The sense of an ending

In any man who dies there dies with him
his first snow and kiss and fight….
Not people die but worlds die in them.
—Yevgeny Yevtushenko, People


At 21, the only tragedy she knew in life was the Phil Collins’ song Rain Down On Me. So she desperately yearned for the experience, a tragedy that would make her break down in the middle of the street, fall to her knees as it rained down on her. The objective of tragic books, poems, songs and movies was not lost on her. They did what they were supposed to do to untainted souls—her lack of experience was fulfilled by somebody else’s description of it. And like everyone else easily swayed by the power of words, she assumed that any tragic experience would be a transcendental one. But when tragedy struck in the form of the death of a friend, she could not make sense of anything. Her mortal self could barely comprehend the complexity of the non-existence of a human being. Contrary to all she thought would follow the death of a loved one, the world did not come to a halt. Nor did the pain induce any chest-beating and wailing which perhaps was, she later mused, more of a cultural thing. And on the 13th day of funeral rituals, she had a plate of puri-tarkari, the same dish she shared every other Friday with the friend who was no more. No one actually cared for its significance. People still thronged the Pashupatinath temple, sitting on the same bench as they did before without realising that the God of Destruction could not save them if they were to die that very instant.
The news of death is like travelling on a plane that is about to crash. Though travellers are well aware that the end is near, they do not entirely believe it until it actually happens. There’s always a lingering hope for things to play out differently, for the engines to roar and continue the flight, or for the dead to turn out to be mere missing persons waiting to be found. More so when the living do not attend the final rites, do not actually see the dead body being cremated or buried. The illusion is even stronger then. Maybe it was because of this that she never quite got over her death. Or because she was unable to answer multiple questions related to the death. For all the years she spent reading Nancy Drews and Hardy Boys as a kid, no sleuthing ever got to the bottom of it all. Who was to know, a real case would far surpass all mystery novels or CSI episodes? It felt like a betrayal to the kid who had been brainwashed into believing in the victory of the good over the bad in all things in life. All it took was one death to alter her view on life and people, though not without a struggle.

Often, it is not the dead who are in need of the ‘rest in peace’ prayers, but the living.  And the living, confused as they are, do not know the way to do it. Society’s way of handling death by sweeping it under the carpet is of little help. It is personal grief, supposed to end on its own. People die and the living are just meant to overlook the fact that a world of their own perished with them. One’s solidarity with the friends and family of the dead is to be expressed by offering plastic bags filled with fruit, not by talking about what the person meant to them. It naturally prolonged the sense of closure she had been seeking, which only came six years later and in the form of a container of Ilam orthodox tea.

“We’re here to study the possibilities of orthodox tea,” she explained to the older woman.

“I think I have one in the kitchen,” the woman replied, heading towards it while she followed. “Is this the one?” the woman asked, showing her a container.

“Yes, but this isn’t the best kind. You must buy the local kind. Try white tea. It’s good for your health,” she replied.

And sometime between the conversation on orthodox tea, her work, the woman’s heading towards the kitchen and her explaining of the way to drink it, they both knew it wasn’t tea they were talking of. In a room filled with photos of the young girl who lived no more, they were in effect bonding in the wake of the tragedy her death had left behind. Though they experienced the tragedy differently, they were united in their suffering. It was a conversation that should have taken place a long time ago. It was a meeting long overdue. The sense of an ending finally came to her in the form of a conversation with her friend’s mother. She had finally conducted the final rites.

…………………………………………

History isn’t the lies of the victors, as I once glibly assured Old Joe Hunt; I know that now. It’s more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated.
—Julian Barnes, 
The Sense of an Ending

The day his body arrived at the TIA was like any other. The weather was no different from the day before and nothing eventful happened on the bus she took to Gaushala, with a Kumar Sanu song playing in full volume from the speakers. Her friends said that his face looked swollen, but it didn’t look any different from the way she remembered it. They placed her friend, who was now a lifeless body, beside the Brahmanal. People lined up to pour drops of ganga jal on his mouth and bid goodbye. She did not believe in the powers of ganga jal, nor of heavens nor hells beyond, but she poured a few drops on his mouth ritually. She wanted to linger for a while, place her hands on his chest and break down, for her share of tragedies were getting increasingly unbearable. But she neither put her hand on his chest nor shed tears. She merely looked at the face of the dead man, unperturbed. After they placed the body on the pyre, someone threw his cheena on it. It instantly caught fire and burnt. For a man who loved to write, the document which supposedly predicts the life of a person from birth turning into ashes this way reflected a true ending. The cheena could have never predicted this death nor answered all the difficult questions his head was burdened with. He indeed beat the cheena in its own game. It was perhaps a moment of victory for the writer in him, the instant when he wrote his own ending as opposed to what was written for him.

He would not return from the dead; he was not Jesus. All the jokes he made of haunting people would never come true. Maybe the emotional fool that he was thought otherwise—that existence, which seemed unbearable to him, would be different when he rose from the dead. But she knew better. His body had now mingled with the elements it was made of. Perhaps he had attained his freedom. Perhaps the journey of Dean Moriarty, as he liked to call himself, had indeed begun. But how was she to know that? How was she to ever know what he saw in the canvas of nothingness and the unusual lines he drew in them? For the living, unlike the dead, only have their senses to trust. All experiences beyond are mere imagination. So with each death the living must consciously destroy the worlds built around them. It is definitely tragic but then it’s also just life—“solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” as Hobbes called it.

Originally published in the TKP, July 13

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2 comments

  1. I just finished watching a documentary about people with terminal illness and now this piece about death, which I must compliment you on, it’s very well written.

    Ever since I’ve been a part of my Mum’s struggle with cancer, it has troubled me to acknowledge the ultimate truth. It has changed me, death scares me. Every visit to the doctor and every little complain my family has makes me anxious and I tend to assume the worst. I wonder if its only me or there are people out there who worry unnecessarily about the inevitable!

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