July 2012. Sailesh Das, a 41-year-old from Delhi, was working out in a gym when he suddenly began to vomit. He was rushed to a hospital, but didn’t make it. Doctors said he’d had a cardiac arrest. He died within 30 minutes.
All of a sudden, life turned upside-down for his wife, Saumyashree Nayak, who went into shock. She didn’t know what to tell their eight-year-old son Priyanshu.
She didn’t know how to process the trauma herself.
Born and brought up in Nowrangpur district of Odisha, Saumyashree had plenty of degrees from Berhampur University to her credit – Master’s in Economics, Bachelor of Education, a diploma in computers. But after moving to Delhi in 2002 following her wedding, the small-town girl found Delhi’s culture intimidating. She was hesitant to socialize, and became “something of a shadow” to her husband.
When their son was born, she devoted herself to his care. Over the years, she became an introvert, low on confidence. She depended on Sailesh to take care of everything outside the home – she didn’t even know how to operate an ATM.
Sailesh often prodded her to do something of her own, to keep herself busy and occupied. Once her son was old enough, Saumyashree began giving tuitions and running art and craft classes to children from a location close to home. Things were going smoothly in the family’s life.
Until it all turned upside-down, of course.
The first words that American author Joan Didion wrote after the death of her husband were just this: “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” In her heartbreaking memoir, Year of Magical Thinking, she recounts the events leading up to her husband’s death: “A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty.”
And so it happened for Saumyashree.
“Soon after his death, my family insisted I return to Odisha,” she remembers. But having lived in Delhi for 10 long years, she didn’t want to disrupt her son’s life and education. “Give me some time to think,” she told her parents.
Those were dark days for Saumyashree, when rivers of grief ran down her face at the slightest provocation, and when the future seemed bleak and uncertain. For six months, she shuttered herself at home, neglecting her son, drowned in her own abject hell. Then in the seventh month, she was shaken out of her stupor: “I realised what I was doing to my son.”
Then Saumyashree encountered Buddhism. “I remember going for my first meeting and crying my heart out, but everyone was so kind and gentle and supportive,” she narrates. “After that, my life changed.” She began chanting and found the courage to start her life again. She approached her husband’s employer for help in finding a job. The good man offered her a position on his own team.
It was challenging in the beginning: Saumyashree could not even read a newspaper without crying. But gradually, with strong moral support from her boss, she learnt how to Google for information related to her work, and how to operate the latest computer software. From one client, she moved up to two and can now handle five on her own.
“When my husband used to discuss things about work with his colleagues, I would be clueless earlier. Now I can understand what’s going on,” smiles the gentle-faced 42-year-old. She enrolled her son in guitar classes, and feels happy that she is still able to give the 14-year-old the same quality of life he had when his father was alive.
Aided by her husband’s life insurance policy, Saumyashree earns enough to pay the rent and manage their old lifestyle independently.
It’s not easy to be alone. The soft-spoken woman is often hounded by calls and messages from not-so-gentlemanly suitors, but her inner transformation has endowed her responses with a quiet strength.
A woman brought up with traditional values, someone who was conditioned to think of widowhood as the ultimate calamity that could strike a woman, the biggest lesson she has learnt is that loss is not the end of life. On the contrary, we owe it to our beloved dead to live to our fullest. “Sailesh wanted us to live in Delhi. He always wanted me to go out and learn new things and make a career for myself. We are now finally living his dream,” she says with a sad smile.
“Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant,” Didion wrote.
The ordinary instant – that contains within it a seed of extraordinary transformation.