Friday, May 11, 2007

Death at Noontime

The thundersquall broke suddenly just past noontime. The wild wind roared and lifted and spun the dry summer dust into a dark cloud. Then it settled into a steady moan interspersed with fierce bursts which shook the huge trees into submission and scattered their leaves and fruits. The green mangoes were stripped from their perch high up and thrown around by the periodic ferocity of the wild wind. It was an expression of anguish and frustration of nature. At that moment I knew that she was gone. The phone rang then.

It was twenty days that the lively and smiling young wife of my colleague was fighting for her life at the hospital after the delivery of twin boys. We had heard last night of the dreaded word "septicimea" a condition of internal infection that precludes a poisoning of the blood. Something even modern medicine finds hard to handle. She was critical last night but recovered. But this morning she lapsed into criticality again. I took the phone call and i could guess that it was all over. She had lost the fight to live. And amazingly the squall subsided and disappeared and it was sunny once again. What was it I wondered. Of course I rationalised that thundersqualls are always expected during the height of the north indian summers. Yet there was something strange about it. The suddeness and short span over which it stayed were uncharacteristic.

The rush to the hospital was painfuly slow but somehow we arrived. My first heart wrenching impression as I entered the ICU was an image which burnt into my mind. That of someone exhausted after a long drawn out battle and sleeping in peace. She was a lively soul in our lane and was a simple girl from a backwaters Bengal village. Always smiling, simple and full of life. My colleague too was an unassuming simple but and thoughtful individual who worked hard. They had a small daughter of 5 years. In all a lovely family with hopes and aspirations of a sweet, beautiful and a long future. They were both young with a lot of life to live for. That beautiful picture of a glowing future darkened in an instant to dismal grey with three orphans with twins just 20 days old and a small child of 5 who was
unable to grasp the sheer enormity of her tragedy. My heart ached with a
numbing sorrow to witness such complete suffering. This was LIFE a thin fabric streched between chaos and order that can break at any instant. And yet how we cling to it unknowingly in the utter ilusion of permanence.

It was time to bring her home for one last time. How she had wished to live . The
previous night she had held my wifes hand and asked her if she would ever return
home. It was a heart rending experience to witness the collective grief. Everyone liked her simplicity and liveliness. Evening found us in the local place for cremation by the holy river of Ganges ( Ganga). The great river rising out of the distant glaciers in the Himalayas now flowing placid through the vast north indian
planes. The place for cremation was deserted except for the staff. They looked unkempt but were reasonably efficient to prepare a wood pyre for the cremation.
The rituals for the dead were completed and soon we had to place her on the pyre. Soon the flames leapt up and one more story of life had ended.

A strong wind was blowing across the river and soon the pyre was blazing up
from its dark within of cinders and ashes. Growing darkness by the flat sandy banks of the river as the light from the now roaring flames played on our dark faces, all come to share her last journey. It is said that Buddhism is best
experienced under the light of a funeral pyre. The celebrated Japanese Master
Dogen Kigen Zenji was moved to Buddhism at the young age of 5 under the light of his Mothers funeral pyre. Later he became the exponent of Zen Buddhism in Japan founding the Soto and the Rinzai traditions and leaving behind a legacy of the highest level of Japanese Poetry and Buddhist art and culture and a huge
body of Buddhist insight which een now are said to be the heart of Zen the "sudden path".

The place for cremation was silent and bathed in the half darkness and shadows
streching across the huge courtyard with a temple. It is here that one needs the divine. Down below on the river bank the funeral pyre blazed and the flames danced bewitched by the strong wind. All of us were numb with sorrow for the young life. The husband now momentarily composed and resigned to the unfolding tragedy almost like a mute witness to the power of fate. The staff tells us that it will be at least a hour more for the body to be incinerated completely. More wood is added and the flames
leap up again against the backdrop of the stark darkness that slowly settles on the

After an hour we are called back to the river banks. It seems that another quarter of an hour should complete the process. We stand beside the still burning pyre as the river flows on down the vast planes to the sea. The blaze is low now and the wind scatters the embers glowing like fireflies in teh dark. Seemingly most of the body is now burnt out. Little sign of the smiling 28 year old now whom I saw almsot everyday
walking past our house, calling out a greeting to my wife or stopping for a few moments of conversation. Full of life and the promise of a secure and beautiful future. Now its all in the past and the only reality is the low burning pyre.

One of the staff asks me to move away from close to the pyre. I sense his urgency
and step back. He states in the local dialect " Dont go so close sir, the body is still not burnt completely and there are strong unfulfilled desires around. You'll will not understand this. But we who wrk and stay here in this place for cremation know it only too well and this was a very young life." I am reminded of the words of the Tathagata and his exposition regarding the nature of desire ( trishna) and attachments. Her attachments to her new born babies her daughter her husband
and her jest and will to live. What happens to these. In the Tibetan Book of the Dead
of the Vajrayana tardition of Buddhism indeed such unfulfilled desires affects the afterlife in the bardo which is described as the gap between a death and the becoming ( bhava) into another life in the six realms and thirty one planes of existence in which the conciousness stream can actualize into another life based on
the Karma. In the Lotus Sutra which is described as the peak of Buddhist thought
all of existence called Samsara is likened to a burning house fanned by the unquenchable flames of our desires.

Soon the fire burns even lower, its now mostly embers and the huge funeral pyre now burnt down flat. The staff now asks us to pour water to quench the fire. No trace remains of the young woman anymore except in memories and the smoke which is whisked away by the strong wind. This was the end in the growing darkness by the river in a place far away from her home surrounded by family friends and strangers.
How to understand this tragedy and make sense of it in the overall context of life. Nothing that we have learnt ever prepares us for the experience of Death. All the friends in the last journey must pour water in a symbolic act to quench the glowing embers and bring peace by dousing the fires of unfulfilled desires. The embers are
now quenched and all is silent in the darkness by the river except for the chanting of the priest that cuts through the sound of the strong wind which moans over the river.
We return slowly not looking back and yet another chapter in the vast book of life


At 09:22, Blogger changingsun said...

sometimes on such occasions one is forced to look beyond the obvious and question the very basis of one's life....when it all seems like some strange illusion. if life has to end this way into nothingness, it surely must be some kind of illusion.

a heart rending and thought provoking account.....



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