Philosophy Reviews

‘Preparing for Death’ review: Intimations of mortality

Shubhshubh bolo! ‘Say only that which is auspicious!’ Thus goes the Hindi admonition to someone talking of, say, serpents, calamities, illnesses, death. The underlying sentiment is that talking about something we do not like, do not want to happen, may actually bring the dreaded thing to our doorstep.

Given the deep roots that this thought has in fear and superstition, Arun Shourie’s choice of subject and title for his 500-page philosophical work Preparing for Death swims against the flow. But then when has Shourie refrained from counter-aquatics?

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The book is in two parts. This is not a formal division but it is just there, like an alaap before the sahitya in a song, except that in Shourie’s book, the alaap comes after the lyrics. The first part is essentially narrative, descriptive. Anchored in historical time, it has gripping photographs of the five persons from history whose deaths the author discusses with fascinating perspectives and little-known cameos — Gautama Buddha, Ramakrishna Paramahansa, Ramana Maharshi, Gandhi and Vinoba Bhave. The second half of the book is reflective. In it the author rows the reader over a river of pure ideation with two oars — clear logic and sheer speculation. He moves one to dredge fear out of the depths of mystery. And the other to churn up stoicism from the inevitability of death.

This second part has a central figure activating it, though — Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama. A friend of the Shourie family over many decades, the Dalai Lama has much to say that is both wise and witty on the subject.

Gentle defiance

On the cover, however, the author gives us a visual that belong, appropriately to both parts of the book — the narrative and the reflective. It is the photograph of a bas relief from Angkor Wat on the subject of the death-by-arrow of a mythological figure from the Ramayana — The Killing of Vali, the Primate. This choice too is an instance of gentle defiance for it is about the un-heroic act — perhaps the only such — by the epic’s hero. In the Kishkindhakanda of Tulsidas’ Sriramacharitamanas, Vali, the king of Kishkindha, on being pierced through his heart by an arrow sent by Rama from behind a tree, asks the Prince of Ayodhya: ‘Why have you done this to me? What was my crime? I did you no harm...’

Shourie is offering no mantra for meeting death any differently from how humanity meets it. But he serves one huge purpose, almost in spite of himself. And it may be summarised like this: Vali’s question in one form or another haunts every ‘ordinary’ mortal, with the ‘you’ in it being Death itself, the entity that comes un-bidden, ever so often ill-timed, patently heartless, and therefore utterly unjustly. And since that mortal has no option but to accept the inevitable, he or she becomes, in the end, nothing less than stoic. Resistance there may be, until the very end, but at the end of that end, there is a kind of courage. The kind that may be seen — this is not Shourie’s analogy but mine — in any person being executed. Some may go struggling to the gallows, some with courage but at one point in the grim proceedings they are all united in a supreme courage. And here it would be good to remember that history has recorded the wrong, mistaken and often deliberately perverse death sentences to innocents. Such persons become not just stoic but heroic — in the silence of their lonely innocence.

The great leveller

If the death of the ordinary mortal is stoic, the death of the extraordinary is not necessarily heroic at least not in all its several stages or dimensions. This review should not — and will not — give away the book’s prize details but this much it must say. The great deaths of history or, to put it differently, the deaths of the greats are also, at their basic level, deaths of human beings with organs that feel pain, limbs that turn helpless, minds that confess to mortal experiencings of agony. There is, in other words, a Vali in every Valiant and the ‘arrow’ is incomprehension at the whys and wherefores of life. Be the end ever so gracefully, even willingly, accepted, an understanding of death is not part of the hero’s heroic moment.

That understanding comes if at all only upon entering that other space which allows for no communications to go back.

Arun Shourie’s book laughs even as it goes still in expressionlessness. And nowhere more endearingly than when he relates a conversation with a friend of his own ‘seniority’ at a memorial service. “Yaar, Arun,” the friend says to him, “Have you noticed one thing? We now know more people on that side of the LoC than on this?”

Who controls and why, that Line which we must all cross, is the question that makes this book an instruction for the mind and a balm for the heart, in a way that is hard to explain — shubh.

Preparing for Death; Arun Shourie, Penguin Random House, ₹799.

The reviewer is a former administrator, diplomat and governor.

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