“Her mum passed away this morning. It all happened so suddenly,” said my friend as he rang me in the early hours a few days back, sharing the heart-breaking news of his mother-in-law's death in India. In moments, I was out the door, on my way to their house and sorting out her travel to India en route.
Not so long ago, someone tagged me on social media, drawing my attention to a tragic passing away of a young professional's brother, seeking support to organise his travel to India. Three years ago, as I watched the army of consultants and doctors helping revive my daughter at the hospital, in panic and desperation, I sent a cryptic message to my close friends: “Please come over; Nainika is in the hospital, critical”. That message was enough to plunge our friends into action. Within a few minutes, a group of them were by our side and didn't leave until we were ready to take her to the crematorium.
Talking to the doctors, arranging food, sorting out emergency visa applications for our family back in India to making arrangements at home, cleaning, buying supplies and even bringing change of clothes etc for me - to this day, I wonder how for months our friends managed our lives and home, despite them being full-time professionals and parents. A blessing that I am most grateful for!
When I was at the hospital, a dear friend who had lost their daughter a few years back held my hand and said: “You are very fortunate, you have so many people here by your side. When we lost our baby, we were all alone; there was simply no one to even to check on us.”
So true, I thought!
Living far away from family, our friends become our family. In times of distress, as also to share our simple joys, it is this circle of friends, neighbours, colleagues and acquaintances, who form our support network. Festivals, tragedies, milestones such as birth, buying a home, promotion at work, house move, graduation, secondary school admission, each are shared community moments for the diaspora.
Homebound, the lockdown owing to the pandemic limited our physical connect with friends and family; travel being curtailed. Video group calls, online family games, virtual catch up sessions became the 'new normal'.
Living in an apartment in a multistorey building on my own, these were welcome additions to my evenings. In fact, when I fell ill, it was this virtual connect that helped me immensely; not only to be prompted to get up to cook for myself but also to be checked in on my recovery. As I got better, recovering from Covid-19, I scanned through my phone to check in on those I knew lived independently. I discovered there were a few who needed desperate help.
Fortunately, the community support groups and volunteers across the UK, in conjunction with the High Commission of India, were on the doorstep helping students, members of Indian diaspora and supporting stranded Indian citizens with basic supplies and with their repatriation to India via the “Vande Bharat” flights.
The shock of losing a loved one or, worse still, watching a loved one slip away is a pain that one hopes nobody has to suffer. But death is inevitable. Each of us, who was born, must go. In the 'Mahabharata' during the “Yaksha Prashna”, when Yudhishthira was asked by the Yaksha about the biggest surprise known to mankind, he calmly responded: “Death is. Knowing fully well that who is born will die, we behave as if we will live forever.”
In 2016, the UK government's Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) launched a Review of Crematoria Provisions and Facilities from 16 March to 26 May. In the July 2015 Budget, the then Chancellor, George Osborne, announced a review of the size and provision of crematoria facilities to make sure they are fit for purpose and sensitive to the needs of all users and faiths.
In the UK, burials were the most common form of paying last respects to the deceased. In 2014, statistics demonstrated that there were over 390,000 cremations that took place in the UK, representing almost 77 per cent of all deaths in that year. Though known as the Hindu way of final respects, cremation is also the usual method of last rites for Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Zoroastrians, certain denominations of Christianity and, of course, those who don't identify with any particular faith.
The review was announced in response to concerns around the capacity and that crematoria may not always take the cultural sensitivities of different faiths into account. I participated in the crematorium review, gathering inputs from various community organisations and individuals. This was a revelation to me, personally, as I had never witnessed a funeral in the UK.
So when it was my own daughter's last rites, I was relieved that there were specialist funeral directors, in our case Chandu & Taylor, who did not just conduct the funeral but also guided us on the Hindu traditions of a funeral process. Being away from family and elders, it was a most helpful support we had from the funeral directors. In India, such things almost automatically are organised - someone elder in the family will be at the family's disposal to guide and direct. Arrangements are made by neighbours and extended family.
As we prepared to take Nainika to the crematorium, once her ventilator was switched off, the family and bereavement support group at the hospital organised for a priest to do a spiritual reading for us and they handed us a pack with guidance and support. I still remember how they asked us if we wished to donate her organs and whether they needed her feet and hand imprints as her last memory. All of this, though at the time felt quite mechanical, when I recently came across these imprints in a folder, I realised the value of these.
This letter I wrote on 7 June 2019 in memory of the babies and children that families have lost over the years at St. Mary's Hospital, Paddington, London. A beautiful remembrance service was organised by the staff of the Imperial Trust at St. James Church at Sussex Gardens in London. Beautiful, personal tributes were made by a handful of parents - of which I was the last one and perhaps the most recently bereaved.
Lakshmi Kaul is the London-based UK Head & Representative at the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and an active Indian diaspora campaigner. In this regular Talking Point column for 'iGlobal', she will focus on issues that deserve spotlighting within the Global Indian community, referencing her personal experiences.