Wednesday, December 21, 2011

This business of death.

“..That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
Oh, keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men,
Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again!” T.S.Eliot. (The Wasteland)

Lets talk about death. And fear. And why we do not talk about these things. Although they walk hand in hand with us every day and smile back at us each time we look into the mirror. Chilling, isn’t it? The eyes that smile into your eyes also holds the cold glance of death, the haughty tilt of your head also hides a dying bent frame. For what else is death, where else is it, except with us, rising awake even as we sleep? Waiting, forever waiting, in the wings.
And it is not just our own deaths I’m talking of here. Death has an uncanny way of sneaking up on you and snaking into your routine, when you least expect it to. Relatives, friends, relatives of relatives of friends of friends, the list is endless and the duties manifold. Possibly not every one takes the business of dying with some quantum of seriousness, however, speaking for myself, possibly I was among the few who grew up learning to attend to the dead. Oh yes, the dead have to be attended to: the preparation for that final ride to the crematorium or the burial ground is a fussy matter indeed!
When we were young, my father never shielded me from death. Other relatives would look at him aghast: “too young”, and “but, she is a girl”, but my father was unperturbed by the flack he got, preferring instead to let me see things for myself, as they were. Sometimes, in my silence, I wonder, did he then maybe somehow suspect that he might not be around as I grew older or was he only ensuring I stayed strong when it was my turn to prepare him as he left on his final journey? Whatever, it does not matter. Thing is, somehow we grew up taking death as a cranky relative, not one that you particularly like or invite to tea, but one who does turn up uninvited at your doorstep now and then. For while death and misery lived nearby somewhere, so did life and love and laughter. We had no time to stop and think and worry about relatives we did not like when friends such as these surrounded us!

Which brings me to fear.

“And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”
T.S. Eliot.
One of the most enduring images of my father is of him striding in a dark room, torch in hand, striking the beam to the darkest corners, yes, even under the bed daring us to find a tiger! I was scared. We had returned from a cousin’s place where every step of the way we had been assured that if we were naughty there was a ‘joojoo’ waiting to grab us or a tiger lurking behind the curtains. Yes we had been assured that these creatures lay in wait for us even in the safety of our own homes. When I returned home to announce this newfound discovery, I'm afraid I didn't quite expect the effect I received. For one thing, my father was hopping mad! “Nonsense,” he declared and as he dragged us from one dark room to another to prove us wrong! He was adamant, “and don't let anyone tell you otherwise, he said.
I learnt the lesson that night.
We were never taught to fear creatures that existed only in story books or our imaginations, we were not taught to fear the unknown. We were taught to fear more tangible things, like the disapproval of a parent. Or the result of not trying.
And so whenever any maid or relative has tried to frighten any of my children, no matter how innocuously it may be, I have protested. But nothing frightens like fright. So when they were small, late in the night sometimes I was quietly asked questions. l realize now that all they wanted was the assurance that these creatures, these ghosts and their ilk did not exist. No, I was not as dramatic as my father but one day when my elder daughter, who at age 6 used to be very clingy shyly confessed that she was afraid that I would die, I realized things were maybe going too far. Gentle prodding revealed that someone had actually told her that I was ailing and would die. Now THAT is wholly unfair, for who does not fear the death or the loss of a loved one? And how mean and heartless would you have be to say something as traumatic as that to a child? And it took me a good year or two to convince her otherwise: gentle explaining and love were the only tools I had for the purpose.
No, I never let unknown fears unnerve me, Baba never taught us to shy away or back out. I have no sympathy when someone exclaims she is afraid of flying or of the dark or of sleeping alone at night. But that does not mean that I do not know fear, I've tasted it's metallic tang often enough, I’ve walked in it’s shadow, I’ve come out of it alive and stronger. Yet, despite all my bravado I too fear loss and death. Not my own, but that of people I love and care for. Isn’t that the most common fear going around?
I too wake up sometimes near morning, heart thumping, face wet from tears of a nightmare I dare not remember and lie awake waiting for dawn. I too am afraid. But real bravery, as they say is not the absence of fear, it’s carrying on despite it. And that’s what I try to teach my children, that’s all I really think they need to learn in life. Once you learn to face your fears and meet them head on, life takes care of the rest.
No matter what.