On 21 – 12 – 2007 my husband’s aunt passed away, a plain tribute, in my opinion, will negate all that she represented; it will do an injustice to her spirit that defied structures of all types. Before I write the memoriam I want to make my position clear. I did not know the subject too well, did not have many opportunities to get very close to her. I lived for many years after my marriage outside Chennai and as soon as we returned to Chennai I had been smothered with responsibilities and had to grapple with the grief at the loss of my parents, I had drawn myself into a shell. This writing is not only an emotional response to the passing away of my husband’s aunt (will henceforth be referred as my aunt, and will also refer to my husband’s uncle as my uncle) but is as much an urge to engage in exploring the complexities of human relationships, the motives behind the choices we make and the ironies of life.
My aunt’s biography is difficult to put together as her life followed a trajectory that was unique in many ways. She hailed from Vellore and was married to my father-in-law’s youngest brother who was from Chittoor. Her name was changed as soon as she was married into the family as her husband’s sister had the same name as hers. I had always wondered what it would feel like for a young bride to be called by her husband by a name that is not what she came with. Did it sound for many days as if her husband was calling some other woman?
The couple lived the most part of their married years in Madras. They have a daughter, who is now 47 and is a mother herself of a twenty year old son. My uncle was a professor of English in a college. My aunt started out as a school teacher in the Chinmaya Vidyalaya and later became the headmistress of the same school. At a time when not many of her generation of women from her family went to work, she was a working woman and a successful one to boot. She rode to work on her moped, crisscrossed long distances the streets of Madras on her own not wanting a man to wait on her. She was fiercely independent and very progressive in her thoughts. She pushed the boundaries of her life, always searched for frontiers beyond the immediate. That was what she set out to do when she got involved passionately in the activities of the Chinmaya Mission along with her husband. It was a definitive path that they were laying for themselves, a path where they were to traverse together but contained as independent entities to themselves.
My aunt and uncle learnt Vedanta and Brahma sutras from renowned gurus like Swami Chinmayananda and Swami Dayananda Saraswathi. When I got married and got to know her, she had retired and was actively involved in teaching slokas and the Bhagavad Gita to a group of people, my uncle too had taken to teaching the Vedanta after retirement. It seemed a logical step that they entered Vanaprastha ashrama of sorts after their commitments and responsibilities as parents had been completed and after their retirement from their jobs.
The aunt built a community of students along the years. They stayed with her, became a family during the years that her daughter was busy with her own. My aunt kept herself busy, traveled long distances to teach to her dedicated students. During these years she developed several health problems, she was diagnosed to be diabetic, she had a heart attack, underwent bypass and prior to that angioplasty and the likes. To sum up her health was on a downward slide.
The knowledge of the mortality of her flesh was the test she was forged through, a thorough Vedantin that she was, she watched with amusement the natural course of decay that her body was preparing for. This was the phase when I got to meet her quite a few times and I observed that nothing took the smile from her face; even on occasions that she was breathless she gave her elusive smile. With me she never had anything much to talk, since the time I got married into this family I realized that smiles cemented our relationship.
At about the same time her husband announced that he was going to become a sanyasi. Steeped in Samsara I cannot imagine what it means for a spouse to accept the decision of her partner wanting to become a sanyasi, to renounce life — i.e., marriage, relationships, responsibilities and commitments. Many people in the family found it difficult to accept and understand. Myriad questions crowded our minds – what about his responsibility to his wife whose health was a matter of great concern (her heart condition was having a debilitating effect on her health)? Can’t a person continue to be in samsara and still live a life of deep reflection and understanding?
My aunt seemed to understand and accept his decision; she acted with commendable grace when her husband’s brothers and relative who meant well for her expressed their disapproval of her husband’s decision. Her daughter too seemed to understand the deep understanding that her parents shared that caused such a decision from one and a total acceptance from the other. In fact my aunt sometimes, by her demeanor and detachment appeared more like a sanyasi.
As outsiders we are not privy into the layered relationship between the couple, they remained couple in my opinion even after my uncle took sanyasam. We were looking at them in their new roles, but they were not very different to each other – each seemed to know the yearnings of the spirit that took them on their respective paths. So similar had their pursuits been that any of them would have made a good candidate for Sanyasam, in fact both of them had shifted gears and moved in their own way into the last stage of Varnashrama dharma – one wore the kashayam while the other did not, and that was the only difference.
The greatest blow for all of us was when their only daughter lost her husband suddenly, and she was only 45 and she had a son in his teens. My aunt became an anchor in their lives, this was only natural. What struck me was she became an indulgent parent wanting to recreate the cocoon of blithe, fun of early motherhood unsullied by pains and suffering; the mother and daughter were able to defy time and regress to idyllic moments when they teamed and started traveling and visiting places and meeting people, putting their past behind them.
And then the end came — the brain hemorrhage that suspended my aunt between life and death for almost a week. My uncle saw the end much before us, he wanted us to let her go. The doctors wanted to give her more time before removing her from the life support systems, and the family opined that being an evolved soul, she would know when to leave. I wonder what worked in the subconscious that would have remained alert with the vasanas of the days just before the blackout. There are many ways I have seen people passing away — my mother was surprised into a sudden death, my father chose his way out; I am confused if death is a larger design and am not clear if human will does prevail.
Did my aunt want to hang on longer for the sake of her daughter and her grandson whom she was fond of? I have read about near death experiences of a few people who felt their soul disengage from the body and watch their dear ones helplessly. As her daughter visited her at the insular ICU, did she look on, helpless at the strength of matter that prevailed on her spirit? Like always, did she put up a fight? And what was it for an evolved being like her wanting to hang on instead of slipping away which she would definitely have done on changed circumstances, that is, if it was not necessary to be there for her daughter? Did she not know that someday she would have to let go, and did she procrastinate that day because of her love for her daughter?
The doctors finally gave up hopes as they saw the condition not improve. Her husband (Swamiji) requested the doctors to remove her off the support system the next day, on the Vaikunta Ekaadasi day and let her go away. He left for Pondicherry for a discourse. On Vaikunta Ekaadasi, she was removed off the Ventilator and she was able to breathe on her own for about 24 hours. The next morning she wrapped herself up and slipped away.
As she lay dead, she seemed so alone, despite having her students and her daughter besides her. The Brahmin lead the grandson through the funerary rituals. I heard, among several mantras ‘Kalyani Namnaha, Athreya Gotra’. I was struck by the irony of these words. She had relinquished her name when she was married into this family and she had left behind her parents’ gotram and had taken her husband’s Athreya gotram soon after marriage. Her marriage was for all purpose defunct and her identity after her death was constructed on what was not hers. Knowing her sense of humour, she would have joked at this quirk of irony had she been alive to hear this!