Lockdown Diaries: Taking a karmic inventory by Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi

An awareness that not all of us will come out of this pandemic alive has emphasized reconciliation over resentment
A view of Kashi Labh Mukti Bhawan, the hospice in Varanasi, where people come to live out their last days near the Ganga.(Sanchit Khanna/HT PHOTO)
A view of Kashi Labh Mukti Bhawan, the hospice in Varanasi, where people come to live out their last days near the Ganga.(Sanchit Khanna/HT PHOTO)
Updated on Apr 20, 2020 02:45 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | BySiddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi

“In my life, now,” I wrote recently to someone I had once been close to, about the end of our friendship, which occurred a few years ago, “I magnify little things as if they were operatic events – such as that sudden arrival of wine from your home in seasons past. This great solitude effaces grudges, irritations, misunderstandings. As for the disruptions, ultimately, they had proved inconsequential. What was large and memorable, and enduring, was love…”

During quarantine, self-reflection prompted me to write to friends I might have wronged to clear any foul air between us, to apologise for past errors and to seek forgiveness. My friend responded to my note warmly, fairly, with poise. We did not communicate further. An apology is complete in itself; it does not insist on the recommencement of a friendship that both of us had outgrown. In these long, hot, secluded days in rural Goa, I see how an expression of remorse is not always invitation to restart a relationship; sometimes, it simply pays tribute to what has come to pass, while rejoicing in past hours spent in mirth and discovery. Graham Greene wrote – If only it were possible to love without injury – and the answer is that it is not, although his question might have been only rhetorical. Perhaps part of our job in being human is to take stock of the injuries we have caused, and injuries we have borne, in that ridiculous and deep pursuit of love. Yes, it’s a bit like taking a karmic inventory.

A cousin from whom I was estranged responded sharply to my apology – we hadn’t spoken in years. The issue between us had never been directly addressed, we had simply fallen apart after a spat. I was reminded of Julian Barnes writing in The Sense of an Ending: “And no, it wasn’t shame I now felt, or guilt, but something rarer in my life and stronger than both: remorse… Whose chief characteristic is that nothing can be done about it; too much time has passed, too much damage has been done, for amends to be made.” Later, after recovering from the severity of her note, a penny dropped: there had been a reason for our estrangement. Her response reconfirmed that, perhaps, it was a good idea for us not to be in contact. An apology can also remind you that it’s alright to have gone your separate ways.

Around a year ago, I wrote to a writer who lived in Goa when I heard she was dying. She had been cross with me after I refused to launch her book of poems, a hostility that amplified after I retreated from our friendship. A few weeks before her death I emailed her to say I appreciated her unique, brash, lovely mind, and had learned from her passion for art and of criticism. She responded promptly. The profundity of her incipient death was the ruling god in our exchange – we looked at each other as wounded lions, both mortal and, therefore, mortally flawed. I was apologising because, although I had not been obligated to launch a book, I could see how this might have felt like a rejection to her. I did not mind – saying sorry never made me lesser for it. Ahead of her death, we saw the friendship as something small and fine, a source of occasional joy, true in its term. We never wrote again although this memory, now, reminded me that I was lucky to have set aside our life work together on an even note. Toward the end of Disgrace, Coetzee’s Booker decorated novel about the sexual and moral breaches of a professor, the author writes that if we are going to be kind to each other ‘let it be out of simple generosity, not because we fear guilt or retribution.’

Author Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi (Courtesy HarperCollins)
Author Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi (Courtesy HarperCollins)

The somewhat American idea that an apology must lead up to “closure” is selfish, implying that once you apologise, the matter is fixed. An apology is only ever meaningful when substantiated by reformed conduct – otherwise, it’s a sort of an ethical dressage exercise to make one person feel better while the other must be forced to watch. While acting as a gateway to personal transformation, an apology must hold both persons in balance, the one who must say sorry as well as the one who must accept (or not) the apology. Both roles rely on grace, and graciousness.

I chose this period of isolation to reach out and make amends, an apt and conducive time for anyone to consider past affairs. Meanwhile, an awareness that not all of us will come out of this pandemic alive emphasized reconciliation over resentment. At Mukti Bhavan, a hospice in Benaras, the founder, Bhairav Nath Shukla, has witnessed over 12,000 deaths. Guests check in, when death is imminent, to pass away by the Ganges. But when one boarder did not pass away as expected the cause was suspected to be a long-standing quarrel with his brother. When the brother was summoned to Benaras, at the deathbed of a man he had not spoken to in 40 years, the final exchange between the brothers was so emotional and powerful that the ailing man passed away mid-sentence. The knot, finally, untangled. The man was free to die.

This is why I am writing these notes, to be, in my own way, free; and to remind my friends that inches behind the hurt had been a lot of love.

While the world feels likes its burning down, hold on to the love.

Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi’s memoir, Loss, is forthcoming from HarperCollins in fall 2020.

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Monday, November 29, 2021