• Avva: My aunt 

    Esha Lankesh

    January 15, 2019

    Remembrance by Jane Kellahan | Image Courtesy: Wanaka Gallery

    One of the feelings I have thought about the most is pain. Not the kind of pain we feel when we are physically hurt, but the kind of pain we feel when we lose someone. I used to think about it a lot when I was little, afraid that there will come a day when I will lose those who are dear to me, but it never felt real until it actually happened.

    One evening, my grandmother and I heard that my aunt had collapsed. We were alone at home. My grandmother drove me to my aunt’s house, scared and crying all the way, because she was afraid of what could have happened. When we reached my aunt’s house we were shocked to know that my aunt was shot dead. My mother was already there, crying and heartbroken. I broke down too. I cried like never before, because the pain was something I had not ever experienced, or even imagined. And what had happened was so shocking that it was almost unbelievable. Till today, I still feel like she is here, and that she has really not gone away forever. They say time heals, but a year has passed and I feel the pain as if it was yesterday. Maybe I am not crying anymore like I was back then, but the void inside me still feels just as deep as it did that day.

    Initially, I felt very angry towards the killers. I wanted to hurt them the way they hurt her. I wanted them to experience the pain we felt, I still do. But the bitter truth is that my aunt will not come back even if they suffer. I realise that “an eye for an eye, makes the whole world blind”. All we can do is wait for the pain to subside and seek justice by getting the murderers punished legally.

    There hasn't been a single day when I haven’t thought of her. Every time I remember the love she had for me, I miss her terribly. My aunt did not have children of her own, but she called me her daughter, just as I called her “Avva” which is another word for "mother" in Kannada. She was almost like a second mother to me. They say that one never realises the true value of someone, unless they lose them. I did not realise how much I really loved her until I lost her. I had never imagined a world without her.

    When I was little, I would go to her house over the weekends. She would tell me bedtime stories of her various versions of Cinderella. In my aunt’s version, Cinderella was a strong and independent working woman. But every time my aunt would narrate the story, she would change Cinderella's profession. Sometimes she was a chef, sometimes a writer! Most importantly, Cinderella was not a meek girl waiting for her prince. Each time the story would have a slightly different setting. I just loved listening to these stories. As I got older, she would tell me stories of Jim Corbett, Kenneth Anderson and even gave me books by the likes of Poorna Chandra Tejaswi among others. She was a voracious reader. Even as a young girl, my aunt would be happily immersed in the world of books while her siblings would go out and play.

    My aunt adored me so much that she would always introduce me to her friends as her daughter and not as her niece. She would regale her friends with anecdotes about me, even when she was extremely busy. She always asked me to speak for myself and be a strong woman. She always kept me updated on the current affairs; she would make me attend public meetigs, and watch young student activists like Kanhaiya Kumar or Shehla Rashid speak. She always said that the youth should be aware because they are the ones who can bring change. 

    On her birthday, a few years ago, she presented herself with a tattoo on her arm—a peacock feather which was the logo of my grandfather’s newspaper, with my name under it. Every weekend she would come home and spend time with me and my mother. My aunt loved non-vegetarian food, but she hardly ever cooked. So whenever she came home, my mother would cook chicken for the both of us. The two of them would share funny stories of their past, their experiences and memories, and we would spend the afternoon laughing.

    Being secular and equal was very important to my aunt and we imbibed the same values. Our family would celebrate Ganesha festival in my uncle’s house, Christmas in our house and Ramadan in my aunt’s house. She would tell me and my cousins’ stories about the significance of different festivals. For her, it was important to understand and empathize with all religions and communities. Needless to say, she fought for women’s rights and empowerment, Dalits, Muslims, transgenders and many other minority groups. She was a strong, ethical journalist and a fierce activist who consistently fought for the downtrodden and addressed issues concerning them. She tried to persuade the naxalites to give up their guns and arms and have peaceful negotiations with the Government about their problems.

    She worked very hard and almost never took a break. It was only after her death that I realised who she really was and how much she did for people from various stratas of society. For me, she was simply “Avva” who loved me to bits, but I realised she was “Akka”, "Amma”, a friend, a colleague to thousands of people, and a mentor to many youngsters. I knew what she did, I knew what she loved and I knew especially what she hated, but I did not know how many lives she had influenced. I realised that when I witnessed thousands of people from different sections of society turn up for her funeral. There were women, students, transgenders, Muslims, politicians, theatre personalities, the film fraternity and more. There were protests not only in every nook and corner of Karnataka, but across India and even across the world. People held candlelight protests near India Gate. Journalists protested in every city. Even after one year, protests demanding justice and safety for journalists who speak truth, continued in places near and far. The Reporters without Borders Association even inaugurated a pillar honouring her in a town called Bayeux, France. 

    The only factor that lessens the pain of losing her is how proud I am of her and how the killers did not silence her, but instead made her voice louder.

    Before I lost her, I never knew how it felt to lose someone. And although I constantly feared that I would lose someone I love deeply, I never thought it would be the end of everything. I just assumed that things would go back to normal. Unfortunately, it is both. While some things came to an abrupt end, some things in life moved on as though nothing had happened at all.

    When I think back, I wish I had spent more time with her. I wish I had told her more often how truly I loved her. I wish I had told her how proud I was of her and the work she did. I wish I had understood what she stood for. I wish I had known that she was much more that just being my aunt. I also know that regardless of whether or not I expressed any of this to her, she knew how much I loved her, and I know how much she loved me. If I could tell her something now, I would say thank you for spending thirteen years with me and being my role model. I still cannot believe that she won’t be here to share things with me now, but I know that she will always be with me in spirit. I also know that in the short span of her life, she did so much that she will live in my heart and many others' for a long time. A very long time.


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