By Rageeth Kollatt:
The events that unfolded over the two weeks in the first half of February last year will forever be etched in my mind. Events the altered my life completely.
I tottered into work, hung over than usual. I was so intoxicated over the weekend that my colleague who sat next to me could literally smell the stench of whiskey from my perspiration. Even after two shots of espressos and a couple of red bulls I was still dazed and barely able to function. I realized that a smoke was warranted to keep my mind awake. And then I received that dreadful phone call from my youngest brother. He relayed the news that mom was seriously injured in a fire mishap. The fire caught on her whilst she was praying to her favourite God in the prayer room.
Like many previous other occasions I told myself to wake up from the nightmare, only this time, the nightmare had become a reality. I was lost, unable to comprehend what had happened, or decide what I had to do next. I stood outside the corridor, inhaling the last puff of that cigarette and slowly coming to terms with the reality of the situation. I walked straight up to my boss and shared my predicament. It’s only after I started narrating the incident did I finally did come to terms with the enormity of the situation.
My friends rushed me to the airport, where I sat in the lounge, not knowing what to think. The only thing I knew was that I wanted to get home as soon as I could. I called up everyone I knew; I asked them to rush to the hospital, to help, to monitor the proceedings in any way possible.
I finally landed at Cochin International Airport, at quarter past 7. My school mate Kamal who had always been more like a brother to me was at the airport to pick me up. In the five minutes that I waited for him to reach I had inhaled about 2 cigarettes. The moment he saw me he realized that I was in shock. He consoled me by telling me that everything was going to be all right.
I’d never been affected by anything tragic in my life, and I kept telling myself that this storm too would pass. And when I had finally reached the hospital I was greeted by all my relatives and friends who were all waiting patiently for my arrival. They all looked at me, with the kind of expression that elucidated that they hoped that I would have an answer.
I asked my uncle about what had actually happened, and about the current situation.
My mom, as always was offering her morning prayers to her favourite Gods. It was one sight I had always cherished. It was one of those mundane activities that brought radiance to anyone who was there to witness it. My mom would be sitting in our small make shift pooja room by the balcony, in all her vigour, reciting mantras. The pooja room consisted of a small decorated cupboard which housed idols and pictures of numerous Gods. My mom would sit on her small wooden stool in front of a lit Nilavilakku (a traditional Indian lamp). You wouldn’t believe if I told you, but if you looked real close, you could see a light that shined just for her, that’s how magical she looked.
Who would ever imagine that it was indeed this act of devotion that would finally take her away.
I’m told that my mom might have been distracted by the door bell that rang, stretched her legs to look at who was at the door, and this might have led to the fire from the lamp spreading to her dress. The poor soul was so immersed in her devotion that she only realised that her dress had caught fire when it was too late. The intensity of the fire sent her into a state of shock, she couldn’t move. By the time my youngest brother had noticed the accident it had already become too late. The fire had completely engulfed her. My grandfather’s nurse at the house and my brother finally doused the fire by wrapping her in a carpet and rushed her to the nearest hospital.
She had suffered over 75 percent burns, my uncle told me. I asked him “but what about her face, her face, is that okay?” “She’s burned pretty badly, the arms, the back, the legs, the hair…and yes her face,” my uncle told me.
She was one of the prettiest women I had ever seen. When was a toddler I remember telling my mom that I wanted to marry a girl who looked just like her, because she was the prettiest girl I had ever seen.
And now she lay in the Intensive Care Unit of a hospital, snatched away of all her glory, never knowing if she would rise again.
My aunt; my mom’s sister asked me if I wanted to see her. I shook my head in disagreement; all I knew was that I wouldn’t be able to bear the sight.
The doctor told me that chances of survival were minimal considering the extent of the burns and the impending risk of infection. It was up to me to decide if I wanted to take her to a better hospital elsewhere or persist with a doctor who was less than confident of a recovery.
Ideas were thrown in thick and fast, but after a discussion with my dad, a decorated Captain in the Merchant Navy, who was stuck on the ship 1000 nautical miles off the coast of Hawaii, I decided that it was best to keep my mom at the present medical centre. I knew that the biggest threat was of an infection and that had to be stopped at any cost. Everyone wanted to come up with their expertise about the hospitals and doctors and whether to shift my mom or not. A friend of mine even came up with the bizarre idea of taking her to a Christian witch doctor. Human beings are the most fickle of all.
My dad told me that the fastest he could reach Cochin was in 7 days, and it was up to me to hold the fort. Every day in the morning the doctor would give us a report about my mom’s condition. And each day somehow it got better. My dad and I kept reassuring each other that the love of our life was one of the strongest people in the world and somehow she would pull it through, that no matter how she looked physically we would still love her; no matter how much money it cost we wouldn’t hesitate one second to see that smile again.
It was day 3, and now it was my turn to visit my mom. Everyday one person could visit her; a close friend or a relative. My mom’s sister and brother visited her the first two days. And now it was my turn. My uncle understood that I was dreading this moment, but he encouraged me to go, emphasizing that my presence would rejuvenate her. My aunt asked me to be strong and to show no shock or emotion. And with tears in her eyes she told me not to cry when I saw her. The agony in her face told me everything about what I was to expect.
So I went in to talk to my dear mom. I was asked to put the mask, gloves and the protective clothing before I entered the ICU. A nurse took me to her bed, and there she lay, her whole body, swollen and grey like ash. Her face was unrecognizable. I tried my best to hide the shock and sadness that had engulfed me. I put on my fake smile as I talked to her. She started crying when she saw me, maybe because of the guilt that she felt, as if she had done something wrong. She asked me why I had travelled all the way from Dubai, leaving my job. I comforted her by saying that there was nothing to worry about and that the burn was minimal and everything would be alright in a few days. She lifted her fingers to show me the extent of the burn, the skin, it had all come out and it was all grey, telling me that somehow she knew that this time it had all gone horribly wrong.
That was the last time I ever talked to my mom.
I remember my mom texting me most days, calling me, most days of the week, while I was away at work. And I always took her for granted. I always thought that I’d call her at the end of week, where would she go, I thought to myself. But I never did. And now when I look at those unanswered messages, I just hope there was someone at the other end, still waiting for my replies. I played peace keeper for the rest of the days, trying to hold things steady and trying to make sure that everything was under control. At the end of day 4 things took a turn for the worse, and the doctor informed us that her breathing had become considerably weak and that she had to be put on ventilator support. It’s then that it finally struck me that I might lose my mother. I had this habit of shutting out things that affected me tragically. In the winter of ’99 my dad was hijacked by the Taliban and taken away to Afghanistan. Whilst all my relatives resorted to mourning, I addressed it by playing rock music blasting through the speakers. ‘Denial’: that was my retort.
A parade of religious people started visiting, friends and relatives alike. Each offering their unique solution to the situation. Me being an atheist, moved out of the way and asked my uncle to perform or follow whatever he felt was obligatory.
My relatives informed me that my brothers had issued a request to see my mom, which I vehemently denied. I knew that they wouldn’t be able to bear the sight and I told them that I would let them meet her when she was better. It’s one decision I’ll always regret. How was I to know that I was snatching away the last opportunity that my siblings had to say goodbye to their mom?
On Day 6, my dad informed me that he would arrive in Cochin in a day’s time. It was the vital 24 hours, my mom had passed the first milestone of three days, and according to the doctor if she survived the 7th day then she would be ok after all. We all stayed well into the night of day 7, me my uncle and my aunt shared tales about my mother. About her misadventures and how truly wonderful she was. We read everything about accidents related to fire and comforted each other with stories of magical recoveries that had happened in the past. It was past 10 and my uncle who observed that I had hardly slept through the week asked me to go home to take some rest. On my way to the car, my dad called me to inform that he had reached the port and would catch the flight to be in Cochin the next day.
I returned back home, and drunk myself to sleep. It was the only way I could.
It was past 12 when I heard a loud banging at my door, it was the home nurse, conveying that my aunt and uncle had been trying to contact me and I was to call them back immediately. I picked up the cell and dialled my aunt; my voice trembled when I asked her, what was wrong. All she conveyed was to get to the hospital at the earliest.
I drove at over 140 km/hr to reach the hospital. My aunt rushed out to hug me, and told me that the nurse had alerted them that something was wrong.
We waited impatiently at the hallway which leads to the ICU. And then the nurse, who showed no emotion, told us that my mom had left us. All her vital organs had failed, and that she was no more. She continued to explain how critical the accident had been and about the many complications that could have led to my mom’s demise; but I was blank; I did not need to hear any reason; all I knew was that she was gone. We all returned back to the room which the hospital had provided for us to rest. And there my brothers waited, not knowing what had happened. I still remember the way they looked around, at the faces that surrounded them, for closure. They were both in hysteria, and it was up to me to tell them. It’s one moment I’ll never forget in my life. Telling my brothers that our mom had left us. They burst into tears and all I could do was hold them tight, no words of comfort could alleviate the situation.
I was lost; we were escorted away in different vehicles by our relatives. I returned home with my dad’s brother who had also lost his son in an accident only a year ago. He offered me words of comfort and some whiskey knowing well that no amount of alcohol would help ease the pain.
The next day the incident was all over the news; on the papers and the television. My aunt asked me to find a good photo of my mother which they could use to publish in the obituary. I spent hours searching for the perfect photo, I was in a frenzy trying to find the photo, I still don’t know why. My friend understood the hysteria and panic that was over me and tried to comfort me. I had cut down all emotion, all the emotions of pain and hurt. I was the eldest son and I knew that it would be up to me to conduct and monitor all the proceedings, to be that isle of comfort for everyone else.
A few hours later, I was asked to meet with the police and the hospital authorities to fill out the forms that took care of the formalities of claiming the body of the deceased. By this point I had become completely emotionally frozen. I complied with the instructions that were laid down to me by the public around.
It was evening, and my dad was arriving at the airport. He was stuck at vacant airport lounges for hours waiting for connecting flights knowing fully that the love of his life had left him, and that he would never be able to say goodbye to her. It was up to me to pick him from the airport. I proceeded with my cousin to face the inevitable. And then I finally saw him, he looked like the shadow of the man who he used to be, clearly shattered. It was evident that he hadn’t slept or eaten for days. His emotions were uncontrollable and he cried his eyes out, shouting and cursing God, questioning why God had taken her instead of him, and that if God had to take someone from amidst us then my dad would have always give up his place for my mom. All I could do was hug him. My dad was one of the strongest people I’d ever seen. And I had hardly seen him cry. My mom and my dad are cousins and theirs was a love story that spanned over forty years. Ever since they were kids they knew that they belonged to one another.
I asked the ill-fated question if my dad wished to go home or drive straight to the mortuary. To which he replied “take me straight to her”. When we arrived at the mortuary I warned my dad that he would not be seeing the face that he remembered, he nodded in agreement through his uncontrollable tears, and I let him proceed alone to the frozen chamber where she rested now. They pulled out the body from the freezer and my dad let out a cry of anguish which would haunt me forever. He cried in pain and asked why fate had been so cruel to her and us.
The worst part was answering all the phone calls enquiring about the accident and the death. My mom had always been popular right from her school days. She was always the prettiest person in the room; talented and always charming. Thousands of calls came in thick and fast from all parts of the globe; actors, musicians, teachers, friends, everyone who’s life she had touched. It dawned on me how insensitive people could be in their quest for news. I recall this particular phone conversation from this lady who claimed to be my mom’s teacher, who kept torturing me for the details about the circumstances of the accident and about the days that lead to the death. I politely asked the lady to to never call again. It’s one of the worst things to be asked of a person who’s just lost his mom; to narrate incidents that led to the biggest tragedy in his life. It was further worse to break the news to people who weren’t aware of her death. I just couldn’t muster up the courage to say those words – “my mother is no more.” I still can’t.
The day after my father arrived was the day slated for the funeral. I was summoned to travel to the hospital to sign all the documents and claim the body. I met with the mortuary beautician, I pleaded with him, to make her look as pretty as she had been once. “Let’s give her a proper farewell,” I told him. I left to return back to the house to partake in all the religious ceremonies that comes with death and funerals. My dad and my brothers sat in the corner waiting; whilst guests poured in. A lot of my mom’s close friends were inconsolable; they cried their hearts out; telling me that they could still not conceive how a person who they had just talked and met with a few days ago could have left so soon. How a person with so much light and vigour in her heart could be dead.
As I waited like a zombie amidst the mourners my dad’s brother informed me that the ambulance with the body had arrived and it was up to me to decide how the body should be displayed in the refrigerated glass coffin. I walked hurriedly amongst the hundreds who had arrived; pushing people off as I went into the ambulance. My hands trembled as I removed the white cotton sheet that covered her face. It was a sight that was unbearable. I put the cloth back on her face; and tied it. I informed my uncle that no one was to see her face; that the people who really loved her would remember her smile, and that’s all that mattered. The vultures that had gathered around rushed in to have a peek and to witness the after affects of the freak accident. As we carried the body in to the hall; people asked if they would get to see the face. Human beings are the most fucked up when it comes to curiosity. My rage shoved the on-lookers away.
The hall flooded with tears and echoed with cries of anguish as we entered with the coffin. My dad and brothers looked desolate. I sat amidst them on the floor emotionless; as they cried their eyes away and hung on to me. I shut out everything- the anger, the remorse; the pain; and the tears. I guess that’s the reason why I’ve chosen to write this. Whenever I’ve heard of people losing their close relatives; I’ve always imagined how it would be. Do you suddenly feel pain inside? Do you break completely as a person and seize to function? Now I know that it’s much more than that; the pain of losing someone; it stays with you forever. I guess this write-up is such an attempt to remind us of the value of people whom we love; the people you’d miss terribly when they leave; people who you took for granted. It’s an attempt to share my emotions; to finally let go of all the tears; to let go of her.
According to the Hindu tradition, the body of the dead has to be cremated. Once all the people had left, my dad and my aunt dressed my mom’s body up in her favourite red silk saree. We all said our last goodbyes to the motionless body. I touched my mom’s feet to tell her how much I loved her and asked her for forgiveness for all the times I’d hurt her.
We’d reached the cremation centre where the final rites were to be performed. We all gathered around the big ball of fire which would now engulf the body and decimate all that was left of her. We pushed her body into the furnace whilst the religious priests recited holy sermons. I felt like a part of me had died as I watched the doors of the furnace shut close. The ashes were to be collected and immersed in a river particularly where two rivers meet. As the eldest son, the onus was on me to perform all the last rites. The priest handed over a small red mud pot which was to be filled with ash. And then he told me something which left me in a state of frenzy and wretchedness. Along with the ash I had to pick up a piece of bone from the remains of my mom. I handed the pot over to my uncle and rushed out professing that I wouldn’t be able to do it. The emphasis that my family put on these stupid ceremonies irked me, the way that it had to be performed flawlessly when all the while none of it made sense to me in my time of grief. All I knew was that I had lost my mom, and nothing could change the pain I felt. We returned home with pot filled with ash once all the ceremonies were over. My uncle advised me that along with the pot we had to give away something materialistic dedicated to her.
I knocked at my dad’s room, and strode in to find a shattered man holding on to the remains of his dead wife. The blaze had left bits of her hair floating around along with the tattered dress that she wore. My dad did not want to let go.
I remember an anecdote my cousin told me a long while back when I was complaining about how exasperating my mom could be at times.
My mom literally brought him up. And he told me, “I was young, and I was holding on to your mom’s hand at this party, but I was in terrible shape, I had the flu, and I was sneezing all over and had phlegm all over my face, but your mom did not hesitate one bit to use her favourite saree that she put on in all her glory to clean my face, just to make me charming. That’s “Geechi” (that’s how they used to call my mom with respect), yeah she’s not perfect, but she is one of a kind, that’s Geechi and that’s why we all love her.”
What do I miss the most about her? Her magical smile, her wicked sense of humour, her care and affection and the boundless love that she showered. My mother, my everything, my life.
Photos contributed by author.