Friday, October 22, 2021

The Dance of Death in the Pirouette of Life

All of us, regardless of our caste or community or religion or faith, whether educated or not, whether spiritual or not, are conscious of the fact that anyone born has to die. The mystery of living is that no one knows when it will be curtain call for the drama of life. Unless of course, one has the boon of ‘icchamrityu’ (it essentially means control over the time of one’s death) like the patriarch, Bheeshma, in the Mahabharata, who lived long enough to see four generations of the Kuru (including the Pandavas) clan go through the vicissitudes of life only to see the decimation and death of all family members save for the few in the penultimate days of the great battle of 18 days. In hindsight, perhaps, Bheeshma would have regretted the boon of ‘icchamrityu’.

It will be interesting to allude here to the overarching approach, albeit contrasting, religious beliefs, in faiths like Christianity, Islam and Sanatan Dharma commonly called Hinduism. The judgment day under Christianity or Qayamat under Islam, essentially allude to the day of reckoning when a person on his or her death, depending on the good or bad deeds during his or her lifetime, is given the peace of heaven or Jannat or the perdition of hell or jahannum. The focus is on ‘afterlife’, perhaps a refrain from the belief of rebirth. Under the Sanatan Dharma, the central belief is in the cycle of life and death or punarjanma where rebirth or moksha (or release from the cycle of life and birth) will be a function of the balance sheet of punya (dharmic deeds) and paapa (adharmic deeds) – so long as the atonement of the paapa is not complete in the same life or succeeding lives, one will be reborn and if there is an accumulated credit of punya from the previous birth, it will pay off handsomely in the current birth. Whichever way one sees it, the interpretation of a believer and the intellectual would be that these tenets essentially were for ensuring a disciplined living in a spirit of comity and peace in the larger interest of the society and the people.

Some clarification would be in order here, lest the topic be seen as morbid. Our behavioural reality is that we see life as a celebration and death as a mourning, in spite of the immutable life and death. Life can be and is both a joy and sorrow, depending on our experiential journey. So is death – it is both a joy and a sorrow depending on the situational reality and how one wishes to view it. 

The Dance of Death in the Pirouette of Life - 1One of the typical dilemmas we all, as friend or family, face is how to respond when a close family or a friend is in the final throes of life or has departed into eternity. Given that any suffering of body (or for that matter the mind) cannot be shared or taken over by anyone else, other than an expression of empathy and lending a shoulder or heart, very little can be done. And the concern is also that anything that is said could be perceived as a platitude much avoidable at any given time. So, is it that our silence is the best support at such times? Silence can be more eloquent than any voluble words and can communicate an energy that will reach the person or the family concerned. 

Personally, I would support silence as an expressive communication during such difficult times. I vividly recall at times of such situations involving near and dear ones, well-meaning well-wishers are either barely able to say anything or are distinctly uncomfortable in expressing grief or offering condolences. Even if anyone manages to say something, it is best to accept it gracefully through an eye contact or a namaskar or salutation gesture. 

I started writing this when a person, whom I respect and admire and have known for decades, was in the penultimate moments of life and hanging on to life by a thread. The devastated spouse, remarkably stoic, was in touch with me and it was heart rending moments to say the least – to hear about the excruciating pain of the person, the uselessness of medicines, the frailty of life, the curtain call of life and our complete helplessness in the situation. At such times, empathy has to come to the fore and take precedence over the support of heart and mind. The receiver’s state of mind tends to be very fragile during such moments and it is important that they feel, and not hear, what we have to say. I quite simply preferred to be brief in words and eloquent in silence. We were both silently praying that the person’s pain should end. Expectedly, the end came soon after, thanks to the divine’s benevolence. Again, the commiseration was very brief and the silence more eloquent. The connect of the heart was felt both by the spouse of the departed and the condoler in me – the common cause being a much beloved person who was taken away by the divine call. The departed’s life journey was celebratory; if so, should not a life so well lived be also celebrated on the final journey? Requiem, if at all, should be a private play of affection and not a public display of grief.

The Dance of Death in the Pirouette of Life - 2

Many of us would have experienced the ambivalence of feelings and thoughts at such moments and I am sure each of us would have done what one was comfortable with at those moments. At the end of the day, there is no right or wrong – in life or death. After all, if we have enjoyed the pirouette of life, we should not dread the dance of death. Just be present, for the past is gone and the future is yet to arrive.

I can vividly imagine my departed friend reading this and smiling in agreement, sitting comfortably in a high chesterfield gorging on mangoes, the favourite Indian summer fruit.

Nagesh Alai
Nagesh Alai is a management consultant, an independent director on company boards, and cofounder of a B2B enterprise tech startup. He retired in 2016 as the Group Chairman of FCB Ulka Group and Vice Chairman FCB Worldwide. Elder care and education are causes close to his heart.

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