Saturday, June 24, 2017

Memento Mori

Image Credit: Hayley Blanck

Yes, it’s an oft heard refrain. Remember your mortality. Remember that you can’t live forever, that there is – notwithstanding alternative beliefs about multiple reincarnations – this one life, one only life and your days are numbered, your breaths measured…if not by some divine ordinance, then by the sheer uncertainty of our actions and their consequences.

You can never know when the reaper comes knocking at your window, the spear ominously hanging off his shoulder.

How often do we take cognizance of this, though? How often are we mindful of our limited time here?

You would disagree. Of course, our birthdays serve to remind us of the years slipping away from our grasp. Of course, the progression of our lives is invariably charted towards sustenance, toward longevity. The inevitability of death is staved off in name of goals, meaningful pursuits, carousing even.

However, as is said, knowing and realising are two different things.

Let me backtrack a little here – some context is in order. To begin with, I am fortunate to not have lost someone very close to me yet – my maternal grandfather passed away when I was 14, but back then I was perhaps still too young to fully comprehend what such loss entailed. In hindsight, I naturally wish I had cherished my time with him more.

In a span of the past three days, we received news to this effect about two people.

One was a former caretaker to my maternal grandmother and had lived with the family for well over a decade. Scratch that, she had become family, so much so that we looked forward to seeing her just as much as the rest of my maternal family on our yearly trips to New Delhi. She would accompany my grandmother to our house when nani would come to live with us for a couple of months, and while her equation with my nani wasn’t exactly pleasant, she loved me and my mother to bits. I have fond memories of being treated to her sumptuous cooking, of her taking care of my daily schedule whether it was waking me up for school or ironing my uniform the night before, of my mother and I taking her out to eat or to shop for sarees and jewellery.

She was diagnosed with oral cancer a year ago. A stout, sturdy lady who never needed medicines and could work all day long even at the age of 55 was reduced to a mere shadow of herself.

I remember the last conversation I had had with her. It was over six months ago, and she had already returned to her native town by then. “I’ll come for your wedding,” she had said, and I was at a loss for words, for marriage was as such inconceivable for the next couple of years, and who knew?

I don’t remember what I said, but I wished her well and expressed hope at being able to see her once again, hopefully recovered. We would invite her to come visit, despite knowing it was a journey she’d be unable to make as such.

I had once wished to learn cooking from her. Had tried even, five years ago when she had been here and I was yet to start college, but it never materialised into full-fledged lessons.

And to think my grandmother would instruct her about her role in dressing my grandmother for her cremation. My nani lives to this day, hale and hearty.

The other was my paternal grandparents’ neighbour. She was a widow, and both her sons were settled abroad. And yet, I had not seen a livelier, happier person in her stead. Not only a huge support to my dada-dadi but an aunt to us kids – we both addressed and regarded her as our masi. My cousins had been, in some way ,closer to her than I ever could be, courtesy having lived with my grandparents during their childhood, but she had been no less fond of me. 

You could say she was family as well.

And just as unexpectedly some three months ago, she was rushed back home from Australia on account of a paralytic attack. It devolved to brain cancer, albeit at the first stage, and she had every chance of making a full recovery. I had only met her just last week. Chemo was yet to take away all of her hair, and while visibly weakened, she seemed to be pulling through just fine. “All these years, I’ve never even had a fever, and now look at this.” Yet another woman deprived of her sense of self-sufficiency.

My mother and I had not stayed for long, promising to come back soon. As if we took it for granted that she was still around.

What a folly to think that way, indeed.  

Being afflicted with cancer is no longer akin to signing your death warrant these days. And perhaps that is why, on both occasions of receiving the news, I stopped dead in my tracks. 

It was just how it was meant to be, one would say.

Death as a concept, an event even seems surreal to me to this date. An idea I can barely wrap my head around. For it doesn’t take long to get back to the humdrum of daily life, does it? Regardless of how severe the loss has been.

However, for the few moments of disillusionment that do manage to catch hold of you, it’s worth the thought – what do we really take away with us when we die? An identity, painstakingly crafted through the proverbial sweat, blood and tears, generously supplemented with acquisitions galore. All of it left behind.

Except for the memories, also equally subject to the ravages of time.

Which is not to say that I advocate for nihilism as a way of life. That, for the fear of eventual oblivion, I treat everything with a certain degree of irrelevance.

Nonetheless, I’m no stranger to the melancholy of transience. And yet, if mono no aware is anything to go by, it is that beauty lies in impermanence.

I, for one, would be driven mad for the lack of a pursuit. Meaning, whether contrived or intrinsic, has to be sought after. That pursuit is just as undeniable as death itself.

I suppose it is all about walking the fine line between the two eventualities, in our own search for that absolute, unvarnished truth. And so it is.

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