“I don’t know what to do with it…With all the love I have for her. I don’t know where to put it now.”
This scene from Fleabag (2016-2019) stays rent-free in my head. For the uninitiated, the protagonist (played by the creator- Phoebe Waller-Bridge), announces out loud to her best friend (Boo) at her mother’s service.
It struck a chord with my heart and it got me thinking about all the ones we have lost and how most of us struggle to give that piece of heart to someone else. That loss is never fully compensated and it’s always hanging dry, in a deep, dark place, tightly woven to our chest. Perhaps, that’s why the saying, “With a heavy heart…”
When I first read Loss (2020; Harper Collins India) by Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi, just under a month after my grandfather’s demise, I re-acquainted myself with this sentiment,
“What shall we do with the love we have for the deceased? Who, now, shall be recipients of the gifts of our hearts?”
My key takeaway from having lived through this line of investigation and questioning was that death is inevitable, and grief is universal. Who and how we share to choose with people makes it somewhat tolerable (if that’s a term one can use). I’m still struggling with the astute answers on finding people and ways to sharing our love; and, perhaps, we can’t.
But, we can always read and write about our grief. For the readers, it is the only way to know that they are not alone in this solitude, and for the writers, it is a cathartic experience to allow others to feel better.
“To write was to help someone else erase some part of their pain. It was as simple as that. This was the first motive for all my writing. It remains so.”
It’s fair to say, Loss is one of the more intimate books that I have read throughout my life. A short read with three essays, each honouring the memory of those the author has known intimately, loved, and lost— his father Dhanvant, mother Padmini, and their family dog Bruschetta. The three essays in the book are interspersed with photo-essays that capture intimate moments from their respective lives, which the author shares with the world.
“When I read literature around death and grief — memoirs from talented Western writers — I marvelled at their clinically precise language, the thrilling force of saturnine curiosity, their intellectual range to locate, identify and describe the electric physicality of pain, how they verified and examine loss, like a frog on the dissection table. But when the world of pain was taken apart, no one knew what to do with the pieces.”
Reading Loss is a moving experience. It cannot be described in words, not especially if you have dealt with the loss of someone recently or ever. It is by far the most compelling literary response from India to this universal sense of parting and losing someone. More so, since each of the three relationships that the author chooses to highlight are irreplaceable. You cannot replace your parents and you can never replace a pet. It’s quite simple an irreparable loss, the one that you carry in your heart with every breath and every moment in life.
While I don’t want to make this about myself, I must mention that I kept the book with me for nearly a month before I actually made any progress on reading it. I went back to the back blurb text repeatedly and stayed with it until I had the courage and the strength to face my grief in the face alone, in words.
“Grief is not a record of what has been lost but of who has been loved.”
I could offer literary criticism or a traditional book blogger take of describing specs of the book and rattle some cursory AI sheet information and leave it at that. Or, I could make it wholly personal and make it all about mine.
I’ll do neither. Simply because you cannot make a comment about how an author chooses to explain a personal story; one that takes him back to his formative years and the moments he spent with his mother enjoying a cup of masala chai and listening to her talk to him in a manner of connecting with her when she was bedridden. It would be a disservice to the author, to his memories, and even to the idea of grief. There’s no right or wrong way when it comes to grieving and mourning the loss of life or celebrating the end of suffering.
In any case, however, you choose to look at it and describe (if at all) is deeply personal. As a reader, you feel your grief come to life, even if you laid it to rest months ago and as a writer, you feel light as a cloud. I know this because all through the days of seeing a life wither in the ICU, I found myself resorting to writing every night, even if it meant it recorded the stretched periods of time we spent at the hospital parking lot, and then the ones at home, hiding from each other and sobbing as quietly as one can, without triggering another person into it.
Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi makes that personal grief bearable. For all those years we have said about needing a life manual to deal with complicated situations in life, this may come close to being one, but not in a label or ways one expects to be. His prose inspires a call to action, even when it’s really an essay he’s penned about a moving experience he’s had to go through. Two instances particularly stick out in this case - one where a disgruntled vet throws shade while he solicits help for his ailing pet (“Why don’t you go to the vet to whom you have given your business so far?”). You can sense the author’s frustration and lack of hope from that one statement he quotes from his distress, and immediately remind you without saying in as many words- human beings are the fucking worst, regardless of whether they are dog persons or not.
The second is a tart reminder for those who have clearly not dealt with loss enough to know the social obligations - showing up for those who are bereaved, in person. In the simplest prose, he talks about how death commands presence and not texts and emojis over social media platforms. He leaves almost an empty space, a gap, in addressing what happens when you don’t and those ellipses are for you to fill in any case.
“Send Khichdi. Bring lunch. Drop off a book. Check in on the ones you love.
And remember that you’re being watched from a far up place.
So just put on a clean shirt and go.”
I should also confess that I truly feel perhaps this book was written for me alone, simply because the date of its release coincided with my grandfather’s service and there are instances in the book which remind me of the experiences we’ve had to go through as a family and even as individuals in seeing him suffer in the ICU.
"A sudden howling at 4 am does not alarm us; we see it as a general annoyance, and if it had in us – some final reserve of strength – we might have slapped the suffering man out of it. The ICU in most Indian hospitals is where despair meets expenses, suffering is defeated by death…”
Truth be told, most of these observations are intense and detail-oriented, you would not register these if you have not lived through them personally, or not in the ways it hits those who have toiled their time outside the waiting areas in utmost anxiousness (“graduates in the art of waiting room”). The section in one of the essays where he talks in great detail about the ICU waiting is particularly haunting and stays in contrast to the lived experience if you have had any (I truly hope not). He summarizes that, almost as a note to himself,
“Not all creative writing schools come with a degree.”
In an interview, the author mentioned how ritualistic the entire practice of death remains to be. Loss comes in handy when you run out of things to do and when you run out of your energy to function on auto-pilot, especially if you are coping with a demise in your personal world. It’s supposed to help you understand that even with all the grief in the world, you are not alone and you are still wholesome, and there’s something to learn from everything, even loss.
Loss is a book that you should gift to everyone you know who’s lost someone, and are finding it hard to cope with their loss. It’s a book to cherish and celebrate the lives of those who helped us be better people – whether it was your parent or pet.