My husband died one mild February afternoon. He had been very ill for a few months and I was constantly surrounded by well- meaning people. At times it seemed so claustrophobic, I screamed inwardly, " I just want to be alone." Of my many wishes of that time, Fate answered this one, and here I was sitting under my tamarind tree all alone. Of course that wasn't entirely true as I had a young family, but I felt so disconnected to them and thus felt even more alone.
It was a period of many changes. The most frightening and humiliating aspect of all the changes I faced was the loss of my identity. A few hours after my husband died, I was introduced to one of his friends as "Kumar's widow". The words pierced deep into my heart, the pain so sudden and excruciating. I was no longer a wife, but a widow. The word "widow" conjured up fearful images of shadowy, lonely, women who stood on the fringe of things as life passed them by. It scared me that I was now one of them. For almost two decades a great part of my identity was as Mrs. Kumar Jesudasan.
I had a status within the family and community not only as Kumar's wife, but also as a doctor's wife. I knew my role, what was expected of me and performed this with joy and ease. Now my role and identity had changed overnight. I was the sole breadwinner and provider for the family. I was alone. There were no rules to follow.
It took a long while getting adjusted to being a widow. At first I gave away all my beautiful, silk saris and exotic jewellery. I felt that I could never wear them again. The woman who stared back at me in the mirror in bright colours just was not me anymore. So I took to wearing black. In a strange way, it was more me. It was also healing.
I had gone from being a strong wife, who could hold her own in any argument, to a woman who dithered in fear at having to make simple decisions. It seemed that my husband took all my self -confidence with him into his grave. I had been a happy housewife for so long; gardening was a kind of passion; so was making pickles and jams and being with my two little children. Now the thought of becoming the breadwinner was terrifying. I had done some newspaper features and freelance broadcasting work some years before, and as I looked at various job adverts, I realised that the only saleable qualities I had were that of imagination and the skill of writing.
A good friend of my mother's, Mini Krishnan, took me under her wing at this point and gave me a large writing assignment authoring a series of Value Education books for children. I had very little confidence that I could do this. So much of my day was now spent doing things which I had never done before………going to the bank, the post office, the railway booking office, even the local market was a new place and experience for me……. I felt exhausted the whole time. How could I possibly be creative under these circumstances?
One restless night, I sat on my terrace weeping at how unfair all this was. I had to give Mini, my editor, my first sample the next day and I just could not write anything. As always, I said a prayer more out of habit than an expectation of an answer and was pleasantly surprised to find a sense of calm and peace within me and a seed of an idea. I realised that the project gave me hope. It pointed to a future which I had to accept with faith. I had no idea where the journey I was to go on would take me, I just knew deep within that this exodus would be illuminated step by step only, and that I had to take the first step with faith.
Now years later, when I look back, I see that the journey taken in faith has been fascinating and peopled richly with unusual encounters and experiences. I wrote "I Will Lie Down In Peace," the story of how our family faced the terminal illness and death of my husband. The response to this book took me by surprise. Those who had lost loved ones wrote to me and shared feelings which for many were still raw and painful. This led me to write my second book, " When Winter Comes" which dealt with the process of grieving. Meanwhile my big project took off and I authored A Child's Path - a series of Value Education books for children.
The journey through life without my husband brought me opportunities I could never have dreamed of before. A Kenyan woman who had read I Will Lie Down In Peace invited me to Kenya to be the guest speaker at a retreat she was organizing for AIDS widows and orphans. This was my first visit to Africa and as a widow I was to help them accept widowhood and not deny it and fear it as a curse. I helped the women look at the need to move away from old lives to build new ones. Like me, no longer were they a wife. Some had lost children and thus were longer mothers, so they needed to find new identities. Together we explored what grief and loss meant to each one of us. As we shared our fears and revealed our deepest needs to each other, warmth, gentleness and humour flowed between us forging a bond of togetherness and a wonderful sense of belonging. A joyous feeling of moving from loneliness to togetherness.
When I first came to Kenya, the women addressed me formally as madam. At the end of the first day, they hugged me, held me in a close embrace and called me
" Mama Usha " …….mama is the affectionate and respectful term given which means 'one of us'.
During the days when my husband was dying I was so angry with God for the waste of a wonderfully precious life. Now in Kenya, as I saw the women opening up for the first time, talking about their lives with me, trusting me, sharing their feelings, their pain and grief, verbally confronting their anger and the many inner conflicts loss has dealt them, I felt very humbled. The painful experiences of loss we had gone through were not in vain after all. The grief and pain I had once felt was now replaced with the blessings of a sense of belonging, friendship and love.
Back again on the long journey through life, I did not want another intimate relationship with a man, or a husband for myself. But I still had needs as a woman which I missed so much - the need for touch, affection and male appreciation. I slowly learned to channel these needs into deep friendships with both sexes and found that it could still bring a sense of fulfilment.
The weak areas of my life had been those in which I had depended wholly on my husband's support. Now these were becoming my strengths. I travelled alone and found myself enjoying the solitude. My home which was once filled with his work - related colleagues, now rang with the laughter of my new- found friends. My room was my sanctuary, my work place; I did not have to share it with male paraphernalia. It shocked me a little to realise that I was actually enjoying my aloneness and my own space in everything. I went back to doing things I did as a girl – playing the guitar, and learnt some new things too - I took up Yoga. Most of all, I learnt to be independent and to trust my own judgment.
I have often wondered what my life would have been like if my husband had not died. Would I have been happy growing vegetables and watering plants all my life? Would my creative streak ever have found expression? Would seeds of resentment have grown like creepers over the years and finally choked me? Would I have been Usha Jesudasan as I am now? Certainly not.
Independence and the ability to be the person I am now came with a costly price. Grief, pain and loneliness had been my companions for so long that I never believed that there would be a day when I could look them in the face and say, " Thanks" to the one who sent them to me.
Today, as I look into my mirror, I see a different person smiling back at me. Yes, this is me…..not as I once was, but as I am now. And I like this person. I can now say "thanks" to the giver of life with a deep sense of gratitude.