The Mother Who Failed to Mourn

Trial by Error | The Aarushi Files

The Mother Who Failed to Mourn

Illustration: Akshita Monga/Arré

Afew weeks ago in Delhi, I met a friend whose elderly uncle had recently died. They lived together with other family members in a small railway colony flat. For days and weeks, family, friends, and neighbours gathered, lingered, some even moved in for a while. A few strangers turned up too. Food was produced on the hour. Endless cups of tea were served. And the mourning? That was sometimes loud, sometimes silent, but always performed among others. My friend, who was very close to her uncle, went on to say, “To ask to be alone with your grief is unheard of. You are literally surrounded every second of the day.”

My friend’s uncle’s death turned out to be a drama serial complete with many interesting characters who appeared on the set uninvited: a hated cousin turned up and talked incessantly of the journey of the departed soul; aunties looked sympathetic but cattily checked out the attire of the others present; a long-lost college friend appeared to colonise the only spare room and bathroom. Adding a dramatic background score to the event were the “Professional Mourners” – a few people nobody knew but who looked vaguely familiar from a million other community funerals, the do-gooder slash busybody types who turn up, take charge, manage three cell phones, make endless arrangements, hug everyone, smile philosophically, share endless tragic anecdotes about other deaths, and basically, just won’t go home until they are literally shown the door. And the weight of their collective expectations sat heavily on my friend and her family.

Grief, it was clear, was an exhausting performance more than a personal loss. As if the family’s mourning was incomplete until it was witnessed by those that had turned up to commiserate; almost as if their pain did not have legitimacy until they had put on a show in front of an audience. But my friend’s family is hardly an outlier. In India, grief is irrelevant if it is not coupled with an utterly public display of it.

Nupur Talwar learnt this the hard way. When she gave her first interview on national television, just days after her daughter Aarushi’s murder in May 2008, she looked exhausted. Given the lurid controversy the case had already generated, she appeared to be in a numbed state of emotional shock. But she did not cry, she did not wail, she did not collapse in tears and helplessness. When the interview aired, not too many believed in her innocence, leave alone felt any pity or support for her. The common viewer’s reaction was: What kind of mother isn’t hysterical at a time like this? She’s guilty, she’s hiding something, she’s some kind of monster. There’s something very wrong with the woman.

Who decides how and in what way a person – a parent, a child, a lover, a friend, a stranger – must grieve? As individuals, with our own specific histories and emotional capacities, the deep personal trauma of loss is dealt with at many levels, and for long after condolence-callers have gone back home. But in the immediate days and weeks that follow a death, the individual, it would appear, has a larger responsibility – a duty to represent the cultural expression of their grief, a role to perform to the expectations of others.

In collectivist cultures – China and Korea, for instance – and in countries of Latin America and Southern Europe (Greece, Italy), as well as right here in India, the sense of family and community has traditionally taken precedence over the needs of the individual. Death is a ritual, and often enough, a stage for theatrics (aside: I’ve seen plenty Sicilian mafia movies, where the burial of a dreaded gangster or innocent villager is accompanied by hysterical Mamas and cries for justice).

Nupur Talwar didn’t just have to deal with the horrific loss of her child’s life, she also had to bear the weight of the TV-watching public’s expectations.

In traditional cultures, where superstitions and deep-rooted beliefs dominate, even irritate, there is a comfort in following age-old rites and customs, even in modern times. For example, in China, female mourners wail. If the wailing is loud, it means the deceased has left behind a lot of money. No one cuts their hair during the 49 days of mourning and no one wears red, as the colour signifies happiness. As is also believed in India, improper funeral arrangements and rituals will cause ill-fortune and disaster for the families of the dead.

Yet in many instances, these cultures throw up examples of incredible love and humanity. A Chinese-American woman narrated a story on the radio series This American Life about her grandmother who was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She had six months to live. But the family decided to withhold that information from her – they felt that their grandmother would give up the will to live. Yet, everyone wanted to say their final goodbyes, so they staged an elaborate pretence of a wedding to meet her. The rest of the episode delineates the family’s shenanigans at the mock banquet, but the final takeaway is just how important it is to put your emotions on display: Joy as much as lament.

This was brought home sharply after Nupur Talwar’s infamous interview. In a country of poverty, corruption, and very little value for human life, the death of strangers hardly affects us at all – until, of course, we are required to weigh in on primetime murders. Nupur Talwar didn’t just have to deal with the horrific loss of her child’s life, she also had to bear the weight of the TV-watching public’s expectations.

My German granny, a war widow and a tough woman, had a practical view of death. Death was a Formal Event, she felt, so if you knew someone who died, you went by the book. You dressed simply in dark colours, attended the ceremony, went to prayers, sent a card and flowers, paid your condolences. You kept quiet and dignified and then you went home. Crying and letting it all hang out in public was vulgar and immature and weak. Grief was a fiercely private affair.

I thought I agreed with her until I met my friend recently again. As we talked about her uncle’s funeral, she said she’d eventually come to find a strange comfort in numbers. Those annoying but well-meaning acquaintances had become friends, petty differences were swept aside, and small kindnesses had meant the world. In all these trivialities, the uncle’s life acquired a new dimension, almost as if its purpose was to create a spirit of unity amongst those left behind.

Whether we to choose to display it, perform it, hide it or share it, grief, like love, remains a complicated thing. And there’s no one size that fits all.