How do you reason your way through something like the death of a brother?
On May 31, my brother Vijay died after a massive heart attack in his office. He neither had a history of heart disease, nor had he ever been hospitalised in his life. Yet he was gone in a matter of seconds; seconds that represent for me nothing short of a personal 9/11 as the world I knew blew up in my face with the force of a high-calibre bomb, turning everything I knew about life on its head.
Vijay was my elder by 16 years and practically a father figure, even more so after our father passed away in 2004. Now I feel as if a big tree in whose comforting shade I lived my life has been uprooted. When he was alive, the low ebb of my life was an editorial rejection. Today I’d kill for a life with such a high low ebb.
I received the message of his passing in my office. As I drove through the Delhi streets to the emergency ward where he lay dead, somehow my thoughts kept returning to the DVD of the Bond movie Skyfall I had gifted him for his birthday in April. We had planned to watch it together, but for some reason or other never quite got round to it. After his death, for me that movie has become a metaphor for everything we deferred and have now lost forever.
I am reminded of the passage in the Bhagavad Gita that talks about seizing the present. How easily we tend to lose sight of the present in our day-to-day lives. We get so enmeshed in a web of past regrets and future worries that we forget life is lived in the present and this moment is all we hold in our hands. The past and the future are out of our reach.
In Life of Pi, Canadian novelist Yann Martel reflects on how insubstantial reason, logic or, for that matter, everything underpinning the material world is in addressing the big questions of life. Certainly after Vijay’s passing, the physical world seems like an elaborate fiction woven to distract us from the real issues of life and death. It is fiction compelling enough to suspend disbelief and make us believe that it has all the answers. Something like Vijay’s death, however, shows it up in all its hollowness. How can reason, for instance, even begin to explain what happened?
Vijay had a great career. He was slated to become Dean of the Faculty of Management Studies at the University of Delhi next year and sat on the advisory boards of universities in England and France. He was well-liked by students and colleagues all over the world. He frequently travelled abroad to lecture and teach, and was one of the few Indians to receive the Ordre des Palmes Academiques (Order of Academic Palms) — a prominent French honour. Moreover, he was happily married with an eight-year-old son. Yet he was snatched away in less than a minute, with the entire episode unfolding in front of his son who had accompanied him to office that day.
How do you reason your way through something like that? Furthermore, of what use is reason when it comes to coping? The one thing that keeps my sister-in-law, a noted professor and historian, going in these dark days is the belief that she will meet my brother in the afterlife; that his death is not a permanent parting. It is a belief that has little to do with reason or logic. It is grounded in her devout faith and spirituality. Yet, somehow, it has become the crutch that sustains her in these difficult times, allowing her to keep from folding even in moments where grief wells up and the future appears as empty as a featureless desert.
Since Vijay’s death, my sister-in-law has taken to keeping a glass of milk on top of the boundary wall next to our front gate in the morning. In the days following his demise, while the rituals were being performed, she believed his soul would come to partake of the offering in the guise of a crow. Even though the rituals are now over, she continues to keep the milk. I guess a part of her wants to continue believing that my brother’s soul wishes to partake of it.
Before May 31, the pragmatist in me would have tried to talk her out of such notions. Something happened this morning, though, to show how wrong I would be to try. I was with her when she placed the glass and a few minutes later a crow came by to dip its beak in the milk and, for a moment, she looked almost happy and the brother in me came as close to smiling as is possible under the circumstances.