The Loneliness of Absence and the Loneliness of Presence

white and brown cooked dish on white ceramic bowls
Photo by Chan Walrus on

I am at a Birthday party for Radha who is 91 and I’m about to have another special experience of Indian family life.

Radha comes to the door with a big smile and as she inserts and turns the key in the outer security grille I notice how sprightly and alert she is. It’s two years since I saw her and she recognises me immediately. She lives with her eighty nine year old husband and  with the help of a young servant girl they are doing well.

The guest list today is ‘family’ and I feel very honoured to be invited. I’m staying with Radha’s son Mohan and her daughter-in-law, Mridula. I am regarded as family. which is such a joy.  The rest of the party are Radha’s daughter who lives locally, her brother and sister-in-law, who are a quiet couple in their eighties, and their grand daughter Neesha.

Neesha is a bright twenty-something, half Iranian, half Indian, graphic design student who recently won an Indian beauty contest and is one of the new faces of the jewellery adverts for South India.

Neesha laughs as I do my journalist bit and in true ‘follow grandma’ style ask if she has an agent. “Oh no” she says “that would mean I had to give away a huge part of my earnings and I’d have no control over what I do.” She goes on to tell me how she is seriously saving, studying for her degree and intending to go to the United States where her mother has been apointed to a lecturing post at New York University.

Her family recently left Iran and it’s been quite an upheaval. However, she seems buoyant and confident as she reminisces about the joys of Iran and then she suddenly alks about how much she misses her family, who are scattered around the world, and that’s why she wants to go to America where her mother is working.  I watch as she lovingly strokes her Indian grandmother’s hair before returning to texting at breakneck speed. The need for communication is paramount. I see her need for contact with friends and family.  Or,maybe that’s my imagination and she’s being booked for another modelling job.

I ponder on the loneliness of absence

Her grandmother Rhada is now the centre of attention and is being asked how she is feeling. She replies with one word, “lonely”. This takes us all by surprise and since her husband is alive and well we ask a little more.  She tells us that her eighty-nine year old husband spends all his time on the computer. Every day he reads all the international newspapers online, identifies their grammatical and factual mistakes and sneds them editorial corrections. It seems that communication between thusband and wife has almost petered out.

I ponder on the loneliness of presence.

But this is a day of celebration,conversation and communication and Radhu has been busy all morning preparing a traditional South Indian meal for everyone. We begin with rice, ghee and paripu (A typical Kerala style dhal). This is followed by sambar.  We eat in Kerala style, using our fingers. There’s something so satisfying about finger-to-mouth eating.

In a meal like this the cook has to make sure that the flavours are well balanced and the spices are in the right proportions. The accompanying dishes are thoran (a tasty coconut and cabbage dish) pachadi, (a delicious cucumber specialty) crispy, fried bitter gourd, olan (a mix of white pumpkin and beans) mango pulliserry,( mango and yoghurt), inji puli, (a rich ginger and tamarind dish) plus of course home made papadoms. This is a real feast for the senses in colour, flavour and texture.

The high light of the meal is two Payasam; paripu payasam, a soothing dish made from dhal, coconut milk and jagary, and a similar payasam made from vermicelli. Such a feast! An authentic, lively Keralan birthday lunch.

Neesha, still attached to her phone, in true model style eats like a little bird.  Rhada’s brother takes photos of the lunch party with his new camera equipment. Rhada’s husband eats quietly and happily.

Today our ‘birthday girl’ is anything but lonely. She is enjoying every moment of her successful lunch party. She smiles for the camera and chats with her guests.  Neesha continues to text alongside her.

I look at the two generations, grandmother and grand daughter.

Absence and Presence.

The old lady’s words ring true. Loneliness is something so many of us are experiencing in this new hi tech world . We owe it to our friends and family to be more aware, to reach out and be more present and less absent.

bread with soup
Photo by Marvin Ozz on
person s left hand covered with sand
Photo by Kaniz Sheikh on
lunch table
Photo by Kaboompics .com on

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s