And it is death that provides life with all it’s meaning.M. Scott Peck (in his best known work The Road Less Traveled)
6 shots spread over 5 months of a 4 x 3 window sill depicting the perceived duality of what is essentially one.
Some see it as Life. Some see it as Death. The verdict is still awaited.
These macabre pictures are of a pigeon that used to visit the window sill of my neighbour’s balcony everyday. A thunderstorm left it dead on a cold July evening. A sudden fear and discomfort gripped me. I avoided looking at the dead bird the first few days, since I had never seen the insides of any Being, dead or alive. Until one day, as I was fiddling with my Nikon DSLR in my 7 x 4 balcony, my camera’s eyes affixed itself on the decaying bird.
The journey since then has been most fascinating; both for my camera and I.
As month by month, time swept; day by day on the sill, the once alive bird dissolved to nothing from what was once flesh, blood, feathers and bones. Disintegration has been slow but it gave me an opportunity to see the aftermath of the end/death up, close and personal and partake of the beauty of Nature through the most fearsome of it’s enigmas.
Isn’t there life in the slow moving process of disintegration? Hasn’t the decaying carcass been providing sustenance to a variety of Beings, some visible but most of them invisible to my human eyes? What once was, is no more to my naked eyes. But isn’t it still living in my memories and in all those Beings that it touched when alive and all those Beings that sustained on it when dead.
Is Death really the end?
From the minute something is birthed, isn’t it dying? Be it a tree, a bird, an idea, an opinion, an understanding, you and I; everything evolves into something else, merging and moulding, molting and regenerating. Forever moving. Forever changing. A constant flux. Of energy and exchange. Giving up the old and gaining the new.
Is Life really the beginning?
Death has always fascinated me. When as a 8 year old, I sat near my grandmother who had died a few hours ago, I didn’t bawl. I was far too young to even know what was actually happening around me. All I remember is that I was keenly looking at the pink saree she was draped in, with a green border that was the same colour as the young leaves of a neem tree swaying outside the window right across where she lay. As serene and dignified as she was when she was alive and breathing. The same in Life and Death. Years later when I finally realised the true nature of Death, I wished I had, had more time with her. But as everything else, I made peace with reality and now I see her in my Dad’s smile and my sister’s eyes. I hear her in my Dad’s songs and the stories shared by him with his brothers. I try to touch her in his memories and mine. She lives in me. And in all those people she had touched with her grace, affection and kindness. And she will continue to live in you as you now know her through my words.
As I’m inching closer to a momentous 40th year in life, death is following me closely in my thoughts. As I learn to love my man more everyday despite his minor flaws and my gargantuan ones, I find myself gripped in fear of losing him to the ultimate reality someday. As I sneak in a quick peek at my Dad’s toothless smile and my Mom’s head full of silver strands, I am constantly reminded of the ticking clock. As I move over from travel literature to deeper, gut wrenching, meaningful books like Pico Iyer’s The Autumn Lights, I figure this tug of war intrinsically married in every facet of living and dying. As the pandemic rages on, death has been a constant companion; through news and chats and everyday discussions. With family, friends and sometimes neighbours and their maids. Always dancing in my periphery.
And then bam! It happened. It jumped right in front of me! Unexpectly as ever, death paid me a visit.
A month ago, I heard the news of my partner’s brother’s death by suicide early in the morning. Strangely, I found myself standing strong, the cup of tea still in my hand. Only for 15 full minutes, until the call lasted. A dam broke in the eyes. My bowels gave away. I was shivering, numb and disoriented. I could barely talk or stand upright. I got off the bed and went about my days like a zombie and barely slept. My partner as is expected simply shut down. From across 2 continents, we tried to speak in silences, we cried, we fought and we almost broke apart ourselves. Our grief was a world apart not just in distance but in our emotional experiences too. I was dealing with the most realistic of reality in a horrible but normal, human way. I forgot how to relate to my world, let alone my partner.
Nothing prepared me for Steve Bantu Biko, my partner’s younger brother’s death. And nothing, I mean NOTHING prepared me for the onslaught of emotions that was to follow. My entire lifetime’s experiences with Life’s dualities; ALL my failures and successes, flops and gains, falls and rises; ALL the self-help books, scriptures of all the religions, motivational books read and podcasts heard; ALL the yoga and meditation practice; ALL the lessons learnt through each one of them in the last 39 years; NONE of them helped me face what my partner went through. Grief in all it’s various stages ranging from anger to despair to fear to vulnerability to depression that he goes through every single day; sometimes all in a day left me distraught; brought me to my knees.
The sheer lack of physical proximity(ours is a long distance relationship if you haven’t guessed until now) is taxing to say the least. The lack of right understanding on my part also left me surprised! I am wise beyond my years, I am mature, I am fairly enlightened! Or so I naively assumed. After 15 days of giving all sorts of pep talk and unnecessary advice; failing to make any connect or progress whatsoever with my partner, I felt totally helpless and worthless.
At times, one needs to come to terms with his/her limits and that’s when one needs to get out of their ego-ridden heads and ask for help. I reached out to a friend who always helps me in distress. As a true angel she did what she could do. Offer counsel and guidance. Coming from someone who has had experience with that kind of grief helped. On my part, I began to read up and meditate seriously and regularly to be in touch with myself. And I humbly reached out to a friend for relationship advice because believe it or not, the grief was encroaching our private space too. It threatened to violate what we held sacred: our relationship.
15 days later on Valentine’s day, things changed for me. After my yoga practice, on a crazy whim I suddenly found myself saying to my partner that life is too short and we need to live double from now on. For Bantu! Do everything we have wanted to and some! Do everything Bantu wanted to and couldn’t! There is much to live through! There is much to live for! There is so much to love! There is so much to learn…Thankfully the man knows I can become melodramatic from time to time. He was kind enough to treat the theatrics as another episode of my personal ongoing drama series. But when things cooled down and settled within me, I knew I wasn’t wrong when I came across this quote by Henry David Thoreau.
So I dig deep and try to be present in the moment while I practice my yoga as it helps me maintain the Sthira: steady grounding off the mat too. And I enjoy every moment that comes to me with ease, the Sukha. From listening to the parakeets outside my balcony to the honks of the steady traffic, from my morning tea to my evening coffee, from my sewing to my colouring, from breakfast through lunch to dinner, I am learning to be present and grateful. I have come to understand that I need to be detached from the world and be happy with myself and my inner world so I can lend an empathetic ear and offer care, not just to my partner but to everyone else in my outerworld.
I always thought I understood the transience of life. That NOTHING is permanent. But it is Steve who hit the lesson right home. I have lost years of my life to past trauma and depression. I have lost years holding on to pain of the past and the pain that always threatened to engulf me alive. All of which seem so trivial and frivolous now!
It’s almost a month since…My partner is as distraught. But there are days he is clear headed and even laughs like only he can. But they are moments that come and go. But I am learning to be patient to the rollercoaster he has become. This too shall pass. The man I fought with sometimes for being childish and immature is handling the biggest tragedy of his life in a way that transcends his age and life experiences. When I look at his vacant eyes on a video call, he seems like my child, brutalized and raped by death and left to slowly die…while I simply look on with a weak smile, trying to hide back tears and wait for time to work it’s magic.
After yet another unusual thunderstorm on a wintry night, it’s wet and cold out. But as I look at the window sill, it’s just a sill with no physical remnants of the pigeon. But I know it lives on in my memories. I may never meet Bantu but he lives on within me. Even as I am grieving him in my own way, I hear him in his brothers’ baritones. I see him in his mother’s full lips. I feel him in my partner’s tears and long silences. I can touch him when I hug his mother someday. I know him through the stories narrated by everyone he came across when alive. I will see him someday when his girlfriend’s child grows on to become a man embodying his open spirit and ideals. And I will smell him in the flowers blooming where he lies buried now.
Throughout the whole of life one must continue to learn to live, and what will amaze you even more, throughout life one must learn to die.Seneca
There is life in death and death in life. Quoting M.Scott Peck from The Road Less Traveled, “The pain of death is the pain of birth, and the pain of birth is the pain of death.” I could be alive today and still feel dead. I could be dead and gone tomorrow and yet still be alive in someone’s song and their smile. We will die someday and put our heads on Mother Nature’s lap and sleep. But we will continue to live on. Through a helping hand here, a kind smile there; a silent nod of empathy here, a warm hug there; a good deed here, a righteous action there. Afterall legacies are built through connections and conversations, not just the children we birth. A full life when alive, a fuller life when dead and gone.
Death always finds a way to live through Life and beyond. Just as Life always finds a way to live through Death and beyond.