The Inheritance of Loss: Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi probes the contours of grief through a collection of essays

In Loss (HarperCollins), Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi examines how the deaths of his father, mother and his beloved Dachshund have re-shaped his life.

Mallik Thatipalli November 29, 2020 08:36:23 IST
The Inheritance of Loss: Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi probes the contours of grief through a collection of essays

Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi's new anthology of essays is an honest account of grief. Photo by Shekhar Karambelkar

“Everything in life is only prep for death,” notes Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi in his new book, Loss (HarperCollins). The anthology of essays narrates how the deaths of his father, mother and his beloved Dachshund have re-shaped his life. In his trademark elegiac prose, the author shares stories of his parents and pet, and through them, the story of his own litany of losses.

The book also features the luminous images Shanghvi clicked of his father’s last days. A personal and moving account of the cruelty and kindness of life, Loss tugs a chord, due to its honest account of grief. In a conversation with Firstpost, Shanghvi opens up on dealing with the wounds and gifts relationships leave us with.

This book is deeply personal. You share intimate details of the lives and deaths of your loved ones…What was the trigger for this?

In 2018, I wrote an essay on losing my father. When I read it, I felt there was so much that I had failed to appreciate about him when he had been alive — his generosity, his integrity. Likewise, when I wrote about my mother, I saw her as she had been — brave, funny, kind. What began as a book about my most meaningful losses grew into an appreciation of the lives I had been lucky enough to know at all — that includes Bruschetta, my Dachshund.

In India death is defined by ritual — the chautha, the puja. Denied a chance to process what we have lost, the death lingers on as something unresolved or only half-seen. I was keen to make a community book — something a reader might find reassuring, a place where she might feel heard or seen.

I felt that fact and fiction merged while reading this. When you say, ‘I am neither old nor young’, these were the words uttered by Shoka in your debut, The Last Song of Dusk. The death of your brother Utpal is in a similar manner to Mohan from that very book. In The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay, you say that ‘grudges are a waste of time’ while in Loss, you say that your grudges do not matter… Is all life an inspiration for work?

It can be. But there is something tedious or uninspiring in reading about the author’s life. I was conscious of this risk as I wrote Loss — was I drawing attention to myself or did I seem whiney? The challenge was to take life material and make it purposeful for another person. What service will this book pay a reader’s imagination or her grief?

If you read all of JD Salinger, you get a sense his characters repeat. It’s as if the universe gives each writer a little clay to make something, then whack it back to clay, casting and recasting a familiar thing until only its light remains. So yes, to answer your original question, fact and fiction do merge, but the more vital inquiry is what you do with this mix.

You had said earlier that The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay will be your last novel. You have written a novella and now an anthology of essays; do you see a return to fiction? Is there a line that demarcates fiction from non-fiction in your mind, making the latter a tad easier to share?

I was defeated by the idea that ‘no one reads books’ or that ‘print is dead’. I had been wrong. Fewer people read now but that’s irrelevant: a reader is such an honourable person to serve. I make no distinction between fiction and non-fiction: the task of any book is to move you ahead of language.

How much have you been shaped by these losses and absences, of parents and a pet? 

I am amazed at the defeats I had been served, and also amazed for how undefeated I remain. Loving them made a writer out of me. What a gift they gave me even in their death.

I found it interesting that your father is always referred as father, your mother oscillates between my mother and Padmini…Why is that?

My sisters and I often called our mother by her name. At some point, she was so much larger than life thanks to her dramatic, powerful suffering. She was Padmini — we were recognising she was more than just our mother, and her wholeness was impressive.

Grief and loss are calling cards which come to everyone. How does one live and co-exist with them?

By asking how they might have transformed you. By considering the role of the deceased in your life, what they cooked for you, how they knew your favorite song. All that information about another life — it's staggering, and blindingly beautiful. Really, there is no one way to live with grief. Some recover in days, others live with the wound forever. Grief is private business. The reasonable thing to do when someone is mourning is to let them know that you see their suffering. You cannot always help them, but you can see them.

You mention how much your mother suffered over the years and the brutal pain she underwent for decades. How your father beat cancer and death came to him peacefully. How do you reconcile with the fact that two ends can be so dramatically different?

I don’t reconcile them — I can’t. It’s the stuff of literature. Two characters in one book, one has a clean, cool death, the other goes screaming into the night. What in their fate hurled them into such disparate ends? A good question at the onset of a book.

Did the writing of this book change you? If yes, how?

It made my writing leaner, considered. I learned to link contrasting ideas. I began to       mine the scholarship of other minds. I discovered I like to write small books, without much decoration.

The Inheritance of Loss Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi probes the contours of grief through a collection of essays

Two lines that stayed with me were when you say, What shall we do with the love we have for the deceased? Who, now, shall be recipients of the gifts of our hearts?  Do we also mourn the fact that when we lose someone, we lose a bit of ourselves to?

Absolutely. There is a specific role you play for someone — a son or a friend or a lover — and when that person dies, they take some key part of your essential identity. Who will understand your zany humor? Who will you ring at 2 am after a bad date? It isn’t just a physical death; it is the private cosmology you shared with that person that goes away forever. You’re left with so many things, love, resentment, anger, gratitude. Bereavement is an assessment of what to do with these feelings and memories, where to put them to use or how to set them aside.

The pandemic has made us live with everyday death and realise that the extent of our mortality is down to how we react to a virus…has it made us value what we have and how we live?

This conversation about what the pandemic has taught us is a demonstration of privilege. We can now say that ‘we enjoy our own company’ or that we ‘don’t need much to get by.’ In effect, we are only recognising how reliant we had become on the rituals of life instead of its meaning. I am also guilty of this sort of intellectual laziness.

Even our mourning is an act of privilege — that we have been allowed to, that we make the time to assess our ruin.

I am deeply moved by the photo of Rampukar Pandit, the worker trying to get home during the pandemic to see his ailing son, only to be told along the way that his son had died. So, he sits down on the roads and he begins to weep — as a photo, it is an equal of Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’. I am interested in Pandit’s pain. I wonder what he’ll do with his grief. My life allowed me to write a book about the people I lost. But what about the hundreds of thousands of Indians who died in the hospital, without their loved ones by their side? Next year, after the dust settles, we’re going to craft a new vocabulary for this pain.

 About the loss of your Dachshund, Bruschetta, you mention how you ignored her before she passed away — ‘I had betrayed her last wishes. I had failed our friendship’. Do we blame ourselves after a loss, to process grief or so that we come to terms with it?

When I was 20, a neighbour I loved, Vasavi Modi, asked me to make her chocolate mousse. I never got around to doing it and a few months later she fell sick and died. I never forgave myself. As a child she had made the best lachko daal and rotli for me — and I had gone on to fail her. I still regret this. But you must be careful that you don’t let guilt stand in for how you remember someone for who they were, and for why their joys have shaped you.

 What gifts from these three relationships do you hoard today? 

Their presence. I miss my father’s hand rubbing Vicks balm on my chest when I had a cold. I miss my mother’s singing voice. Bruschetta sat up on a chair and made excited circles with her paws, what a goofball. I am grateful I served them because if I am content now, it is also because that part of my life work is properly wound up.

It is always the small reminders that remind us of people who lived and left traces. For example, you speak lovingly of the Kadam trees your father planted, what is your reaction when you see them today? 

The trees unto themselves are magnificent, full of muscular strength, cardinal presence. I imagine my father collecting saplings from a municipal nursery and planting them — after all these years, the trees he planted bloom for us, his children. They serve as his gravestone — something to remember him by.

Your advice to those coping with the loss of a loved one?

I loathe advice. Here are some things that have helped me: the idea of serving in a community, so I volunteer at an animal shelter ( I have come to think of death as an event of pause between two people. Mourning is a way of recognising your love. Healing is not mandatory. Grief is a continuum. You are no less beautiful because you are broken.

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