When I lost my Thatha, my maternal grandfather, in January 2011, I was devastated. He had been incredibly close to me and his death was the first time I experienced true, debilitating loss. Its crushing permanency and stark, opaque reality took me by surprise; I wondered if the hole it had seemed to drill through my heart would ever repair.

However, what surprised me more was the relative ease with which I moved on. It took me a while, and for a long time thinking of him still brought tears to my eyes. But the grief I had presumed to be irreparable did fade, and life did return to its normal, comfortable routine. It made me feel superficial and unfeeling. Was I so cold that I could escape from the grips of such a terrible loss without being permanently scarred?

The experience seemed to validate the rather cynical view of human nature that I had developed. Human resilience depressed me. Every morning, we read stories in the news that sadden us: “66 dead, 54 injured in train crash… Terrorists blow up hotel… Floods claim lives.” Every day, we walk past the poor and the destitute — who are so ubiquitous that they are sometimes invisible to us — living lives of misery. Every day, we encounter tragedies that by all means should tear us apart emotionally. However, confronted by these happenings, we sigh, we sympathise, we pray for those in distress — sometimes we even help them in our small ways — and then we just continue with our atomised, quotidian lives, moved yet unaffected. It disturbed me how we all seemed to live like islands in impervious bubbles, which pain and sorrow would touch, but never invade.

Then I read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.

I discovered Gaiman (an acclaimed English author known for his mythic-fantastic fiction) four years ago and since then, his work has led me through several epiphanies that have defined my worldview. And page 320 of American Gods, where the Egyptian god Thoth philosophises about human nature, led me to another such epiphany.

“No man, proclaimed Donne, is an island, and he was wrong. If we were not islands, we would be lost, drowned in each other’s tragedies. We draw lines around moments of pain, and remain upon our islands, and they cannot hurt us. They are covered with a smooth, safe, nacreous layer to let them slip, pearl-like from our souls, without real pain.”

Reading these lines, my perspective suddenly shifted. I realised that I had been wrong all along. The human tendency to forget and heal is not a character flaw. Nor is it a virtue. It is a survival tactic. Had I let Thatha’s death cut me open, I would never have stopped bleeding.

A few days later, I saw a very real confirmation of this. My mother works as a paediatrician in a government-run medical college. Poverty, sickness, death — these are for her as mundane and inevitable as the sunrise and sunset. That day, when she returned home, I saw pain on her face. She got on with her daily schedule nevertheless — she cooked dinner, asked my brother and me about school, drove us to swimming practice — but I could see that she was disconcerted. Upon enquiring, I discovered that a baby had died of dengue. “How do you do it, Amma?,” I asked her. “How do you deal with so much suffering every day, and then walk out of the hospital and move on with your daily life? Don’t you feel callous?”

“See Devika, she said, ‘human suffering is limitless. If you see what I see, you’d realise, it is limitless. We expose a tiny fraction of our hearts to it, and yet we get burnt. If we could expose all of ourselves to it and feel its true immensity, it would cripple us. We would never be able to do our jobs. Dispassion — it is a gift.”

First published in Tehelka Magazine, Issue 31 Volume 11 on August 2, 2014.