A death in the family prompts some high-tech solutions to the tyranny of distance.
The photo was grainy, pixellated and tiny. My uncle’s face was only partially visible, covered by a thin green cloth. A nostril, a scarred ear, the dry skin of a cheek and a wisp of hair from an eyebrow… These were the final remnants available to my father on the photo, sent via a mobile phone by a relative at the funeral.
The body of my father’s brother lay on a block of wood. He was bare-chested, but clothed in a lungi – a thin piece of cloth tied around the waist often worn by workers in the rice paddies. It looked like a poor man’s kilt, almost appropriate for the funeral of a Bangladeshi villager.
My uncle, Mozhar Ali, had died the night before. His throat cancer could have been treated earlier, but he repeatedly refused to attend follow-up appointments, fearing painful radiotherapy treatments and the associated side-effects like hair loss, no small thing for a pious man who treasured his beard. Besides, and just like many Aboriginal patients I have treated in Australia, his limited experience with hospitals was usually associated with the death of relatives. A hospital meant mortality, not a place of healing.
My father sent the money for the treatment anyway, transferred through a money-changer in a western Sydney office, which doubled as a travel agency and spice store. While buying giant bags of turmeric and a DVD of an art-house Indian film – Bollywood was mass-market trash, according to my mother – my father sent money that not only educated many relatives but also paid for radiotherapy, expensive oncology medications and regular specialist input from Western-educated, high flyers in the capital, Dhaka.
At my behest, my father sat close to a desktop computer with a Skype window open, linked in while Koranic readings were conducted at the funeral, which, consistent with Islamic custom, was performed within 20 hours of the death, not allowing for even the most direct flight from Sydney.
My father stared intermittently at the digital photo before putting the phone back into his pocket. Minutes later, he reached for the phone again and frantically pressed the appropriate keys before glancing furtively at the body once again.
But the connection was poor. The sound of occasional wailing, interspersed with recitations in guttural Arabic, added a certain desperation to my father’s attempt to share his grief. One moment he was there in the village of Bijoyrampur, his birthplace, just a few kilometres from the Indian border. Seconds later, it was just him swelling with frustration, alone with a PC monitor in suburban Sydney.
The technical problems ensured his pain remained private, a metaphor for his move, years earlier, from a traditional, collective community to a more atomized, urban life in the West. I sat beside him patting him on the shoulder.
Using the computer to link up with his relatives had been my idea. I knew from my professional life the dangers of grieving alone – a common trend in modern life, where emotional distress is so often contained. I hoped I could accelerate my father’s transition through the various stages of grief, which I had learned to refer as DABDA: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
I had earlier Googled the words ‘cyber funeral’. I found a site, complete with a foreboding, bass-heavy beat. The site was introduced with the passage: “[This] is your internet solution. Our ePlots hold an eCasket or eCoffin with a digitized sample of your loved one’s DNA. [It] provides a gathering place where all can visit as often as desired.”
But my attempt to facilitate long-distance grieving did not feel successful. In the days following his brother’s funeral, my father walked aimlessly through the house.
My mother called me. She was concerned that her husband, who had always been distant and uncommunicative, was now becoming unhinged.
She described him clasping the phone tightly and peeking at the photo from time to time. He was silent and barely ate or slept. There was no tribe, clan or village to help him share the pain of loss.
MY UNCLE MOZHAR was the eldest brother, and had lived with us during my first few years in the old part of Dhaka. I recalled him greeting my father at the end of each day as he arrived home on a glittering rickshaw, which had the faces of movie stars under a setting sun painted on the back of its canopy.
In the summer months, the weather was unbearably hot – regularly exceeding 40 degrees. As an example of the myriad set of affections that my father had to balance – a new wife and child but also a needy extended family – he had to try to ensure his wife and elder brother received equal amounts of cool air from the one electric fan.
My uncle’s tumour was in his throat. It had been caused partly by years of heavy smoking and also the chewing of betel nut, the drug of choice throughout many villages in Asia. The betel nut inhibited the production of saliva, one reason why teeth blackened by decay preceded the cancer by many years. He only sought help after he could no longer savour and swallow his favourite meal of dried fish. The thin bones caused bleeding into his oesophagus.
I didn’t know him well. He spoke Bengali in a dialect I barely understood. He could hardly read and write and spoke of only two other countries in the world: India, known locally as Bharat, and Saudi Arabia, which Mozhar admired for its firm interpretation of Islam. He had chided my father for migrating to what he considered an immoral corner of the globe, his view informed entirely by images of bikini-clad women on Bondi Beach.
The eldest of nine siblings, Mozhar represented the time when my father’s personality and worldview were formed, a time inaccessible to others. If all men are emotional islands, my father could be considered a particularly isolated atoll.
BUT THE RELEASE of emotions did come…eventually.
A further attempt to concoct an appropriate ritual was more successful. The photo of Mozhar’s body was printed in brilliant colour and placed with less morbid reminders of his humanity – an embroidered prayer hat, a piece of dried fish and one green chilli. A small hole was dug in the back yard and I drew on my childhood experience in Sunday School to read a verse in Arabic.
My father dug a small hole in the back yard, the size of a dinner plate, in which the items were placed. While filling the hole again, my father stopped and fell to the ground. His tears flowed for only a few minutes.
We returned inside the house and he soon spoke of more mundane matters – renewing his car insurance, for example, and mowing the lawn. Then, just as he walked to the bathroom, I noticed him pick up his phone and erase the photo of my uncle’s body.
(first published in The Big Issue magazine)