Sustaining Those Who Have Passed On

It’s only intriguing in hindsight: my actions that followed in the months after my father’s death. You know what? Let me tell you the story. August, 2002: it was the day we buried my father – our family’s patriarch – and returned to a house full of hushed mourners and fragrant Biryani.

Painting: Edvard Munch, Death in the Sickroom

Biryani, for those who have never tasted it, is aromatic spice -infused rice, meat and potatoes, slow-cooked simultaneously in a clay-sealed pot, sprinkled with raisins, sugar-cubes and dried-fruits – a majestic culinary wonder that allegedly inherited from Mongol rulers who cooked carbohydrates and proteins together in mammoth cauldrons for their vast armies.

In our culture, households in mourning turn off their stoves for a week or two …leaving relatives and friends to ensure a steady stream of meals for the family and a constant throng of mourners. As with Mongol armies, a cauldron of Biryani is a convenient, economic and child-friendly option for a grieving mass.

Anyway …sitting in that house full of guilt and small-talk and the fragrance of Biryani – my eyes wandered. And I could not avert my father’s material possessions. A pair of socks (frayed at the heels), the spectacles, the Old Spice aftershave lotion, the medical briefcase, the shoe rack, the income-tax files and a thousand other items lay spread over all about. What a waste – I thought – this archiving, this collecting, this curating, this maintenance! A lifetime of dedication to accumulation of possessions …reduced, by an uninvited death, to a pile of used stuff that needs bagging and storing.

I figure it’s customary in Western cultures to stuff such belongings into a cardboard box, label it ‘dad’ (read: ‘closure’), place it in the garage and move on. Or at least, that’s what I gather from American television. But we hold on. If we can afford to, we hold on to the clothes, the bed, the toiletries, the papers and the utensils. It is perhaps a tacit acknowledgement of, and a resignation to, the fact that the soul has passed on and can now only live on in our hearts and minds. Perhaps, old belongings help make that fragile, ethereal notion more concrete: as though they were evidence that the deceased had, indeed, once existed.

“People do not die for us immediately, but remain bathed in a sort of aura of life which bears no relation to true immortality but through which they continue to occupy our thoughts in the same way as when they were alive. It is as though they were traveling abroad.” (Marcel Proust)

It was around that time that I heard that a relative was going on a pilgrimage to Makkah (Hajj). Instantly, I remembered that my father had once translated and printed, with his own money, an easy guide to Hajj for Bangla-speakers. I located the stash and quickly delivered two copies to the would-be pilgrims. Giving due credit, I also began to repeat some of his dinner-table anecdotes. The same thing happened when my mother finally decided to part with some belongings: she made sure that they were given to an honest, worthy recipient.  In retrospect, I now see that we were trying to protect / sustain my father’s footprint on this Earth; campaigning against the dirt of Time that threatened to cover it up.

silver-bird-music-boxI think this represents a universal, human desire: to protect the hollow, negative space left by a dear one’s passing: protect it against newcomers who are clearly more relevant, more alive. With every memento, every utensil that we part with – leaving us with less and less tangible reminders – we evaluate and ensure the worthiness of that gift. We make sure that whatever was left behind in this worldly life, is invested in the best possible scheme; perhaps, in an effort to the maximize the true value and utility such things can offer to the universe. It’s a pity then that – knowing a similar fate awaits us – we don’t maximize the value of our belongings while we’re alive.

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