Saturday, September 19, 2009

Death is proof that life is too short

You know you are getting on in years when you find yourself attending more funerals than weddings. You also see that phrase sitting mockingly across the entrance to the cemetery which tells you, Ais Makha Faleam Tukam. Every death brings home the fact that you are living on borrowed time. It tells you that you must seize the day. That you must chase after those impossible dreams before death comes calling. If for nothing else but the thrill of the chase…

You listen to the mourners talking about the deceased after the last clod of mud has been flung, or the embers of the pyre turning to ashes and you hear all sorts of things, generally bad, about all the mistakes the deceased had made in his or her life. You learn that while everyone wants to go to Heaven, no one really wants to die.

I generally avoid funerals if I can. Not because the church gets hot and overcrowded. Not because there’s usually a lot of caterwauling going on from people who hardly knew the deceased. But because I dislike slinging mud over a coffin. It’s especially gruesome in the monsoons. I have left instructions with my next of kin that I wish to be cremated in an electric crematorium. My ashes are to be dropped into the River Mandovi because I love this gentle river and I love ocean travel. I don’t want a fancy urn – a brown paper bag will do. But said ashes must be deposited in said river. At best I could reach Antartica, at worst I could reach Dubai, or even better Petra in Jordan where my ancestors are believed to have come from. One hopes by the time I kick the bucket, the Corporation of the City of Panaji will have installed an electric crematorium. But I digress, the disposal of my mortal remains was not the purpose of this piece.

Two people died recently. One I liked but did not know very well and one I knew very well but did not like very much. Both had one thing in common – implacable misunderstandings with their siblings arising from sharing ancestral wealth and property. It a phenomenon peculiar to Goan families. The sunshine years of childhood are completely forgotten as you turn against your own blood over inheritance. Yet, in the final analysis, your blood is your inheritance.

We come into this life wrinkled and naked and the first thing we own is a cradle built of wood which can hold us comfortably. We leave this world wrinkled and naked, and the last thing we own is a coffin of wood which can hold us. Comfort hardly matters at this time, but I have lain in a coffin we borrowed from the local undertaker for a Chamber of Horrors at our school fĂȘte and I can vouch that it was very comfortable.

Birth and death. Life is the journey in between. And Life is too short to carry all this unwieldy baggage of resentment, jealousy and hate, over stupid things like jewellery, shares and inheritance. As the 70-year-old sister of one of the deceased told me, you can’t take them with you to the grave. Yet the corrosive pain of family feuding hangs over the entire family and with the death of one came memories of truly happy times before the fighting began. “We were all one big family, laughing, talking, arguing; and then this happened and we fought and stopped speaking to each other,” she said. And that is a common refrain.

I asked one of the surviving siblings now in his eighties who still feels he was the wronged one, what was the point of all that rage and anger. He said shortly, “You don’t know what it was like.” I told him I knew, it had happened to my mother and her brothers but I was hanged if I would let it happen to myself and my siblings. “How do you stop it,” he asked. I told him one has to stop it at Stage One when the first divisive word is said. It’s not difficult. You’ve just got to be alert. Plug the hole before the dam bursts. The other thing to do is expect nothing, so you are never disappointed.

“All I wanted her to do was come to my house and say she was sorry for what she did,” he said. “And all she wanted was for you to come to her house and say you were sorry for what you said,” I told him.

His shoulders slumped. Not surprising really. Rage, anger, hatred and bitterness towards someone whose blood runs in your veins – that’s a heavy load to carry. And so unnecessary. Whether you are 9 or 90, life is too short for this. Death is proof of it. It comes so suddenly.

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