Death:Celebrate life and all its splendors, even as you grieve over what cannot come to be again.

Features Issue 170 Jan, 2016
Text by Rajendra Balami / Photo: Hari Maharjan

The awareness of life is chased at its heels by the awareness that it, too, is finite. Innocence dies in the moment corruption is recognized, and death is the great corruptor of life. Laughter and love, the passion for an endeavor, unshackled imagination—all of these qualities which are companions of innocence—now become tainted with a grave and marked sorrow. Sunrises and sunsets no longer have their separate majesty and beauty, but are like their other companions: dawn and dusk, mottled with the grey of sightlessness. From the mote the gaze shifts ever upwards, celestially, and finds indifference in the cold attitude of the universe and insignificance in the self’s size and span, shape, and breath. 

Mothers who gave us life will die, as will the babies cradled in our warm embrace. This hurts the most: that each death of a familiar person drags us closer to our own deaths. Yes, decay is constant, because the body begins its march towards decay in the moment of its conception. However, death is precise, with no overdrawn tail, but with a brutal finality. And this seems unfair, this finality, this blow that stops everything else. 

We then clutch desperately for support and exit: let there be a heaven for me and a hell for others, so that I may enjoy, from my hallowed perch, the suffering of those who torment me now. Let me take my eyes and ears and lust and wrath to an afterlife, so that I may eat honey again and mount fragrant women and find my arms filled with strength and purpose. We seek afterlife, we seek heaven, we seek rebirth and immortality. We chase the elixir of life. Knowingly or unknowingly, we expend absurd amounts of time and strength on fleeing from death. Our lust for life extends to encompass those whom we love, for our love for them is, in fact, love for ourselves. This thing that awakens each morning in the home of our skull seeks to awaken again and again, without delay and surprise, and it hates decrease and loss. It wants increase, of love, camaraderie, the joys of the flesh. It hates decreases of the same things. 

And, death is the great reducer, the absolute eraser. 

               ***

 My first brush with death was the result of an accident. I was the agent with the malignant hand, and the victim was a much younger being. I must have been three years old, in a sleepy little village by a dusty, meandering highway. Under the slate roofs of our house were the granaries where, quite regularly, cats came to birth kittens. Granaries attract mice, so it is only sensible that cats were allowed to give birth in the attic. I found that kittens that are only a week old make good play friends: they meow and scurry, purr and flip on their backs. My younger cousin also wanted his own kitten, but I didn’t want to share. I put a red string around my kitten’s neck to claim it as mine, and after a long afternoon of playing with it, I locked it inside a cupboard made of thick teak wood. 

My mother complained that there were more mice in the house, and that she could hardly sleep through the night because of a scratching noise that came from inside the walls. The next day, she plugged all holes on the mud walls with fresh cow dung, and applied a mud plaster over the plugs, effectively hiding the holes. In a few days, the scratching stopped entirely—the house had rid itself of its mice infestation. But a new, putrid smell filled the house, instead. When my mother followed the smell to its source, she found a shriveled, mummified kitten in the cupboard. 

It was my kitten, and I had starved it to death by forgetting it inside the cupboard. I still feel guilty; and that is the primary emotion attached to death, still, after all these years. More than sorrow, I experience guilt. 

               ***

The second death in my life also led to guilt. I am not suggesting that I hadn’t by now learned that the quick and vital someday become dead: we were, after all, farmers in a village where ancestors were worshipped with blood sacrifices, and boys carried catapults to get themselves a quick snack from tall trees: doves, sparrows, pigeons, parrots, pheasants. Which child hasn’t been fascinated by the movement of ants, and perhaps driven by a primal instinct, tried to render them still, to push them into the dirt until their heads and thoraxes separate? But, there is another kind of death than the snubbing out of insect life: the kind of death that is felt personally, either as witness or perpetrator. 

I was playing hide and seek with a friend, a boy of my age. When it was my turn to seek, and his to hide, I’d stick my head into a basket and count loudly. He did the same when it was his turn. I ran off to hide, but he never came to seek me out. Instead, it was my sister who came around, frantically searching, calling out my name. My friend had wandered off towards the road, still counting with the basket over his head, when a jeep ran him over. I was five years old, and he was my best friend. He was also the only son to his parents. Once more, I felt the pang of guilt, and for many, many years after that, I was afraid of walking past their home. My friend’s mother would burst into tears, and I would be left awkward, unable to decide whether to say anything or sulk in silence. What would have his life looked like, if he had not died that day?

               ***

I saw a body bobbing in the river, bloated and dead. Men pulled it to the riverbank. Death brings stillness of the sort that takes away from a body its personhood and makes it into a thing, no more a being. The world tears apart and separates, leaves the living on one side and the dead on the other. The dead then belong to the solidity of the material universe, whereas the living is still afloat, seeing light as color, experiencing vibrations as songs and expressions of love.

             ***

Mother killed a hen once, to feed guests from out of town. There were many eggs still intact in the hen, in various stages of development—the material becoming the vital, a procession that begins with stuff and becomes a being. On one end is death, on the other end is life.

             ***

  And, that time came in life when people in the family died, one after another, some distant relatives, some friends. Family is also a lot of physical presence: the dead leave behind their rooms, their perch on the balcony, orange pips, and the frail aluminum wrappers of the drugs they took to stave off the death that stole them away. Deaths early on in childhood felt like the gap left behind by a milk-tooth falling off: it was an absence, but time filled it again, so that laughter returned, small things became delightful once more.

But, with age, the absences became like hard pits carved into stone, capable of catching memories and regrets and nostalgia, but forever carved, never to heal again. The death of parents, the death of children; how can they ever be healed? The hollow ever increases; the size and shape and span of the loss ever increases. Hurt grows and joy diminishes. There may be an immediate finality in seeing them burn or buried, but the emptiness doesn’t mend. It stays, and grows, until the day comes when the edge between the abyss and the solidity of life blurs, and we fall into the empty and void.

              ***

 An aunt gave birth to twins, and villagers immediately began to mourn for her: invariably, one of the twins would drink the share of his brother and thus send him towards an early death. When twins are not separated from each other, one of them dies: this was common knowledge. The aunt tried hard, going everyday to the shaman, measuring for how long she nursed each boy. Yet, one of them died. I wonder about the remorse she must still feel, and about the remorse the surviving cousin must feel even now. How does it feel, I wonder, to start life with the stamp of death so insistently marked on one’s side? When my cousin walks, I wonder, does he feel the tug of the emptiness by his side, like a man feels vertigo when walking too close to the edge of the precipice? I wonder, isn’t that the feeling we all have from the very moment when we realize that death is everywhere and ever present? 

               ***

2015 was a year of deaths for Nepal. The earthquakes and the recent political agitations have brought many scenes of devastation and death. And, as the calendar makes yet another turn, we yearn for change, for renewal. We wish for the specter of death to disappear, and we yearn for vitality and a new spring of warmth and growth. But, death is ever present; just as the will to stare it down is ever present in us.

Yes, we mourn. But we also build. Yes, we feel the absence and emptiness. But, do we not also constantly create, constantly replenish? Pause and reflect and count the many instances of loss you have endured this year, and when you have a complete list of losses, turn your gaze towards the bright dazzle of everything new that has entered your life. For instance, I lost a great-aunt to the ripeness of age, but I have gained a niece who is only just beginning to sit up and giggle. If I don’t celebrate the new and alive, my mourning for the old and dead is incomplete, devoid of dignity. 

So, let us contemplate our losses, and also count the gains. Let the grief we all feel be also a torrent that washes itself away, like a weight swinging at the ends of a chain, capable of hurtling out and away. And let it leave us with a jolt of lightness and release. Instead of death, let the emptiness swelling by our side be like that of a womb that is capable of calling into existence everything beautiful and worthwhile. 

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