May 30, 2021 6:03:39 am
Everyone in our country is experiencing loss and every home is being touched by COVID-19. Sometimes, I feel as if I’m a ticking bomb, waiting to be infected by the coronavirus. No one seems safe, no one strong enough to be spared.
Abha and Ajay Kumar were my neighbours in Delhi. Their children and us, siblings, grew up together, and were off to nursery and primary school and beyond. They became fast friends of my parents and their children inseparable from us. I called them aunty and uncle, and this bond was built over the arc of my lifetime.
The love of neighbours and affection of relatives is very different from what one gets from parents and siblings. It comes with a
vocabulary of its own. Bereft of discipline and homework deadlines, cares about school attendance or grades, it thrives on freedom and independence. It is a love that is unstructured, unscripted and unfettered.
Some of the first songs I sang; the first tie-dye fabrics I stained with shocking colours; my first foray into painting with soft pastels; the first scarf I knitted; the first time I put a silk thread through a needle and embroidered a coaster; the first time I realised that plants have life, that their leaves need caring and nurturing when they have blemishes and rot — was all at Abha aunty and Ajay uncle’s home.
I’m most grateful that these two elders were in my life from the very onset. That they had three daughters, perhaps, also made the course of my life easier and more blessed. I was different from other boys and knew that for as far back as my memory takes me. In aunty and uncle’s home, my artistic bent was never slighted or ridiculed. They encouraged me to knit, stitch, sing, crochet, paint, tie-dye, garden and plait their daughters’ hair — with nary a care about roles a boy ought to play. They fostered my dreams and provided me with a safe haven where I was indulged, supported and nurtured.
Abha aunty was born in Lahore in pre-Partition India, and Ajay uncle was born in Allahabad. They were two very different people, yet very congruent in their zest for life and living. Theirs was a marriage that was a coming together of two individuals who never melded their personas, yet always shone brighter in their togetherness. Their girls and we three Saran children were the lucky recipients of their largesse and love.
Daily life with my parents, Abha aunty and Ajay uncle was an education for us six children. The robust and rather heated arguments that Ajay uncle and my father would have every time they were at the dining table at one of our homes ingrained in us the need for debate and respectful arguments that taught both sides something new and revealed realities the other might have deliberately ignored or simply not realised. These lessons were part of an education that money can’t buy and libraries can’t
impart. For this, I’m forever grateful to the four elders.
For years, my parents visited Charlie and me at our farm in New York every summer. The year after Papa passed away, Abha aunty and Ajay uncle came for a visit. It was uncle and aunty’s way of continuing the summer tradition that Papa was part of. We cried together for Papa and jogged our memories through a richly nuanced journey down memory lane, while nestled thousands of miles away from Delhi, where most of our memories were located. Our farm was quite a hike from NYC, which was a stop on their way to San Francisco to be with their daughter. Going out of their way to come to the farm was one more blessing they gifted and indulged me with.
On May17, when aunty and uncle’s daughter Aiyana called me from her bed at a hospital in Delhi, where she had been admitted for COVID-19 along with her parents, I knew something dreadful had happened. The next several minutes were dark. Finding strength in her hour of grief to ensure I wouldn’t break down, knowing the bond I shared with her mom, my good friend Aiyana calmly told me about the passing of Abha aunty. Six days later, my mom called with a heavy voice to tell me that Ajay uncle had lost his life to COVID-19, too. I was with her in a matter of minutes, both of us sadder and broken beyond words. Mom remarked that an era was now over, and she had lost her closest and dearest. She looked at me knowing that I, too, had lost two of my closest.
My grief at their passing is private, but I’m not alone in my bereavement. Thousands upon thousands of Indians have been left with horrible loss and irrevocable outcomes from the grips of COVID-19. My mourning is private, but I’m hoping that our collective suffering and pain will make us be better versions of ourselves so that tomorrow when we face other challenges we will live better, do better and care better for one another and our nation as a whole.
If Abha aunty and Ajay uncle were still alive they would be asking us to be larger-hearted people, smarter in thinking, generous, kind, charitable and accepting of the other. As I mourn their loss, I cry and smile with tears of joy that connect me back to my childhood and every noteworthy moment of glee in my life, of which they were a very active and blessed part. May you rest in peace, aunty and uncle, and may we rise and shine and strive to be as grand and magnanimous as you were in your lifetime.
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