When was it that I started dreading death? I can’t even decide whether it is death that I dreaded or the full stop that it puts to little things we foolishly think are perpetual.
I must have been about eight when I heard this word ‘death’ for the first time. It is not an age when one understands the meaning of life, let alone that of death. There was a lake near our house. Occasionally, a strange crowd would gather there. Whenever it happened, my mother would call me inside. She would then light a lamp whatever time of day it was, as if she was trying to stop some kind of darkness from invading our home. I was not allowed to venture out while the crowd was still there. I had seen different sorts of crowds there, noisy festive ones, and had even been a part of them. But the strange thing about this one was its silence and I was curious to know the reason.
I got my chance one day when mother was not home. I saw the crowd gather and joined it with my best friend Suresh. It was not a beautiful, picturesque kind of lake we had read about in storybooks. It was a large stinking body of very opaque greenish water, held captive by four stonewalls. What we saw there on that summer afternoon made us shiver with excitement. Something had been pulled out from the lake and laid on the pavement. Though covered with slime and waterweeds, it was still recognizable as a human body. The thing we found most amazing was the size of that body. It was very fat, so fat that it seemed to spill out of the tattered clothes. I thought it very funny that so fat a man should wear such undersized clothes.
From then on, I did not miss the macabre spectacle whenever it happened. We children would stare in awe rather than fear, as the bloated bodies were pulled out of the lake. It was stupid I thought that they should choose to drown themselves in that stinking water, since all of them seemed so very well fed. It was much later that I learnt the effects three days of submergence has on a human body. The corpses were so bloated that we could not tell whether it was a man or a woman. Only the clinging shreds of clothing gave some indication. And their faces seemed to have attracted more fish than any other part of the body.
The lake apparently was a favourite spot for unhappy souls and most of the suicides happened in the part of lake closest to our house. At least the bodies were found there. I don’t know if it was depth of water there or some other obscure reason behind it. I also don't know why but the number of suicides doubled in summer, which provided us an extra dose of entertainment during our summer vacations. I saw many dead people while we lived there. Yet, I can’t say I understood the concept of death then.
Once, my mother spotted me in the crowd. I was very afraid of repercussions in case she told my father. But apparently she didn’t. That night, I snuggled up close to her and asked her about the funnily swollen bodies that were fished out from the lake. It is called death. Everyone dies, but not necessarily so horribly, she told me. And what happens when we die? We go to heaven. But one must never call out to a dying person, or else he is distracted from his path to heaven, she told me with a kind of finality I had never expected from her.
Okay, I won’t distract anyone from the path to heaven, I promised myself. But what’s the harm in seeing them take it? However interesting the spectacle of bloated bodies might have been, it was not death in real sense to me. Seeing them drown would be more exciting, I reckoned. Given the frequency of suicides, we would definitely witness someone doing it if we stayed there whole night, I argued with my friends. But I could never persuade the gang to do that. “What if something that has stayed under water for three days, decides to come up just then?” Suresh would ask. That wouldn’t be so funny, I would agree. I did not have the nerve to stay there alone. So I missed seeing it actually happen.
Suresh had no parents but he had a grandmother. He also had a grandfather, but the old man did nothing except sit in the sun and smoke bidis. Nobody in the neighborhood seemed to care for the old couple’s existence except our landlord, who always threatened to throw them out if they did not pay their overdue rent.
One rainy morning, I heard loud wails from their house. I ran there to find the old woman sprawled on floor with her mouth open. Dark brown tea was still boiling in a blackened aluminum pot on the fire. The old man was crying loudly while neighbors crowded at the door of their tiny tenement, trying to get a glimpse of the old lady. “How pious she was! See, she was making tea for the old man, even while she was dying. Must have gone straight to heaven!” women whispered in hushed voices. I was very disappointed. Here was my chance to see someone actually going to heaven, and I had missed it! I then wondered what would happen to the tea. Will the old man drink it?
Later in the day, the old woman was decked in flowers before they took her away. Even the mighty landlord had laid a wreath at her feet and bowed to her! Death seemed very confusing to me then.
I could not decide whether death was strange, confusing or plain funny. The thought that death could be a sad thing did not cross my mind at that time. To me it was mildly amusing to see grown-ups crying aloud in those strange voices seemingly reserved for a death event. I remember laughing aloud while everybody was crying, when my own grandma died a couple of years later. The funny thing was everybody had complained about her living for so long, until she finally died at ninety-eight. My uncle slapped me hard! But when two of my cousins started fighting over which ghaat (cremation ground) to take her body to, I could not suppress myself and laughed aloud again. This time, many others joined me. Death is funny, after all!
When my uncle died -the same one who had slapped me- I was twelve, old enough not to laugh. This time I insisted on visiting the ghaat for the cremation. I was even allowed to be there for collecting his ashes on the third day. So much firewood and the body, but now reduced to just a bagful of ash! The power of fire humbled me more, not so much that of death. Excitedly I raked up the ashes. I was hoping to see the black ball of carbon that I was told forms inside the chest of a chain smoker. My uncle had been a chain smoker but there was no black ball of carbon in there. Death can be a disappointment.
The next time I had a brush with death was when our dog died. The cur had never been a civilized beast. I am not too sure if it was our dog really. He had just followed us to our new house when we moved from the old one. Even touching him was a hazardous exercise but I somehow managed to bathe him once a year. I had grown fond of him and he would obey only me, to a certain extent. One chilly winter morning, the fellow just did not wake up. After several failed attempts to call him to attention, I gingerly prodded him in the ribs. Death is cold, I learnt at fourteen.
I then saw the ugly face of death when I was twenty. I had rushed into a hospital carrying a child in my arms, his feeble heart still beating. I had to request a passerby to take us to the hospital on his scooter. My sister –the child’s mother- reached there too late, riding a slow cycle rickshaw. I was alone there when I saw death in the resigned faces of white aprons that hovered over the child, like helpless angels. Finally a syringe of adrenaline sinking in the soft tissue of a tiny heart and disappearing in the dark void inside. Meningitis was just an exotic word I read on a piece of paper the doctor thrust in my hands. That was the ugliest face of death I had ever seen in my twenty years of life.
I saw many other deaths by the time I reached forty, but my curiosity about death had died by then. In its place, a faint apprehension of death had grown. No longer wishing to see it happen, I rather started dreading death. When attending funerals, I tried to stay as far back as possible, to avoid seeing the dead. Then one day I got the frantic call from my brother. Doctors had given up on my father. I did not rush through traffic signals.
Later I learnt that with his last gasp, father had chosen me for performing the last rites, a task traditionally reserved for the eldest son, which I am not. I will have to wear this shameful face that his death has given me for life. Death is a shame. It makes a coward of you.
So the day my aunt died, I stayed home with her. It was my mother’s birthday and all us brothers & sisters had gathered at my place, when my aunt’s health suddenly deteriorated. My aunt had been married to dad’s elder brother and we had stayed together in a joint family. Later, when I started living in my own house, she had moved with me. My mother too had been living with me since my dad’s demise. They both were very close to each other. A childless widow, my aunt had also become my de facto mother through the unconditional love she showered on me. We called her mothi aai (big mom). I believed I was the luckiest guy on earth with two mothers! I wanted to be there for her when it was her time. I won’t be a coward this time, I had promised myself. I left her just for a moment to check my mail. As I was typing the password, I heard the screams.
I ran to her and felt for heartbeats. I can’t say for sure when did I get this fascination for the sound of heartbeats. It was on a whim that I had bought this stethoscope though I am not in a medical profession. Put it to a loved one’s chest and listen. You can hear so many unsaid things!
For fifteen minutes I kept the stethoscope pressed to her chest. Mothi aai was alive, I told everyone! Faint, but I could hear the rhythmic sound. I waited for it to fade away, to be sure that I did not miss it this time. Finally the doctor arrived and politely told me to let go. “You are hearing your own heartbeats man, through your fingertips on that stethoscope”. Death can be very deceptive.
I was performing the tenth day rites for my aunt at the ghaat when my cell phone rang. I will not be disturbed at this moment by petty business matters, I told myself and tried to concentrate on the rites. The phone kept ringing until I picked it up in irritation. “MOTHER!” the phone screamed in a shrill voice that had no resemblance to my wife’s. I left the rites unfinished and broke every single traffic signal on my mad rush back home.
Just an hour ago, mother had sent me off to the ghaat, double-checking that I had all the things needed for the rites. Then she had discussed my aunt’s going with the assembled guests and accepted their unending condolences. Later she had excused herself and walked to the furthest room, making sure that nobody followed her; my wife told me between sobs.
I found mother there, lying on the bed, with a smile on her unmoving lips. She seemed happy to be alone in her last moment, nobody to distract her from her heaven’s path. This was a totally different face of death I was seeing. It was peaceful, yes, and almost…beautiful?
Death had stopped being funny a long time ago. It was not even confusing anymore, or ugly. For the first time in my life, I did not feel curiosity, amusement, aversion or cowardice as I stared death in the face. 'Death is nothing without life', the smiling face seemed to say, ‘don’t dread death’.
© Rajendra Pradhan