23rd February 2010 changed everything. Life it seemed had come to a standstill, Nithya and I lost our 23-year-old son, Akhil, to a fire accident that day. Akhil was everything we wanted in a child: simple, intelligent, ambitious and aware. He had finished his graduation and was working for an American investment banking firm in Bangalore. He wanted to get some work experience under his belt before doing an MBA. He loved life and had the right mix of his mother and me. The softness and caring of his mother and the ambitious streak, I presume from me.
The day began like any another working day. Everything was normal until evening when Akhil’s friend called to say that there was a fire at his office. I couldn’t reach him on his phone, so I went to his office. I was directed to a nearby hospital where those affected had been taken. I was told there that he was one of the nine who perished. I could barely comprehend what had happened… Slowly friends and close family landed up at the hospital, while Nithya kept calling me. I was barely able to handle myself; I was abrupt when I said: “We lost him Nithya!” That evening our lives changed forever.
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I rushed back to be with Nithya. That night we didn’t know what to say to each other except for “Why did this happen?” “Are you sure?” “It can’t be…” We cried and grieved individually the whole night, not knowing what was ahead the next day and beyond. We couldn’t as yet think beyond the next day. The next few days and week were all about the cremation, the ceremonies, the stream of visitors. Slowly, we realised that our lives were going to be very different from then on. Our hopes of a larger immediate family had ended.
Through this, we were faced with another challenge: Our daughter, our only other child (who is a cerebral palsy child and special in many, many ways) knew nothing about what had happened to her brother. We needed to handle her with utmost sensitivity and break the sad news, as they were very close to each other. We got professional advice and broke the news to her in bits over the next month. She became our priority, and ensuring she understood and did not become a victim of depression kept us wanting to appear strong before her and the outside world. In a sense, this became our key aim.
Meanwhile, I found ways to write and despite never having blogged before, found it cathartic to spill out my feelings. Nithya continued to break down quietly, as she still does. In the next few months, we learnt it helped to talk about it to each other and with anyone who wanted to talk to us about what we were going through. We felt we needed to grieve between us and yet be open by talking about it with friends and family.
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It was around the same time that we felt we needed to reach out to the eight other families and the many injured to understand what they were facing and if there was some way we could grieve and help each other. Not everyone was in a state to talk, share or even align with our thoughts but a few did. That is when we formed Beyond Carlton (www.beyondcarlton.org), India’s first citizens’ initiative for fire safety. Inadvertently we channelled our grief and anger into something positive.
This platform has also given us the chance to meet many new people. Our rich interactions with different folks of different ages and different perspectives have been the greatest gain out of this tragedy. We got to know many young people, mostly Akhil’s friends, a lot better and it surprised us that age didn’t matter in providing solace and support. It strengthened our belief that there were many out there who could lend support through words, deeds and just standing by our mission.
There is not a day when we don’t think of Akhil or talk about him. We definitely miss his physical presence, but are slowly accepting the reality of our lives.
There are times even now, that seem tough when Nithya needs to let go and we talk for long periods or she notices another father-son relationship and says, “I know you miss him at this stage in your life. I know what’s going through your mind…”
Six years on, we are more resilient and much closer as a couple. Understanding that life is short and to try and live it the best way we can is what drives us both now.
We try and learn from each other and lean on each other more often. We realise that we have to take care of the three of us and our lives will now be more interdependent as we grow older. We need to secure ourselves not just for us but also for our lovely daughter who has filled her brother’s shoes in many ways, despite all her challenges. We are truly blessed to have her!
We believe everyone handles tragedy in their own way, and discussions about denial, anger, self-pity and acceptance are just academic. We can neither be an example for others nor should we force our approach on anyone else in a tragedy.
In some way, this quote sums up our lesson in life:
“It’s not so much what you accomplish in life that really matters, but what you overcome that proves what you are and whether you are a champion. – Johnny Miller, legendary golfer