It was early 1993. I have a near-perfect memory of it. It was after my grandmother passed away in December 1992. India had seen one of its worst disturbances in December 1992 in the aftermath of riots. The day my grandmother passed away was also the day when I heard my father narrate another tragic incident. When they arrived at the crematorium to cremate the mortal remains of my grandmother, there was also another gentleman. A gentleman who had brought with him the corpse of his son. Alone.
It is a great tragedy for fathers to bid a final farewell to their children. I feel it is a burden too big to bear. Upon that, when you have to bear it all alone, I cannot fathom the pain the man must have been in. I try to make sense of how that man must have felt; or, did the shock rid him from feeling anything at all? It must have felt like sinking into the deepest depths of the ocean, with arms tied behind the back and heavy weights tied to the feet. It is almost improbable to make it back to the surface. This narrative is seared in my memory as it so happens with the most trying times that one comes across. They scar a person for life. The wound heals, but the memory lingers on.
I was 8 years old then. With the death of my grandmother, I was grappling with a few questions of my own. It was the first time I was old enough to experience and see the death of a family member.
Why does tragedy exist in the world?
If the endpoint of life itself is death, why exist in the first place?
The questions would overwhelm me. Variations of these questions plague me even now. I’m still searching for answers.
With these memories and questions fresh in my mind, I was about to witness something else that would have an impact on me for the rest of my life. It had something to do with death too. And, also with life. Because one cannot exist without the other.
It was an unsaid rule at home that dinner would be had at 8:30 PM, and we would watch the news bulletin while having dinner. It was a 30-minute bulletin. The thirty minutes would mark the end of the news bulletin and also, dinner. For those 30 minutes, the only sound at home was of the newscaster reading the news and the sound of gnawing or drinking a glass of water.
I would wonder how the households of the newscaster would work. Would they be watching the news and eating dinner too without a family member? Wouldn’t it be awkward that they saw one of their family members on television while the rest of them were eating dinner? When would the newsreader have their dinner? What news would they watch while having dinner?
We were so accustomed to hearing the bulletin, that on days when there was a power disruption, something used to be amiss. I couldn’t put the finger on it at that time, but now I realise that it was the power of conditioning that had done us all in. Same goes for social media and news today too, but on a much larger scale.
The news bulletin used to run in two equal sections with a short break. The short break would feature advertisements – to persuade children to force their parents into buying stuff that no one needed. But once, just this once, they aired a clip about an organisation called ‘The Hunger Project’. The organisation worked across the world to eradicate hunger among children. The advertisement showcased untold suffering of children – without food, and drinking water. It was the first time I was exposed to the extreme suffering of children. They looked emaciated. Their ribs were fighting to free themselves from the skin. Their eyes staring into a void – lost. Childhood lost. Why this tragedy? Why an unequal world? What I then saw overwhelmed me, moved me to tears. It tugged at my heart.
Some of these children were the same age as my younger brother of 6 years. It was hard to believe someone of his age was going to die due to lack of food. I wanted to do something to reduce their misery. The impact on me was powerful because I was eating when I saw this footage. Deep down, I wanted to reach out and feed a few morsels to the child on the screen. That meal in front of me was a blessing.
I noted down the address and phone number of the organisation that was shown at the end of the footage. The next day I hesitantly told my parents that I wanted to contribute towards the project. Pocket money was a luxury during those days. A middle-class family had to prioritise needs; not wants. I had saved 50 Rupees, and I wanted to give it all to this cause. My parents were gracious enough to pay for postage as we had to send this as money order and it would entail extra cost. A few days later, I received a letter from the Hunger Project thanking me for my contribution. I felt overjoyed seeing this.
Fast forward to two and a half decades.
Weddings are huge in India. And at the end of this celebration is a feast celebrating the Union not of two people, but of two dynasties. Every time I sit down to have a meal, I see many people have extra servings of everything that is on offer. Then they leave a lot of stuff remaining on the plate at the end. Meanwhile, I’m constantly reminding my daughter to only accept that which she wants to eat. That she should not waste food. Every time we visit a restaurant, we order less so we don’t have to waste food. Or if there is an excess, we get it packed as a takeaway. Every time I was full during lunch, I’d bring my leftover meal back home and have it in the evening instead of a snack.
I could not waste food. I would not waste food. There was someone who was going hungry, and I had absolutely no right to waste food. Wasting food meant I was stealing someone else’s right to it.
I learned another lesson that day – to respect food. Every meal is a privilege. It isn’t something that one can take for granted. And so, I’ve never complained about a meal. I can count with the fingers of my hand, the number of times I’ve wasted food in the ensuing 27 years.
I realised that one advertisement, that one shot of a hungry child on the screen had left a lasting impact on me. It would remain with me for the rest of my life. We moved over half a dozen homes since I saw the advertisement. Somewhere along, I lost the letter, but not the lessons.
These were the only lessons I learnt watching the news.
Otherwise, news is mostly nuisance.