It was a Sunday evening in January, almost fifteen years ago, and earlier in the day Baba had decided that it was a good day to make momos. We lived in Tura, a small town in Meghalaya, and carts selling ten-rupee momos weren’t as ubiquitous as they are now. We began the preparation after lunch and by six in the evening had put in the first batch for steaming. Baba received a call and headed out to the veranda to talk. He hadn’t come back by the time we had taken the dumplings out on a plate, so Ma asked me to go and hand them to him. I found him squatting on the floor of the veranda, looking out into nothingness, absolutely still. I called out to him, twice, but got no response. Third time around, he responded, almost shouting at me, to tell me that my grandfather – his father – had died. I do not have any more memories from that night. The next thing I can recollect is waking up the next morning, en route to our village, a few kilometres inside Nagaon, Assam. We had to board three different buses during the trip.
Since it was winter, the family had decided to keep the body till we arrived. We reached early in the afternoon, and as I walked towards what used to be my grandparents’ room, I found a variety of relatives and family friends scattered across the courtyard, many of whom I was seeing for the first time. Inside the room, sons and daughters and daughters-in-law were sitting in silence, surrounding my grandfather. It was my first time witnessing a death. An aunt had passed away a few years before, but I had been too young to remember anything. I was curious about every tiny detail. Why had they covered his eyes with mud and nostrils with cotton? Why was my grandmother – who had spent a lifetime with him and birthed his five healthy children – standing by a corner far away from her husband whom she was seeing for the last time? Why did they break her bangles with a daao, something that left multiple bleeding cuts on both her wrists? These questions didn’t find any adequate answers.
I do not remember grieving at my grandfather’s death. It isn’t that I was not close to him, or that I did not love him, or even that I did not have any memories of him. In fact, I have some very fond images of him in my mind. But somehow, I just didn’t feel sad. Maybe because despite all those images, I had never had a conversation with him that went beyond a few minutes. Perhaps, because I didn’t really get enough time to know what kind of a person he was, beyond making bamboo doors and crushing paan and tobacco for his toothless mouth.
When Sandhya Giri, Sanya Malhotra’s character in Umesh Bisht’s Pagglait (2021), has to confront the fact that she has been widowed, just five months into her marriage, she feels a similar indifference. She recounts how she had forgotten to eat for two straight days in her childhood, when her cat had died, and feels almost guilty about being hungry and craving Pepsi despite her husband’s death. Soon however, she realises that she never got to know him in the five months they spent together. His demise, to her, carried the same weight and meaning as that of a faceless stranger. Thus, when she first comes across the photograph of a former lover tucked away safely in his cupboard, she sets out on a journey of discovering her deceased husband, on actually getting to know him after all these months.
Pagglait (2021); Balaji Motion Pictures, Sikhya Entertainment
Several thousand kilometres away, in the world of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Our Little Sister (2015) – which also begins with a death – the three sisters in the film are unable to immediately feel sad at the demise of their father, whom they hadn’t seen for fifteen years, and whose funeral they visit only because of their ritualistic obligations. During the visit to his final place of residence, they befriend their half-sister and bring her to live with them in their town. In Pagglait, as Sandhya’s in-laws begin receiving other members of the extended family at their house, bits and pieces of the older family that had been torn apart due to various reasons come together, and new relationships, equations, and connections are also forged. Within that air of grief, the household takes on a lively character.
When I was watching Pagglait, my mind kept going back to how things unfolded during my grandfather’s death. I remember that my brother and I had ended up befriending a dozen other cousins and nieces and nephews over the next fortnight. We used to spend evenings playing games, chatting by the fire, singing songs, and having dinner sitting together. Just like in the Giri household, the death of my grandfather had brought together different strands of the extended family, unifying all of them under a few common roofs, even if for a short while. Three years later when I lost my Dida – my mother’s mother – there were similar exercises of socialising with that side of kin, not only among the children but also within the adults. Even the children of the deceased and their spouses, who had to follow a different set of elaborate rules, were never monochromatically sad during the entire period.
Just like Chetan Sharma’s Alok in Pagglait, my parents too had to sleep on the floor in wet clothes in winters for a fortnight, surviving on unflavoured parboiled rice and starch. On the tenth day, Baba and my uncles shaved their heads, just like Alok. But I wonder if they questioned the need for these rituals even once, like Alok had. We often do not, maybe because we want to be good in our goodbyes – perhaps stemming from the feeling of not having done enough when there was time. Or perhaps it is just a show we put on for the world, so that no one can point a finger at us and that there isn’t any needless gossip later. This display of correctness isn’t something only particular to the subcontinental context, with a similar case also featuring early on in Kore-eda’s film, where the (third) wife of the deceased displays an inability to officiate at the funeral due to her mental state following her husband’s death, but eventually decides to take up the responsibility when the eldest daughter shoots down the suggestion of having her adolescent half-sister do it instead.
Pagglait (2021); Balaji Motion Pictures, Sikhya Entertainment
Beyond the visible and very psychological aspects of losing someone, a dead person also leaves behind for their kin a lot of mathematics and bureaucracy in their aftermath. When we live, we are taught to not think about our impending death because it is thought to be akin to inviting it, and as a result we leave behind multiple loose ends and disputes for our kin to take care of. There are the obvious issues of land and pension and certificates and funeral expenses, but things often go beyond just that. In Pagglait, all of Sandhya’s in-laws’ attitude towards her changes when they learn that she was the only beneficiary of her dead husband’s investments. In my own family, I have heard tales of relatives being unhappy over Baba wanting to bring along with him my grandfather’s old violin that hadn’t been played in years, possibly decades. Similarly, when Dida left us, it was just a few months away from the completion of a new house that her sons were building. It was something she had been looking forward to for a long time. A few years later, all her sons except the eldest had moved to different towns, perhaps something she had never imagined happening while she lived.
By the end of Pagglait, Sandhya has grieved for Astik, and after finally understanding him and the person he was, she decides to lead her life on her own terms. In Our Little Sister, the young girl who had been conflicted about living with the very stepsisters her father had deserted to make memories with her, finally comes to peace with both these aspects of her life. When Dida had died – three January evenings after my grandfather – we got the news while on our way to my music class. My mother picked up the phone, uttered the words “Ma?”, and broke down, crying uncontrollably, inconsolably. I understood what had happened and joined her in her grief. For ten whole minutes, in the middle of the road, with young onlookers around us, we sobbed while holding each other for support. We somehow gained enough courage to walk to the class and tell my teacher that I couldn’t join that day, and then for some more days.
Our Little Sister (2015); Toho, GAGA corporation, Fuji Television Network, Shogakukan, TV Man Union
Three days later, while in the village, I received a call from school to participate in a quiz. A celebrity quizmaster was coming to the city for the first time, so the school wanted me to be there. I too wanted to attend it, and so I travelled back to Guwahati a night before the quiz. Our school won, and the same evening I also performed for the annual event of another music school. The first thing Ma told me afterwards was, “Dida must be really proud.”