My uncle died today after having seemingly recovered from a fall, with less than a week left for his son’s planned marriage. I didn’t know what to say when I went to visit my cousin. Instead, I spent a long time listening to others attempting to console him and my aunt. And thinking about what was being said.

My cousin was blaming himself for giving his father some medicines, wondering whether they had an adverse effect. I listened to people consoling him by talking of fate, how people die when their “time comes”, and how nothing that he did or did not do would have changed that “time”.

My aunt was mourning the tragic timing of the death. I listened to people consoling her by telling her that one’s entire life is determined when one is born, but we don’t know it and have to live through it.

I listened to people say that one should not grieve over the dead because it causes anguish to the dead man’s soul.

I listened to people say that my uncle would be reborn as my cousin’s child.

Inevitably, the occasion brought back memories of the time when I lost my father almost 10 years back. I was 19 then. Nowhere as mature in my thoughts as I am now. But I didn’t believe in fate, souls or rebirth then. I knew that the loss was permanent. I remember refusing to pay tribute to my father’s body saying “That is not my father”. For weeks, I was aware of the loss in every conscious moment. Thanks to Ayn Rand, I held on to one thought: I will not allow this to affect me. I succeeded.

Sad as it is, the death of one’s loved ones is a part of life and all of us have to deal with it at one time or another. Death always gives us a rude shock, it shows us that our plans can be overturned in an instant, that we are not fully in control of our lives. To deal with that, one needs to find some way to reduce the anxiety one feels when one is not in control. And fate is the way people have invented to do that. Instead of serenely accepting a world where there are many things over which they lack control, people prefer a world where everything is out of their control. Perhaps it helps them. I don’t know. It wouldn’t help me.

Who killed your father?

Background: A little boy about 5 years old was asking me some questions. He only knows Telugu. I only know enough Telugu to follow a conversation when I know the context and my vocabulary is limited to a few common words.

I will call the boy A and myself K.

A: Nee nana per enti? (What is the name of your father?)
I tell him my father’s name
A: Ekkada unnaru? (Where is he?)
Me: Leru (He isn’t. I didn’t know the appropriate way to express the fact that a person is no more in Telugu)
A repeats the question, apparantly not understanding my answer.
I repeat the answer, not knowing how to make him understand. This goes on a couple more times.
A: Chachi poyara? (Is he dead?)
Me: Aaunu (Yes. I would have used less explicit language had I known it.)
A: Evaru champeshadu? (Who killed him?)
I was too shocked at this point to respond properly and anyway I wouldn’t have been able to frame a proper answer in Telugu.
At this point A’s mother came into the room.
A to his mother: K nana chachi poyaru (K’s father died)
A’s mother: Atla kada raa. Devudu deggara ellaru. (You shouldn’t say that. He has gone to visit God.)

On one hand we have the euphimistic language we use to “protect” children from exposure to “adult” topics like death.
On the other, we have the casual and unnatural portrayal of excessive violence in what we watch for entertainment. (Telugu movies are probably worse than others in this regard).

The result is that the first thing that comes to a child’s mind when he hears that someone is dead is “Who killed him?”. Murder is obviously the most common cause of death that this child has been exposed to.

There is little we can do to improve popular means of entertainment, but we can atleast stop using unnecessary euphemisms to hide facts from children. The truth is the truth and no one – not even children – can or should be “protected” from it. As adults, it is our responsibility to teach our children to face it and deal with it. If we hide the truth behind words that they are clearly not capable of deciphering, we do them a disservice and fail in our responsibility.

When a person becomes a statistic

I woke up today morning, picked up the newspaper and read the headline “Yet another Andhraite shot in US” or something like that. I browsed through the other headlines before reading the report itself. The face staring back at me was that of a former colleague – a person who worked for my company for over  an year.

After the initial shock, I turn to Times of India’s website for more details. There is a video on the page. Clicking it plays an advertisement before the actual content. I scroll down to the bottom of the page for other linked reports. There is a link saying “Do you like this story?”

Story. Yes. Story. That is what it is to us. That is the state of the world we live in and the extent to which we are de-sensitized. Everyday we see reports of crimes – murders, rapes, whatnot. We read them, sigh, and move on. These reports stay in our minds for not more than the few seconds it takes to read them. Not even enough time to think: “It won’t happen to me or to someone I know”. And then one day it does. And it is only then that the mind pauses to think.

After all the progress we have made over the centuries – and I don’t mean to belittle it, we have indeed made progress – a human life still does not mean to us what it should. A human life is sacred. It is the very source of the concept. And yet the loss of a human life is just a statistic, an abstract event that fails to move us unless the event hits home. As the headline goes “Yet another…”.

We have come a long way from the insane violence that used to be commonplace. But we still have a long way to go.

Selfishness and death

I happened to watch a Hindi movie “Hu tu tu” while on a short break. The movie is about two people who are suffocated by the corruption of their politician parents and the system in general. In the climax, the couple blow themselves up along with their parents at a political rally. The socialist/communist sympathizing is disturbing but the climax is striking. It illustrates what bad philosophy does to serious minded people who question the system. Something is very wrong when killing someone, no matter how evil, becomes a higher purpose than living one’s own life. In one scene the male protagonist (Sunil Shetty) explains that he doesn’t know if what he is doing is right or wrong, but he knows that it is not selfish and that is extremely satisfying. Perhaps the script writer did not realize how effective the story line is as a warning against selflessness. A proper life is selfish and consistent selflessness is death. The movie illustrates that very well.

Update: The script is written by the celebrated Gulzar and his daughter Meghana

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