This appeared in Mumbai Mirror...
No time for funerals and condolences…
To the best of my knowledge, my mother had never gone anywhere close to a crematorium – electric or otherwise. It simply was not done in those days for women to be present at funerals. It was a strictly male thing. A masculine ‘duty’. Women were meant to be protected from having to deal with the nitty gritties of death. They involved themselves with other social obligations at such times. Like my grandmother would say after hearing about a death of a relative or family friend, “ Let us pay a visit and meet the grieving ladies of the house.” Women mourned privately. They said their final goodbyes from a distance as the body was taken away, wiping their tears discreetly and hugging the lady closest to them for comfort. I had asked aie and aji why women were not allowed to join male mourners and they had replied evasively. The ‘smashaan’ was no place for ladies, they’d said. Traditionally,women had no role to play during the last rites. I had found this custom strange and unfair . But had kept mum.Since when did grief get divided along gender lines? I was fed some mumbo jumbo about menstruation, pregnancy and defilement.Absurd! I made a personal pact with God and convinced myself it was okay to break rules and say ‘goodbye’ properly to someone I loved deeply without worrying about divine repercussions. By the time it was my turn to see off loved ones, the social environment had changed sufficiently to ‘allow’ women into the crematorium…. and even light the funeral pyre.
Today, women don’t have the time to attend funerals or even offer personal condolences. I am ashamed to say it happened to me last fortnight. I was travelling when I heard the tragic news about Viren Shah’s death in Jordan. I had known Virenbhai for close to forty years . I remembered the twinkle in his eyes and the many happy evenings my husband and I had spent gobbling sev puri and other Gujarati snacks at his home in Mumbai, and later, in the Raj Bhavan in Kolkata when he was the Governor of West Bengal. I recalled listening to Virenbhai regaling his rapt audience with hilarious stories of his many political adventures. I couldn’t quite believe he had passed away in a distant country. While my husband made it to his funeral, I couldn’t. I said a prayer for Virenbhai in my heart, thought fondly about his lovely wife Anjuben,mentally reached out to my good friend, his son Rajesh…and that was that. Till… I could bear it no more. This was truly pathetic… disgraceful! I sent a heartfelt text message to Rajesh, and felt better. But only a little. I should have asked for time from Rajesh and his wife Bansri, gone and met them and done what is the appropriate thing under the circumstances. But I was travelling again (lousy excuse!) . This was just so unfortunate. Now, it will be weeks again before we can connect in a meaningful way.
And that’s how the cookie crumbles. But it really shouldn’t. Surely, we can all make time in our frenzied and hectic lives to honour the memory of those we have shared wonderful moments with? I was away when another stalwart - Kekoo Gandhi, died. And more recently, Kali Modi. All three were exceptional men – and true bon vivants – loved and adored by countless admirers. I knew them. I loved them. But I wasn’t there. This is going to be one of the tragedies of our times. Births and deaths will happen. Some of us will pause and note both. Some will make it a point to visit the family and express joy / sorrow. Some will say ‘Later.” And that ‘later’ will never come. I am feeling guilty. I am feeling ashamed. No, I am feeling truly terrible.
What should guilt ridden women do under such circumstances? I’d say try and make up the best way they can. It’s never the same thing. But it sure beats self-flagellation or going into denial. It’s a tough one. The next generation of career women is going to get busier still.Work harder.Travel more. Soon, we may forget what it means to pay a condolence visit.There will be no one left to pass on the protocol.Teach others how to behave at besanas , uthamanas , shraddhs and wakes . That will be as big a tragedy as the death of the loved one itself .
And then… who will mourn us when we go???