On September 21, my mother would have turned 86. She died five months ago. But lest anyone thinks this another obituary, I want to make it perfectly clear that it is not. Rather I want to talk about the phenomenon of death and how it hits you in the face, even while you are busy making a life.
To begin with, there’s no escaping it. We are all on some supernatural death row from the minute we are born. Certainly, we give our lives meaning. We do amazing things: we build nations, machines, welfare systems, philanthropic organizations; we do astounding research in medicine, physics, chemistry; we sing songs, play guitar and make it snappy; we write symphonies and operas, novels, poetry, even columns like this one. It is our only shot at immortality. Buried, burned or otherwise disposed off, our mortal coil is just that: mortal. Remember the root of the word is Latin for death.
It’s not my intent to be a Woody Allen and obsess about death. We don’t need that because the fear of death is programmed into our DNA. We eat healthy, we work out; we give up cigarettes, booze and the libertine lifestyle. All in the hope we get a few years more on this planet. That desire drives people who live in sylvan estates or in deplorable slums; the investment banker who lives on 95 and Fifth in Manhattan as well the tribal in basic Africa; the person on a luxury yacht in the Mediterranean as well the illegal immigrant stowing away on a cargo ship.
Nobody told me that death is the only certainty in life for all the years I spent in respectable educational institutions. In school, there was an unstated belief in God that the Jesuits pushed; university life was girded by the Calvinist ethic of hard work, burning the midnight oil. After that, the job was the Holy Grail. You must find one, keep one and rise in the ranks. Better homes, nicer cars, club memberships, business class travel and various other diversions take your mind off from the inevitability of death.
So we build the tangled web of ambition and relationships. It diverts our minds, stuck as we are on this wonderful death row that we call life. I have a sunny disposition like Louis Armstrong, who in 1967 sang What a Wonderful World, a song that was written for him by the legendary jazz impresario Bob Thiele. Its opening lyrics went like this:
I see trees of green, red roses too
See them bloom for me and you
And I think to myself what a wonderful world
I see skies of blue, and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself what a wonderful world
We enjoy this world: springtime in Chicago, autumn in New England, a night in Manhattan, a drive on Pacific Coast Highway from San Francisco to Los Angeles, (corny though it sounds) an evening in Paris, a drive through the English and French countryside, a Beatles number, an Ellington tune or some good old Hindi songs by Rafi, Kishore, Mukesh or Geeta Dutt; even more mundane experiences like a drink at the retro bar in the air force station in Ayanagar on the Delhi-Gurgaon border, dinner with friends in Bandra, a singsong at our house, a great movie, a good concert, an absorbing play, a stirring opera. And for many of us, the satisfaction of work and the concomitant rewards, both spiritual and material.
My personal preference remains Goa in the Monsoon. There are trees of green and flowers too. But the skies are grey; the clouds are black and ominous; the night is indeed sacred and dark with sheets of rain and gale force winds. Contemplating the violence of nature, I am reminded that we are mortals and we can be swept away by the sinister forces of nature.
These experiences define our lives. Otherwise there is a void, a few lonely years in a death watch cell. We seek love and solace. When we get that, we are immortal; others want more and they are Shakespeare, Blake, DaVinci, Einstein, Gaugin, Van Gogh, Mozart, Beethoven, Edison, Burke, Jefferson, Voltaire, Freud, Marx, Gates or any of the IT pioneers. People like them advance civilization. The rest of us just enjoy the fruits of their genius.
In the end, there is no greater comfort and joy than sharing a daily dinner table, a weekend lunch in the garden or Christmas with the family. These experiences run for a good 50 years or so in an individual’s life until the children, both us and ours, grow up and move away, sometimes physically but always emotionally. We enjoy it while we can and then contemplate the sunset years. Some of us are lucky to have friends to brighten up our evenings and weekends; and work to keep us busy through the day.
Into this cocoon of happiness that we build and protect, sometimes the reality of life creeps in. This happened when my mother died and left my father with us, Alzheimer’s and all. The grief has eased but I cannot get rid of the stench of death in my house. It is an acrid smell that no amount of Lysol, scented candles and room sprays can get rid off. It hangs in there, dismal and irreversible: a sinister prospect of death. My father, who shared his birthday with my mother, turned 89 on September 21. In his dementia, I can hear the ticking of the mortal clock.