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Dead and Living

by Pritika Datta
(Delhi, India)

The Burial of the Dead/The Agony of the Living

APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain...

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow

Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,

You cannot say, or guess, for you know only

A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,

And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,

And the dry stone no sound of water. Only

There is shadow under this red rock,

(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),

And I will show you something different from either

Your shadow at morning striding behind you

Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;

I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

My first acquaintance with The Wasteland was in class 10 (or 10th grade as the pish posh call it). I was told that seven languages flowed seamlessly within it, and its complexity was much too great for a girl who was only good at scoring marks in examinations that are symptomatic of a broken system. Fair point, but a girl drowning in self-doubt and naivete stared wide eyed as a boy two years her senior (the craftsman behind that sentence of a savant) seemed to be Daedalus, knowing every corner of the labyrinth, the ostensible maker of the maze, while she quickly became the Minotaur in this pained metaphor: clod-hopping and maladroit, bumbling and befuddled, every step of the way.

Did she find her way out?
Perhaps, I’d wager so.
The grief?
Great for a pity party, but that’s about it.

Question to any and all Lit majors who may chance upon this with a pinched nose: is the cost of truly grasping the bones of poetry, an experience of grief that you feel in your bones? Cost is perhaps too tainted a word, but less-than-ideal words and less-than-formed emotions are all I seem to have at this point, and I am hoping that someday that will be enough. However, I digress:

APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire,

My father died/passed away/left us on 22nd April, 2018 (the first of the three is a little crude, I’ve been gently told). Would this poem mean less to me if May was deemed the cruellest month? The Gregorian calendar dictates it was three of a strange unit called ‘years’ ago. It was sudden and painless, and by the time I got to the pallid walls of a hospital on the other side of the country, the post mortem was done and his head full of hair as black as sable was gone. My uncle asked me to say goodbye to him, and left me alone with him in the morgue. Say goodbye to whom? A mix of memory and desire, my idea of Baba? I said goodbye, awkwardly touched his cold feet in a
warped sign of reverence, what do you expect a hungover 21 year old whose father died to do? (it was my college farewell that night, I replied to his last message saying I loved him two hours and twenty seven minutes after his time of death) Then I proceeded to quietly watch more heart-wrenching and ostensibly more authentic expressions of grief around me, the earth-shattering sobs, the wailing I can hear in my nightmares, the opposite kind of grief that I could not muster.

I have tried growing cursed lilacs on the dead land of my father’s memory: I’ve realised I can’t, at least not yet. It is not a redolent flower bed where the memories are of joy. I can’t even talk about it without borrowing from Tolstoy or Whitman or Dickinson’s vocabulary. The lilacs wilt, the skeletons in my closet smirk: it’s 3am and I have nowhere to run, and yet I still try: clod-hopping and maladroit, bumbling and befuddled, every step of the way. .

Did he feel loved in his life?
Did he take to the bottle because he was unhappy or because the bottle made him happy? Is there a difference between the two?

Did he feel the crippling imposter syndrome I feel even among the closest of friends?

Did he know that I’d have no roots to anchor me in the stony rubbish after he “left us”?

Stony rubbish. Not particularly eloquent, is it? Neither are we when the heap of broken images that are more jagged shards of glass, cutting the mere surface, but ominously threatening a deeper plunge into fragile skin (had to indulge in at least one cliche). Forget Caesar’s ambition, I should be made of sterner stuff (the word borrowing returns). And so I recede into the shadow under this red rock from the comfort of his waning (waned) shadow. Now I speak of him in the past tense, in words drenched much too generously in nostalgia while I play to the galleries, while those around me equate him to god. For the love of God, he isn’t God. He wasn’t God. I clench my teeth as my fingers tremble. Moving on… or not moving on.

I will show you fear in a handful of dust. Interesting party trick. I can see fear in the derelict family albums he painstakingly filled with his own hands, spelling errors and dad jokes in all their glory, and I can see fear in the god-for-saken mirror, with a fetching jawline in tow.

Of course Tolstoy would have had more transcendental/ highbrow/ philosophically sophisticated ideas in mind when he called this section of The Wasteland ‘The Burial of the Dead’. Seems more like ‘The Agony of the Living’. Is there a difference? The latter begins once the former ends? There’s another maze I navigate: clod-hopping and maladroit, bumbling and befuddled, every step of the way.

Did I find my way out?

Far from it, the horizon is closer at this point.

The grief?


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Aug 17, 2021
by: Gayathri Devi Dutt:

Dealing with Death is often diverting to obsequies. Limiting the task to a simple ritual of touching feet of the dead and expressing the emotional flow in such a way that agony and grief gets getting expressed the way it is experienced and how one's reading develops this cognitive ability is an amazing! Wow

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