Aunty Nusrat wasn’t someone I spent a lot of time with. I met her, or rather bumped into her, at family gatherings that she always attended punctually. She would greet me warmly with a hug and a sloppy kiss planted on my forehead. She would enquire about my family (even though she would see them standing right next to me) and my studies, and would heap blessings upon me, which included among many things becoming a big doctor and a mother to boys. She was mild and gentle towards everyone, and she was someone people usually said nice things about.
Over the years, this repeated exposure to Aunty Nusrat transformed and turned itself into a habit and then into an expectation. When I crossed into my early 20s, this expectation would announce itself at a family gathering in the form of a slight tug at the heart, which would then dissolve into a feeling of relief upon seeing her. It was as though my mind had a checklist for family gatherings that included Aunty Nusrat as one of the things I needed to cross off. The funny thing about these episodes was they lasted only a few seconds. They never entered my mind before or after the events. They existed only for as long as they took place.
One July afternoon, at a distant cousin’s engagement party, I felt the familiar tug at my heart. I looked around for Aunty Nusrat, but she was nowhere to be seen. I asked a few people, but no one had seen her. Later, closer to when the party was about to conclude, we learned that she had passed away. She had been getting ready to leave for the party when she had suddenly collapsed. She was taken to the hospital where she was declared dead. When we heard about her death, she had already been buried.
Upon hearing all this, Phuphee said she was going to say a prayer for Nusrat ji. Did I want to come?
We went upstairs and after performing our ablutions, prayed side by side. Throughout the prayers, I felt that I was unable to concentrate. I was upset of course, but I couldn’t say that I was heartbroken or even deeply distressed. I couldn’t understand why I was feeling restless. I thought about Aunty Nusrat and how she had sort of just existed out there for as long as I could remember. I wasn’t missing her, maybe just missing the idea of her. She was like a painting that had stood in your home for years and now had suddenly disappeared, leaving behind just the impression on the wall, a painting that you mostly walked by most days but occasionally you would catch yourself stopping and gazing at its contents before walking off again.
It made me feel ashamed that I was equating this woman with an object in an imaginary house. But what that painting represented for me was the permanence of things in my life and how everything that I had thought certain was no longer as such. And though the loss of this painting didn’t devastate me, it did make me question everything around me.
From her prayer mat, her head still in prostration, Phuphee asked why I was so quiet?
“Am I?” I replied. “Maybe I am. I just feel weird, sort of dissociated. I feel like I fell asleep in a room but when I woke up, I was in a different room. It is Aunty Nusrat’s death, perhaps. I don’t feel terribly upset, just restless, but I wasn’t even close to her, so I don’t know why I feel this way.”
“Does it surprise you that you feel this way?” Phuphee asked.
“Yes, it does. Why should I be feeling anything with such gravity when I barely knew who she was? I feel like a fraud,” I said.
Phuphee got up, folded up her prayer mat, and asked me to follow her into the kitchen. She made shanger kahwe (a home brew for common colds) and handed me a steaming cup.
“I don’t have a cold,” I said, a little confused.
“Yes, you do,” she said, “it’s just different to the one you are used to.”
I drank it, while Phuphee sat smoking her two cigarettes and sipping her kahwe.
“It shouldn’t surprise you that you feel this way. It is normal. In fact, it is exactly as it should be,” she said. “You are not an island. You are part of a big and complicated network. Imagine yourself as a tree in a forest. You all stand on your own but underneath, in the ground, you are connected to every other tree in the forest. The roots become thinner and weaker the wider they travel, but a connection stays. If a tree close to you fell, you would feel the violence of that in your roots. When a tree that is far away from you falls, you may not feel it as intensely, but you feel a change, a slight tug on your roots as the tree momentarily grips the roots of those around it, before finally letting go. Today, that far away tree was Aunty Nusrat. Sometimes it is harder to grieve for those whom we have not loved because for some strange reason we feel that having loved deeply equals to being allowed to grieve deeply. But grieving follows no laws of physics.”
Her words had no immediate effect. My restlessness did not disappear, but her words would come back and replay themselves in my mind time and again. In a world that changed beyond recognition, her words have held me in firm stead and given me permission to grieve when trees fell both close and far away from me.
A Kashmiri living in England, the columnist spends her scant free time contemplating life’s vagaries.