My last essay was about the banality of travel in our time. This one could well have been about the banality of death these days, the callous forgetfulness of the living towards the dead. Deaths of kin, friends and acquaintances begin to resemble a steady pageant as we approach the middle years. We are expected to become seasoned spectators of the procession. Individual deaths are quickly relegated by the everyday pressures of survival to an intermediate purgatorial mental space, perpetually threatened by and at the same time held back from the chasm of oblivion. Death itself begins to resemble a Hobbesian Leviathan, a colossal presence made up of the individual deceased. News of deaths disrupt, albeit flittingly, the arranged mirth that we use to keep boredom at bay.
Earlier when I used to live in Kolkata, the sight of a mourner in white, hair dishevelled, stubble on the chin, a jute mat tied to the waist, bare feet minimally buffered by what Bengalis call the haowai choti (this is before the now ubiquitous crocs arrived), would usually command some attention on the bus. I would gaze and wonder whether the man had lost his father or mother. I would look closely for marks of grief and for clues about the person’s social and economic standing. The sight of a man compelled by circumstances to return to quotidian existence close on the heels of a parent’s death, boldly walking down the street or casually seated on the bus, consciously ignoring the furtive glances in his direction, would embarrass the passerby and the co-passenger.
I have often wondered whether blown-up photographs of the lately departed actually aid remembrance. Tagore’s song “Tumi ki keboli chhobi” (“Are you just a picture?”) bears out that irony. Photographs are a hopelessly inadequate substitute for the actual person. Photographs underline the finality of death with chilling irrevocability, not the immortality of the deceased. Static, framed, walled, they make a diffident presence in living rooms and bedrooms. Sometimes, though, if the deceased happens to have wielded a considerable degree of psychological power in the household, then the photograph, elevated to the wall, take on an authoritarian panopticon-like gaze. They are duly garlanded on birth or death anniversaries and then shorn bare after the flowers have withered. A living person, by contrast, occupies the entire floor space of our carefully adorned middle-class apartments. So do their footwear, their beds and their articles of daily use. Some of the familiar worldly goods, the vacated bed, the umbrella left behind, the vacant sandals are feelingly accommodated in the Bengali Hindu funeral (the only kind of funeral I know). On that day, the departed one continues to occupy floor space, albeit in absentia. It is a touching arrangement. Even as the empty bedding and the personal belongings afford a stark reminder of the erstwhile living body’s absence, they are offered as comforts for the departed soul in their wanderings, “Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course, / With rocks, and stones, and trees.” We continue to clothe the soul in a body even after the body has been burnt to ashes!
The walls in our apartments, on the other hand, have a decorative function, carefully punctuated with frames aimed at conveying the right kind of visual information about the household’s cultural status. Framed photographs reinforce more than anything else the fact that a person once dead will not be seen again on earth. Death is the negative particle magnified: no, not, nothing, never, nowhere, as in King Lear’s speech after Cordelia’s death: “Thou’lt come no more, / never, never, never, never, never!” Framed photographs actually resist visibility, unlike the chance photograph discovered in an old album, hard drive or email inbox. They are a more effective aid to forgetting than to remembering.
Having said that, I must also acknowledge that the departed have an extended afterlife in the era of the home-video. My mother showed my sister-in-law a professionally done video of my wedding because it is one of the few documents that feature my father in life, walking, talking, smiling, gesturing … My father, still alive in a video clip being played at my brother’s house many thousands of miles away, a house that my father did not live to visit, can be said to have acquired the kind of insubstantial, phantom-like, drifting being that Virgil attributes to the dead in the Aeneid. In death my father can travel anywhere, be everywhere, like the Invisible Man. I never watch that video, lest I reach out to my father in vain the way Aeneas tries to embrace his father’s spirit in the Underworld.
We classify deaths these days, untimely deaths, shockingly sudden deaths, self-inflicted deaths, deaths in ripe old age crowning a long life marked by a degree of fulfilment, success and happiness, painful deaths that putatively bring a release from prolonged terminal illness, mass deaths in man-made disasters, mass deaths in natural calamities, and we adjust the measure of our grieving accordingly.
The lively presence of children at memorial ceremonies, much as they are upbraided for threatening to dilute the solemnity of such occasions, actually relieves frowning adults of the burden of mourning. In Bengali Hindu middle-class households, there are gastronomic and sartorial codes around memorial meetings. The host and hostess must ask guests, “Kheyechhen to? I hope the dhnokaar daalna is up to the mark? And the shukto?”
An elegant lady in white clearly has an inventory of designer white saris and unobtrusive jewellery to boot. Perhaps, there are event managers for funerals and memorial meetings, too, and not just for birthdays and weddings. There are linguistic codes too: the RIP on Facebook. Here’s a disturbing acronym which, like the photograph, ends up cancelling itself. Rip or tear suggests a break, a breach. The acronym is in that sense more potent than the consolatory words it is created out of: “rest in peace”.
When a senior colleague of ours lost his long-ailing mother very recently, we raised a chorus of praise for the long-suffering son and his unstinted filial responsibility and added how the death would bring a much-needed release for him. The charms of life today are many, if you have access to the resources. Hospitals these days are indistinguishable from hotels. Modern life would banish death if it could. However, since deaths may not be banished, the dead, instead, are quickly relegated to a limbo of embarrassed silence. The compulsion to return to gaiety is overbearing. As is the hurry to procure the death certificate, to complete the rituals leading to the incineration, so that the “dead-body” does not begin to decompose and mourners are not left hungry for any uncomfortable length of time. The glass carriage called hearse has certainly bestowed more grace and dignity on the last journey. Yet the hearse betrays the keenness to isolate the dead from the living. Pall-bearers are spared the physical exertion as well as the cold proximity of death.
All modern life is aimed at sparing us physical hardships: hunger, heat, labour. In the discourse of death, too, therefore, grieving is carefully dissociated from self-denial, particularly corporeal self-denial. Self-denial is unproductive in the economic sense. The other day, I saw a family of Bengali Hindu mourners, a man and a woman clad in white, tasting candies at Spencer’s.
Hence contemporary wisdom stresses the preciousness of life, but the need to move over, to re-align oneself with the mainstream is underlined with equal urgency. One is reminded here of Claudius’s advice to Hamlet. And of the Sibyl hurrying Virgil’s Aeneas onward through the Underworld, lest the dead Dido and his dead mariner friends hold him back from the project of resurrecting Troy. The epic of life must go on, though tragedy must linger in pity and fear.
I am also reminded of an LIC television advert. A widow’s careworn expression soon makes way for relief when she realises that her deceased husband’s lifetime savings will finance her daughter’s wedding. Ancient or traditional cultures accord agency to the dead in guiding the lives of the present. In both Virgil’s Aeneid and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart , the dead play the role that is attributed by print cultures to written history. With the rise in both life expectancy and the world’s population, the compulsions of living and living well push the dead to the periphery of collective memory.
Death then is still utterly irreconcilable. Death and life do not mix. The sooner we forget death, the sooner does life become bearable again. We pause, we shudder at the unbearable thought of the same inevitability awaiting us, we banish the thought with desperate alacrity, and we settle back in our hard-earned comforts, till tidings of yet another death renews the fitful rehearsal.
I saw a death a few hours ago, one of those deaths that fill us with awe and marvel and turns itself into a legend. It was an aged lady, frail, yet regal, who quietly succumbed to death barely a month after her husband’s demise. Their marriage had spanned six decades. As the living stood around singing “akashbhora shurjotara bisvobhora pran” (“the sky brimming over with the sun and the moon, the world overflowing with life”), it seemed that they and I were singing a nativity song. A blessed, joyous and serene death. The conversation soon returned to neighbours, pacemakers and child-rearing.