The first time I saw death coming my way was when I went to my maternal grandfather’s home and saw him crying on the bed in pain. Kidney failure. He was begging my father to bring something that would kill him instantly. He was tired of waiting for the crows to come and feed on him. I was four. It was a dark room; I’d spent quite a lot of time there before my grandfather did pass away. The corner bulb just gave me enough light to see my grandfather in the middle of the bed, wearing his usual attire. His white Kurta Pajama. It’s strange how he used to wear white when in Hindus, we wear white after somebody dies. He was crying in pain, and my mother sat by his side, silently shedding tears. Her father was begging for death. Death can make you feel helpless in a unique way. At that time, I didn’t exactly understand what was happening and why everyone was crying. Maybe I was breaking inside, something was changing in me, and I didn’t even realize it till it happened to me; when years later, I wanted the crow to come for me.
A year later, I was in my room playing with my younger brother. He was trying to be a bridge, and I was trying to cross it. It was a struggle because he kept moving. That’s when I heard my mother’s and elder sister’s piercing voices. They were crying. The crow had come for my grandfather. The next day, early morning, we went to the funeral and saw crows sitting in the open verandah outside my mother’s home, where my cousins and I used to play cricket. And seeing my mother in a black and white saree, running towards her eldest brother, hugging him while sobbing deafeningly and falling while my uncle held her is a movie I keep going back to. It hurts to remember my mother crying over her father’s dead body. Someday, I might be doing that over my parent’s bodies. Back then, I didn’t know what death meant. So, I decided death meant crying. And then I saw my mother laughing two hours later, after the last rites of my grandfather. How could she laugh after her father’s death? I thought, sitting on the terrace as the sun gleamed upon us. Maybe that’s what we do; we forget about people once they die. The deaths I saw after that, I did that. I forgot about them. What I couldn’t obliterate was people crying over the dead.
I couldn’t understand death. It never occurred to me that people stopped existing after that. Anyone reading this might think I’m pretty stupid. I was, and I was happy that way. My parents told me that people who die are still present, looking over us. It sounded utterly stupid. If I can’t see, feel, touch, or talk to them, how on this burdened earth are they still there? Are they even on earth? Or in it? How do they even know? If I couldn’t feel my grandfather’s hand on my head when he tried to express his love for me, he was not there. Period.
I was seven the next time I noticed a crow. It was on a Peepal tree by the side of a Well, in the open area outside my father’s childhood home. My paternal grandfather had passed away. His body was laid on the funeral pyre, ready for cremation. In my family, the daughters-in-law touch the feet of the deceased before the cremation. So, there she was, my mother, paying him her last respects by touching his feet. She was crying—a familiar sting. I do not, however, remember my father crying. My father told me not to cry about every little thing—something which came rather naturally to me. So, after every fight, even if it got solved, I used to cry at night. I used to sit in the corner of my bed, bite my hands, and hold onto the flesh for as long as possible while my siblings slept on the same double bed. When I used to wake up in the morning, I hid the marks the whole day. My father has mentioned many times, not subtly, that I am very emotional and sensitive. Then why didn’t I cry when both my grandfathers died?
I was eight. A flock of crows flew over me in the sky. I came back from school to find an aunt from my neighbourhood at my home looking over my younger brother. My 21-year-old cousin had died in an accident. He was sitting at the back of his friend’s scooter, returning from college after taking his last engineering exam. A truck driver in a hurry went ahead and hit them. Not a scratch on his friend, but my brother, who was wearing a helmet, was lying on the road some meters away from where they got hit, his head bleeding. He had passed away by the time his friends took him to a hospital.
My father didn’t allow me or my siblings to see him the last time. He said we kids should stay at home.My father underestimated my memory. I had seen dead bodies before, and he forgot that. Or maybe he just didn’t give enough credit to a five-year-old’s memory. After the cremation, the mourning period for Hindus goes on for thirteen days. It is said it takes thirteen days for the soul to break its relationship with its physical body and find peace in the afterlife. So, we went to my cousin’s place every day after the accident. My mother used to cook food for people staying at the home of the deceased. Cooking is not allowed before the thirteen-day period is over. On the first day, it’s inappropriate to light up the family hearth when a family member is cremated. And later, to let the family grieve. Crows were always sitting on the stone-built fence of the house. Maybe they were grieving with the rest of the family. Perhaps they could hear his mother crying like I could from the road. His mother always sat on the floor in a black or white saree in the small lobby. It was a small house for so many people to be crying. She always looked like she just might faint, but she couldn’t stop crying long enough for her body to give in. She sat there, Inconsolable. What do you tell a mother who’s just lost her son?
I never really liked his mother, my aunt. She is a cunning lady, selfish. But seeing her there, constantly crying, hurt me. Even then, I couldn’t cry. I felt terrible, but I was eight. Death still didn’t make sense to me. In those thirteen days, I forced myself to cry by constantly thinking about my cousin, the little moments I had spent with him and could recollect. The last was when he was teaching my mother to ride a scooter. He was so polite, kind, and loving. My life would’ve been better with him in it. On the thirteenth day, there’s a ceremony, Preta Karma, held by the family of the dead. It’s the final day of mourning. And then everything goes back to normal. The crows leave. Nobody visits the grieving family or stays with them. That is when the real mourning begins.
The crows stopped coming after my cousin passed away. I saw them here and there, flying. But they never stopped enough to greet me. School. Study. Fight. Play. Repeat. I fought with everyone in my family except my father. He is the patient one. He’d learned patience from his mother. The grandmother I’ve not met, but she’s met me. I was one when she passed away. If my father talks highly about anyone, it is his mother. I’d always been curious about how my father grieved her death. Did he weep on the floor as my mother did? Did he shut himself inside the bathroom, stand under the shower, and cry? Did he cry in front of anyone?
He told me how she never raised her voice. She was so kind and generous even when she had no money and eight children to feed. I am still learning to be patient like my father, and he’s still learning to be patient like his mother. Thirty-one years of her death, her photo hangs in the praying room in our house. My father touches her picture as if he is touching her feet. He still joins his hands in front of his mother and prays to her smiling face with the loose end of her saree kept gently on her head. She is his God. He believes she looks after us all. I think the thought of her still being there gives him peace. Because grief never really leaves. Grief is all the love we can’t give anymore. So, it stays. Until the end. Buried inside. In the end, death is more about the living than the dead.
I have a picture of her holding me at the banks of the Ganga River after the Mundan or the Tonsure ceremony, a tradition of shaving a baby’s head within one year of its birth. To let go of any negativity from the past life and to promote spiritual development. There’s a swastika—a symbol of prosperity and good luck— made on my newly shaved head from Roli, a red-turmeric pigment. It is the only picture I have of her. She looked happy, and I was crying. I wish I had known her. To know her patience and her kindness. To have playful moments with her. Ask her for money because my father wouldn’t give me any pocket money, just like my friends did with their grandmothers. To lie down on her lap on a bedstead outside in the sun during winters and have her play with my hair. And listen to her stories. I was robbed of a person my father believes to be God. It’s uncanny how I believe the unknown. How I grieve the unknown.
My first birthday wasn’t celebrated because my grandmother had passed away three months before. I loathed my birthday. As a middle child in a family of five, I’d always felt at odds with my siblings and parents. The left out. My elder sister was the first child, so she was celebrated when she was born. My younger brother, the only boy, was celebrated when he was born. I, however, was just the second child, a girl. They looked similar with fair colour and similar features. They were carefree. More playful, laughing easily. I was different. I cried at small things, didn’t talk much, and always stayed in my room. I danced with my mother’s dupatta. I studied by pretending to be a teacher, teaching imaginary students, and writing on the wooden gate with chalk. I never belonged. I always ended up crying alone on my birthday. And the crow almost came for me in one of those twenty birthdays I had spent hating.
I always had the impression that I’d be able to handle grief and death once I grew up. But there I was at sixteen, standing in front of my best friend’s body wrapped in a black cadaver bag in the middle of the lobby of her house. When I entered her home for the last rites, I saw crows sitting on the electric wire in front of her house. Maybe they could smell her dead flesh. My all-white school uniform was the best attire that day. I pondered what she looked like after what she’d done to herself. Was her tongue sticking out as people say it does after someone hangs themselves? Were the nerves of her eyes burst and red? Did she have scratches from when she must have tried to fight this decision? I wanted to cry. But all I felt was ‘middle of the night, dark room, blank mind’ numb. Nothingness. Black. Limbo.
When I went home, I looked at my mother sitting in the garden, and I knew she’d heard the news; tears came rolling down. Dropping my bag on the porch, I ran into the garden and collapsed on her legs. She held me as her brother did all those years ago. I wanted to lay on the grass and never get up. Another movie. Same theme. I never cried for her again for a long time.
My father had told me it was life. People die. It took a second for the numbness to take over my whole body. My benumbed heart couldn’t grieve my best friend. Or the fact that I couldn’t save her from herself. Something shifted when my father told me it was part of life. Like a heartstring broke. I won’t deny it isn’t part of life. Did that mean I couldn’t mourn? For three years, I couldn’t accept her death or let go of the guilt surrounding her death. It became difficult to feel anything except this weird tingling in my legs, like I was still lying on the grass.
It was in my second year of college that I felt something. I had slept at my friend’s house to leave for Rishikesh in the morning. We drifted into sleep, laughing and joking, and I just knew it would get away from me—the happiness. When we woke up at four to get ready, it had already happened. My friend’s mother entered the room before I could check my phone. The blue light illuminated her face in the darkroom. Your maternal uncle has passed away, she told me. Which one? I have three, I thought. My favourite uncle, who held my mother when she was crying, had passed away at the Delhi airport. The one who’d taught me how to brush my teeth properly. The one who’d tell everyone that I’d become a doctor or an artist. The one who always made me laugh. He was leaving for the much-awaited Europe tour. I believed it to be a joke because there was no evidence that he was dead. I hadn’t seen his body. He had to be alive. But then, I called my father. For the first time, I heard him cry. He cried heavily, and I could imagine him losing his strong exterior like a crow losing its feathers over the dead. Grief! It is like a universe, impossible to understand completely.
My siblings and I entered my uncle’s house, and his body was on the ice. His hands were tied to himself. I stood some feet apart from his body. My aunt just sat there looking at him. My mother kept touching her brother’s face. By the side of my mother was his son. He, too, sat looking at him. His daughter was rushed from Bangalore to Delhi. She was told that he was sick. It makes it easier to travel, everyone thought. I don’t think so. The worry is like crows feeding on the grubs rooted underground in a lawn; it eats you alive from the inside. She left her bag on the road as she saw people outside her home. She knew. One minute her red-checkered shirt was in the air as her hands went to her head from shock, and another minute, she was lying on the floor next to her father crying. Her brother let her cry over the man who’d held my mother when their father had passed away. My cousin, on the floor, touching her father’s cold face, was asking questions her brother didn’t have answers to. How did you let this happen? You told me you were taking care of him. What did you do to him? So, he let her cry and yell and curse. Everyone did.
For me, grief will be for the living first. Then, the dead. I never cry for the one who dies; I cry for the one who’s left behind. I didn’t cry for my uncle. Not before I had cried for everyone else’s loss. His wife. His sister. His children. I cried for him much later. It took me time to realize that he was not coming back. When he used to come to our house, the light in the house reflected positivity. The house became so much more beautiful with his presence until it couldn’t. It was then I realized why my parents told me that the spirits of the deceased looked over us: to provide hope after death. And when we are deep diving into grief, it is hope we cling to.
When he was taken for his cremation, a crow left a feather behind as it chased him. It stays locked inside my shelf even now. I think the crow was telling us all it would come back. To feed. To grieve. And on my twentieth birthday, it came for me.
The first time I saw life coming my way was when I decided not to jump from my balcony. The reason I didn’t jump is because of the peacock. The squawking peacock in the forest in front of my flat interrupted my jump as I stood on the railing ten seconds away from jumping. The first time I came to know that peacocks live in the nearby forest was when my sister and I had just shifted into the flat, they honked loudly, and my parents and I smiled. The peacock’s sound reminded me of my parents and friends. But I wanted to stop existing. Tenth floor. Ten seconds. One jump. Ten seconds. Ten seconds and it’d be over, I thought, standing there after cutting my birthday cake. I could feel the coldness of the iron-wrought bars of the railing. If I could just stand on the other side and let go, it would be over. I didn’t. Because I could imagine my parents drowning in grief like they would fall with me, only they would have to live with the consequences of my decision. I always thought they didn’t love me enough because I focused on the small things. The birthdays and worldly things. But they loved me more. Even today, my father would do anything to see me smiling because I didn’t smile much as a child. Maybe he asked me to stop crying because he wanted me to be happy. The way that affected me is not on him or me. I didn’t jump because I could see my mother crying on the floor, never getting up. Her brother wasn’t here to hold her. I could see my siblings changing, who had a normal life compared to me. They couldn’t have let me go easily, even after my death. I wanted them to stay happy. So, I pulled myself back from the black railing. I breathed in and out. Cried. I had lost a part of me, which I am going to grieve for long. But, at that moment, on the balcony, I didn’t give in to my hollowness.
I didn’t jump.
Because of The Peacock. And the many Crows.
I didn’t jump.
Grief ran through my veins. It is strange how the dead gets this freedom to find peace while the living live without it. We live like the dead. It’s as if our hands are tied, too, like my uncle’s. Yet, somehow, we are still supposed to work with them. Light up the pyre. Give peace to the dead. Light up the hearth every day, and feed people when they come to meet the grieving family. Everybody who goes for the cremation has to come back home and wash their clothes or throw them out. Because of the impurities you carry back home from the dead body and its cremation. As if washing away the clothes or throwing them out, our grief will wash away too. Weren’t the white clothes we wear for the funeral for purity and respect? Everybody who sees the dead body must take a bath after the cremation. It is said that people who attend the funeral are usually in great grief in the presence of a dead body. Once the cremation is over, they have to start with their routine life. Bathing is supposed to help with that. And the tears will stop coming, and everything will go on as if no one’s died. But no matter what we do, grief stays. It becomes difficult to breathe. As if our hands are tied around the neck. Yet, we do all the daily chores as we live with the dead. Because what else do you think about? Sometimes, I wish it’d be so much better if with washing away the impurities, we could wash away memories too. But then again, love and hope, both will lose meaning if we couldn’t feel this pain, this grief. It makes us human. Until slowly, your grief becomes a part of you. Until one day, you wake up, and they’re not the first thing you think about. And your hands release your neck. You breathe.
I keep a peacock feather by the side of the crow feather I saved after my uncle’s death. They’re reminders. The crow feather makes me remember the ugly part of life. Despair. Limbo. Death. The Peacock feather reminds me that I can be strong even in the darkest times. I believe that people who are gone stay. By remaining the same in our minds as they were.
Grief stays. Love stays. It is only time and the dead that passes us by.
Life and death are ineluctable. There’s death after life. There’s life after death. That’s how my baby brother was born. When my grandmother’s life ended. When I look at his long, fair face, I see her. His broad smile matches the smile in her picture—a light in a dark tunnel.
I will go on grieving everyone I lost for most of my life. Most of all, the part I lost of myself.
And The Crow will grieve along with me.
Nupur Gupta is a writer from India with a masters in Creative Writing from Lancaster University, UK. She loves reading psychological thrillers and hoping to write one herself someday. She’s a daydreamer currently trying to manifest her imagination into reality. She is debut writer, currently working towards her dream of becoming an author.