Saturday, October 18, 2008

Grief, Untranslated

Today Adeet and I traveled to Shirpur, a village 400 kilometers from Bombay. We came to see Walmik, a driver for Adeet’s grandparents, who is more family member than employee. Although Walmik doesn’t speak English and my Marathi is rudimentary, we found ways to communicate during my first trip to India. Adeet and I had both looked forward to seeing him again, but shortly before leaving New York we learned that his wife, Vandana, had died unexpectedly. Walmik left Bombay for Shirpur, where his wife and children lived while he worked in the city.

When we saw Walmik, he was sitting cross-legged on a mat in the entrance to his home. His young teenaged son leaned into him. They had both shaved off their hair in mourning and this made their eyes look wide, allowing more room for the grief that welled up there. His two daughters watched us silently from the doorway.

I hugged Walmik but said nothing. I realized then that I know only positive words in Marathi. I can tell people how happy I am, exclaim over their beautiful homes and delicious food, compliment their children, and assure them that I love India. But I have no vocabulary for sorrow.

My parents had traveled to India in 2007 and quickly learned to rely on Walmik’s expert navigation skills and calm, confident demeanor. They had met Vandana at my Indian wedding, and when I told them about her death, they asked me to give Walmik their sympathy. What could I say?

I asked Adeet to write in phonetic Marathi, “My mother and father are thinking of you.” I practiced until I could say it from memory, but I kept the folded piece of paper with me for reassurance. We spent more time with Walmik later in the evening, and I said my line, nervous that it would lose all meaning when it left my mouth. Somehow he understood me.

I wanted to tell him, too, how happy I’d been to meet his wife at my wedding. How she immediately embraced me, and how youthful and beautiful she looked in her sari as we posed together for a photograph. Instead, I strung together all of my Marathi words with occasional English conjunctions to make small talk.

Then I stood next to him, quietly. It occurred to me that I struggle to express grief even in languages that I speak fluently. All I can ever say is, “I’m thinking of you.” Even if I were to suddenly become fluent in Marathi, I would remain inarticulate.

Walmik, I’m thinking of you. I wish I could say more.


sandhya said...

Sometimes a look or the mere act of being with a person who has experienced a loss speaks more than a thousand words. Then, no translations are necessary.

Thanks for sharing this touching experience.

Kate Deshmukh said...

Thank you, Sandhya.

My friend Azra just published this review of a new biography on Emily Post. Her recollections on the need for etiquette during mourning are very moving: