Life has become so busy in a big city like Bangalore that we hardly get to know our neighbours. We are all so busy with our work that often we do not even have the time to think.

Once, I came to know that someone in my neighbours’ family had died. I didn’t know these neighbours well, but my mother wanted me to visit them to offer our condolences. It is the custom in our society after all, she insisted.

I agreed, but did not find the time to pay a call for several days. Days usually dawned to a rush of busy schedules and night-time was not considered appropriate for such visits. So my condolence visit just got postponed again and again. However, I didn’t give up the idea and continued to think that I would find some time to call on our bereaved neighbours.

Ten days passed. I felt so guilty that one Sunday I decided that I would visit my neighbour at any cost. I only knew the man of the family, albeit very casually.

As I walked through their gate, I could hear the loud beat of a popular Kannada film song. There were children playing hide-and-seek in the spacious garden. Some men and women, who seemed to have come from the village, were sitting in the garden and chatting in a carefree way.

For a moment, I thought that I had come to the wrong house. Such mistakes do happen once in a while. Some time ago, for example, I had gone to attend the wedding of my student at the Sagar group of wedding halls near the Ashoka Pillar in Jayanagar. There are four wedding halls in a row. I had forgotten in which hall my student’s wedding was to take place. However, I knew that the

bride’s name was Usha. When I looked at the flower-bedecked welcome arches, which mentioned the names of the couple, I was taken aback. In two of the arches, the bride’s name was given as Usha. I could not remember the groom’s name. I did not know what to do and just stood between the two halls waiting to see a familiar face.

Here in my neighbour’s house, the music and gay atmosphere was so unexpected that I thought of going back home to ascertain the correct address from my mother. Just then, the head of the family came out and saw me. He looked excited as he called out, ‘What a surprise! Please come inside. I think you are coming to our house for the first time.’

I had no choice but to go inside. As he went in and called his wife, I observed the big house and the way they had furnished it. The living room was quite large. There was a TV with a VCR in one corner. Kaho Na Pyar Hai, a popular Hindi film, was playing on the video. The room was packed with so many youngsters that they managed to occupy a big mat, three sofas and even the entire carpet.

All of them were watching the movie with great interest. There was no place for us to sit, but the man of the house managed to move a few kids to the floor and made some room for me to sit down.

The handsome actor Hrithik Roshan was dancing on the television screen. The youngsters around me were all tapping their feet.

A servant arrived bearing a tray of snacks and a cup of tea. I was now faced with a problem. Considering the nature of my visit, I wondered whether it would be appropriate for me to partake of the snacks. My instinct told me that it would not be correct for me to eat, but I also realized that it might seem rude of me to refuse. So I found an acceptable excuse. ‘I have not yet had my bath. I cannot eat now,’ I said.

That of course did not solve my real problem. The atmosphere in the house had a festive air. There was no trace of grief or mourning at all. How then could I start with my condolences? It looked like my neighbours were having a family get-together for an engagement ceremony or a birthday party. And here I was, bearing a message of condolence.

Just then the lady of the house came in. Both husband and wife sat on a sofa adjacent to my chair. They started the conversation. ‘We are very happy about your work. Every day we talk about you. We are proud of it.’

I was puzzled. Why on earth should they talk about me every day? I don’t talk about anybody every day. Not even about my husband. What work were they talking about? Was it my writing or my social work?

They noticed my silence but continued talking animatedly. ‘How is your husband? He is really a great man.’

I was surprised that my husband should feature in the conversation, considering that this family was supposed to be in mourning.

Both husband and wife were eager to talk. The wife said, ‘The other day I saw you. You were wearing a beautiful sari. I thought it was a Patola sari. Was it a Patola or an Orissa sari? Both have similar patterns.’

I really did not remember which sari she was talking about. ‘Maybe Orissa,’ I said noncommitally.

She beamed and said triumphantly, ‘See, I am right. I told Suman the same thing. She does a lot of work in Orissa so she must have purchased that sari from there. What a beautiful colour combination!’

Now, it was the turn of the husband. ‘Your company is doing very well. One of the few companies that is independent of the dotcom wave. I suggested to a few of my friends that they should study the trend of IT companies in the last six months.’

This was not related to me. Maybe my husband could comment on the trend, but he was not present.

Now the wife took over. ‘What is the admission procedure at your college? Is it possible to get admission with only an 85 per cent score in the tenth standard?’

‘Not in SSLC but in ICSE,’ the husband clarified hastily, referring to different boards of school education.

‘I do not know, I am not on the admission committee,’ I replied. And so it went on. There seemed to be no end to the conversation.

After some time, I found myself wondering who had died. As far as I remembered, it was the man’s mother who had passed away. The old lady had been a friend of my mother’s. But I did not know how to raise the topic. Suppose it had been the wife’s mother who had died? I had to be careful.

I am sure they noticed my silence, but they were intent on pulling me into the conversation. I was feeling very uncomfortable about the whole thing. By this time I had realized that it was unlikely that I was going to get an opportunity to offer my condolences. But before I left, I wanted to make a last, sincere effort to

fulfil the purpose of my visit.

It was only when we neared the gate that I hesitantly raised the topic. ‘I heard your mother was not well …’

Before the husband could answer, his wife replied, ‘Yes. My mother-in-law was not well for a very long time. But we had a lot of problems. She was too old-fashioned and would not adjust. These men go off to work and never understand the difficulties of women at home.’

She continued to complain bitterly about her mother-in-law while the husband looked on guiltily.

‘She suffered a lot,’ he intervened at one point. ‘Actually, we suffered a lot,’ the wife interrupted indignantly. ‘Of late she was bedridden with a stroke. To look after such people in a place like Bangalore, one requires servants and you know how difficult and expensive it is to get a good servant. I was so tired of looking after her. It was good riddance.’ The lady’s tone was harsh and cold.

‘Death solved the problem for all of us. My mother was finally relieved from all her suffering,’ the husband concluded.

I came away saddened and disturbed by my visit.

Have our lives become so busy that grief has become proportionate to the usefulness of the loved one we have lost?