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On Loss & Bombay

June 28, 2015

Loss is deeply personal and singular: the hollow center of this word being profoundly characteristic of its impact. Even when loss is collective, or so it seems, it’s only a compendium of solitary stories of bereavement. Like a plane crash that kills a hundred people. We understand the general nature of grief because we have all lost people we have loved. But the loss suffered by the kin of each of the people killed in the crash – by the nature of it being irreplaceable to only that person – is also distinguishable.

Loss is the distance that cannot be traveled. It continues to exist perennially, even if grief for that loss is ephemeral. Grief is only the emotion derived from the inability to travel that distance. It may change its constitution, fluctuate its intensity, or stay the same forever. The grammar of grief, the patterns it forms in people can be similar, with different permutations. The sense of loss, however, is veritably distinct and permanent. A sense that, at most times, is inexplicable and remains a nagging vacuum at the center of one’s being – the hollow center of the word loss.

I lost the city I had once claimed – Bombay. In reasoning with the idea of loss, I’ve come to believe that death isn’t the only thing that causes it. An unconquerable distance can be of hearts, of places, of ideas – both metaphorically and physically. The loss of having left a city that helped me grow, love, lose, see, despair, rejoice, live, is more than what can be substituted.

I can understand how some people might find this idea flippant – bracketing together of all forms of loss. After all, does one ever really lose a geographical space? Technology has enabled commute of unfathomable volumes and if one has some means, all distances are travel-able. But what if you knew that you would never be back in that city in the way you existed in it; the manner that bonded you to that city in the first place. Would that then change the value of your existence?

A few days ago, I applied a hair serum that I had picked up in Bombay. I had used it several times while I was there, but its scent had never seemed peculiar to me then, or that I even noticed that it had a scent. Now, in New York, as soon as I poured a few drops on my hand, I felt its fragrance unleash in the entire room. I was struck by a momentary paralysis – a reminder of the beloved. That day, as the whiff of that serum flowed through my hair, it occurred to me how vastly distant I was from the way I existed before. The closest reference to this state is what I found in Milan Kundera’s first French novel, Slowness, in which, while assessing the effects of modernity, he writes,“Any new possibility that existence acquires, even the least likely, transforms everything about existence.”

The future, somehow, always looks more unappealing in front of what is lost. The absolute truth of it may be unconditionally deviant, but the presence of loss denies one that foresight. Then there is also the burden of regret; the disappointment of having left things undone. Memory of the one last look at Mithi River, which miraculously looked beautiful from the lens of my apartment’s window; the last reading of Manto, while lazing on the mattress in the amber light of the living room; the last look at the glimmering queen’s necklace; the last gush of wind at the Worli sea-face that would slap my neck by displacing my hair; the last walk on the vacant streets of Colaba, till my feet hurt; the last window seat ride on the local train, taking in the kaleidoscopic city, from the north to south of it. The regret of not being able to etch these stronger on the canvas of my memory has a sustained impact on the way I grieve this loss.

But there is also an agonizing awareness of being dispensable to that whose loss I suffer so gravely. Bombay doesn’t miss me while it bathes in its magical monsoon, or when it suffers its people, when the Bandra Fort hosts Gulzar, or even when it dreams peacefully in the acoustic silence of the night. While it lasted, I felt love being consummately reciprocated. Now that it’s over, and the spiritual channel that conveyed its consciousness to me is wrecked; my love and yearning echoes nothing in return. I’m acutely cognizant of the fact that it’s difficult to hold a grudge against the city when it’s I who abandoned it. Nevertheless, it doesn’t make the heaviness of the loss any lighter.

In the third and last essay of his book, Levels of life, Julian Barnes narrates the uncontainable grief he experiences after his wife’s death. You’d wonder – reading about that pain – if pain can be avoided altogether: by choosing not to love. Nipping at the source, the problem of the future. But in the essay that preludes the last one, Barnes has already laid out why loss can never be a deterrent to love. The quasi-fictional essay illustrates the madness of balloonists of the late 19th century. In the passage that precedes the meeting of English adventurer, Fred Burnaby, and Sarah Bernhardt – who will eventually reject Burnaby’s marriage proposal – Barnes writes:

“Every love story is a potential grief story. If not at first, then later. If not for one, then for the other. Sometimes, for both. So why do we constantly aspire to love? Because love is the meeting point of truth and magic.”

Loss, therefore, isn’t a reason not to love, and neither is it a full stop to the love that’s lost. In my case, loss and love have fused together – the truth and magic. Bombay lives with me as much as it remains distant.

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