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Dhaka Tribune

Meditations on Death and Dying

Death, longing, and the fleetingness of midnight

Update : 29 Mar 2023, 09:28 AM

A few days back, while scrolling though the official Facebook and Instagram page of my erstwhile school, St Thomas' Boys', I found out that my class teacher of the 5th Standard, Mr Donahue, was no more. The initial shock was overwhelming, but what was worse was me realizing that he had left us around two years back, around the time when the city of Calcutta was in the grip of the first wave of Covid-19 and the lockdown had brought our worlds onto the edges of a kind of unknown, something that we have only seen in Post-Apocalyptic or zombie movies and literature. 

News of death and the dead rarely comes alone. It visits you like an unwanted and unwarranted guest, staying with us for some time. More often than not, it comes with an impulse and impetus that a seismograph would do well to measure and brings with it a flood of memories of Biblical proportions. Grieving is rarely a private affair these days. My attempts to connect with some of my batchmates of all those years ago weren't a success. I sat alone that night and tried to excavate whatever I could remember about this wonderful and gentle man.

Memory, as Dickinson wrote is, “A bell/ Jubilee and Knell.” Mr Donahue was a soft spoken man, always in a white shirt and black trousers, his freckled face always carrying a smile. 

Those were the days when caning in school was still a thing, but I don't remember him ever having to use one to discipline any one of us. 

He taught well, was a better listener, and was a delight during the Parent-Teacher interactions. There was nothing of the epical proportion about him that I remembered, an earth shattering event or day in school where he had been in the eye of the storm. 

But that was exactly what was so special. 

He was a part of everyday: Something natural, normal, and uneventful. But something that was necessary. Strangely, what bothered me more was the dawning of the realisation that every time I had thought of him in the last two years, I was doing so in a world that was bereft of him. In a world which has shrunk with social media and internet coalescing borders and time-zones, here I was oblivious to the death of one of my favourite teachers of my adolescent years. 

I had read somewhere that Richard Linklater had based the first movie of his Before trilogy, Before Sunrise, on a chance encounter with a woman whom he had befriended and ended up walking and exploring the city with all night. They parted without exchanging addresses and it was only after the film's release that he had come to know that the woman had died in an accident a couple of years prior to that. 

I was sure that the thread that connected Linklater and I, had done so to many others. 

In a pre-globalized world, with information technology still in its infancy, it was quite natural to be alive not knowing that a near and dear one might not be. The now critically acclaimed web-series Indubalar Bhaater Hotel, deals with something similar -- the husband of the eponymous character hides the letter carrying the news of her father's death and it is only by accident that she comes to know of her bereavement long after her father had passed away. 

I kept on scribbling on a notepad and still could not find the pertinent and correct words to describe what I was feeling that night. I knew it was a sadness and emptiness. But the exact nature of which I could not put my fingers on. Death may be a singular force, but it has protean manifestations. The barometer of grief has different readings depending upon different factors -- the age of the deceased, the age of the person receiving the news, and sometimes even the moment in which the irreparable loss takes place. 

How does one fathom the void that comes with the absence of a person/persons? What does one fill up that absence with -- an absence pertaining not only to a human being, but rather a collection of days and nights and months and sometimes years which cannot be replaced by another human. Despite meditations on this for hundreds of years, there has not been one universally acclaimed or acknowledged answer. 

What remains when people leave? Isn't there an element of selfishness in the way one embraces grief? Doesn't the void or absence revolve around the person who remains to pick up the pieces, and not necessarily around the one who leaves? I am reminded of May in The Shadow Lines who nurses the illusion of being the centrifugal force around which Tridib lives his life. And yet, the novel ends with her enlightenment by the realisation that Tridib gives himself up to the rioters, not merely to save May, but as an escape route from the rapidly constricting ways of the world. 

Literature is replete with instances where authors have tried in their way to negotiate with the notion of death, sometimes by tackling them head on, sometimes through cunning, and sometimes through an engagement with it to delay the inevitable. Shakespeare ends Sonnet XIX with the lines, “Yet, do thy worst old Time! Despite thy wrong/ My love shall in my verse ever live young.”

If Shakespeare is trying to dodge the ravages of Time and Death through the immortality offered by good art, we have in Bergman's The Seventh Seal, the knight challenging Death to a game of chess to ward off the inevitable till the match goes on. There is dignity in death too, a heroic and noble spectacle that does justice to the life that has been lived well -- Attilio Gatti in Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay's Chaander Paahar is a case in point. There is the unflinching stare-down in the face of closure -- the defiant “To Strive, to seek, to find and never to yield” in Tennyson's Ulysses rings loud in our ears. And sometimes the promise of a better world offering greater peace and contentment -- who can forget the iconic final scenes of Gladiator

But I may be digressing. The truth is that we will continue deliberating and meditating upon death, and death will continue building bridges between the worlds separated by memory. In a world where everything is for the moment and transitory and shamelessly out in the open, has the dignity associated with dying somehow diminished -- more so because the dividing line between the private and the public now almost non-existent. I remain with the lingering question -- in a world where obituaries are less about the dead, but about what cultural capital can be accrued by the one writing it, in a world where public memory is as short lived and fickle as promises prior to elections, does death feel cheated or let down for not being able to mean to people what it used to? 

Sayan Aich Bhowmik is Assistant Professor in the Department of English, Shirakole College, West Bengal. He is the co-editor of Plato's Caves Online, a semi- academic space on literature, politics and art. He has recently published his debut collection of poems, I Will Come With A Lighthouse.

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