I write this column on my mother's birthday. Last year we celebrated her 80th birthday. It was in Cyprus, where I was posted as India's High Commissioner. The candles on her cake were in the shape of 80. When she cut the cake she gave the first two pieces to my son and daughter, her grandchildren. The next two were for my wife and me. Although not too well, she seemed happy, surrounded by her loved ones. We sang the usual lines: Happy Birthday to you, happy long life to you.
But she died a little more than a month after that, mercifully with little suffering, and with her family around her. It was in Delhi on the last but one day of the year. This year, on her birthday, I didn't, like all these years past, rush to her room the first thing in the morning to wish her. There were no presents, secretly bought to be opened by her, her face wreathed in smiles of anticipation. There was no cake to cut, only an abiding sense of loss, a void, a sudden rush of memories, a consciousness that she was, quite simply, no longer with us.
Life crowds out the intensity of loss fairly easily. Perhaps the rituals that follow death were created precisely for that reason, to somehow involve those nearest in a series of mechanical acts that leave little time for grieving. As the Buddha once said, no one steps into the same river twice. Life moves on, carrying us in its embrace, towards the mundane and the new, the routine and the necessary; nothing stops, and nothing should, for as the poet Ghalib put it quite bluntly:
Ghalib-e-khasta ke bagair, kaun se kaam band hain
Roiye zaar zaar kya, kijeye hai hai kyon?
(What work has stopped without Ghalib the distressful?
No need to cry so much or raise voices lamentful)
It is a self defence mechanism of the mind to find reasons to mitigate a sense of loss. After all, no one is eternal, and my mother was not young. She had lived a full life. All her tasks in a conventional life were over. Her children were well settled. Even if she had lived, the journey would have been steeply downhill from now on. She may have had to suffer, or worse, been confined to bed, and deprived of her fierce sense of independence. In Cyprus, until almost the last few weeks of her life, when she had to go to Delhi for an operation, she led a fairly active life. She was the first to read the International Herald Tribune; she went for her evening walk; she watched with great pleasure all her favourite Indian serials; she accompanied us on a boat tour of the Greek islands; and she wrote a book, putting together, on my request, the folk songs of eastern India, and translating them into English.
The truth was that she was an exceptionally intelligent person. She spoke the Queen's English but knew the Ramayana by heart. Although she went to a missionary school in Allahabad, a maulvi came home to teach her Urdu, and a Pandit to teach her Sanskrit. She could speak Bhojpuri fluently, and was a repository of folklore and folk songs. Hers was the composite education so lacking today. For me, she was the encyclopaedia I could take for granted on anything to do with Indian culture and heritage.
When she left Cyprus for Delhi, on that last journey, she knew I had been posted to London. My wife had, on her instructions, carefully segregated her luggage: the baggage to go to Delhi, and the boxes to go to London. Given the way things unfolded it was to no avail. But I often think that perhaps she would have been happy in London. The programmes downstairs at the Centre would have kept her evenings busy. And she could perhaps have gone everyday to Hyde Park, at least during the spring and summer, to see the trees and flowers she greatly loved.
The last few months have been very busy, and I am grateful for that. But today, on her birthday, when for the first time she is not with us, it is a moment to pause. The mind remembers, and the heart wants to cry. I can only hope that she is happier and more fulfilled wherever she is. I know for certain that her blessings will always be with us.
(A Stephenian, Pavan Kumar Varma is a senior Indian diplomat and presently Minister of Culture and Director of the Nehru Centre in London. Author of several widely acclaimed books likeGhalib: the Man, the Times and the recently released Being Indian, he will be writing the column Hyde Park Corner, exclusively for HindustanTimes.com)