Visions of mortality – deadly serious

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, imam to miskeen, king to conman, sadhu to sanyasi, billionaire to beggar, it is a struggle for longevity.

(Daily Times, 11 Feb 2011)

Once upon a time, there were ten of us, eight brothers and sisters besides 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?”  And 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 will be welcomed wholeheartedly and enthusiastically at least by 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 survive, even if barely.

More than anything else, perhaps it is the fear of death which 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 low.  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, imam to miskeen, king to conman, sadhu to sanyasi, billionaire to beggar, it is a struggle for longevity.

Doctors, nurses and hospitals with their high-tech gadgets and intensive care units and the pharmaceutical industry churning 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 to me, yet 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 times gone by.  In our younger days, none of us ever contemplated death.  Dead?  Why, we didn’t even think that we would ever grow old.  It seemed to us that old people were born old, while youth was 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 myriad ways. It can be quick and easy or it can be long and painful. And 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 (Salman 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 as 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 emails 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 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.

By Razi Azmi 

http://dailytimes.com.pk/default.asp?page=2011\02\11\story_11-2-2011_pg3_4

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