These days, thoughts of death assail me at every turn—when I am reading, when I am sipping piping hot coffee, when I am watching the clouds sail by in the winter sky, when I am reflecting on the days of youth that will be no more. And yet, I know, there is something to be said about life, about living it in good cheer and then saying farewell to it with no complaints.
And yes, I am seventy, all of it. But there are those who believe I am more than that, for that date on my old, yellowing school certificate testifying that I was born on the day was but guesswork on the part of the school authorities. In the old days, in our villages, birthdays were remembered through reference with an event of happy augury or remembrance of a great calamity. My mother had a clear idea about my birth. You see, she was my mother and so she was the one who really knew about the way she brought me into the world. God save her soul! On this question of the moment I was deposited into this world, her eyes would take on a faraway look. It was in the times of the great famine, she would say, when people were dying like flies in the distant and vast city of Calcutta that I was born in our little hamlet in the eastern part of Bengal.
Any date? Any day? Any memory of the weather on the day? No answers to these questions came from her, though she recalled that it was a rainy evening. My first cries upon coming into this world came in tandem with a huge clap of thunder that nearly shook the village to its foundations. Predictions were fast in coming. I would either shake the world or the world would leave me shaken. All these years later, I am not quite sure what precisely has been the reality.
But let’s not brood. A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, said my friend Robert Browning once when he was in a properly philosophical mood. Or what’s a heaven for? That’s also from him, not me. But I do wonder what my reach has been. As for heaven, I am not quite certain I have seen it or will inhabit one once I am gone. A sinner like me has little chance of joining the angels at supper. So let’s move on with my story. To be exact, with my obituary, if you are inclined to read it.
Life must be lived in laughter, in a bit of harmless, self-deprecating fun. What happens, then, if I were to spare my friends the avoidable trouble of preparing my obituary, before the end comes, or sending to the newspapers little copies of the news of my death, along with (don’t forget) a copy of my photograph that would not be remarkable and so would not be different from those of all the others who have already gone to their graves? Somewhere there would be mention of all the loved ones I would be leaving behind and a bit of news about a qul khwani or doa mehfil, in that mundane sense of the meaning.
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No, I do not have the heart to put my family and my friends to that tedium. And because I don’t, here is what I would like to leave behind: a self-composed obituary that no one will have to lose time or energy working over. Here it is. You might laugh at it for its pure silliness; or you could feel horrible because of the macabre, in your idea of things, underpinning the entire item. The choice is yours:
Here lies an old, weary soul, under this rural mound of earth, right beside his deceased parents who he gave little of peace when they lived. They loved him, but he was always playing the fool, forever convinced that he was smarter than them. The fool that he was (and the grin he had on his face in death conclusively proved this evident quality in him), he thought he was wiser than everyone else. People laughed behind his back. He thought they loved him, for he heard their laughter at his back. He was too naïve to know the difference between love and mockery.
But as long as he lived, he tried to be a good soul. He kept falling in love; or you could say some women drew him into the warmth of heart he thought were love nests. One loved him, so he thought, and then he discovered the terrible tale of how she had been badmouthing him to her tentative Western boyfriend. He could have gone to war to reclaim her, but who wants to create a new Troy? There are women infinitely more beautiful than Helen. And so he turned his back on that woman, forgot her in absolute terms, and went into writing serious editorials for newspapers. And what newspapers! He lies in his grave now, probably recounting to the visiting angels all the newspapers he has worked for, all the pompous owners he ran into, all the editors who sizzled in envy at praise of him by readers, all the accountants who did not pay him his dues day after day—until he decided to walk off the premises.
But that is one side of the story of his, if you will, dissolute life. He considered himself a bohemian, though his friends thought he was really a wastrel. He had no children and happily did not miss having any. But he loved his nieces and his nephew, almost to distraction. In his grave, he misses them, misses the organised chaos they made of his book-filled room. And those books? He hits the ceiling of his grave every time he thinks what happy feasting the worms must be doing to his books. His Voltaire, Shakespeare, Tagore, Karen Armstrong, Oriana Fallaci, Kissinger—he surely must be missing them. Worse, there is no light in that grave and the flesh is peeling away from his bones. He lifts a hand and is horrified at seeing the skeleton it has already become. A piece of the bamboo holding the soil over his body collapses on him. He groans in pain, but no one hears him. He taps on the walls separating him from the resting places of his parents. They make no answer.
Ah, he thinks he sees light at the end of that tomb. There will be a day of judgment, right? Which means he could soon be out of this darkness where his family and friends have placed him and expect to be let into paradise by God and his angels? But, then, he has never prayed in his life, not in that conventional sense of the meaning. Redemption, he knows, is not for him. He lies back, thinking of the beauty of Shona, of the way she called him Priyo and exclaimed “dhett” every time he irritated her. She must have grown prettier, may even have visited his grave and placed a little rose there as a sign of the quiet passion they shared in silence, in rain-drenched rickshaw rides all over town.
The Old Man in death is a spoilsport. His spouse, his siblings and their children sit at table for dinner, with his chair empty. Laughter is gone; and the lugubrious is what has come into the home. It is all his fault. Fool that he was, he died all too soon. Did he have to do that?
Drops of water seep into his grave, into a face that is soon to be a skeleton. Ah, he reasons as the worms finish consuming the last chunk of his brain, it must be the season of floods already!
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer. His books include From Rebel to Founding Father: Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (published by Niyogi Books).