THINKING ALOUD: Visions of mortality — deadly serious —Razi Azmi - Friday, February 11, 2011

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Humanity is forever locked in the battle for life against death, whatever the religious belief or lack of it. Man’s greatest preoccupation, the mission of his life, so to speak, is to live on

Once upon a time, there were 10 of us — eight brothers and sisters and, of course, the parents. Slowly but surely — as surely as night follows day — time has taken its toll and our numbers have dwindled. There are now only three of us left on this earth after the demise of both parents and five siblings.

In the Mahabharata, there is a section with a series of questions and answers between God and Yudhisthira, a good prince. One question goes like this: “What is the greatest wonder of all?” The answer: “Every day Death takes lives beyond counting, yet those who live think, ‘Death can never come this day to me’.”

On the death of someone we like to say, “Woh Allah ko piyare ho gaye” (he became dear to God). One would think that the opportunity to meet one’s Maker would be welcomed wholeheartedly and enthusiastically at least by the people of faith, but the opposite is true. Even devout believers will do anything to postpone their inevitable rendezvous with the Maker, to avoid or evade death.

In addition to desperate visits to doctors and hospitals, people who are critically ill or in life-threatening situations will go to faith healers, pray, run, hide, kill, do anything — literally anything — in order to survive, even if barely.

More than anything else, perhaps it is the fear of death that sustains religiosity. With one leap of faith, believers achieve three things: an All Mighty Guardian and Protector (God), a feeling of being special in this vast universe (‘chosen people’, however defined), and, above all, immortality. In religion, one never dies, but merely transitions from this world to the next, where, God willing, one will live eternally in complete bliss along with all of one’s near and dear ones.

There is the risk, of course, of damnation and hellfire, but it is considered small. Most believers tend to be optimistic at heart about their own place in the hereafter, namely, paradise, even if they will feign humility in public by referring to themselves as ‘sinners’, declaring that their fate is in the hands of the Almighty.

Humanity is forever locked in the battle for life against death, whatever the religious belief or lack of it. Man’s greatest preoccupation, the mission of his life, so to speak, is to live on. From pope to layman, king to con man, sadhu (ascetic) to sanyasi (mendicant), billionaire to beggar, it is a struggle for longevity.

Doctors, nurses and hospitals with their high-tech gadgets and intensive care units, and even the pharmaceutical industry that churns out ever-new products (much like the armaments industry), are at the forefront of this war against death. Even knowing that defeat in this war is an absolute certainty, everyone fights literally to his or her last breath. No wonder that even faith healing — with its holy water and holy men, voodoo and witchcraft — flourishes despite its very dubious record.

The latest to depart in my immediate family was my eldest brother. Although he was much older than me, we had become great friends over the last few years, perhaps because of our shrinking numbers. It was the kind of intimacy that probably comes with the knowledge of imminent doom, of living under a death sentence with the date of execution drawing ever closer. It was friendship nurtured by adversity, springing from the awareness that our days are numbered.

As we grow older, we become nostalgic about the past, regurgitating common memories, reminiscing about times gone by. In our younger days, none of us ever contemplated death. Death? Why, we did not even think that we were ever going to grow old. It seemed to us that old people were born old, while youth was to be our permanent condition.

Personally, I am comforted by what Mark Twain is quoted to have said: “I was dead for millions of years before I was born and it never inconvenienced me a bit.” More worrisome is how death might strike.

Death comes in a myriad ways. It can be quick and easy or it can be long and painful. It can be anything in between. It can be a natural death or an accidental death. It can be inflicted with violence, even cruelty. It can come at the end of a long life, or it can come in the prime of life or even in infancy. A life can be well lived or it can be a scoundrel’s life. It can be inconsequential and barely noticed, except by close kin. It can be heroic (Salmaan Taseer and Benazir Bhutto) or much lamented (Martin Luther King, John F Kennedy, Jinnah and Gandhi).

Every death, however, leaves someone devastated, sometimes so profoundly as to make life meaningless for the bereaved, until such time that time, the great healer, works its wondrous ways. A friend, whose wife suddenly died from a stroke, described his loss in these words in two e-mails to me: “It is impossible for me to say how deep is the wound and how great is my loss. ...(She) has taken away with her the reason and purpose of my living. Without her, I shall still live, but just.” And a few weeks later, he sent me this: “How do I feel in my mind? To get an idea, take a large slab of sadness. Add plenty of misery and emptiness. Top it up with despair. What you get is how I feel. ...With her I have lost the beacon and compass of my life. I can hardly take a breath without remembering (her). I can hardly utter a sentence without her name in it. You see, in life it was difficult to judge where she ended and I began. Our lives were so closely twined.”

And so it is. The ebb and flow, the beginning and end of life and the intertwining of lives, the juxtaposition and alternating, and the interspersing and intermingling of happiness and sorrow, of good times and bad and of life and death.

Death, which is synonymous with grief, always triumphs. But life goes on and happiness, in some form, is just around the corner.

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