Death like a long distance phone call
In just about every religion or value system known to mankind, the human body has new life after death. The refusal of this life is a great trauma for the family, the community and the surrounding society. In UR Ananthamurthy’s classic Kannada novel, Samskara, when the blasphemous Brahmin Naranappa dies, he leaves the Brahmin colony of his village in a dilemma. Who will do the last rites of the Brahmin who flouted all the rules of Brahmanism during his lifetime – consuming meat and alcohol, spending time with Muslims, taking a low caste mistress? Her corpse lies like a giant question mark in the village, while the alluring body of Naranappa’s mistress, Chandri, and the gold jewelry she offers to those who will give her deceased lover his last rites, draw glimmers of lust in the eyes of the impoverished Brahmins proud of their caste. The stinking, rotting corpse, meanwhile, turns into a slow metaphor for corrupt Brahmin Hinduism.
Far in time and space, with Homer Iliad, Priam will ask for the body of his son Hector from Achilles, the man who killed him in battle. In a fit of vengeful rage, Achilles tied the body of the slain Trojan hero to his chariot and dragged him, though the sun god Apollo stepped in to keep Hector’s body miraculously intact. An old man, Priam, appeals to Achilles’ memory of his own father, so that Achilles will have mercy on old Priam and return the corpse of his beloved son to him. And at the end of the Thebes civil war in Sophocles’ play, Antigone, the victorious king, Creon, decrees that the body of the rebel, Polynices, will be refused respect for the last sacraments and will be left to rot and vultures. Antigone’s fight, in the play that bears her name, is to dare the royal decree and give her brother the last rites he deserves.
Beyond religion and culture, contact with the related corpse, in the last instance, is always an act of love.
Like many people whose lives have spanned different continents, I have experienced the strange disembodiment of the death of a loved one that occurs from a distance. When I was in my twenties and studying in the United States of America, within three years, I lost both parents, both in their mid-fifties. My father’s death was first a phone conversation with my mother, who told me to stay strong as my father had been admitted to intensive care following major cardiac arrest. He was already gone – maybe it was possible for my mother to lie to try to momentarily shield my emotions 12,000 kilometers away, as their marriage had ended fifteen years ago. A day or two later, the news of the death was an email from a friend.
For a set of reasons too difficult and painful to address, I was no longer close to my father, who was living with his new family. The first death of a relative was an absence in my life – the absence of a corpse, the absence of ritual, even the absence of mourning. Living in a college town in the American Midwest, I had no one around me who could mourn him, and the difficulty of our personal relationship seemed to block the possibility of personal grief as well.
The fever that fell on me that night was like a cold hand. Before my mind could cry, my body did. The absence of the reality of death – of a person related to me by blood – seemed to have blocked his release and pushed my body into illness. My mother’s voice had collapsed over the phone in her banter with the truth; we didn’t know that exactly three years and two days later the news of his death would wake me up in the middle of the night. Died from a phone call, after two and a half days in a coma after a stroke.
Would I go see her now? This time the reality of death was a choice. But not much for a graduate student with a tight scholarship, to take a trip from New Jersey to Calcutta, battling tough travel regulations in a post 9/11 world. What would I go for? She was the last member of my immediate family; I didn’t have a brother or sister, and no one else so close, no one whose grief I had to share. It was all mine. I decided not to make this trip, to go and touch the death and the remains of the body. To go and embrace it all alone, a friend said, would be asking for more punishment.
I thought it was only the distance that disembodied death, the distance that stretched across the oceans, leaving me, like many of us, unprepared for the fact that since March 2020, disembodiment has become another name. for death. For those of us lucky to be alive, lucky to be home, death has become images on our screens. Death is hard to see even in the same city, death beds hard to visit, mourning rituals impossible, unless it was your own immediate family where death visited.
We have lived through a war. A war takes loved ones and often forgets to return their bodies, while scattering unrecognized corpses on the battlefield. The disembodied battle deaths now combine with the intense community of virtual social life – every day, photos of deceased loved ones appear on my Twitter and Facebook timelines. But many others remain elusive to me – the face of an aunt who died in Calcutta last October, taking my childhood home with her; that of our former owner across the street in Delhi, recounted simply in calls and messages, that of my neighborhood optician in Calcutta, the first of my personal knowledge to fall from this disease, in May 2020, a death that sounded like a bad rumor in those early days of the pandemic. Meeting people is such a rare thing these days that the word often comes from people far from death. The finality of loss without the painful – but essential – ritual of a final farewell, as unclaimed bodies wash up on the banks of our rivers. Who, one wonders, searched for these bodies?
Beyond the primordial grief of death, there is a loss in the loss of the body that never closes, that steals the final image from you. After all these years, I think about the choice I made, not to fly over and do the last rites for my mother, no matter what little choice I had that day.
Unity is what the human body and soul seek in life, and unity is what they seek at the time of death. This is why the last rites are precious. Not for religion, but for love. The sandalwood paste on the dead loved one, the new clothes, even the contact of dead cold skin.
Between disembodied death and the unclaimed body will inhabit the giant scar of this omnipresent human tragedy that haunts us today.
The author is Professor of English and Creative Writing at Ashoka University