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December 02, 2020

“I wanted the reader to feel less lonely, and to feel brave for having endured.” Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi Talks About ‘Loss’

Text by Vivek Tejuja. Photographs courtesy: Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi/Loss/HarperCollins India

The author discusses the layers of grief he explores in his latest book, a collection of non-fiction essays on mortality

It isn’t easy to speak of loss. I don’t think that time heals, as they say. How did you find it in yourself to talk about the pain? How did you decide to write about the personal loss and link it to so many universal losses?
I don’t know if I was writing about pain as much as through it – serving a book refines your sorrows and beliefs, until the essential remains. This book was not a sorrowful compression of three lives; rather, it was an amplification, a celebration, a feast for their blessed existence at all. When I think of it like that, it wasn’t a difficult book to write – I believe the challenges for Loss different, more technical. For instance: how do you unite three particular lives without mixing one with the other? Can you acknowledge sentiment without being sentimental?

Loss is often linked to moving on. People think they will; we all do. But do we truly “move on”, in that sense? What is moving on, according to you?
Moving on is when you revisit the same place, but you’re no longer hurting for coming back. There is, of course, a more literal moving on – a recognition that you have served another life in your best way possible, for the entirety of your time, so the only thing left is to say farewell.

Given the moment we are in, we are constantly oscillating between hope and hopelessness. There is also this numbness. Has this pandemic, in a way, made us resilient to grief? We think we are grieving when we lose someone during such a time. But are we, really?
Of course, when we lose someone during this time, or any time, there will be grief – maybe the chaos of the pandemic delays its coming. I believe next year will be an avalanche of grief, as we process what we have endured and who we have lost. In England, after the first World War, an overwhelming number of dead resulted in mourning becoming a personal thing – people grew embarrassed with all the young people dying. Before that, in more sophisticated cultures, grief was public or communal – it counted on a witness, it had to be heard, if only for the sufferer to be acknowledged for their pain. This recognition – for the mourner to be witnessed – might be to render them alive to themselves, as grief can have a deadening impact on the living.

You’ve managed to speak of deep personal losses and connect them to literature, to movies, to a world that resonates with what you are going through or have been through How was it writing about that? To find these connections, to hold them close?
Art lessens our pain, or gives us illustrations of defeat from which to seek courage. Reading for Loss – I spent a year reading and I am grateful to the library at Alain Danilou’s foundation, FIND in Italy – was a nourishing pleasure. I revisited many books I loved, although none about death directly. Rather, I read books about life and suffering, and writers alive to the human experience as a string of indignities – Proust, for instance. So much of literature pays homage to the Buddhist idea that life is suffering, an exfoliation of known things until what remains is the self, das ding an sich – the thing in itself. Writing has incantatory force, it can summon a life back into cardinal and ineffable space. I love these lines by Euripides – Come back. Even as a shadow, even as a dream. I love these lines because people come back to the language with which you remember them. 

How does one deal with the aftermath of loss? With the bitterness and the exhaustion?
Everyone deals in the way they can, or are allowed to. Some with bitterness, others, with exhaustion. We simply have to make room for these stories, to allow people to be heard for their pain and to acknowledge their grief. I wanted this book to do that – for the reader to feel as if their pain were somehow lessened in the knowledge that it were common to so many. I wanted the reader to feel less lonely, and to feel brave for having endured. C S Lewis said grief felt like fear; I wanted this book only to make a reader feel less fearing of pain.

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