“Not expraayad. Expired! Expired!” You say your grandmother expired.”
Expired. She first learned the word at the age of five. Her grandmother had passed away in the Diwali vacation.
“When someone asks you, say Aaji expired.”
It didn’t roll off her tongue easily. Even at the age of five, she knew it sounded wrong. It sounded heavy and it always seemed to evoke a kind of awkward silence from the other person followed by a low mumbling of “I’m sorry”, as though it was indeed their fault for the person not being around anymore.
‘Expired’ had an ominous finality to it. One could argue that there was hardly anything good that one could associate with death. In her mind, she equated expired with doing away, obliterating every sign of the person ever having been there. She mused that it may have been because people use the term interchangeably to refer to humans and medicines alike, when they are past their use before date.
In any case, it was almost as bad as the term her father employed to convey the news of someone’s passing to other people.
“Woh Deshpande! Fourth floor wala? Woh off ho gaya…”
Like the flick of a switch. It might be an apt term, she thought if one were to describe the sudden nature of death. Here today, gone tomorrow. But her father made it sound almost comical, like the person in question had achieved something amazing by simply dropping dead.
It took her several years to realise that she would be comfortable using the phrase ‘passed away’. She grew comfortable with using it much later, in her adult life. But the first time she did use it was when she was eleven; her grandfather had passed away of a cardiac arrest. Her uncle had used the phrase when he called a relative.
“Daddy passed away” he said.
Passed away felt like a transition. Explaining that the person was simply moving on. She always felt like her grandfather had a way of showing up every now and then. She herself emulated him in little ways – the way she ate her fried eggs, the way she signed her name in squiggles like him. Even her temper was like his. Do the people we love ever truly leave us? She believed they had a way of showing up every now and then. In memory.
We are all hoarders, but most of all, we hoard memories. She still had some of his unused perfume bottles stored away. She perused his old Wodehouse collection every now and then. She laughed when someone farted loudly because it reminded her of Daddy’s gas problem. But the happiest memories were the one she wasn’t even part of. She was rather touched by a lady who sent a Happy Diwali card addressed to him every year. It made her a little sad because had he been alive, Daddy would have replied to the letter himself. The lady never wrote her address on the card so it continued for a few years after his death. Finally her parents managed to locate the woman’s number in one if his old phonebooks and called her. Then the cards stopped. There was another letter that would arrive each month. A letter from a bank claiming Daddy owed them interest. She liked it when those odd letters turned up. She liked reading his first name – all the eleven letters of his first name, followed by their last name. She was disappointed when the last of those letters stopped coming. It felt like the last of his presence had been obliterated. Yes, “passed away” probably softened the blow. But it could not adequately sum up her feelings. Perhaps there were other ways to describe what death meant for the dead person moving on. To describe what those left behind felt like, however, there was just one word that she could think of – void.