In the last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, loss has been a part of life for millions. In “How We Remember Them,” we reflect on how we process that loss and the things, both tangible and intangible, that remind us of those we’ve lost.
For years, Dr. Prabha Kangle had the same morning routine. After breakfast, she would fill a small container with water and walk slowly up and down her apartment in central Mumbai, making her way from one balcony to another, watering the plants in the two gardens she had carefully cultivated. love. She went back and forth several times, filling the container. Any help offered by family members was flatly rejected. The activity also doubled as a morning walk for the 92-year-old.
Since he died a year ago, his niece Vaibhavi Bhagwat has taken on the responsibility of tending his gardens. Keeping the plants thriving is one way to keep her beloved aunt alive. “When I water them, I feel like Prabha Maushi is looking at those plants through my eyes. I don’t know why that strange thought comes to me, but it happens every morning without fail,” says Vaibhavi.
Maushi is the Marathi word for mother’s sister. For Vaibhavi, whose parents died young, Prabha Maushi was everything. Single and childless, she was the person who would anchor Vaibhavi and provide him with the wings he needed to fly. But Vaibhavi’s world came crashing down a year ago when her aunt died alone in an isolation ward at a Mumbai hospital. Like tens of thousands of others in India, she succumbed to the coronavirus during the brutal second wave that engulfed the country.
From education to marriage to career, Prabha Maushi guided Vaibhavi through all of his milestones, big and small. Vaibhavi, trained as a biochemist, married Sudesh, a physicist, whose work took him around the world. Children arrived and the family followed Sudesh everywhere.
In 2017, when her husband got a job in Kabul and their eldest son Rudram was in class 10, the family decided they needed to rethink this nomadic life. It didn’t take long to decide where Vaibhavi and the children would live.
At that time, Prabha Maushi had stopped working. “We were looking forward to the move, but I think it took a lot for him to adjust. Having lived alone for almost 60 years, she had to get used to a family, two little boys fighting, throwing clothes here and there,” Vaibhavi recalls. But if Ella Prabha Maushi was uncomfortable, she didn’t show it.
When I wrote to Vaibahvi asking if she would be willing to share the many ways she remembered her aunt, she responded immediately. “I’m thinking where to start as she touched every thread of the fabric my family has been woven into.” Every member of the family had something to share about her, she promised, and the family delivered.
Over Zoom, for a few hours a couple of weeks before his first death anniversary in April, the Bhagwats built a tapestry of memories and memories, a tribute to his physical and emotional omnipresence in their lives. What emerged was a portrait of a woman who lives on in the house and the lives she left behind.
“The thing I miss most about her is that she actually left me alone,” says Rudram, 20, whose adolescence is behind her, but not the introversion. “I am the biggest introvert I know, and Prabha Maushi understood that and let me be.” It’s true, his mother intervenes. Every time she expressed concern that her son was curling up into himself instead of reaching out to others, her aunt told her to relax.
Rudram’s brother Malhaar, 13, is the complete opposite. Vivacious and talkative, he doesn’t sit still and it seems like he has a lot to say. But he asks her what she misses most about Prabha Maushi and she whispers in his mother’s ear. Finally, he looks at the screen and says “rava laddoos”, the South Indian sweet made from semolina. Prabha Maushi was not a great cook, everyone agrees, but no one could compete with the few dishes she mastered. “Muramba, too,” she adds, referring to the sweet fruit preserve.
Malhaar’s father’s face lights up at the mention of food. He also made a delicious mango pickle, we learn, and taro chips. None of these items have touched his palette since Prabha Maushi died, though the memory of the taste seems to fill them with a Proustian longing.
In a sense, Prabha Maushi was a slim and tiny figure. She was also a force to be reckoned with. At a young age, she decided not to marry and concentrate on her career, a rare choice for someone coming of age in a newly independent India. Born and raised in Mumbai, she went on to teach anesthesiology at the Jawaharlal Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education and Research in Pondicherry, South India, and is credited with mentoring generations of physicians and surgeons. Many years later, seeing Vaibhavi tied down by domestic responsibilities, her career having taken a backseat, her aunt joked that she was glad she had never married. She encouraged Vaibhavi to forge a new path ahead: “Never lose focus on your career,” she said. When her children were old enough, Vaibhavi studied special education and now teaches at a school in Mumbai.
A few years ago, at the age of 88, a 15-second delay while making a decision caused Prabha Maushi to reassess her own ability to continue working. “How does 15 seconds matter?” Sudesh had asked him. “They matter a lot in surgery. They could cost a life,” she had answered.
In the professional world, she was a formidable woman. At home, she was simply Prabha Maushi, devoted to her family without intruding on her daily life. After she stopped working, she didn’t sit still. She learned to work with the laptop, tried her hand at online trading and even made some money doing it. When the pandemic hit, she got herself a smartphone. Sometimes hours would pass before she realized it hadn’t rang and one of her family members would tell her it was because she was in airplane mode.
Newspapers, yoga and coffee.
Loss transmutes what were once everyday habits, routines, and rituals into shiny, golden things you long to touch. But they remain palpably out of reach, except in memories that have a way of surging with the force of the tides. And so, it is impossible for Sudesh to enter the house without conjuring up the image of his aunt-in-law, sprawled on the sofa or in bed surrounded by newspapers. “She was always there, sitting with a newspaper. Either reading it or falling asleep with her paper still on her.
Over the years, Prabha Maushi and Sudesh became friends. They discussed physics, medicine, languages, politics, and Afghanistan. A voracious reader, no subject was beyond her reach or depth.
Sometimes in the mornings, when Sudesh woke up, I would surprise her doing yoga. “Even as early as 3:30 am. She went to the door and asked why she was up at that hour. She was saying that she wasn’t sleeping,” she recalls. Rather than waste any more time in bed, she preferred to get up and start her day, something he deeply misses.
And then there was the coffee ritual. When they first moved into Prabha Maushi’s house and Vaibhavi came home from work one day, his aunt asked him if he wanted coffee. “It felt so good to have someone at home offer me a cup of coffee. That became a daily habit.” Every night she and Sudesh sat at the dining room table while Prabha Maushi made them coffee. Then everyone would chat. The ritual continues without her, but not a day goes by that they don’t wish she was near her.
‘What would Prabha Maushi have said?’
Just after the pandemic started, Prabha Maushi was diagnosed with tuberculosis. This dented her health a bit, but not her enthusiasm. She, like many others in the first weeks of lockdown, was afflicted by a restlessness that she could not resist. Unable to contain herself at home, she found excuses to go out.
Sudesh once told her that police vans drove through the neighborhood to make sure no old man was out without a reason. “What if you get caught by a police officer?” he asked. “I’ll say I’m 55 years old,” she replied.
She behaved as if her whole life was unfolding before her. She was ready to start a counseling course; she wanted to work with cancer patients.
Counting on her for medical advice was always a given. Both Rudram and Malhaar were born with complications, and Prabha Maushi nursed them back to health, circling the newborns like a bird hovering over its chicks. About two years ago, when Sudesh was under an asthma attack, Prabha Maushi, at the age of 90, sat with him for four hours, holding her arms, nursing him.
Without her, the family falters. “What would Prabha Maushi have said?” is the question they ask themselves when faced with a riddle. A few months after her death, Malhaar suffered major arm fractures, for which she had to undergo surgery. Prabha Maushi’s voice of calm and reason would have been ideal; in her absence, they relied on what they knew about her, based on lifelong memories of her. Through the fog of confusion and stress, the answers came clearly. “She would have said that given the COVID conditions, it would be helpful if he was admitted to a hospital closer to home than a specialist hospital far away.”
Prabha Maushi, a doctor and connoisseur of death, had made her wishes for the afterlife clear to her family long before the end came: no rituals. Donate her body for medical research. Throw a party after she dies.
“But you know, at a party there will also be alcohol. That would be fine?” Sudesh had asked playfully. “Enjoy it however you want,” he had replied.
None of his wishes were fulfilled. His coronavirus-infected body couldn’t be donated, his family couldn’t attend his funeral (they had also tested positive and were in home quarantine), let alone throw a party in his name. . They remedied that on the first anniversary of his death by visiting a shelter for street children and celebrating his life with ice cream.
gardens in bloom
From time to time, a gardener would arrive at Prabha Maushi’s door to take care of the laborious aspects of gardening, such as changing the soil, weeding, composting. When the pandemic hit, his visits decreased. Although she continued to water her plants religiously, she was not doing anything else for her upkeep and the plants took a beating.
After her passing, a plague took hold of one of the plants and Vaibhavi was plagued with anxiety. I can’t lose this plant, she told herself. “Prabha Maushi planted it.”
The gardener came to the rescue. He assured her that there was no reason to worry, that he had been watering too much. Within weeks, he showed happy signs of life. Now the bougainvillea, sontakka (white ginger lily) and hibiscus are in full bloom. Both gardens are flourishing. “It makes me happy because I know it would have made Prabha Maushi happy.”