Arundhati Roy used the character of an inquisitive little girl in her Man Booker Prize winner 1997 novel The God of Small Things to pose a question that resurfaced again two decades later in her novel The Ministry of Untold Happiness, wherein the central character inquires “Where do old birds go to die? Why don’t dead ones fall like stones from the sky?”
Another prominent author, Madeleine Thien posed similar questions when accepting the 2016 Scotiabank Giller Prize for her novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing. In her acceptance speech, quoting from her partner Rawi Hage’s book Carnival she said, “… What do the stars believe in? Where do the dead horses go, what do the birds worship and what do the rivers live for?”
Philosophers have probably pondered long, through the ages to seek answers to such questions.
Seated in my favorite chair by the large living-room window on a cold and wet afternoon recently, I was startled by the thud of an object crashing into the glass pane. Not being able to spot anything untoward I stepped outside and discovered a small yellow-breasted finch lying inert in the flower bed. It must have flown straight into the window pane and knocked itself out. I gave it a decent burial under a clump of lilies. Dust to dust ashes to ashes …. In this instance at least, it was evident that some birds crash into window panes to die and do fall like stones from the sky!
Some years ago, my mentor (late) Professor Singh had obliquely provided an answer to the query “… what do the birds worship …?” He would use birds as an example, pointing out that these creatures wake up each morning singing songs as they set out to forage for their chicks. Living in the moment, they do not stop to think that a predator might swoop down and take their babies away or that the chicks might fall out of the nest; instead, birds leave their young ones behind in the care of the Provider, implicitly trusting Her / Him to protect them. At the end of the day the parents return home to their empty or occupied abode chirping paeans to the Glory of the Almighty, all the while expressing gratitude for another day drawing to a close. Humans on the other hand, Professor Singh would point out, start and end each day worrying about their affairs while planning, plotting or scheming for the future. For the most part, they are “naa-shukrs” (unappreciative) and omit to express gratitude for all that they already have.
Last week, a family member and the wife of an acquaintance succumbed to cancer. Each had been suffering for some time but when it came the passing on was still a shock. The funeral ceremonies were somber and yet reflected a touch of levity as friends and family celebrated the lives of the two relatively young ladies. Each of us sought ways to rationalize and reassure ourselves that death while inevitable, happened to others. During the week, I spoke with a friend who was shaken up after a minor (I can never figure out a minor versus major) heart attack. He convalesced in hospital after a couple of stents were implanted; upon returning home he was able to laugh off the whole thing, quipping that “It takes an episode like this to refocus on one’s diet and proscribe foods, at least for a few days before one goes right back to the biryanis and rasmalaai!”
The comedian George Carlin had said, “I’m always relieved when someone is delivering a eulogy and I realize I’m listening to it”.
In Season 3 of the TV show Billions, there is an episode on dying. Two of the principal characters are discussing the “untimely” demise of a young colleague and I paraphrase their views on what people say when someone dies in one’s:
30’s – tragic
40’s – sympathy starts to disappear from here
50’s – such a shame
60’s – too soon
70’s – a good run
80’s – a life well lived
90’s – helluva ride
The protagonist of the hit Bollywood 1971 movie Anand says it very well, “… Zindagi badi honi chaahiye, lambi nahin” [Life should be lived big, not stretched long].