When I was at school, we read Emily Dickinson’s Because I Could Not Stop For Death. My English teacher interpreted this line in the poem – We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain – as the youth’s dawning realization of the impending end of life. Added to it were the heavy doses of Macbeth, Tolstoy’s How Much Land Does A Man Require, and the war poetry of Philip Larkin, T.S. Elliot, and Walt Whitman, and death became one of the much academically and empirically discussed subject in my 17-year-old mind. It was a strange development in the sense that I developed an objective notion of death without feeling the subjective strings attached to it. Death was death. It was an act, never a feeling – never grief, never loss, never void. Death was the romantic ‘end’ of a young poet, the dramatic instrument of a poetic and ambitious murderer to achieve greatness, the mysterious gate through which humans exit life and enter an ‘afterworld’, and something that has characterised war throughout history along with its lineaments such as invasions, ammunitions, treaties, mass sufferings, and wartime rations.
A naïve notion. And like all other infant notions, apropos in its flaws.
Over the years, I have been in turn inspired by oeuvres that are inspired by this un-deciphered landmark in the life-events of humanity. Growing up as a Bengali, death has been oriented in me in its socio-cultural dimension (Troubled waters ahead for me?). As a child, the story of Kisa Gautami, Buddha, and the fetching of mustard seeds from a family that never experienced death had been a favorite. My maternal grandfather’s death was the first death I witnessed in my life, and my mother tells me how the very day he died, I consoled her with Kisa Gautami’s story. His passing away prompted my very shattered mother to sing to herself Tagore’s Tomaro Ashime Prano Mono Loye in tearful silence for years after. Once I was old enough to ask about and understand the lyrics of the song, she confessed that despite the song having multiple interpretations, she chose the one related to death to both give a voice to and mute her grief. When I listen to the song now, her sole interpretation plays itself inside my head. It ceases to be just another song in My Top Tracks. It presents an imaginative and nostalgic reminder of my mother’s emotional struggles, the possible death of the ‘Daddy’s Girl’ inside her, and the ‘rebirth’ of a more emotionally mature as well as responsible human being who was coming to terms with a new reality and was trying to navigate through a life that bore no resemblance to the one that she had lived before. It was accepting that there would be one less face in the wedding pictures to be clicked, one less set of clothes to be bought for Durga Ashtami, and one less person to run to for advice or strength when a ‘dead end’ is reached. In every sense, death stood as physical and mental alterations.
School brought me Bella Swan and her love triangle and one of my favorite passages on time till date: Time passes. Even when it seems impossible. Even when each tick of the second hand aches like the pulse of blood behind a bruise. It passes unevenly, in strange lurches and dragging lulls, but pass it does. Even for me. This was frequently quoted in my private journals, and it never failed to jilt my mother’s nerves every time she came across it in her literary voyeuristic sojourns. The reason? Her interpretation of the passage as one speaking of death and fuelling unorthodox and innovative harakiri. Her logic was ‘heart stopping = time stopping’. To be honest, I interpreted the passage as one speaking of a mental death. The animated bumps you go through in an inanimate phase of your life to be alive again. The dark tunnel in a long highway. The sudden thunderstorm on a cheery day. The transitory chaotic death in the life of a human being who starts punctually dying the minute she/he is born.
In college, I watched Charlie St. Cloud make love to an ‘undead’ Tess in a romantically brumous and sarcophagi-crowded graveyard to Pink Mountaintops’ While We Were Dreaming. The very same year, my college counselor asked me to elaborate on my ‘inappropriate’ thoughts and I had dramatically narrated the scene aforementioned and my idea of death in not so many words. I remember, she stopped blinking for a few minutes and readily prescribed the sedatives that she was so reticent about. Some months later, I stumbled on perhaps the most famous lines of Rumi quoted wildly and widely on social media, incompletely on Brad Pitt’s biceps, and meaninglessly in tattoo parlors: Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase each other doesn’t make any sense. Death became that field of infinity, functioning beyond the dictates and partitions of the human world. It was the ultimate natural universe graced with the ordeal sovereignty of boundless Nature.
Then Grell Sutcliff happened. He proudly marched in, and declared: This is like a big guilt trip of death! … This Death Scythe I’m using will play a duet with the soul’s last moments.
While it’s not death in its strictest sense, I found Black Butler’s concept of the immediate moment before death obsessive. Cinematic Record: A recollection of an individual’s memories depicted like a brief movie. With Coco, I shoplifted the need to memorize the Dead for their survival in the afterlife from Miguel Rivera’s Santa Cecilia and stuck it to the concept of the Cinematic Record. Hey, presto! My customized version of the moment before dying was born. A vintage camera reel unfurling itself as life progresses, and as the final moment approaches, the reel, now with all its negatives, is dragged back around the sprocket wheel and incorporated within the memories of the living beloved of the dead. When that mental reel is left unattended for an extended period of time, it falls into ruin. If attended to frequently, it plays the memories as freshly as if they had happened yesterday. I harped on the body-soul divide, developing a compromised physical-mental version of death. A death that is deeply private and not public. Death from the point of the person dying. The dying dead’s death.
This unabashed contemplation about death goes back and forth a long way.
The last few years have seen a lot of controversies raged over ‘suicide note’ assignments. Both the pros and cons have nice things to say, but in my opinion, a funeral address would have been a better assignment, granted that it would be a tough thing to pen given that the school-going protagonist is lacking in age, experience, and thought (Have you ever thought of it, writing your own farewell speech and owning your funeral like a pro?). Nonetheless, it not only encourages a discussion concerning one’s death, but also provides much fodder concerning the evolution of one’s personality and one’s future. It saved me. Precisely five and a half months ago, I felt this dire need to end my disappointing life. A bottle of sleeping pills was at ready (I have always found knives, blades, ropes, and kerosene to be particularly messy in the business of self-harm), and all I needed was to finish writing a suitable explanatory note, gulp the pills down with a good amount of water, and go off to a sleep called death in the apartment of which I was the sole inhabitant. Fortunately or unfortunately, to add a Western twist to my hemisphere-less advanced demise, I decided to write a funerary address as opposed to a suicide note. Then, to be even more dramatic (and get in the mood), I engaged myself in a veiled heads-up banter with a close friend. It was a Sunday morning.
Me: You know, I am writing a letter.
Him: [Is it to] someone I know?
Me: Nothing like that. Just a creative … short … thing.
Him: Can I read it after you have finished?
Me: Sure. Um … I gotta go and write. Seeya.
Somehow, I didn’t ‘manage’ to finish that fancy address. I couldn’t possibly imagine anything novel about me that would go in that ‘letter’ and induce the ‘mourning’ attendees to stay after the funeral. To be blunt about it, I felt like a Broadway writer who didn’t know if her musical was musical enough to draw an audience. It was sad to know that I wasn’t special (Isn’t it a universal self-consolation these days?). I haven’t done anything special enough to remember it in my final hour. Acknowledging my inadequacy is heart-breaking, but realizing my incompleteness is something more profound. The incompleteness in my curiosity that I wouldn’t know what kind of person I would become or I would want to become in the future. The incompleteness in my yet-to-gain knowledge of new books, new hobbies, new people, new places, new feelings, and new miracles. The incompleteness in my Cinematic Record as to which faces and memories would fleet by in my twilight. It scared me that I wouldn’t know what I would be in the next few years. It scared me that I had to dig that deep and find nothing when it came to writing a simple letter about myself. It scared me that I, myself, had run out of things to say about myself, and I was going to die an irrelevant devoid-of-an-identity entity. Someone was my someone. I wasn’t someone’s anybody.
And there was a second slightly arrogant factor (Guilty as charged!). You see, I have always been incredibly proud of the fact that I could write history-related lengthy, boring essays with ease. Suddenly, the big-chested skill of scribbling thousands of words on individuals who or causes which have been dead for hundreds of years was reduced to naught. There was a huge dent in my ability to understand ‘things’. Clearly, I understood Anne Boleyn of England, Mahmud of Ghazna, Jahangir, or the Flappers of Jazz America more than me, and that was a failure in itself! In my head, my funeral speech belonged to the A-Team of Akhri baar likh raha hoon/ Ho saake to kahani yaad rakh na. Alas! I was handicapped in my ability to pen myself, and it was a huge blow to my vanity. Being the essayist I was (/am?), I felt humiliated that my last ‘essay’ would be one of miserly research, neglected composition, demented execution, and poor, ‘unimpressive’ content. No, procrastination wasn’t the traitor here, because I had always been one. It was just that I was more disappointed at the essayist in me than the person in me. And hence, I decided to be fickle, leave the matter at hand, and pursue something that I didn’t think needed pursuing before, namely, getting better at writing essays. Thrice the charm, and my fickleness sealed the deal.
And then there’s the thing with funerals. It is much easier to explain to and economic to pay a therapist than a dozen priests for the peace of your soul! To add to it, you have your parents and a train of relatives and well-wishers. Thin ice! Let’s not even go there.
Today I sit and wonder what would have happened had I been successful in penning that address. Would I have been here? Would I have been the same hypocrite I was/am throughout my life? Would I have lied and pretended to be something I was not, even in my last address to the world? Would the last thing I’d have said to the world be on the list of the ‘forgettables’ I have done day in and day out to keep myself upright? Would I have been honest? How regretful would I have been? How would have been my brush with death?
I guess I would never know.
The last five paragraphs painfully detail the once-upon-a-time slaving machinery of my suicidal brain, and how I managed to unfollow the mirage and start anew. My therapist/s liked me to think that I was brave through the whole affair. It wasn’t like that! There should be no ‘moral’ to it. I just want to tell how probing deep into me at that pivotal (perhaps life-defining) moment revealed what I hadn’t known before that moment. It entailed searching the darkest and unfathomable depths of a clouded mind to find the relatable and identify with it, and make an acquaintance with the unidentified and relate to it. And it was worth it. Seek within. Meaningfully. In any circumstance. You won’t come short of any reason to try and not try or live, not live, and re-live. The curious case of the dying dead’s death and rebirth. Re-death and re-re-birth. The Phoenix and the flame. The puzzle and the questions. Would the person in my old photographs qualify as a ghost? That person is gone, isn’t it? Would the person in my new photographs qualify as a stranger? That person is in the making. Would that stranger be a friend one day? Tantalizing, isn’t it?
I guess, again, I would never know.