In life and in death


The first post of the New Year. I’ve been wanting to write this for quite some time now, and I wanted this post to be about love.

As it happens, though, this post is about death.

Today morning, the first message I saw on my phone opened all by itself. I picked up the phone to check the time, but what appeared on the screen was this message instead. It was from a religious site called Ali-Walay. I get messages every day from them, but I think I almost never check these.

My relationship with religion can best be defined, in Facebook terms, as: ‘It’s complicated.’

Religion has been my refuge and my anchor, but it’s also been my anguish and my conflict. I have been both consoled by it and tormented by it. It is my sanctum sanctorum, my ‘safe space’ in this world—the place I go to when I feel ambushed and weary and defeated and lost. The place I seek solace in, like a mother’s lap. Or more appropriately in my case, like a father’s arms, for my mother says I never called out to her whenever I fell down— I always called out to my father.

I find my solace in prayer, in abiding by the guidelines of the illuminated path. But also constantly keep pushing against it, trying all the while to evaluate and test the boundaries, seeking the truth of what has actually been revealed, attempting to sift from what has merely been passed down as a filtered narrow version. It reminds me a little of the 6 year old headstrong son of mine, how he keeps questioning every word I say, probing and probing and pushing against the boundaries until he is absolutely convinced. It doesn’t, in any way, lessen his love for me, or the comfort he finds in my embrace.

So too it is with me and faith. A constant symphony of solace and angst, a choreography of embracing and withdrawing.

Tending more towards a gentler spirituality than a strict religiosity, I have strived hard, often maddeningly and torturously, to find a balance wherein I can be religious without being restrictive, and try, at least try, to be moral (somewhat, I suppose, though that’s not for me to say) without being judgemental, attempting to stay rooted while remaining open to the world.  How far I have succeeded, I cannot say, because it is an endless, infinite journey, never a destination. The ultimate destination and the moment of evaluation can only ever be death.

Which brings me back to the message that manifested before me today. I say manifested, because it appeared suddenly without any attempt on my part to read it, or even to open my WhatsApp. I just unlocked my phone, and there it was, staring at me.

“What is the first thing to be snatched from me when I die?” said the message, which was in Urdu. “It is my name.”

“For when I die, people will not ask where I am, but they will ask, where is the laash (corpse)? They will not call me by my name!
When they read my namaz e janazah (funeral prayer for the departed) they will not ask where I am, they will ask where is the janazah (dead body)? They will not take my name!
And when it’s time to bury me, they will say, bring the mayyat closer! No one will take my name!”

The lines struck my heart. Not because it was something I’d never thought of, but because it was something I’d always thought of. The first time being in 2010. My second rendezvous with death, the first of course being my father’s.

This second death was the death of a college-time friend. She wasn’t my best friend or anything, and in a sense we weren’t very close. We’d been in the same school though and even shared our last names. But it was actually in college that we attended an inter-varsity workshop in Naintial together, and stayed in the same room for a few days—even ending up having a fight—which ultimately brought us closer to each other. Or at least, I felt closer to her. Later we would sit together sometimes and share some very personal things.

Ima, for that was her name, departed from the world in November 2010, a month after my wedding. The news of her death reached me, ironically, as I was watching my wedding video with the entire family. It was a great shock.

Vivacious, energetic, a brilliant mind and a kind heart. Devil-may-care attitude and a desire to live life to the fullest. Her passing seemed a travesty of life itself. It felt like a personal brush with death to me, as in the case of my father. Ironically, just like my Papa, Ima too passed away in a car accident—wrenched forcefully from life.

The day that she was flown in from Bangalore to Aligarh for the funeral, I was at my in-laws house, about to get ready for a community celebration. I was picking out my clothes when I overheard my mother in law on the phone with someone, saying, “The body will be here around 4 p.m.”

Body!

A sharp stab of pain pierced my heart to hear of my friend being referred to as a body!

Is the physical manifestation of a person so unimportant, that as soon as he or she ceases to be ‘alive’, they become merely a body? Where does this thought arise from? Is it because only the spirit is important, only the spirit that is the truth of the person? Or is it because we are afraid of death, of the cold pallor it spreads upon the ones it claims, of the perennial stiffness and silence it brings in its wake? We are made so uncomfortable by death that we distance ourselves from the ones claimed by it—we relegate them to the status of a body, an impersonal, indifferent description, proclaiming tacitly that we have nothing to do with this physical manifestation that has been claimed by death. Distancing ourselves from the person, thereby distancing ourselves from death. The spirit, pure and indestructible, belonged to our realm—the realm of the living—and this body, weak and easily overpowered, bears no affinity to us.

Our rejection of the earthly, physical self of those we love hides in itself an inherent fear of death. We do not want to associate ourselves with it.

And yet, for as long as I can remember, I have never once referred to a loved one as a body. Even when they’re in their final abode, hidden beneath the earth.

For many, many years after his passing, I never even spoke of my father in the past tense, preferring always to say, “My father is this,” or “My father does this.” Never was. Never did. Because he is forever living, a constant presence in my life. I refused to allow ‘Late’ to be written before his name even in my wedding card, as is usually done. To my family, I explained it thus: “Those who know he has departed, don’t need to be told. And those who don’t know, don’t need to be told either. He is here, and will always be.”

Even now, when I speak to my husband about going to Allahabad, I always say. “It’s been so long. I have to go to Papa.” Or “We need to go to Papa soon.”

He was, is and will always be my Papa. In life and in death. Forever mine.

When my dearly beloved grandfather passed away, I winced every time people referred to his ‘body’ being given the ritual funeral bath. I winced when people called out: put the ‘body’ here on the bed. Why, oh why! He is a person! He has a name. Not half an hour ago you were all calling him by his name. How dare you call him a body! Watching my kind, gentle, pure-hearted, poetry-loving grandfather who was always so full of life, being carried away to his abode beneath the earth was perhaps the saddest, most deeply grievous moment of my life. Watching his face get covered by the white cloth of the kafan, hearing the marsiyekhaans of Jalali recite the heart-rending elegies of Imam Husain as we stood around Baba and wept with loud wails, watching the khaake shifa on his closed eyes…they are all the saddest moments of my life. And yet! There was such tenderness in his death, an inexplicable gentleness that was perhaps a remnant of the kindness pervading his soul.

He was my grandfather, my beloved Baba even in the shroud. Even on the shoulders of the men of the family. Even in the van that carried him away. He is my Baba, even in his final resting place. Never was he a body to me and never shall he ever be.

For I am not repulsed by death. It does not frighten me. My love is not restricted to the land of the living, for death is merely a passage. And beyond death lies the truth, the land of the forever living.

A person is always a person, whether walking upon the earth or hidden beneath it.

The ones we’ve loved deeply and truly cannot be reduced to mere bodies, just because we cannot watch them walk or hear them talk, just because we cannot hear their heart beat anymore, just because we cannot see them breathing in and out. They were and will be people, real people, in life and in death, forever ours.

I suppose I did end up writing about love, though, for love encompasses death and moves with it, beyond it, all around it.

Even the Taj Mahal, a monument to eternal love is, after all, a mausoleum.

Chapter 27: The ghost of George Bernard Shaw


July 28, 2013

there-are-two-tragedies-in-life

 

I’d read this quote in the unlikeliest of places, when I was about 12 years old: An Archie comic. For some reason, the line haunted me all those years, like a symphony that makes you cry for no reason at all. Perhaps, in a cosmic irony of sorts, it was a portent of things to come.

It’s been almost a year now that we’ve been leading separated lives. Weeks slipping into fortnights, days creeping into months.

A popular post on Facebook has a line that goes like this: if you want to know the value of nine months, ask an expecting mother. I’d been every bit through those tedious nine months, but I can give you my word for it, these ten were worse.

Ten months of uncertainty, of standing still or vacillating like a pendulum, of not knowing whither your life was headed. Of the myriad horrible states to be in, I have now come to believe that the worst is having to wait. Wait, at the mercy of another. Wait, without an action plan. No matter how terrible your condition, as long as you’re battling it—strategizing and waging war—you know you can make things better…somehow. But this…this waiting without doing, waiting without knowing, without a decision to speak of… It’s not something I’d ever done, not something I was ever used to. I had always planned my life far in advance.

Until, of course.

At some point in your life, there will always come an ‘until’. That will be the day you’d know that perhaps, destiny exists. In more ways than one.

As it does now. After ten long months of agony, suddenly everything falls into place. Sajjad just got his visa.

The relief washing over me is palpable. As I wave goodbye to the love of my life at the Indira Gandhi International Airport, I have none of the nervous sinking in my stomach that accompanies lovers bidding farewell. My heart is at ease with the deepest conviction that in a couple of months I’d be there with him. And a sissy I never was.

My father in law would later remark that I’d been “Daler” about this—fearless. Intrepid. Not batting an eyelid. No teary goodbyes and no vacant silences. I was my usual, cheerful self.

My sister in law’s husband, too, works in a separate country and she wanted to know how I could be so cool about it. I didn’t want her to feel bad—she’d been separated from her guy just two months post marriage—and pregnant too. I choose my words carefully, deciding not to dwell on my hopes for the future.

“I’m going to pretend I’m still single,” I tell her. Writing, shopping, parties, weddings and hanging out with friends—there’s still a lot to do! And then she asks me the question. That question.

“What about Hasan?”

“Ah, Hasan!” I’m still very cock-a-whoop, such is the levitating power of fresh hope. “Well I’m going to pretend he’s my brother! I can look after a baby brother, can’t I, and still be single!”

Yes, I actually said that—you needn’t look so aghast.

When people are happy, joyful, hopeful, they can dream up the craziest scenarios.

And I’m happy. Really happy. It’s not just the promise of being together at last. It’s also the promise of uncovering new secrets together, discovering new joys. That has always been our ‘thing’. It’s what we’re best at.

Every couple has this little ‘thing’ with each other, the little thing that is their glue. This is ours. We’re not Romeo and Juliet, Laila and Majnu—or even Raj and Simran, though lord knows Sajjad did tons of work for the “ladkiwale” on his own shaadi ! (Anyone who’s seen DDLJ a hundred times knows what I’m talking about. For my non-Indian readers, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge is arguably the greatest Bollywood love story of all time.) We’re hardly any of those eternal, evergreen couples because Sajjad is mostly the guy who’d start cracking jokes during a romantic moment. In fact, you can sort of trust him to spoil the most romantic moments with his corny sense of humour (or his vacant, distracted silences, which are the worst). Nope, the maximum supply of romance here is from my side.

But what he brings to this relationship is far greater than your stereotypical candies, hearts and roses. He brings a childlike quality to ‘us’. Like two children playing, sharing, jostling, bickering, whining and getting along all the same. We’re not the best lovers, perhaps, but we’re best friends.

I know every girl wishes for Prince Charming. I did, too. But it’s sort of lucky, in a weird way, if you end up with Peter Pan. He’s never going to grow old.

And so, skippity-hop, hoppity-skip, this is what is our relationship. ‘Doing’ stuff together. Exploring. Imagining. Creating. Experiencing. We are a team.

Like Lisbon and Jane.

Teresa Lisbon and Patrick Jane.

Sajjad is the one who got me hooked onto the Mentalist. But then he’s had me hooked onto a zillion things—I don’t know how, but he knows exactly where my ‘hook’ lies. During the early days we used to trade with each other: I picked books for him to read and he picked movies for me to watch—Hollywood movies. I was totally the Hindi movie gal, and the handful of Hollywood movies I’d seen were the Jurassic Park and The Lion King types. You get the gist—kiddie movies. Sajjad was…well, he wasn’t much of a reader—still isn’t. But the hand-picked selections clicked for both of us.

The Mentalist falls into the very category.

From the start, Patrick Jane reminded me of Sajjad.

They’re actually not the least bit similar. Sajjad isn’t glib like Jane, nor is he the smooth talking ex-imposter. He’s not defiant or rebellious either. But right from Season One, Jane reminded me of my man. Why? Well, for one, ‘neath all that cheery exterior lies the core of his character—his undying, obsessive commitment to his dead wife, his refusal to take off that wedding ring or to move past his little daughter, long passed on from this world.

And then his compassion for the week, his solidarity to his team and—most of all—the way he treats Teresa Lisbon. He drives her mad, defies her, breaks every rule and yet… there’s something about the two of them that makes them great together. He really, truly cares for her. (And don’t forget the exasperating sense of humour.)

Lisbon’s the woman with the tough exterior, the need to always be in control, always be on top of things. She’s the one who wouldn’t admit to her insecurities, and he… for some reason, he’s always the source of her calm.

Now, of course, everyone knows how the series ended. But long, long before anyone even guessed how Season Seven would go, I would always tell Sajjad—I’m Lisbon and you’re Jane.

It’s the way he exasperates her. The way he infuriates her. The way she expects him to be ‘typically Jane’—never doing what she would ask. But it’s also in the way that he makes her laugh—and surprises her precisely because it’s not what she expects. It’s in the way she knows he’s incorrigible—and indulges him nonetheless. What cosmic coincidence is it that for the first ten years of our relationship, my guy’s number was saved in my cell phone as “Incorrigible Sajjad”?

We’re a team—He and I. When we’re together, we do things better.

And that’s why I already have visions of my new home in an enchanting new country—irresistible, unknown lands for us to discover. A couple more months to go and we’d be celebrating Hasan’s first birthday together.

I hadn’t accounted for George Bernard Shaw, though, who chose this most inopportune moment to demonstrate his words from so,so long ago. There are, indeed, two tragedies in life. The first is to not get what you for so long desire. The other, of course, is to get it. Sigh.