Of Larkin, Death, and The Algebra of Love
© Copyright 2021 by Yeshwant Sridhar
Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash
I was 9 years old when I got to see a funeral for the first time. It was close to home; it was my uncle’s. I remember there was a phone call from my grandpa. Before my mom could pick it, the line had cut off. She called again and heard the grueling voice of her father, who had witnessed his only son crumble to the ground without warning. At first, my mom couldn’t comprehend what was going on. Then there was a gasp, a stifled cry on the line. It’s only then she began crying, maniacally, almost. I remember my father running to her, shaking her “What happened? What happened?” His voice was hoarse, demanding. She wouldn’t say anything. Her black curls were screening her face, like a dark penumbra. At that instance, she was someone I didn’t recognize-- the nerves knotting at her neck, her face red, eyes scrawny, like an audacious stranger. Then she turned to say something, trying to make words in the moribund stillness. My father snatched the phone from her and called my grandpa. And when he knew what had happened, he sank back to the floor. My mother’s voice had mellowed out to desperate whispers and muffled prayers.
We reached the
Katpadi station at 7:30 in the night. The city, always humid, had a
sweet nascent scent about it as we made our way to the house my
mother grew up in. She was restless in the train, turning her hands
over and over, tears gushing frantically which drew many passengers’
attention. I felt nothing at all, then. But when I saw him, my uncle
laid out like a broken biscuit in the middle of our lawn, my
relatives scattered about him, like ants trying to chip away my uncle
into edible pieces, something struck me. I remember that night
vividly, all the screams; there were so many open arms, and my mother
disappeared into the ones of my aunt. The atmosphere was resounding
with the agony ebbing from different corners. The gaunt house itself
seemed to be in mourning. The restlessness of the place made the
birds paranoid, and they screeched, joining their voices to the
elegiac conundrum. My uncle was just 32 when he died, a cardiac
arrest. He had two kids, a girl of 3 and a 7-month-old boy. I was
numb, so stoic to the situation, that I didn’t know what to do.
I clutched my father’s fingers and huddled into the shadows so
that all the raging voices would elude me. My aunt called to me,
“Kutti, look! Look how your mama
snatched away by
the Gods. See him! See how all of it has changed!” It was then,
when the maddening theatrics of death hit me that I doubled down upon
myself, and bawled my eyes out. Though I didn’t know it then,
his death would set the paradigm for me to understand life, the
banality of death, and how satirically it could change people.
Of ‘The Mower’
American neurosurgeon coined the term “The Possibilian” in his fiction ‘Sum’ which later became a sagacious ideology in recent years. A Possibilian is someone who doesn’t disprove the existence of a higher power, while not following in the conventional baroque lines of theism. In that vein, I consider myself a Possibilian- the middleman of believers. I don’t know if my uncle reached the sparkling, immaculate attribute of the afterlife, where time loses its meaning, and idyllic clouds float about daintily; I can only hope. But I did know after his death, I was somehow different. There was a trance-like tendency in my movements even after a week, when his body was taken as a procession, buried, ritualized, and the ceremony culminated. Even then, I understood that in my pristine childhood, there will forever be an intangible gap from now on.
Several nights after, drenched in sweat, I would wake up, screaming. When my mom, startled, woke up, I would ask her, “Amma am I dying?” She would nuzzle my hair, my head on her ribcage, her breaths languid and soft, “You will live forever. No one can take you away.” she said.
“Even God?” I asked her. There was silence for a long time, before she whispered, in the strange lit world, “Not even God can take you from me.”
As a writer, it is very imperative to not forget our roots, to not forget where the first dribbles of wonder for art came from. And death was where it all started for me. An umbrella of artistic shadow lay over me, and I was basking in its dubious splendor. It was when I was 14, an emo-pubescent kid, with repressed sexuality and nihilism, that I stumbled upon Philip Larkin, who coincidentally was an embodiment of childhood misery materialized into a death-obsessed, horn-rimmed writer whose works were succinct, simple, and to my teenage self, eye-wateringly gloomy. It was his poem “The Mower” that would set the tone for my writing. The poem, a real-life incident in Larkin’s life, extols him accidentally killing a hedgehog that lived on his lawn. It was years later when I read about his biography that I would come to know, for such a dogmatic solipsist, he had an inexorable love for animals. And knowing that made the entire poem profound than what it once was. Larkin, writing on the hedgehog’s death:
“Next morning I got up and it did not.
The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful
Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.”
You see, for my teenage self, with knitted eyebrows, and terse limbs growing like bamboo, with hormones clouding and cluttering in my mind, to have read it at such a confusing time in my life, was an ethereal experience. The poem was a lullaby, brushing gently away, like mother’s fingers, my pessimism, my myopic panorama of life; altering me with the thought that death, even for Philip Larkin, was the same, and that he acclimated himself to it, finding solace in the anecdotal power of love.
March, this year, was a reckoning, a breach in the ordinary, with the second wave of COVID19 sweeping India like an apparition. My grandfather was strolled in a gurney to the ICU, because of it. The news that he was struggling to breathe, talk, the way he languidly did, was sacrilegious to our family. He used to say he was “85 years young.” He was not someone that found himself into the sardonic ravine of old age. He was always hip, wearing matching socks, a crisp tailored Raymond shirt when he went out. He was a shadowy sentience, a protective barrier in our lives, and the absence of it dislodged us. For 11 days, they kept him in observation, his oxygen levels dropping below 95. And when he spoke, his voice was slurred, his memory, like camera flashes flicking, then fading away. The times when he was allowed to use the phone, with a nurse by his side, he called my dad, who was the third child of four. It appalled me that he had called him, since there was always an electric, unprecedented animosity between them, and they weren’t on talking terms for years before that. When my father, his heart pounding in his chest, answered, my grandfather was crying on the other side. My father recorded the phone call, to remember my granddad’s voice, in case something unfortunate happened. My granddad asked him, “Would I make it out of this, son? I can’t hold on anymore. It is painful; so wrenchingly painful.”
I saw my father
cry for the first time before me. He said, “What are you
saying, Appa? Of Course, you would, you are the strongest, the
youngest person in our family. Don’t even ask questions like
that! You would! No doubt about that.” My father wasn’t
much of a talker, yet he made the most effort to be consoling, then.
He spoke loudly, thinking if he did, all his words would materialize
My understanding of life and the totality of things are from words. So naturally, I keep a diary and think about the events that made me who I am today: a polychromatic hologram of emotional multitudes. And I write about them, these mundane instances, to not forget my roots and stimulate inspiration for my later works. Once, fingers paused mid air, I thought back to my childhood, and what shot up was a lucid image of my uncle, his lungi folded up, my hand in his, as we made our way out of my grandfather’s land. As we were making our way downhill to reach home, I found a nest and stopped. For someone who was born and brought up in a city, to see something so organic, an antic of nature, was mind-boggling. I had seen images of it in my textbooks, but to have it in my palms and to run my fingers over it was different, somehow. I asked him if he could bring it for me. The nest was perched precariously on the bough of a tree that was over a 15 ft deep well. To reach it, one would have to step on the brink of the cement wall, to avoid the lethal drop into the algae-ridden abyss. He didn’t think for one moment. He removed his slippers, stepped over the breach, placidly, and brought me the nest. It was made of dried leaves and coirs, and smelled of habituation—a smell I would take with me for a long time, a smell that I would associate with the memory of my uncle, so much so that the very image of nests conjured him up, his aura, his jaundice-pamphlet colored shirt, his chest hair, barren torso, his room smelling of cigars, his careless smoker’s voice ripe with felicity, the barley of his laughter, how he used to get me whatever I asked of him. Him, defending me when I was caught doing something naughty from my grandma; the way once, when I was befuddled by an iridescent bedroom light and said I wanted to hold it, he got up the ladder, unscrewed the bulb, (now devoid of the attractive light) presented it to me, in the palm of his hand; he told me about electricity, how the light burns, how the fan runs, how the TV plays.
Then, suddenly, in the last year of his death, the alacrity with which I came to love him for, waned, leaving him stony-faced. His knuckles turned hard, his laughter morphing into muffled transgressions; he was an exoskeleton of what he once was. He was just another stony, drab-eyed adult who always had to tell children what to do. So I grew apart from him. All that I cherished, all the moments of him, his voice reverberating with such a metered cadence in my thoughts, dissipated, leaving the idea of him bare. It is this time when I couldn’t care less about him, he died. I was so guilty, though I didn’t know such a feeling had a name then. Guilt had the scent of boot crushed roses in the funeral air. I was guilty that I’d placed the entire fault of our relationship crumbling only onto him. Thoughts like “How could I have been so selfish, so callous to his pain?” always resurfaced. Sometimes, I cry at night thinking about him. Death is an empirical reality, a fact that doesn’t demand elaboration. But it makes its mark, like blood on an aging concrete, an emblem for life’s ineffable dance.
In her collection of essays, 'The Year of Magical Thinking' Joan Didion, talking about grief, writes "(We are) aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves.” And that’s why I couldn’t let his premature death go, not because the concept of him being stripped away was disorienting, but because I wasn’t mourning for him alone, I was mourning for myself. I was mourning for the death of my empathy, for my compassion and love for him. Thinking about it now, I could have given the benefit of the doubt to my uncle. I could have loved him at his worst: when he muttered under his breath, I could have loved him even when he crushed his hands tighter on the dining table, clenching his jaws to stop them from trembling with anger; I could have loved him even then. But I didn’t. Instead, I put all the blame on him and spaced out, wallowing in my seat of superiority and egoistic firmament.
Time is the
world’s best illusion, in a way it always seems to stretch so
far away in the future; even the present moment has a gray, glue-like
tendency to it, almost like a bubble, light, tender, and before you
know it, it is on the far side, out of reach from you, forever lost,
My grandfather and I didn't share a salient bond he had with his other grandkids. I was always on the fence with him, since he was prone to harsh words. There was a time when I thought he downright resented me, for some reason. But it didn’t matter. I called him every day he was in the hospital. His voice was a drawl, obscured by the dentures of medical procedures done on him. There were certain days he didn’t even recognize my voice, or who I was; he talked to me as if that was the first time we were ever meeting. I didn’t care about it; I didn’t care if I understood him or not. This was life giving me a second chance, a chance for retribution for the way I had behaved when my uncle was ailing. And I didn’t dare lose it. I called him every day to let him know that I was there, rudderless as I may be, that he could always count on my support, my understanding. The animosity that I thought existed between us, was knocked like a Lego house, stocked away, out of reach, into the catacombs of wishful forgetfulness.
I remember on the eleventh day, when he was about to be discharged, he called me. I picked up the phone, perplexed. He told me, with wondrous lucidity and conviction, “One day, you will travel around the world, writing books after books. I hope you know how gifted you are. You remind me how lucky I am to have been your grandfather.”
You had to see me then, the guy with the brightest smile on the planet, wide-eyed, fingers taut, jittery, as if I had found love. I had. Not only that, I had discovered the algebra of it. It took nothing but understanding and compassion and forgiveness to truly, truly love my life, to let go of the past, the moment, with all its clutter.
It has since changed me. I have become more drawn to the allure of bettering myself, and by it, casting the infinite net of love to those around me. Consider the frontline workers, their spouses, their children, their family, how they hold up; the net of love, a very living, pulchritudinous gossamer, expanding, affecting, arresting us with unsurmountable care. That is what we do, we people, we stick up for ourselves, our society, our kinds of them, our differences don’t matter when we are there, knee-deep amidst the throes of humanity, proving what it is to be the most poignant creature in the world. That’s what makes us an inexplicable marvel, this understanding to love and find each other again in difficult times.
In the words of Julian Barnes, considering death, he says, “It hurts just as much as it is worth.” I consider this true for life, too. Consider this true for people. People are the result of their experiences. They build perceptions and moral understandings through them. That is what makes us multi-dimensional, the difference in us makes the world livable. Sometimes, we might feel the crevasses of life curtailing our understanding, we might feel that all the odds are stacked against us; that we are perpetually estranged from the people that surround us, a haystack on an undulating river. But love, the little connection, and togetherness which is imperative for humans, for which we fight and die for, which holds us by the shoulder and reminds us that life is much more than just turmoil is worth fighting for, no matter how large life sometimes seems to loom. In times like this, remember Larkin: crestfallen, wretched, after killing his hedgehog, it was too late for him when he realized that ‘We should be kind, while there is still time.’ It is not too late for us in this chaos.
It is just the beginning.
Yeshwant Sridhar is a young, emerging writer from India pursuing an undergraduate in Mechatronics Engineering. He writes short stories, personal essays, and flash fiction. His works touch upon the human condition, recollection of childhood, and social experience. He is always on the outlook for works that sow liberal thought, transcendental in a way it could make one think and reconstruct belief systems. In the future, he aspires to be a novelist and escape the banal platitudes of life./////