He disappeared. What it took to identify his body.
He attended my wedding six months ago. He was my beloved uncle, my almost-father. He died in Lucknow. How? The family always asks.
My uncle, Girish Chandra Tripathi, had mastered the art of self-neglect. He enjoyed the finer things in life but never for himself. He lived alone in a two-story house. His wife, Alpa, died young in the early 90s. His son studies in Hyderabad and his daughter lives abroad. The four of them never really had time to live together as adults for any significant amount of time.
Last week it closed and went out. He never came back.
His daughter kept calling him from the United States, as she did every night. She did not know that her father’s body lay in the morgue of a city hospital. His prophecy”Gayab ho jaaunga aur aap connection ko pata nahin chalega (I’m just gonna disappear and you won’t know)” had come true. No, he wasn’t suicidal. That was how he was with us sometimes. Snippy.
He had collapsed on a road some distance from his home. A motorist called the cops and he was rushed to hospital. He died there, read the police report. He could not be identified because he never owned a wallet and traveled without a cellphone. So for four days he was an unclaimed body.
As her daughter – my cousin – worried, desperate calls were made. Relatives in Lucknow and Delhi have been alerted. On Thursday, she sensed something was terribly wrong. The police were called.
Late Friday evening, a message on the WhatsApp family group announced that my uncle had passed away.
How did they know? The family was asked to identify him from photos of many people who died that week in the city. He was there, dressed in a shirt and pants, his right hand on his chest and his mouth slightly open, as if he were still asleep. Except he was dead.
The family rushed to Lucknow to be told the body had been cremated. After an hour of jaw-dropping confusion, they were told the body had somehow not been sent for cremation, as is the norm for bodies unclaimed for four days. He was cremated on Saturday evening after his son’s arrival. Her daughter was still flying.
The man had no digital presence. He feared technology and avoided social media platforms. He was only able to use an iPad for video calls with his daughter. His old-world cell phone wouldn’t handle that.
When we were younger, he made us look for his gray hair. There was a count as each of us handed in our slim picks. The reward was a scooter ride. His idea of a haircut was going bald – just easier and faster.
He was very proud of our accomplishments. He never differentiated between his children and those of his older brother – us. He treated us the same way and with the same firmness or gentleness. He encouraged us to do well, even though he was legendary for turning down promotions that involved changing cities.
He spoiled me. Once I had to travel from Delhi to Chennai for an interview at a journalism school. I had been given a train ticket in couchette class and told that it would harden me for life. I refused to go. He intervened and offered me a double decker AC Rajdhani Express train ticket to go to Chennai. I missed the interview. He does not say anything.
On one of his visits to Delhi, we went to a major mall in South Delhi where he tried on an outrageously red and bling jacket. He even obliged us with a photo. He was devastatingly charming. And very happy too. This is how I will remember him.
He asked me once “Toh aap kabhi TV pe nahin aayenge (You won’t be seen on TV)?” I edit and write, I explained.
The man with no digital footprint (he had no ATM cards, no Gmail, no social accounts, never booked a ticket online) still wanted me to be on big TV. This tribute is my way of making sure it lives on in the digital world. I think he would approve.
(Ashutosh Tripathi is Associate Editor, NDTV Convergence)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.