Friday, August 28, 2009

The meaning of life, and all that jazz...

I am in a strange mood today...

There has been a death in the family - in my extended family. Earlier this week, my father-in-law's elder brother, who lived in Hyderabad, passed away in his sleep from a massive myocardial infarction. He is survived by his wife, daughter and son.

From all accounts, he appears to have lived a complete life. Moving from Guwahati in Assam, he gradually settled down in Hyderabad. The daughter, my wife's cousin, is well-placed in Bangalore, while the son is studying for a degree in computer applications. Though I did not know them very well beyond exchanging occasional pleasantries with the daughter through the social networking sites, I do share my family's bereavement at this sudden, and somewhat unexpected, loss.

Another part of me, however, moving beyond the obvious grief, is considering the manner of the death. In this world of war, famine and pestilence, countless individuals die every day violent and gory deaths - completely needlessly, more often than not - over petty politics, apathy and callousness, nationalism, fanaticism, accidents, random acts of violence, and even over utterly inconsequential stuff such as religion. How fortunate, then, one is - having lived in that same world - to be able to pass away peacefully in one's sleep. Of course, death rarely arrives in a manner of one's choosing, but I should be so lucky when it is my time to go...

But that is not why I sat down to write this blog post. A rather small observation spurred me on. My father-in-law returned from Hyderabad yesterday after the cremation, bearing the mortal remains - ashes and bone shards that remain after the cremation - so that those could be put into the Sacred Ganges.

(No, this is not a post about the yellow, muddy, silt-sewage-and-effluvium infested sacredness of the Ganges... this is essentially about the sentiments.)

I drove my father-in-law early in the morning to the relatively secluded, peaceful and quiet Princep Ghat of the Ganges. When we arrived, a few enthusiastic, rotund joggers were pottering about; a cute young couple, engrossed in each other, passed us by; some boatmen were washing their boats and clothes on the steps of the paved ghat (embankment). My father-in-law approached the steps with great solemnity, put aside his slippers and walked barefoot down the steps into the water, took out the paper packet of the remains, and put it down gently on the water surface - letting it all float away and drown when the paper got wet. Remembering my mother's admonishment, I put a palm on my father-in-law's shoulder, maintaining the touch. Apparently, this prevents the living from inadvertently floating away with the remains of the dead. (Don't ask. No, seriously!)

But I did catch a glimpse of the mortal remains before it started its journey into the deep. All contained in a folded piece of paper, not larger than a box of California raisins. Grey flakes of ash, some powdered, and a few pieces of charred bones, not larger than a well-chewed chicken thigh or wing bone. That was it; That. Was. It! The rest of the 60-odd kilogram body, skin, muscles, fat, organs, systems - all mercilessly, deliberately, irrevocably consumed by the blazing flames, all compounds breaking down and returning to the elemental states. Dust thou art, unto dust shalt thou return.

And remind me again, why we live our lives the way we do? Engaging in petty squabbles; spreading webs of lies and deceit; harming and hurting others, killing, maiming, destroying lives, often in the names of basest, lowest of the low human constructs, namely superstitions, tradition and religion; destroying the environment; hankering after money, fortune and notoriety; seeking to control others' lives? For what? A decaying, maggot-infested wooden box six feet under, or a few pieces of bones and ash floating into oblivion?

An author close to my heart, Terry Pratchett, once wrote in his Thief of Time:
"...the universe is, instant by instant, recreated anew. Therefore... there is in truth no past, only a memory of the past. Blink your eyes, and the world you see next did not exist when you closed them. Therefore... the only appropriate state of the mind is surprise. The only appropriate state of the heart is joy. The sky you see now, you have never seen before. The perfect moment is now. Be glad of it."

Be glad of the life that you have, my friends. It is the only one. Use it well.


  1. Dada,

    This wonderful and philosphical post. It brings to life the gravest thoughts of the world, thoughts that rarely cross our minds everyday. In you I see an innocent mind questioning the otherwise vivacious world as to why it turns murky at times. You remind me of a pure soul, one who is facing the dilemma of life and death (death through the passing away of a relative), and is asking his readers to slow down and think about their own lives and the way they choose to spend it.

    A fabulous post. Keep Writing.


  2. Hello.

    From a fellow Pratchett fan.

    1. Hello to you too! Always glad to encounter a fellow fan of PTerry. :)