A constant awareness of your mortality is a great way to live enthusiastically!
Interestingly, several signs and reminders on death have come my way in the last 24 hours.
It was my father-in-law Venks’ birthday yesterday – he passed on a couple of years ago, so we reminisced about our times with him on the family WhatsApp group. Besides, it was also MGR’s 100th birth anniversary yesterday. I thought back to the day he had died in December 1987 – when I had walked 18 kms (as public transport had shut down after riots broke out in Madras) to meet Vaani; it was the first time I was visiting her home. I am glad I walked that distance – she’s sure been a great companion who’s walked beside me every step of the way, these past 30 years! A close friend wrote in yesterday saying she hasn’t been able to come to terms with her husband’s passing. A reader pinged me on WhatsApp to say she was catching up with my blogposts after a while because she had lost her mother last week. And then, of course, while watching a movie at a Cineplex last evening, the Tamil Nadu state government’s newsreel melodramatically showcased the funeral of former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa!
For just a brief while, as I lay in bed trying to fall asleep, I wondered if there was any symbolism in so many death-related references and inferences in one day. Given the fractious family I come from, it has been a few years since I have met my father although we live in the same city! Momentarily, my thoughts went to him, his advancing age and fragile health. I may well have begun to walk along the line of emotion and worry, about my inability to repay my family the money I owe them and, at least, repair my credit rating with them, even if I really can’t redeem my relationships there; but my awareness held me in good stead. I recalled Osho’s masterful perspective that Life and death are just two sides of the same coin; that death is accompanying us every step of the way, like a shadow, from the moment we are born. Or simply, as I have come to see it, we are all speeding towards our death, albeit at different speeds. So, no symbolism, there, I told myself as I fell asleep.
This morning, over coffee, glancing at the obituary section in The Hindu, I thought those thoughts again. If death is the absolute, non-negotiable, reality for all of us; if it is indeed that one reason which must compel us to live fuller, meaningful, happier, lives, why then don’t we live that way? Why do we fritter away our lifetimes fretting over petty material pursuits or even pettier squabbles among those that we live with?
I guess the Dalai Lama nailed it when he said, “The problem with humankind is that we think we have a lot of time!” A beautiful song from the classic Choti Si Baat (1975, Basu Chatterji, Yogesh, Salil Chaudhury, Lata Mangeshkar, Mukesh, Amol Palekar, Vidya Sinha) comes to mind. The opening lyrics are: “Na jaane kyon, hota hai yeh zindagi ke saath, Achanak ye mann, Kisi ke jaane ke baad, kare phir uski yaad, Chhoti chhoti si baat…”. They mean: “Why does the mind think up even the smallest memories of those who have gone away, after they have left us…?” The song’s essence (not in the movie’s context though) is a potent reminder of our mortality. It tells us, ever so subtly, that the inevitable is lingering around, just there, somewhere within our immediate circle of impact. It implores us to use the opportunity of this lifetime intelligently – to do what we love doing and to live happily, joyfully, with all those among us, in the time we still have left with us here.
I believe that fearing death or feeling sorry for the dead or for yourself is of no use. The awareness of your impending death, and of everyone you know, must be used very constructively to live your Life fully. To live without squandering even one precious moment. And the only way you can ensure living without wasting any of your finite lifetime is to only do what makes you happy and celebrate the presence of everyone in your Life – even your detractors, for they teach you what not to do! You will no doubt face your share of challenges along the way, not just with the path you have chosen but also with the people you meet on your journey, but your inner joy, your enthusiasm, will make the ride fulfilling, meaningful.
This reflection over the past 24 hours has only reiterated a truth about Life. Death is not the physical passing on of the human form alone, it is also what happens to you in every moment that you don’t live fully when you are alive! Think about it! Clearly, you don’t have too much time. If what I’ve shared here makes sense, then please go live that kick-ass Life you have always wanted to live but have been postponing for a better day and time. Remember: there is never a better time to live than now!
Every time death strikes around us it is serving us a wake-up call.
Somehow the images from Tuesday evening’s public funeral of Jayalalithaa refuse to go away from my mind. Not just yet.
Here was one of the greatest and most powerful leaders of our times, from this part of the world, yet she was so powerless in the face of her own mortality. As I type this, she lies buried some kilometres away. History will surely remember her. People will continue to tell their versions of her story – of her beauty, her fame, her struggles, her triumphs, her power, her wealth, her compassion, her wit and her brilliance – for generations to come. But, for now, her human form lies there alone, at the Marina, in abject surrender to Life’s will.
Death, we must all realize, is a great leveler.
The moment you are born, the only predictable aspect of your Life is your impending, inevitable, death. You cannot negotiate with death. In fact, all of us are speeding towards our death, albeit at different speeds. You have to go when your time is up and your number is called. So, the most intelligent way to live is to live fully, celebrating this lifetime being happy, doing what you love doing. Yet, thanks to your social conditioning, you go on getting attached to material stuff, wanting to accumulate more wealth and more things, than experiencing Life, its magic and beauty, in all its grandeur and majesty. Simply, you go on postponing living. When you invest your present in grieving over the dead past or in worrying about an unborn future you are not living, you are merely existing.
Think about it. You – and I – didn’t ask to be born. So, this lifetime is a gift. And this gift is perishable. Each of us comes with an expiry date, except we don’t know what date it is. Of this lifespan that we have, assuming we live to be 60 years old, it is only up to the age of 40~45 that you can be reasonably assured of good health. It is only when you are maintaining good health that you can experience Life fully. But think of how most of us are squandering this peak phase of good health, investing precious time and energy in materialism or living our lives trying to please others or brooding over what we don’t have. By the time we wake up, if at all we do, to realize the ephemeral nature of Life, it is often too late. Sadly, some people never quite wake up in realization at all!
Clearly, nobody who has inhabited this planet has ever been able to take anything of what they created or accumulated with them. You come empty-handed and you will go empty-handed. Death unfailingly serves us a wake-up call, reminding us of this unalterable law of Life, every time it strikes around us. But are we listening, are we waking up, are we willing to change the way we think and live?
After watching Jayalalithaa’s funeral on TV as we stepped out on the street for a walk, I found a bed of leaves under a tree in my neighborhood. Intuitively, as I shot a picture to post on Instagram, this line completed the imagery in my head: “If this is where we all have to end up finally, then why all this drama that we enact all through our lifetimes?”
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A Life challenge arrives only so that you awaken from you stupor, from merely existing, and start living!
I was asked a very interesting question by a young medical college student in Chittoor yesterday: “AVIS Sir, why do we need a tragedy or crisis in Life to start living intelligently? Can’t we in the normal course learn to live happily, accepting Life for what it is?”
I thought that was an intelligent question from a very beautiful mind!
Of course we don’t necessarily need a tragedy or crisis to wake us up from our stupor. But the problem is that most of us don’t even know we are steeped in stupor. We imagine that earning a living is what Life is all about. So we run after name, fame, money, qualifications, material things and everything else that is impermanent and perishable. We kid ourselves to believe that we can postpone our happiness, we can postpone who we are, postpone living the Life that we want to live, even while we prioritize other people and things, over ourselves. We miss the most elementary point that Life is a limited-period offer and if we don’t live a moment fully, the way we want to, then we have lost that moment forever.
So, in a way, we are lost but in a bigger way we are pretending we are lost. Don’t we all know that we will die one day for sure – sooner or later? Then why do we choose not to live fully and instead squander our lifetime accumulating things that are going to perish or are not going with us when we perish?
Therefore, it is because we pretend to be dumb that we find a Life tragedy or crisis awakening. A tragedy or crisis is nothing but an event. Just another event. Just as your graduation is an event or your marriage is an event or your vaccination is an event so is your lay-off or your divorce or your chemotherapy. But only when what you don’t want or what you don’t expect lands up in your Life do you realize that you are not in control of your Life. That’s when you reflect and realize that had you lived your Life more intelligently then when the unforeseen and unwanted happens, when pain arrives in your Life, you can at least console yourself that you lived well and happily until now.
To live intelligently you need nothing but an awareness of your Life being a gift and a limited period offer. But to awaken to this awareness, you sometimes need a reboot, a wake-up call, and that’s precisely what a tragedy or crisis does to you! They shake you and wake you up! But if you are awaken, then you don’t need a wake-up call at all, do you? Even so, you will wake up only when you are really asleep, but if you are pretending to be asleep, you may still not wake up. Think about it – it makes a lot of sense!
Don’t mourn the dead, celebrate their Life instead!
An elderly resident in our apartment block has had a bereavement in her family. Normally, she leads the community navarathri celebrations in the building. But she cried out this year saying she was in mourning. Her choice made me wonder if we should at all mourn our dead.
I often hear people say that when someone passes away, you should not offer prayers for three to 10 days, depending on your closeness to the departed; you should not celebrate festivals, birthdays and anniversaries for a full year and, in some cases, I have noticed people even abstain from visiting ‘big’ temples like Tirupathi or their native shrines. Now, my perspective on this is limited to the way Hindus, particularly TamBrahms, mourn as I am exposed primarily to this culture. I must add here that my views on God and religion are significantly skewed to the journey within, to Godliness and to the religion of humanity. Even so, this is not even about God or religion. This is about, as I see it, the wasted, often dramatic, practice of mourning.
Yes, when someone you know and love dies, you will feel sad. And you can’t and you should not avoid that grief. Hold it and allow it to hold you. It will last for a while. But as it wears off after some time, and it will, let it go. By imposing socially – as dictated by the high-priests of religion – prescribed mourning norms, you are missing the big picture. Death is not a dark, monstrous ‘something’ that must be feared and abhorred. In fact, death is the only constant about Life. It is the inevitable. It is the only certainty you have in Life: if you are born, you will die! And as long as you live, death is your constant companion. It travels with you along the course of your entire lifetime, as a shadow will.
I learnt an important Life lesson from a slum dweller several years ago. One afternoon, I found traffic slowing down on Greenways Road. This was surprising because this is one of the freer thoroughfares in Chennai. In some time, the traffic came to a grinding halt. I stepped out of my car and walked a few metres ahead to find that a funeral procession was winging its way out of the Sathya Nagar slum in the area. As the flower-bedecked cortege of an old man snaked forward, I noticed several people, young and old, mostly men, dancing to the beats to a drum. They were leading the cortege. They danced furiously. And I could make out that several of them were drunk. I had seen this happen on the streets of Chennai many, many times before this one. But this time I was keen to understand why slum dwellers acted in such drunken frenzy while seeing off their dead. So I asked an elderly member of the procession if he could tell me what was going on. He reeked of cheap sarakku (liquor) and was probably in his 70s. He was not dancing; but he was swaying to the drum beats and the effect of alcohol nonetheless. He paused though and answered my question: “Saar, we are celebrating that our man is dead. That he has found viduthalai, freedom, from this earthly existence. He’s gone to a happier, prosperous place. We are happy for him. In celebrating his death, his freedom, we know, ours will come too. Soon!”
I found the man’s perspective to be a revelation. I had not thought of death from that point of view ever.
It is so simple. Celebrate the departed’s opportunity to be free from real world issues, challenges, attachments, bondages, whatever! I extended the thought and have since held the view that our dead must not be mourned but their lives must be celebrated. On the night when my father-in-law died, two years ago, I sat quietly and drank all by myself. I recalled how much I had learned from him and thanked him for his compassion and trust in me – beginning, of course, with his choice to let me marry Vaani, way back in the late ‘80s, even when I was barely out of college, and unemployed! It was a quiet communion and a personal celebration!
As I grow older, I find the rituals that impose mourning very meaningless, in fact, stifling. On the contrary, I find the slum-dwellers’ practice of dancing for their dead, of celebrating their dead, deeply spiritual. Many of them may well be uneducated. But perhaps they are more evolved than us. They surely know what it means to celebrate the lives of those who are gone. So, I believe mourning as a practice must be expunged. Instead we must do all the stuff that our dead would have loved. And through doing all of that, let’s celebrate their Life. As for me, I have advised Vaani and my children to abstain from all rituals and instead host my Death-Day party! I have asked them to play RD Burman-Gulzar-Kishore Kumar songs and hold a toast with the finest whiskeys as my celebration at my death!!!
PS: The image in this Blogpost has been updated in 2020.