have an income, I give them perunnal paisa (aka eidi). Itha valya aalaayi poyi, says one of them.

Nothing else marks my adulthood as that moment does. Not even filing my tax returns.

I chuckle and tell the kids to fiercely safeguard the money from their parents. Zainab itha that I am, I do have some wisdom to pass on.

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