According to the Government of Canada website, every day, an average of more than 10 Canadians dies by suicide. For every person lost to suicide, many more experience thoughts of suicide or suicide attempts. For every death by suicide, at least 7 to 10 survivors are significantly affected by the loss. For Kavita Gupta, the protagonist of Anita Kushwaha’s award-winning novel Side by Side, it is the loss of her brother Sunil that has affected her and her parents. Sunil had long been suffering from mental health issues, and it was always Kavita who coaxed him along, trying to get her beloved brother back on track. Despite her best efforts, he goes missing and is found dead days later from an overdose of pills and alcohol. Kavita is left wondering if she could have done more. Guilt consumes her every moment, day and night.However, the real tragedy of Sunil’s suicide is the effect it has on each member of the Gupta family. Each grieves in their own way, causing them to turn away from each other rather than drawing together at such a time. Her mother retreats to Sunil’s bedroom to mourn, the father to his own room, leaving Kavita to deal with the paperwork and details of his funeral and so on. It all gets to be too much for Kavita and she starts self-harming in order to control her emotions.
Digging her nails deeply into her palm, Kavita focuses on the sharp pain, the captive heat burning in her flesh that won’t know the release of broken skin. This pain she can handle. This pain she knows she deserves.
At the funeral, the family, along with Kavita’s husband Nirav is brought into the room where Sunil’s closed coffin resides.
At first sight of it, Kavita’s legs feel boneless. She gropes for Nirav’s arm. They are told to take as long as they wish before the funeral director shuts them inside the dreadful room. If there is a moment when Kavita’s heart breaks irreparably, it then, as she witnesses her parents break right before her eyes.
Her mother runs her hands along the casket in a stupor, as though trying to see Sunil’s body through the wood grain. At his feet, she pauses. Slowly drapes herself over the casket. Kisses his feet in an act of prostration, supplication. Her weeping echoes against the vaulted ceiling, echoes inside Kavita’s hollow middle, the awful sound spreading cracks along her veins. Her skin is the only thing keeping her together.
Her father delicately lays flowers on the coffin lid above Sunil’s heart, places one hand over his head, and gently strokes the mahogany, as though stroking Sunil’s brow, like he did on the nights Sunil had trouble sleeping when he was a child. His shoulders begin to shake. “My baby,” he whispers. “My boy.”
Oh Sunil, Kavita whispers as the first tears crest. What have you done to yourself? My poor Bear. Look what you’ve done to yourself.
Into the coffin, she sends a stream of regret. You’ll never marry the woman of your dreams. Or have children. Or teach them to skip stones. You’ll never meet your nieces and nephews. Or hear them call you Sunil mama. And they’ll never know their uncle…
She stops. The coffin is too small to contain all the dreams that should have been, had he lived.
In the days ahead, Kavita is tormented by her self-named emotions of Anchor, Blaze and Black Gloom, all doing their part to break Kavita down. The worst is yet to come when she travels with Nirav back to London to visit his family after his grandmother dies. Because of the stigma surrounding suicide, Nirav has never told his family about Sunil. Inevitably, Kavita is asked about him.
And how about your brother?” Nisha Auntie goes on. How is Sunil?”
Although Kavita hears the words, she doesn’t understand their meaning, as though Nisha Auntie has suddenly switched to Bengali. She must have misheard.
“I’m sorry? “
“Your brother,” Nisha Auntie repeats. “How is his health? Will he be marrying soon? I know some nice girls.”
Before Kavita has a chance to respond, a hand claws her elbow and thrusts her out of the room. In the solitude of the foyer, Mrs. Stone [Nirav’s mother] whispers deeply into her ear, “No one knows about him. “
Side by Side is so well crafted that the reader distinctly perceives Kavita’s horror every step of the way. She is dragged down slowly by so many emotions and circumstances that we wonder how Kavita can go on. Plus the fact that all her loved ones – in particular, her husband – who should be supportive, are anything but. Inevitably, a marital rift occurs between her and Nirav.
This was truly a book that I found hard to put down at night. It is not surprising that it won a silver medal at the IPPY awards for Multicultural Fiction. I am putting it on the 2020 longlist for “The Very Best!” Book Awards for Fiction.
“A must-read for anyone going through or wanting to understand the process of bereavement.” — Sonia Saikaley, author of A Samurai’s Pink House and The Lebanese Dishwasher.
Side by Side by Anita Kushwaha
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