I think I have been interested in deaths for a long time now (1, 2, 3, 4). One of the earliest poems I wrote as a child was about a woman with brain tumour. I’ve written stories around the games we play with death. Death is poignant enough to bring out our truest selves, our most shameful fears, our deepest lying virtues. Death is in fact, the most vivid and authentic of life experiences.
“When the last living thing dies, my job will be finished. I’ll put the chairs on the tables, turn out the lights, and lock the universe behind me when I leave”.Death in ‘The Sandman’ books by Neil Gaiman
But I do not obsess. Obsessions are addictions and there’s something weak, fearful and escapist about them. Unfortunately most popular culture depicts it that way. I am not fond of the glamorisation of Slyvia Plath, gore or misery porn. I do not enjoy morbidity. I’ve seen people morph into monsters around death – the money grabs at funerals, the power politicking of genocides, the intimate war of abuse that is justified by trauma. It seems like death is also fertile enough for the most elaborate lies about humanity. It has taken me time to find the context to understand how I feel about death.
Something is shifting in me with these realisations. I grieved a dead baby lizard that shared my home for a few days. I let myself be openly sad when JD suddenly comes to mind. One of our last conversations was my wanting to walk away from our friendship because I was too scared and him patiently, gently soothing my fears and bringing us back to the peaceful warmth we shared. What a gift he gave me, a guiding light through my fears just days before he left. I was so lucky that he touched my life. How can I pretend I don’t care about his death either by ‘getting over it’ or reveling in the maudlin? I think he would hate either. My old ghosts return to me in the form of loves that I just never grieved properly. They deserve the grieving, my loving, my most authentic truths.
I took a trip on the new metro line in my city. I was saying goodbye the city I once knew. I will never again see the sky standing on the road at that one point anymore (unless, horrifically something bad happens). The power structures of geographic proximity to South Bombay are vanishing and with it, references as Mumbai people know it. The city I loved is dying and true to cities, a new one is being born in its place.
This is hardly the first time I’ve seen my city die. In the 90s, I saw it go up in flames. I watched the religions I’d been taught to trust become nuclear warheads. And the safest city in the country, the one where everyone is equal, where traffic follows discipline, where languages meld into a no-nonsense cheerful lingo vanished. And in its place came Mumbai, the angry survivor of bomb blasts & terror attacks. The cold money bloc countering Delhi’s vicious power bloc. The frenzied hustler in a starving nation.
Will I still love it? Yes, you know why? Because I will not stop trying. Love is an active, conscious choice. It’s not a decision about which is the easiest, most comfortable path to take. This city has permitted me to love it in a way that no human has, without apology, escape or fear. That love gives me purpose and identity. My friend told me, “You care too much.” Perhaps that is true but it sounds to me like saying I live too much. Yes, I do. I live too much so that one day I will die in my full death, nothing left unwanted.
I think about people I’ve loved who have died. Some of them died young and unexpectedly, in accidents, shocking illnesses. Some of them clung to living and went fighting into their deaths. Some went pleading, some went in despair. Some left behind debts, unresolved traumas and triggered chains of abuse, violence, pain & devastation. And some began dying while bearing witness to other people’s natural journeys. I can’t believe it has taken me this long to realise it but death is not destruction. It doesn’t have to be.
My grandfather died after a prolonged fight against cancer. When it was first detected, he ignored the crumbling faces of his family, faced the doctor and said, “I am an old man. I have lived a good life. Give it to me straight. How long have I got?” In the year after that, he endured the painful efforts of other people to keep him alive, even as he tolerated extreme pain and loss of pride. After another futile blood transfusion, he asked the family to gather around him. And he pointed to me and said, “I want to say thank you to this child for giving me her blood. Life should not go backward, I should have been giving her things but she has given me the blood of her body. I want to say thank you to her for this, in front of all of you.” I would not have imagined it of a patriarchal man of his generation. I also never thought of him as an eloquent man. In his diminished body, without uniform, he became the most dignified man I had known because of how he faced death.
I went to the cremation ground with the men. I carried wood to place on his body, I helped light the pyre. Because I was there, I was witness to a ceremony I will probably never see again. The fire department of New Delhi gave my grandfather a farewell salute, an honour usually accorded to Fire Chiefs still in service who fall in the line of duty. But 20 years after he retired, my grandfather did die of the one thing other than fire that kills firefighters – cancer. And the life he had lived in service to New Delhi Fire Service was honored in death. Nobody could have predicted how he would go but my grandfather received the death he deserved – one of courage and dignity.
I’ve been revisiting my own wish for my death. Of course, I’ve imagined it, knowing fully well that I have no way to ensure it happens that way. I wanted to go into the night, into the water of the sea, under full moonlight with no one to latch on to me with tears, cries or even looks. I wanted to go alone and quietly. Now, I look back at it as ruefully as a seasoned writer looks at their early scribbles. It’s such a melodramatic way of pretending to be subtle. The very idea of death makes us play such games with ourselves.
When I went through COVID last year, t took me into deeper depths of despair than I thought possible. I really thought I was going to die. Far away from the sea. Yes, alone as I’d wished but with such despair, so much unresolved trauma. I felt shame at my life that felt simultaneously so unfulfilled and so greedy & clutching. Would I have deserved that niggling death? Yes, I think so. After that COVID, I returned to normalcy angry, feeling cheated out of an escape that had been briefly visible. Then COVID happened again, in two months. This time something shifted. Did I actually deserve the relief of death when I had done nothing to deserve the joys of the life I’d been offered? I am still pondering this. Earlier this year, I got diagnosed with a lingering health condition that may have been exacerbated by COVID. It explains my troubles in scientific facts I understand and that makes me feel like I have actions I can take. I feel a light emptiness since then. Not despair, but an its-easier-to-breathe-since-i-let-go kind of levity. What do I deserve? That’s a heavy thought that grinds me down in my tracks. Instead, why don’t I go about deserving the life I do have, so I will deserve the death I get when I come to it?