Today’s Saturday; a day to go before Deepavali dawns.
Death floated lazily over me today morning, as She so often does.
Yea, today I saw Death as She. Tomorrow perhaps Death will be He; or perhaps It; or simply the One. Death takes infinite forms, Death rules us all, Death alone among all Gods and Prophets and other fantastic creatures with which we populate our skies and imagination is ever close to us, from the day we are born.
As a dear doctor friend puts it: by far the most common cause of Death is Birth.
No, no, there’s nothing ‘fatalistic’ or morbid at all about discussing Death. In fact, the eve of Deepavali is such an appropriate time to muse on Death; for Death is the End and the Beginning of all things including Time itself.
“Yama, Death, is never to be feared…only respected,” another dear friend had once counselled me, long ago, at a time when she —and we—knew she would die within weeks; a time when I felt the numb desolation and dread that you have felt, all of us have felt, with the realization that one, whom you love dearly, is going to die soon. “Sure, fear pain if you must; but never fear Death. We’re all afraid of pain, of becoming helpless, dependent on others …but Death ends all pain, ends fear…and so never fear Death. You need not invite Yama…He will come when He has to! You needn’t wait for Yama’s arrival, he is never late. But you must respect Him when He arrives.”
The dear friend was Jaya; my mother. The conversation took place over 26 years ago…the morning of 2nd August 1996. She’d gone through a few days of mild, recurring headaches, and when she’d experienced a sudden dizzy spell our neighbor and doctor-friend advised her to get a routine scan just to rule out the possibility of a ‘mild stroke’. So, we called the scanning centre and got an appointment for the next morning; and Jaya and I took an auto-rickshaw to the scanning centre – she vociferously criticizing me and dad all the way for needlessly fussing, and wasting half-a-day (she had a book of hers to proofread, another one to write with a tight deadline), and declaring that it was all a complete waste of time and money, and that just to prove she was fitter than any of us, we would walk home the nine kilometers from the scanning centre.
Well… we sat around at the centre and waited our turn, and I remember there was a little kid there waiting like us with his young parents, the kid was teary-eyed with pain but bravely silent—a terrible spinal injury, his anxious parents told us—and Jaya chatted with the little tyke and teased him and even got him to smile (she had a magical way with children); and then our turn came and I stood next to her while they did the scan, lead-lined coat and all, and even then I knew something was seriously wrong because I had to hold Jaya steady on the trolley, her left arm and leg kept sliding off though she was quite conscious; and then the doctors came out of their little console room and asked permission to do a contrast scan or MRI or something. “Sure…but why?” I asked. “We’re seeing something we’re a little concerned about, we want a better look at it,” they replied. So they injected her with a radio-dye and did the scan again while I stood beside Jaya, and then they took me into their little room and showed me what their screen was showing them, and I forget their exact words but the image on the screen and some of their words phrases are burned into the mind. Mass lesions. Temporo-parietal region. Aggressive glioma. In essence, she was in the terminal stages of a brain cancer.
And after we returned home—of course we didn’t walk—and told dad, and we called brother Bala who was in Bangalore, the enormity of the situation hit like a tidal wave, and Jaya was calmest among us, and she took my hand and led me up to the little corner which was her puja room and she lit the lamp and we had this little chat about respecting Death, and she made me vow that I would not let any surgeon’s knife come near her. She wanted no surgery, no medical interventions. She just wanted to be at home with us. She made me vow by the lamp of the little puja-room upstairs, the lamp that I’d always lit for her from when I was a kid whenever she couldn’t light it herself because she was away, or during the time she’d suffered burns from batik and taken months to recover.
And so I vowed.
Jaya stayed with us at home for two weeks, growing weaker by the day yet almost gently, in little pain other than the on-off mild headaches…she kind of faded away till the night of August 17th when she slipped into coma and we moved her to a hospital where a wonderful doctor took her under his wing, a doctor who knew precisely what to do—and perhaps as important, what not to do. She stayed there for ten days, till Death came for her on the 27th August.
Sorry, gentle Reader, I didn’t expect to meander down this path of personal memory when I started this; but I think that’s the nature of the strange, misty trails that Death sometimes allows us to walk awhile, alongside with those whom She has come for. You too must have walked these trails…they transcend time and space. I mean, here’s something that happened 26 years ago; yet it’s as clear as it happened a moment ago, while I can’t remember anything about yesterday or even much of what’s happened today since I saw Death a few hours ago, while lying on my yoga mat out on the terrace.
Today morning Death took the shape of a bird; a kite, to be precise. Even before I opened my eyes I knew Death was approaching; for the quiet of early morning was shattered by a sudden frenzy of chirping and cheeping and chattering, and hundreds of pigeons and mynahs and bulbuls and doves and sparrows took flight and squirrels and chameleons and garden lizards scampered and scuttled in a mad scramble for cover among the leafy boughs of the park trees or behind walls and flower-pots or beneath bushes and roofs and piles of leaves. The kite floated lazily in an ever-widening circle, high overhead, ever higher, till She disappeared from view beyond the edge of the awning.
The silence endured awhile…but presently, the Wild-Creatures’ all-clear signal was given and the birds and squirrels and lizards and the rest of them returned to their normal morning activities. For a little while, it seemed, there was a new watchfulness in them, perhaps because they’d been reminded of Death, inexorable, inevitable; up there, down here, among us, unseen, watching and waiting, waiting to pick us up at the appointed time. But very soon they were all cheerful and boisterous as before, any fleeting fear evaporated, forgotten.
Perhaps this is as it should be with Death.
Yudhisthira of Great Vyasa’s eternal Play, the ever-questioning Seeker, that impulsive, often unthinking, ever-self-doubting human whom each one of us resembles to some degree, got it right in his interrogation by Death:
Yama: And what is the greatest wonder of the world?
Yudhisthira: Every day, every moment, we see living creatures depart through the Gateway of Yama…yet we live as though we are immortal.
We live as though we are immortal. We must. It is right that we live Life without fearing or obsessing about or dreading Death. What is Life but a fleeting spark in the timeless, dimension-less Realm of Serenity whence comes all that is and was and shall ever be, to flicker and dance awhile in this dream we call Reality and thence return? The Realm that is the Supreme Singularity, the One, the Maha Black Hole whose Event Horizon is the Gateway we call Death?
Omar beheld it so clearly, expressed it so joyfully:
What, without asking, hither hurried whence?
And without asking, thither hurried hence!
Another, another Cup to drown
The Memory of this impertinence!
Death is a mercy, a gift, a blessing, the Lamp-Bearer on the Path Home. Death is a wonderful reason for us to live Life to the fullest; lives that don’t cause others or our own selves hurt or pain or sorrow or despair; lives of joy and laughter and light-heartedness and contentment and exploration and discovery and reflection, of compassion and love and fulfilment.