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Friday, March 01, 2013

Meditations on death and dying, part one

I shall be fifty in a few months’ time. Half a century spent on earth. A lot of my elders, not a few contemporaries, and even a sad number of juniors have already left, and obviously much less time is left for me than I have already spent: it does not make a very big difference now whether that is a few months or a few decades. The Bible says that a man who has lived ‘three score years and ten’ has had a full life and should be glad to go: I learnt about this when I was only a boy ( I spent my first long sleepless nights brooding over death at the ripe old age of seven!), and I have spent all my adult life marveling at what a wise saying that was, and how little it has been invalidated by several recent centuries of social change and technological progress. If I live on much beyond 70, I shall know I am living on borrowed time, and try to conduct myself accordingly. In fact, I don’t find it a cheery thought that a lot of my elders have lived into their late eighties…

My parents married very young. It was in 1988 that we celebrated both their silver jubilee and my father’s fiftieth birthday, and it seems as though it was only yesterday, and now it’s my turn to be fifty! Here is an excerpt from my diary written twelve years ago:

“The strangest thing about my life at this moment is that I’ve just turned 38 and I can’t feel a thing about it, except perhaps wonder (what is one supposed to feel anyway?), and the funniest thing is that I am very happy and a little sad about my life at the same time (is that the way most people without major successes and major troubles start feeling at about this time in their lives?) I distinctly remember feeling wise and old at the age of eleven, like young Scout at the end of To kill a Mockingbird, and wondering whether I’ll ever manage to turn 18 (and it wasn’t mere childish fancy – after five years of journalism and twenty years of teaching I know that I had read more and understood more and reflected more by the age of sixteen than ninety percent of people do in their entire lives, and a quarter century removed I also know that I am not very much wiser and cleverer than I used to be: in that sense I never found out what it means to become a ‘normal’ adult!). Now lo and behold, I’m pushing 40 already and there’s precious little to show for it, either by way of fame and money or even a paunch and grey hairs. Physically I’m just about as active as I ever was – I never was the athletic type anyway – and if it’s a telltale sign of advancing years that one becomes garrulous and pontificatory, well, I always loved to lecture people once I had overcome my intense innate shyness; now the shyness is all gone, but dislike of society (of society, not of all men) has taken its place, and if anything, I lecture much less these days; indeed, try to avoid talking to people outside the family unless they are paying me for it! If worry is another sign of middle age, I worried just as much as a boy as I do now: only I was troubled by examinations and my parents’ rocky marriage then, and I worry about the future of my wife and child now, so there. When did all those years fly by, and where did they go? It’s all passed like the rising mist – and that leads to the unavoidable but sobering thought that the rest of my life (another thirty or thirty five years, maybe?) is also going to whiz by, and before I know it will be ‘Sunset and evening star, and after that the dark…….’
I don’t feel down in the dumps like Macbeth,

            Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
            Creeps in this petty pace to the last syllable of recorded time
            And all our yesterdays have been candles
            Lighting fools the way to dusty death:

but who can disagree with Prospero when he declares

Our lives are such stuff as dreams are made on,
            And the end is rounded with a sleep…?

People have done Nobel Prize-winning work before they were 38, become Presidents and acknowledged saints and self-made tycoons; Alexander and Shankaracharya and Shelley were dead; my own father had spectacularly ruined what could have been a good career and sired three children by this time. After showing some early promise, I’ve only just managed to get a complete formal education and become a recognised hardworking schoolmaster, a family man, a strenuous saver and taxpayer, besides remaining a whimsical scribbler and bemused spectator of life and manners. So in a sense I have done nothing, my life is worth nothing. On the other hand, strange to say, I feel more secure and content with my life than I have ever been before – I feel so good, in fact, that my only real worry is that this idyllic existence might come to an abrupt end all too soon through some unexpected quirk of fickle fortune. You’d call that strange, wouldn’t you? How dare a man feel so good about himself with so little to his credit, and if he has somehow managed to work the impossible, why on earth should he still crib about feeling uneasy?”

Given that I was already feeling that way back in 2001, it is nothing short of bizarre that another twelve years have simply slipped away almost unnoticed, despite so much that has happened in between (see the post titled ‘Forty five and counting’, which I wrote back in 2008). I am definitely on my way to old age, I have a grown up daughter on the threshold of adult life now, and so many of my dear old boys and girls, now grown up enough to understand and appreciate the meaning of this essay, were far too young then to do so! I am not often at a loss for words, but I find it well nigh impossible to express just how I feel about this… but the overarching and undeniable fact is, the Shadow looms ever larger now.

[I pause at this point. Let me see whether some people would like me to carry on. Madhuchhanda Ray Choudhury’s remark ‘I wonder if it really matters’ on my last post gave me a big boost to start writing in this vein, so I guess she deserves a word of thanks, though I don’t know her at all, and she didn’t sound as though she was trying to be friends.]


Debotosh Chatterjee said...

Just a couple of vaguely interconnected things came to my immediately after reading this post-
(a) Yudhisthira's answer to the Yaksha in a certain episode in The Mahabharata,
Yaksha : "What is the greatest wonder in this world?"
Yudhisthira : "Every day, men see creatures depart to Yama's abode and yet, those who remain seek to live forever. This verily is the greatest wonder."

(b) The evergreen Robert Frost poem "After Apple Picking" which explicitly described life in its entirety !

Debotosh Chatterjee said...

Just a couple of vaguely interconnected things came to my *mind* . Sorry for the inadvertent error !

Navin said...

Dear Sir,
I am eagerly waiting for part two of this post.

with regards,

DevDas said...

Dear Suvro-da,
after reading your thoughts on death I felt about the book which I wanted to share with you. I have presented so many copies to my friends, seniors and colleagues ever since I read this one during my Santiniketan days.The name of the book is "Tabe tai hok(so be it)". Written by Soumendranath Basu and published by Tagore Research Academy the text follows Tagore's feelings after each of his personal loss. An amazing journey!

A few lines which Tagore wrote to Rotenstien after "Bela"(his daughter's) untimely demise:
"we can only see the one side of truth from the point where we live and miss the meaning of death, but there must be another side where it is in harmony with life, like the setting sun whose meaning is not in its disappearance but in the sunrise in the new morning outside our ken."

Probably the last copy which I have is now lying on my table. Will ponder more in death when we meet somewhere soon where the birds fly...

best regards

Debarshi_Saha said...

Respected Sir,

Warm regards. This blog-post is so beautiful,honest(like all other posts of yours) and poignant-it is reminiscent of the reflections of the Tibetan monk Sogyal Rinpoche in his seminal work "The Tibetan Book of Living & Dying". It reminds me of these lines too,Sir-

"Remember,friends,as you pass by,
As you are now so once was I.
As I am now,so you must be,
Prepare yourself to follow me."

Ultimately,Sir,this is a post that surprisingly,talks about renewal in the most deepest and metaphorical sense-You have always lived your life as a work of art,Sir.This post again hammers home the urgency to live the authentic life,and to try and catch up with Life.This is a post that deals with clarity,insight and closure.Socrates recommended that one should always be occupied in the practice of dying-for only then could only hack away at the unessential,and as Bruce Lee said,the daily decrease was what paved the way to an authentic spiritual life.Your ideal,Sir-that's Lord Buddha,too remarked the same when he said,"It doesn't matter how long you have forgotten,only how soon you remember."This post of yours is also intended to make us remember.

Perhaps your mission was always a mission of the soul,Sir-hence it couldn't always be measured in tangible terms.I believe you succeed grandly in your mission every single day-for you live obeying your highest ideals,and try to love with an open heart.For so many individuals,Sir,this is the most difficult thing to do.

I would definitely like to read Part 2 of your post,Sir-but actually,I don't at all like entertaining this sombre line of thought in my head.I feel afraid,and maybe its an all too human failing-but I would be grateful to the Lord for your joyful presence quite some time longer.I can't risk thinking of losing you.

With best wishes,

DevDas said...

Dear Suvro-da,
many a times in your blog the subject being creative emerged. Many of us have stopped building things with hands and here is an inspiring TED talk from a cancer survivor who asked himself the eternal question "what am i here for" and found an amazing answer, staying and spreading creativity!

best regards

Nishant said...

Dear Sir,

I like this post immensely. Reading this one and the one in which you describe yourself ('What sort of a person am I?') I pictured you on a walk. You slowed down and then came to a halt, took a step back and reflected. I wonder what frame of mind you were in when you wrote the present post and the essay you wrote twelve years ago. Something similar to the sculpture of Buddha on your website comes to mind. The poem 'Leisure' by W.H. Davies also came to mind, the difference being that we are asked to slow down to look around in the poem whereas here you slowed down to look at the road you'd taken and the one ahead. For very brief moments at times I do try to be objective and try to take stock of things, but it is perhaps fear or the knowledge that time's just flying by (faster by the day) and I, like most people I know, am sleep-walking through events, I snap out of it. Great people or nasty people and their deeds are remembered or despised by other people and in the larger scheme of things I don't know if Pythagoras' Theorem (for instance) matters or if a line I'd read on a signboard at Sandakphu - 'Leave nothing but foot-prints; take nothing but memories', makes more sense.

This probably seems like a jumble of completely disconnected random thoughts and it probably is. But certain movies, books and such essays have this effect on me. I hope you put up the sequel at some point (and maybe risk one more such comment!).


Debarshi_Saha said...

Respected Sir,

Warm regards.I couldn't help but chipping in with another comment-and I must say,these words of yours read like the lines from the poem "Ulysses" by Lord Tennyson..

"I cannot rest from travel: I will drink

Life to the lees: all times I have enjoyed

Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those

That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when

Through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades

Vexed the dim sea: I am become a name;

For always roaming with a hungry heart

Much have I seen and known; cities of men

And manners, climates, councils, governments,

Myself not least, but honoured of them all;...."

and the lines...

"Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;

Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;

Death closes all: but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done,

Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.

The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:

The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep

Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,

'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.

Push off, and sitting well in order smite

The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds

To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths

Of all the western stars, until I die.

It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:

It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,

And see the great Achilles, whom we knew

Though much is taken, much abides; and though

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield....."

The last lines are also recited by M(Judi Dench) in the Bond thriller 'Skyfall'! However,I think they describe you too perfectly,Sir.One equal temper of heroic hearts,and a measure to strive beyond the limits-that has always been you.

With best wishes,

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Although Ulysses has been one of my abiding favourites since teenage, Debarshi, personally I have never had the privilege of the camaraderie of true friends who went through all the ups and downs of life with me as 'one equal temper of heroic hearts'. I have always been the lone wolf, and I guess that's how I shall go. Read up on Kipling's Akela.

Debashis, many thanks for the most apt reference to Tagore. Indeed, few people of greater depth and sensitivity have ever suffered so much from the death of loved ones, or meditated so profoundly on this issue.

Nishant and Debotosh, yes, it's after all the greatest fear of all; mahabhay they call it in Sanskrit... only, no one can ever really live a good life without squarely facing, completely assimilating and overcoming this fear. That is what I shall attempt to write about in future posts.

DevDas said...

Dear Suvro-da,
thanks. Death is also a part of celebration just like life. So more all of us realize and understand death, surely it is better.

"Look here--we shall die! Bear this in mind always, and then the spirit within will wake up. Only then will meanness vanish from you, practicality in work will come, you will get new vigor in mind and body, and those who come in contact with you will also feel that they have really got something uplifting from you."----Swami Vivekananda

I have carried the above quote in my pocket and read every morning so many years....

best regards

Rashmi Datta said...

Dear Sir,

For me at least, this is a very disconcerting post, particularly, the fourth line. That line scares me a lot.

Fame and money, they say should not be used to judge the work of a man’s life. I am amazed at the width and depth of your knowledge but I am awed at the amount of love you give to people who are dear to you. You love knowing very well the faults and failures of your dear ones but you neither loom over them as a dictator nor indulge in jingoism. You appreciate with love, correct with love and scold with love. So many lonely souls have taken heart in life only because they had the fortune of knowing and understanding you.

All I worry about now is whether we will ever be able to give back anything worthy of you.

I have never had enough courage to dwell over the idea of death. That is why I will be eagerly waiting for your next post. Please do put up the next part.

Warm regards

Suvro Chatterjee said...

You are simply the rare honest young person who frankly admits she is scared stiff to dwell on the prospect of death, Rashmi. Most people of your generation and the immediately preceding one are, only they are too ashamed or stupid to admit it. It hasn't helped any that the kind of education most of us have received has brainwashed us into thinking that death is the dirtiest word we've ever heard, so no 'sane' person 'wastes his time' thinking about it: it just happens when it will, so when loved ones die we break down or lose our minds or quickly recover and carry on as if nothing has happened... and we simply pretend that if we don't think about it, it won't ever happen to us! Stupid as that sounds, it's the truth with most of us: Yudhishthir's remark quoted by Debotosh above is far more true about people in the 'modern, advanced' world than it was in his own time. Medical science, cosmetology, 'busy' work routines and/or the round-the-clock party culture keeps us anesthetized most of the time, too: we just assume, till the moment before the heart attack or the fatal accident, that we are going to go on forever...

Shilpi said...

I’m waiting for the next part and was almost hoping that you'd put up your second part so that I could wait to comment.

Reading your old diary entry here makes me feel strange. It feels like the waves that had been frozen in time for a bit of unknown time rose and washed over me. I suddenly realized and again that it’s been more than ten years since I read that opening piece of yours for the first time. And it also feels very strange to think that you were as old as I am now – in terms of age. During the Christmas break, last year, I was wishing I could read more from your diary.

I often wonder about you as the 7 year old spending sleepless nights pondering upon death. Apart from the other reasons I’m now wondering whether that human head you’d seen on the other side of the school wall played any minor role. Whatever it is – I wish sometimes that that kid while growing up had talked with me. I wouldn’t have been any good at giving you advice but I could have shared stories and held his hand and listened.

In some real sense I’ve been waiting for you to write or speak about your thoughts on ‘death and dying’ for 15 years and so I’m waiting to read what you write next and I can’t predict what you will write. I can quite honestly say that through the years my feelings and thoughts on dying and death and possibly loving have shifted and yet for the latter – probably not so much.

I still find it very difficult to actually think of you as having entered your 50th year. Maybe in some ways time stands still and also travels, so I know I am older in terms of age from what I was 25 years ago and yet in some ways you seem to be the same as you were a quarter of a century ago. And maybe in some ways I’m ageing and nostalgic. It was interesting visiting some of your old posts and memories again or having them run through my mind – including the picture post you put up in 2010 which had made me feel like I'd entered some time-warp. For now – here’s a song link sort of in connection (it’s one of my favourite versions):


You are the lone wolf, but even Akela did have Mowgli beside him. I feel that you won’t go alone and I also chant that the dying will be fun and for the time that remains in between may there be some shared good times, laughter and love…it feels redundant to say that I feel you deserve this.

Waiting for the next part...

Kaustav Sanyal said...

Dear sir,

After reading you post, first I would like to repeat two quotes of Og Mandino (the greatest salesman in the world) who says “Wealth, my son, should never be your goal in life. Your words are eloquent but they are mere words. True wealth is of the heart, not of the purse.” The second one is “No, my son, do not aspire for wealth and labor not only to be rich. Strive instead for happiness, to be loved and to love, and most important to acquire peace of mind and serenity.”

Sir I think that money and fame is not the ultimate goal of one’s life but I think the aim of one’s life by the words of Antonio Porchia is

“One lives in the hope of becoming a memory.”

In that case sir, I think that you are the most successful person I have ever seen in my life. Sometimes I feel blessed to have met a person like you. At times I wonder how can you make time for us you ex-students in spite of having a packed schedule?

Sir just look at yourself and reflect how many friends and true well wishers do you have today. Sir this is what a man dreams of.

Lastly I would like to say something about death . Sir I think one should always have a positive attitude even towards death, as place of rest with no worries and to have no tomorrow no yesterday and which a person (like you sir) gets as an award for the help and love and guidance he has lend to others throughout his entire journey of life.

Kaustav sanyal

Subhadip Dutta said...

It reminds me of those famous lines from a song in the film Anand:

"Kahin door jab din dhal jaaye,

Saanjh ki dulhan badan churaye, chupke se aaye!

Mere khayalon ke aangan mein koi sapno ki deep jalaaye, deep jalaaye..."