|Life Is; Death Is Not|
|Table Of Contents|
“You know Ravi, Hemu’s friend? He died last week! They found out that he had leukemia one and half months back and he died five weeks after,” my aunt said.
I heard those words and froze! It was a normal day until that moment. I was in 7th grade, had just got back from school, had lunch, and then had gone to my room as I had a lot of homework that day. I had come to the kitchen to get myself a glass of water when my aunt uttered those unbelievable words.
Ravi dead? How could that be? My younger brother Prasanna and I had gone to Satara that summer and spent almost the entire vacation with Hemu and Ravi, and it was only a couple of months since we had returned from that memorable vacation.
Hemu was my cousin and Ravi was his best friend. That summer, we all hit it off quite well and so we started spending time together. We used to go swimming in the mornings. Then we used to go the library and get us some books to read. Tintin comics and Hardy boys were our favorites. After lunch, we used to read books for some time and then play indoor games – mostly cards. In the evenings, we used to play cricket with the other boys in the neighborhood. Sometimes we used to go to the banks of Venna river, and play skipping stones for hours. Ravi held the record with 7! He was good at that. And all sports in general. Not great stamina, but terrific hand-eye coordination.
And stealing mangoes. We loved that! Being summer, most of the mango trees were laden with mangoes. We used to sneak up close to them and throw stones at the mangoes. Whatever mangoes fell down used to be our gift to ourselves. One day the watchman spotted us and shouted, “Hey, what are you boys doing?” and started running towards us. Boy, we were scared! We collected as many mangoes as we could and dashed away before he could catch us. That was good fun. And somehow those stolen mangoes tasted sweeter.
Whenever we used to go far from our house, we would go bicycling. Double seat! Prasanna would sit on Hemu’s bike and I would sit on Ravi’s. Sometimes we went as much as seven or eight kilometers from our house. I remember hearing Ravi’s labored breathing while peddling us on the many ups and downs on the Satara roads.
“I am not that heavy,” I once joked.
“Yes, you are!” he said.
But he was smiling and so I knew he was kidding. Little did anyone know then that his not-so-great stamina and labored breathing was because he had leukemia!
My aunt also told my Mom that Ravi himself broke the news to Hemu and a month later he was gone! I imagined him, a fifteen-year-old boy, carrying the burden of his impending death, and it sent shivers down my spine. How must he have felt knowing that he was going to die? And why did it have to happen to him? He was such a nice guy, full of zest. And how could he have died in a month? People live for at least a year or two after finding out that they have cancer? How could he die in just one month? There were only questions in my mind, but no answers.
It was the suddenness of it all that shook me to the core. He was just another fifteen-year-old having fun in May, and by July end, he was gone! This was the first time that someone close to me had died and it broke the model of life that I had built in my twelve-year-old mind. We were supposed to pass out from school, then go to college and learn a lot more, make something of oneself, get married, have kids, and die when we were old. That was how life was supposed to be. A fifteen-year-old dying of leukemia didn’t figure anywhere in my simplistic model of life.
When I went to bed that night, I was disturbed, depressed, uncertain, fearful. And then a thought came to my mind, If it happened to him, it can happen to me too! What I was going through till then seemed like a picnic, because this was much worse. For the first time in my life, I realized that I was also going to die. Just like Ravi. And I panicked. It had rained that day and so it was cool by Bombay standards. But I was sweating, profusely.
And then another thought came to my mind. In fact, how do I know that I don’t have leukemia right now? I had no answer to that innocent question.
I couldn’t sleep that night and could hardly get up in the morning to go to school. I was groggy most of the morning, but I pulled on somehow. After our recess, I was sitting through the sixth period when a thought came to mind, I am going to die. I had forgotten all about it till that moment! But then the same thought process started all over in my mind and again I panicked. I remember sitting in the class and silently crying at the realization of my mortality.
That night I was scared way before I went to bed. I was praying that the nightmare wouldn’t repeat, but something inside told me that it would. And it did. Again I panicked and again I couldn’t sleep. Everyone in the house was sleeping peacefully and I was lying on my bed, crying. I just couldn’t get the thought out of my head. I wanted to run, but I didn’t know how to run from myself. A couple of times I went up to my parents’s bed to wake them up and tell them what I was going through. But I stopped. I don’t know why. Somehow I couldn’t go through with it – waking them up in the middle of the night and telling them that I was scared of dying. I will tell them tomorrow, I told myself, and then everything will be alright. The next day came but I didn’t tell my parents. I hadn’t told them a week after that, by which time I had developed a block against it.
I will tell Parag, my best friend. Maybe he will understand, I thought. I did tell him and he didn’t understand. He laughed it off. That was enough to convince me that nobody would understand my problem and I gave up the idea of telling it to somebody altogether.
I was having sleepless nights almost everyday. I would go through the same thought process over and over again. If it happened to him, it can happen to me too. How do I know that I don’t have leukemia right now? I am going to die. But I don’t want to die. I wish there was a way out. There is no way out. I have to die. We are all born to die. I would tire myself out and eventually fall asleep sometime during the night, but every morning I always felt like I had been up all night.
In about a month’s time, my thought process had changed. I was fully convinced that I had leukemia and that I was going to die soon. And I was scared of nights. Shit scared. I wished they would never come. But they always came and I always suffered. Some days were better than others, but by and large I was having a miserable time almost every night.
One day, after one of those terrible nights, I woke up in the morning, and out of nowhere came a thought, If I die, I will go to sleep like I did last night but not wake up like I did just now. That isn’t so bad. How would it have mattered if I hadn’t woken up this morning? It wouldn’t! And for the first time in a long time, I felt better. I used the positive thoughts over and over again to lift myself out of the depths of my misery, much like I had used the negative thoughts to put myself there in the first place. And pretty soon, I got much better.
• • •
I recovered alright, but the whole incident left an indelible mark on my 12-year-old mind. I couldn’t stop thinking about my mortality. It was almost as if I had found a new companion who just wasn’t ready to leave me alone. He wasn’t as scary as before but he was always there, never letting me forget the inevitable.
At first, I tried to “figure out” my mortality. I have realized that I am mortal being and I am going to die. It’s scary as hell, but there must be some solution to it. All the grown-up people around me are also mortal beings like me, but they don’t seem to be gripped with the same fear, which means they must have a solution, I thought to myself. And so I decided to ask my Mom. Again. And this time I was determined to go through with it.
“Mom, I am going to die one day, just like Ravi, right?” I somehow managed to ask her.
The look on her face – when she heard my question – confirmed that my question wasn’t innocuous after all. She just stared at me, like she had seen the devil.
“We all are going to die, aren’t we?” I asked.
“Why are you asking this?” was all she said.
“Because I am scared. And I was hoping that you would have a solution to my problem. I was hoping you would say something that would make my fear go away,” I said.
But she didn’t say anything. She was probably too shocked by my question. She did tell my father though and he tried to talk to me the following day.
“Prashant, don’t think about all this. You are too small to think about such things. At your age, you should be carefree, playing with your friends, thinking about your studies and doing well in them. Do you understand what I am saying?”
“Yes,” I said obediently, not wanting to drag on the conversation, but I had lost him after his first sentence. Don’t think about all this, he said. He didn’t give me any solution to my problem. Instead of helping me to figure out my mortality, he asked me to deny it.
That convinced me that there weren’t any easy answers to my question. Maybe we really are born to die and maybe there’s nothing that we can do about it. Either figure it out, or accept it, or deny it, I thought to myself. As a 12-year-old, I hadn’t been able to figure it out and I certainly hadn’t been able to accept it – the thought that I was going to die one day was still unbearable. So I decided to follow my father’s advice – deny it – by default.
I tried, and diligently at that. Some days it worked, but most days it didn’t. And on top of that, life played its part by throwing up periodic reminders of the inevitable. A relative who went to the dentist to get his teeth fixed, found out that he had mouth cancer, and died in a couple of months. A dad’s friend who visited us for dinner and died that very night of a heart attack in his sleep. The cancer related articles in Reader’s Digest magazine that invariably caught my eye. Denial just didn’t work!
But then thankfully, life caught up with me. First the all-important 10th standard exam came around. Then preparing for the IIT JEE exam. And then going through the grind that is the life of an IITian for four years. Then higher studies in the US. Then doing a job in the Silicon Valley, the most demanding of places for anyone related to the Electronics field. Then the unexpected turn of events leading to an early marriage. Through all this, I just didn’t have the time to think about my mortality. And of course, the mini successes that I had along the way and the marital bliss that I experienced helped me forget it as well.
But then life brought me fact to face with my mortality again. A couple of my friends died. One shot himself in the head, while the other died in a freak accident while on a snorkeling trip. And then it became impossible to forget or deny my mortality. And so I decided to figure it out. I became a “seeker”. I read everything that I felt could give me the answers that I was looking for. The Bhagvad Geeta. Swami Vivekananda’s teachings. Science of Religion and Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramhansa Yogananda. I Am That by Nisargadatta Maharaj. Writings of J Krishnamurti. Walden by Henry David Thoreau. Logic by Immanuel Kant. A compilation of various articles called Cosmic Beginnings, Human Ends. Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. Rock songs and auto biographies of rock stars that had something to say about the subject. Anything and everything that I could lay my hands on.
After reading every one of the above, I got the feeling that I had got closer to where I wanted to be. But I still felt that I hadn’t found what I was looking for. I still felt like I hadn’t found the solution to my problem and the thought of death was just as unbearable. And so I kept looking.
Then one day while I was looking for something else, I accidentally found the writings of U. G. Krishnamurti. I read it because I had to. The titles of his writings were so blasphemous that I didn’t have the option of ignoring them. Mystique of Enlightenment. Sage and the Housewife. Mind is a Myth. Thought is Your Enemy. No Way Out. Courage to Stand Alone. Stopped in Our Tracks. Taste of Death. Everything that I held near and dear to my heart till that point was shattered and blown away after I read his writings. Although I was never very religious, being born in a Hindu family, I had never questioned the thing that is at the core of Hinduism – spiritual enlightenment. UGK himself also chased spiritual enlightenment for the better part of his early life until he stumbled upon the question that changed the course of his life. What if there is no such thing as spiritual enlightenment? Just like it shattered him, it shattered me as well because I couldn’t give myself any convincing arguments that there indeed was such a thing as spiritual enlightenment. It was just as much a matter of belief as everything else in the religious realm.
I was truly and completely shattered. Although I didn’t know it till then, I realized that I had depended on religion, and particularly Hinduism, to give the solution to my problem. Somewhere deep down I believed that by reading something I would find the solution to my problem, find solace in the face of my mortality. But that day I was forced to do away with all that baggage and I felt truly alone, in every sense of the word. It was as scary as it gets.
I was convinced that Hinduism, and any other religion for that matter, were not going to give me the solution to my problem. The concept of rebirth, which is inbuilt in Hinduism, might be comforting to some but it wasn’t for me. I couldn’t get past the thought that rebirth could just be something that our fertile mind has invented to maintain its own continuity.
I have to find my own answers or just live with the fear of death till my dying day, I thought. And so I tried, for many years, but without any success.
Then one day I was at home, sitting out in the verandah, when I saw a spider weaving its web. I had never really seen a spider in action before. As I watched it closely, I couldn’t help but marvel at its skill and efficiency. And then out of nowhere, I felt something I hadn’t felt ever before. I felt one with it. I realized that it was the exact same life force that coursed through its veins and mine. It was at that moment that I truly understood the meaning of what Swami Vivekananda once said while talking about death. He said, “How can I die when an earthworm still lives?”
That day I realized that I am only one of the infinite manifestations of the indestructible life force that has no beginning and no end, “anaadi anant” as they say in Hinduism. And then everywhere I looked, I saw the same indestructible, omnipresent, and omnipotent life force in action. I had no choice but to accept that there is only one thing in our hands – do our infinitesimal bit and watch life unfold in front of our eyes. In a strange way, it reduced the fear of death which is what I was seeking in the first place. But it didn’t happen because of some grand spiritual enlightenment but due to a simple realization. Of course, UGK would say that at best I have only seen the fruit; I haven’t tasted it. But even that is not bad at all.
Today, death is still very much a part of my life; at least every tenth thought of mine is that I am a mortal being and am going to die one day. But it isn’t nearly as scary as it was before. On the contrary, it has brought a lot of positives into my life.
First and foremost, death has brought a sense of urgency to my life like only death can, and everyday it forces me to live life to the fullest. I always have this feeling that I don’t have any time to waste because I don’t know when life might come to an end, and therefore, I have to make every moment count. And it is this sense of urgency that enables me to do just a little bit more than I would have done otherwise. That brings a lot of positives of its own.
Death also helps me keep things in perspective. Every time something doesn’t go my way, the first thought that comes to my mind is, “Never mind. I still have blood gushing through my veins. All my loved ones are also still around. So nothing is lost really. I am just gonna give it another shot. If it happens, it happens. Otherwise, it wasn’t meant to be.” It is the lack of this perspective, and the fact that we take ourselves and everything happening around us far too seriously sometimes, that is the root cause of most of our problems.
Ironically enough, death has also brought all the small joys back into my life. Flowers bloom for a few days only to wither away, but that doesn’t mean that their existence is worthless. They give away such beautiful fragrance while they are around, and that makes me enjoy them all that much more. This metaphor can be extended to all things ephemeral. I have, and it has made me child-like – I get great joy in almost everything that I do for no apparent reason. It’s so good to be alive! That is the feeling that I have most of the time.
And last but not the least, death has made me humble. With the realization that we have come from ash and are going to return to it one day, it is hard not to be humbled. And once we are humble, we never become too full of ourselves, our mind stays open to new, fresh ideas, and that opens all kinds of doors in our lives.
I wish an early glimpse of death for everybody, and an enriched life after that.