In the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, loss has been part of the lives of millions. In “How we remember them”, we reflect on how we process that loss and the things – both tangible and intangible – that remind us of those we have lost.
For years, Dr Prabha Kangle had the same morning routine. After breakfast, she would fill a small vessel with water and slowly cross the length and breadth of her apartment in central Mumbai, making her way from one balcony to the other, watering plants in the two gardens she had lovingly cultivated. She went back and forth several times, refilling the vessel. Any help offered by family members was firmly rejected. The activity also doubled as a morning walk for the 92-year-old.
Since she died a year ago, her niece Vaibhavi Bhagwat has taken over the responsibility of caring for her gardens. Keeping the plants thriving is a way of keeping her beloved aunt alive. “When I water them, I feel that Prabha Maushi is looking at those plants through my eyes. I don’t know why that weird thought comes to me, but it happens every single morning without fail,” Vaibhavi says.
Maushi is the Marathi word for mother’s sister. For Vaibhavi, whose parents died young, Prabha Maushi was everything. Unmarried and without children, she was the person who would anchor Vaibhavi and provide her with the wings she needed to fly. But Vaibhavi’s world unravelled a year ago when her aunt died alone in an isolation ward in a Mumbai hospital. Like tens of thousands of others in India, she succumbed to coronavirus during the brutal second wave that swallowed the country.
From education to marriage to career, Prabha Maushi guided Vaibhavi through all her milestones, big and small. Vaibhavi, trained as a biochemist, married Sudesh, a physicist, whose work took him all over the world. Children came along and the family followed Sudesh everywhere.
In 2017, when her husband got a posting to Kabul and their older son Rudram was in class 10, the family decided they needed to rethink this nomadic life. It did not take long to decide where Vaibhavi and the boys would live.
By this time, Prabha Maushi had stopped working. “We looked forward to the move, but I think she had a tough time adjusting. After having lived alone for close to 60 years, she had to get used to a family, two young boys fighting, throwing their clothes here and there,” recalls Vaibhavi. But if Prabha Maushi was uncomfortable, she did not show it.
When I wrote to Vaibahvi asking if she would be willing to share the many ways in which she remembered her aunt, she replied right away. “I am thinking about where to begin as she touched each thread of the fabric which my family has been woven into.” Every member of the family had something to share about her, she promised, and the family delivered.
Over Zoom, for a few hours, a couple of weeks before her first death anniversary in April, the Bhagwats constructed a tapestry of memories and remembrance, a homage to her physical and emotional omnipresence in their lives. What emerged was a portrait of a woman who endures in the house and the lives she left behind.
“What I miss most about her is that she actually left me alone,” says Rudram, 20, whose adolescence is behind him, but introversion is not. “I am the biggest introvert I know, and Prabha Maushi understood and just let me be.” It is true, his mother chimes in. Whenever she raised concerns about her son curling up into himself rather than extending himself towards others, her aunt would tell her to relax.
Rudram’s brother, 13-year-old Malhaar, is the complete opposite. Vivacious and talkative, he does not sit still and seems like he has much to say. But ask him what he misses the most about Prabha Maushi and he whispers in his mother’s ear. Finally, he looks into the screen and says “rava laddoos”, the Maharashtrian sweet made with semolina. Prabha Maushi was not a great cook, they all agree, but nobody could compete with the few dishes she did master. “Muramba, too,” he adds, referring to the sweet fruit preserve.
Malhaar’s father’s face lights up at the mention of food. She also made a delectable mango pickle, we learn, and taro chips. None of these items has touched their palettes since Prabha Maushi died, even though the memory of the taste seems to fill them with a Proustian longing.
In a sense, Prabha Maushi was a slight, diminutive figure. She was also a force to be reckoned with. At a young age, she decided not to marry and to focus on her career, an uncommon choice for someone coming of age in a newly independent India. Born and raised in Mumbai, she went on to teach anaesthesiology at the Jawaharlal Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education & Research in Pondicherry, in southern India, and is credited with having mentored generations of doctors and surgeons. Many years later, seeing Vaibhavi tied down by domestic responsibilities, her career having taken a backseat, her aunt would joke that she was glad she never married. She encouraged Vaibhavi to forge a new path ahead – “never lose focus of your career”, she said. After her sons were old enough, Vaibhavi studied special education and is now teaching at a school in Mumbai.
A few years ago, at the age of 88, a delay of 15 seconds while making a decision made Prabha Maushi re-evaluate her own capacity to continue to work. “How do 15 seconds matter?” Sudesh had asked her. “They matter a great deal in surgery. They could cost a life,” she had answered.
In the professional world, she was a formidable woman. At home, she was simply Prabha Maushi, devoted to her family without meddling in their day-to-day lives. After she stopped working, she did not sit still. She learned to work the laptop, tried her hand at online trading, and even made some money doing it. When the pandemic came, she got herself a smartphone. Sometimes, hours would pass before she noticed it had not rung and one of her family members would point out that it was because it was on airplane mode.
Newspapers, yoga and coffee
Loss transmutes what were once workaday habits, routines and rituals into golden, glittery things that you long to touch. But they remain palpably out of reach, except in memories that have a way of surging with the force of tides. And so, it is impossible for Sudesh to enter the house without conjuring up the image of his aunt-in-law, plonked on the sofa or bed surrounded by newspapers. “She was always there, sitting with a newspaper. Either reading it or fallen asleep with the paper still on her.”
Over the years, Prabha Maushi and Sudesh became friends. They discussed physics, medicine, languages, politics and Afghanistan. A voracious reader, no topic was out of her range or depth.
Sometimes, in the mornings, when Sudesh woke up, he would catch her doing yoga. “Even as early as 3.30am. I would go to the door and ask her why she was up at that time. She would say she wasn’t getting sleep,” he recalls. Instead of wasting more time in bed, she preferred to get up and get started with her day, a sight he sorely misses.
And then there was the coffee ritual. When they first moved to Prabha Maushi’s home and Vaibhavi returned from work one day, her aunt asked if she wanted coffee. “It felt so good that someone at home was offering me a cup of coffee. That became a daily habit.” Every evening, she and Sudesh would sit at the dining table, while Prabha Maushi made them coffee. Then they would all chat. The ritual continues without her, but not a day goes by without them wishing she was around.
‘What would Prabha Maushi have said?’
Just after the pandemic began, Prabha Maushi was diagnosed with tuberculosis. This dented her health a little, but not her zest. She, like many others in the early weeks of lockdown, was afflicted by a restlessness she could not resist. Impossible to be contained at home, she looked for excuses to step out.
Sudesh once told her that police vans were driving around the neighbourhood to make sure no senior citizen was outside without a reason. “What if a policeman catches you?” he asked. “I will say I am 55 years old,” she replied.
She carried herself as though her entire life was fanning out before her. She was all set to start a counselling course; she wanted to work with cancer patients.
Counting on her for medical advice was always a given. Both Rudram and Malhaar were born with complications, and Prabha Maushi had nursed them back to health, circling around the newborns like a bird hovering over its nestlings. About two years ago, when Sudesh was down from an asthma attack, Prabha Maushi, at the age of 90, sat with him for four hours, pressing his arms, watching over him.
Without her, the family flounder. “What would Prabha Maushi have said?” is the question they find themselves asking when faced with a conundrum. A few months after she died, Malhaar suffered major fractures to his arm, for which he had to undergo surgeries. Prabha Maushi’s voice of calm and reason would have been ideal; in its absence, they trusted what they knew of her, based on lifelong memories. Through the fog of confusion and stress, the answers came clearly. “She would have said, given the COVID conditions, it would be helpful to get him admitted to a hospital closer to home than to a speciality hospital far away.”
A doctor and no stranger to death, Prabha Maushi had made her after-life wishes clear to her family, long before the end came: no rituals. Donate her body for medical research. Have a party after she dies.
“But you know, at a party there will also be alcohol. Would that be alright?” Sudesh had teasingly asked. “Enjoy however you want,” she had replied.
None of her wishes came to pass. Her coronavirus-infected body could not be donated, her family could not attend her funeral – they too had tested positive and were in home quarantine – let alone throw a party in her name. They remedied that on her first death anniversary by visiting a shelter for street children and celebrating her life with ice cream.
Gardens in bloom
Every now and then, a gardener arrived at Prabha Maushi’s door to take care of the laborious aspects of gardening, like changing the soil, weeding, manure. When the pandemic hit, his visits dwindled. Although she continued to water her plants religiously, nothing else was being done for their maintenance and the plants took a beating.
After she passed away, an infestation took over one of the plants and Vaibhavi was riddled with anxiety. “I cannot lose this plant,” she told herself. “Prabha Maushi planted it.”
The gardener came to the rescue. He reassured her that there was no cause for worry, that she had been overwatering. Within weeks, it showed happy signs of life. Now the bougainvillaea, sontakka (white ginger lily), and the hibiscus are in full bloom. The two gardens are flourishing. “It makes me happy because I know it would have made Prabha Maushi happy.”