Death is a fascinating word, its origins being traced to Old Saxon Norse and German. It means the end of life, a permanent cessation of a body’s vital functions, extinction of life. Its synonym ‘mortality’ also connects quite beautifully with the Sanskrit mrit or the Persian murd. Death is a tantalising idea, which excites our mind, even if it is in the most morose sense. Hear the word and you visualise a corpse. The expression has no meaning, of course, for the corpse itself.
Death is a word for the living; a word for all of us who know that we will perish whether we want to or not. A person is dead only when someone knows he is dead and the moment that happens the dead comes alive. Every dead person is a silent commenter on the living.
Express rage at the killing of Muslims in Gujarat and immediately you will be dubbed a pseudo-secularist and asked “Have minorities not been killed in Pakistan?” If you were to express concern over the safety of Hindus in Kashmir, you would be perceived as a Hindu nationalist. I have just described the dead as Muslim and Hindu forgetting that they were human beings. So what am I protesting against? Can we ever condemn the death of people without dragging the dead into the religious divide? Or will I have to make sure that as soon as I say something about the dead Muslim I need to equalise that with a comment on the dead Hindu? The issue here is intent. Is my disgust about the killing of life or about religious identity? This is a question that I have to answer for myself.
Death is a pronounced differentiator between the urban and the rural. In mainstream narrative, the life of a city dweller is far more valuable than that of the villager. The urban vision of India is the only vision that we know, want to know and are constantly told about. The rural landscape is a fantasyland of natural beauty and some unreal old-world ethnic aesthetic. The stories of farmer suicides will flash across our TV screen and newspapers and all it will get from us is a non-linguistic groan of sadness. Our engagement begins and ends there.
But, all city dwellers are not equal in death. Caste, race and wealth separate us. A death in an upper-caste household draws my attention far more than that of a Dalit, that of a fellow-Tamilian more than a Minicoyan or a Mizo. My conscious mind tells me I am wrong. Don’t I feel the same anguish?
The uncomfortable truth is that I don’t. There is to death a distinct nearness, kin and class angle. I will go a step further and reveal that I find the way death is ‘celebrated’ in a lower caste funeral to be vulgar and crass and even a waste of ‘their’ money, while the spectacular obsequies of a business tycoon will be taken as standard and even touching. The passport I hold blurs my reactions to death. When the Malaysian airline crashed in Ukraine I was assured “No Indian was killed”. Was I supposed to feel happy? Relieved? Similarly some say why mourn for the death of Palestinians when there are people being killed in my own country? I didn’t realise sensitivity to bereavement has hierarchy or prioritisation.
The social or political value of a person can be gauged by every action that follows his or her death. Newspaper advertisements will tell you how important the individual was depending on the size of the advert, the editions in which it appeared and the number of times it appeared. The coffin itself is not removed from this narrative. The quality of the wood and the ornate designs on it are all status symbols. The size of the tomb is also indicative of the power and influence of the dead. As much as we would like to believe that all this is just a gesture of love, we know it is not.
Humanity has wasted centuries wondering where we go when we die and almost all the answers have only further sullied our societal attire. One dead person is rarely equal to another. The further the distance from the dead the less important they are. It is indeed ironically apposite that I write this piece on August 9, in the very week in 1945 when over 200,000 human beings were mass murdered by U.S. bombers in ‘distant’ Hiroshima and Nagasaki.