An ethic of selflessness

January 1. 2016.

The beginning of the new year was marked by a sense of loss that I am continuing to struggle to make sense of.

Around noon on the First of January, I received a frantic whatsapp message from my sister-in-law to call my parents in Hyderabad who had been trying to reach me for the previous twenty minutes. They wanted to speak with me about the deteriorating health of my uncle, Godaikaka, who had been going through dialysis for the past six months.

As I called my parents in a state of anguish, they shared with me that Godaikaka needed to be shifted from Kharagpur to Kolkata because he had been having trouble breathing.

As we were trying to figure out our schedules so we could get to Kolkata at the soonest, my parents received a call from my elder sister in Kharagpur that my uncle had passed away on the way to the hospital.
Over the last decade, I have lost many a family member in my large joint family. We often share as a family how the joys of a big family also come with the magnified experiences of loss as family members age and pass away.

Loss is something that I have come to accept as a part of growing older, as the generation before us age, face health crises, and come to negotiate the reality of death.

Yet this death left me struggling to find an anchor in meaning-making. It is as if I have been left in mid-air, trying to make sense of events, trying to come to terms with the reality that my Godaikaka is no more a silent presence in my life, urging me to take up new projects, offering gentle guidelines, and always standing as an invitation to do much much more for those who are exploited by an extractive system.

Godaikaka was a source of inspiration for many of us siblings. An inspiration for our entire family. A bachelor all his life, he dedicated himself to his students in the village school that was over 30 miles away from our house in Kharagpur, to helping the poor, and to organizing workers at local factories. As a union organizer, he listened to the voices of the workers he worked with and sought to create spaces for their presence.

As an uncle, he dedicated himself to our learning, always inspiring, offering lessons and guidance, and nurturing us. As he became a grandfather over the last decade, he took to giving the same special attention to his grandchildren. For many a family event, Godaikaka was the chief organizer, silently putting together plans, making sure that we had many joys to celebrate as a family. Our garden blossomed with flowers that he gently took care of. The garden was his favorite place, and we all learned gardening working beside him, taking care of the seed, planting it, watering it gently. The winter months were full of vegetables, cauliflower, okra, eggplant, that he grew in the garden.

That an ethic of selflessness is possible, Godaikaka demonstrated with his life. He lived a life of giving, ensuring that many of his students from the village of Benapur had access to pathways of education that were otherwise beyond their reach. He spent hours teaching them outside the classroom. Our living room would turn into his classroom on weekends and in the evenings, with his students spread across the room, trying to solve math problems. He did all this for free, also stepping in to offer them encouragement and inspiration.

For students that didn't have financial resources, he negotiated with my grandmother (nana) provisions for adopting the students so they could live in our home and continue their studies.

Godaikaka's ethic of selflessness also meant that he paid attention to the needs of those that didn't have access to basic resources. I am reminded of the time when I took him for dialysis and saw the torn shirt he was wearing. I was frustrated. "What happened to the many shirts we bring for him?" I thought. He stacked away each new shirt he received as a gift so he could give away the shirt to someone in need. He planned the ration of his new clothes to give out to the poor who were in need.

Another time I noticed he didn't finish all his food after the dialysis, putting away the eggs and other special treats. When I asked him why he didn't finish the food, he just nodded his head. On his way out of the clinic, he would hand over the neatly packed food that he put away to the support staff that care for him.

Such was Godaikaka. Even amid suffering, thinking about the needs of someone else.

That an ethic of selflessness can offer a very different kind of anchor to the neoliberal narrative of self-driven accumulation, I had the privilege to witness a different possibility in the life of my uncle.

In his life, by living his life, Godaikaka taught me the meaningfulness of a life that is more than self-centered calculation. The possibility of a life that is grounded in a commitment to the other, to nurturing the other.

As I struggle with the loss of my Godaikaka, I know one lesson that will stay with me: That ethic of selflessness is a possibility. A lesson that I hope my children carry with them as a mantra.


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