This blog is about life, in big and small ways. An undeniable part of life is when we lose our loved ones. Instead of looking at it as a loss, however, perhaps it is the way to remember them forever.
Recently, my grand-aunt, Pramila Kaku, passed away. She was one of the gentlest souls that tread this earth, the kind that the world seems to be in need of more than ever. I can’t think of doing a better service to the world than to share with you what she was like.
I wrote the following small homage to her soon after she passed on.
She lay there, sleeping her final sleep even as family from near and far streamed in to pay their last respects to her. There she was, prostrate on a deep crimson cotton rug, a single oil lamp burning brightly by the side of her head. Incense sticks wafted their scents, infusing the air around her with sweet sandalwood. She had a thin cover pulled up to her chin, covering her petite body. A dim glow spread around her.
We sat, next to her, as if waiting for her to sit up in acknowledgement of our presence. She didn’t turn. Her slumber was deep. Not an eyelid batted. Her chest did not rise and fall. Nearby, my grand-uncle sat in a stupor. Nearly 90 years old, he seemed puzzled. How, he wondered, was she not turning to him? Perched on a cot, he looked down at her, a fond gaze on the woman that was his partner of 60 years. Not attuned to emotional expression, especially not in public, nevertheless, he still managed to convey his concern for her.
“Where are the other kids, why have they not arrived yet? What is taking them so long?” he enquired from time to time, each time his voice revealing a growing anxiety. “How long can she wait?” He frantically asked, to no one in particular.
I went and sat near him, wordlessly. He turned to me, despair in his aged, soft, brown eyes. “What has happened, Archana?” he mouthed. “Why has this happened?” I felt my heart break. The simple, childlike questions went right to the heart of it. His wife, friend, and companion was no longer in this world and he could not grasp this.
None of us could. As we looked over her serene figure, it was hard to comprehend that Pramila Kaku would no longer break into her bashful smile. She would no longer ask if we were hungry or wanted anything. She would no longer linger on the edges of the living room, just on the other side of the threshold on the kitchen’s side, even as she shared in the conversations happening among visitors, family, and students of her husband.
Pramila Kaku was a gentle soul. I never heard her complain, not even about the weather. She only looked to make others’ lives more comfortable from what they were. I did not have the good fortune to spend a lot of time with her, and it is telling that even in the few moments that we did share, she left a searing impression on me as a kind soul.
The most ordinary activities took on throbbing tenderness when they came from her. I still remember when I had visited them in their old home, in Kaij, when I was still a young girl. Kaij was unfamiliar to me, a tiny town that I had never been to and to which I had no connection. Disoriented, I went into my shell and became very shy. My aunts cajoled me, trying to put me at ease. Pramila Kaku simply asked me if I wanted a cup of tea, and when I nodded, she went towards the kitchen, beckoning me to come after her. I sat quietly on a wooden platform in her warm kitchen while she went about her business. She didn’t force me into conversation, she just let me be. The wood embers in the mud oven crackled, dust smotes danced in the stream of morning light streaming in from a small window. Maybe it was the way in which she diffused the glare of extra attention – that one act put me at ease and I felt grateful. More than twenty years later, I still feel the glow of that moment.
Even on what turned out to be her last meal, she interrupted it to make fresh bhakri (bread) for Shankar Kaka because he was not enjoying the ones served to him. Always thinking of others, never about herself. Grace, personified. She looked gently at life, for all the troubles, pains, suffering it brought to her feet, and she bowed gracefully as she accepted them all.
Perhaps this is why life, in the end, gave her the highest compliment. She died on a Friday, considered to be an auspicious day among Hindus to depart from this world. It was during a sacred month, during a particularly holy stretch of days. She died a married woman, a great privilege according to old beliefs. She was at home, not in a hospital, among her family. She had the chance to serve her nearest and dearest even till her last breath. And her last breath was completed by a sip of water given to her by her own caring husband.
As she left her home for the last time, Shankar Kaka gave a big sigh. He stared at the ground beneath his feet, dazed, tired, resigned. He looked up and asked, “Can I go to sleep now?”