Living with loss

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In his new book ‘Loss’ an anthology of essays dwelling on the memories of his late parents and pet Dachshund, Siddharth Shanghvi examines the question – what does it mean to lose someone dear to you? The author in conversation with NT BUZZ

CHRISTINE MACHADO | NT BUZZ

Q. What prompted you to pen this book?

HarperCollins India was to publish a book of my essays – previously published work. While collating these works I thought that this was a lazy thing – it felt too easy. But in this collection was an essay on losing my father, and it had an original sorrow. So I asked myself: What does it mean to lose someone? Of course, people die, or loved ones leave us – but what is the meaning of this event, and how do we hold it in balance over time? This inquiry was the starting point for ‘Loss’.

Q. Writing about someone you have loved and lost is never easy. You feel like nothing you write does full justice to who they were. How difficult was it for you?

If it wasn’t difficult, I wouldn’t write it. More than emotional, there were technical challenges – how do you write about death without making it sentimental? How do you remember and how much can you trust in your memory? But eventually, writing became a way to keep them alive, and the book a personal cenotaph.

Q. In this book, you examine your losses with a ‘surgical detachment’. But how does one do that when writing about someone they have loved?

Because you can remember – which is a private act – with the havoc of love and its attachments but when you write it must be with clarity, purpose, and detachment. Here is where a writer’s training comes in – how to set down the facts of your life cleanly, with a view to observe, whittling down all excess until only the essential remains. Also, this surgical detachment happens with time – you see people as they have been. Even with the ones who have hurt us, forgiveness comes to replace resentment. And if it is not forgiveness, it is a personal concession that if you are angry with someone even after their death then you will remain angry until the day you die. They are already free. What are you going to do to become free?

Q. After you lost your father, you admit that you felt a cold relief because at least his suffering had ended. But there is a guilt that comes from feeling that relief too. How did you deal with these conflicting emotions?

If there had been guilt for my relief at the end of his pain, this led to a deeper question at the time of writing ‘Loss’: How did I want to meet my end? Because my father had had access to the best medical care to extend his life after brain cancer in his seventies, I was cognizant that extending life is not always useful, or pertinent. Why are you extending life when it might have come to its full and natural circle? This is a question I can answer only for myself – only I have the right to decide for myself, and not for anyone else. And yet, it was my father’s death that led me to ask this question – to think more clearly and honestly about my own end.

Q. People always talk about how time heals. But while we may pull ourselves together and continue with our lives, that pain has a way of reappearing. What are your thoughts on this?

The pain never goes away. The deafening band of grief plays on, but the volume dials down, one of the gifts of time; or you earn peace after having suffered for it. What we mean by healing is how have we come to learn to live with the loss after accepting that it is not going anywhere? It is not that we forget the death of a loved one; we remember their life without the defeating sorrow of
recollection. 

Q. In your book, you talk about how it is important to show up when someone’s loved one passes away. Yet, as a person is dealing with their grief, they may not always register who is there and sometimes they may just want some space. Could it be then that perhaps, showing up depends on how close you are to the person?

Of course, but the person I had referred to in ‘Loss’ was someone I collaborated with in Goa, we had been friends for years; this was not some social acquaintance
from whom I held no expectation of condolence whatsoever. When this woman sent me a condolence over WhatsApp at the time of my father’s passing I was not angry with her; I simply ceased to think of her as a person. A death reveals the role of the living in our lives and allows you to ascertain where you want them after you’ve seen them clearly.

Q. Was putting the photographs in the book something that you decided right from the start?

I shot the photographs from 2008-2011, they were the first draft of this book, a way of seeing and remembering. The essays stand on the scaffolding of the pictures, I always thought of including them in ‘Loss’, as a work unto itself.

Q. ‘To write is to help someone else erase some part of their pain’, you rightly say in your book. Would you say that based on your readers’ response to your work, you have managed to do this? What are some insights on loss that they shared with you that touched you?

‘Loss’ introduced me to some extraordinary people with heartbreaking pasts. One reader said to me that she wasn’t sure if writing the book had helped me mend but reading it had helped her heal. What more can a writer ask for? A woman wrote to me to tell me about the death of her teenage son from suicide, and that she had never overcome this loss – this is also an insight, that sometimes the pain simply refuses to go away. Ultimately, it becomes your life work: how will you learn to live with your pain?