Life and times of Death
Let us begin with a strikingly vivid painting of a harsh barren landscape, centering a fading creature seemingly in the throes of death and its accompanying absolution. Pocket watches lay scattered over the landscape, their shiny metallic surfaces melting, dangling in liquid defeat from a branch or spread out over a ledge or the disappearing creature. I came across this iconic painting entitled ‘The persistence of memory’ by the surrealist artist Salvador Dali in the form of a poster in the room of a chance acquaintance, and immediately I knew I had found the painting that resonated with my own deep insecurities about the nature of time, of life and finally of death. The melting clocks seemed to address the impossibility of nailing time, as well as the fluidity of its perception in human consciousness. Indeed as Salvador Dali himself noted, “The soft watches are an unconscious symbol of the relativity of space and time, a Surrealist meditation on the collapse of our notions of a fixed cosmic order” Moreover the harshness of the climate, the undefined creature in the pose of death and the notion of time itself put me in mind of our conception of mortality, views on the transience of life and the ramifications of contemplating our own death, all topics that have long fascinated me.
The first time I realized I was going to die and that this our life would not last forever, despite what the distractions of our surroundings may seem to suggest, was at the age of seven, when my grandmother passed away and I was confronted with the idea that I too may one day cease to exist. The bewildering emotions rising within me at the time, haltingly, imperfectly expressed in my mother’s ear, were quieted with the thought of an afterlife, rebirth, the amusing possibility of being reborn as my own granddaughter’s child. My imagination was captured and distracted by the comical dilemma of needing to call one’s own daughter ‘grandma’, as my mother drew parallels between me and her own late grandmother to illustrate the point. For the moment thus I was saved from peering into the chasm that the realization of death would bring.
It is interesting that one’s first brush with death in childhood almost always gets hurriedly suppressed by concerned family and relatives. Rather than explaining death as a natural process and acclimatizing the growing consciousness to it they lull us into a false security where death is denied, so that the realization, when it comes, is that much more unacceptable. Children’s fiction has managed to challenge this trend only recently. However for the longest time fiction for children was carefully selected and filtered, rooting out all elements that would illustrate too harsh a reality, especially all topics concerning death. The earliest media we were regaled with, whether quaint Enid Blyton worlds with everlasting magical creatures and children who never grew old, or a Tom and Jerry cartoon where scrapes are funny but never lethal, were all in on this benevolent conspiracy.
Death became a familiar figure in the years that followed, whether through fiction or the world around me. However the enormity of what it entailed never encroached upon my consciousness until one defining incident during a family vacation in Goa. The day of our particular adventure the water was somewhat choppy, but the guide waived aside our doubts and launched us along with a father son duo onto the one-manned boat. By this time the waves were starting to get bigger, and the boat struggled to combat each crushing wall of water as it came along, its engine spluttering valiantly against the force. The boat managed to overcome the first few waves after much lurching, and for a moment we thought we had made it into the clear calm waters of the ocean, but then a sneak current suddenly buffeted us back as another wave rose up to meet us, an enormous monster of gruesome scope. The single seaman navigating our boat had stiffened, his eyes staring glassily. He clearly knew what was coming, for we could see the dilemma in his eyes as he contemplated abandoning ship to somehow getting us through. The wave came; crushingly huge, spanking our exposed faces and arms and making it sting with salt. The boat stayed, but just about. Its engine had been torn away by the force of the hit, and a gaping hole had water gushing in towards the back of the vessel. Meanwhile another wave was readying itself to finish what was left undone, and didn’t even need the seaman’s strangled cry to know what he had to do. He screamed to jump ship, and that’s precisely what we did after a moment of frozen panic. Everyone jumped off the side nearest to them, which for me, sitting on the center right meant jumping around the rigging of the boat. This turned out to be a mistake, as I realized a split-second later, for I found my neck and torso tangled in the thick coiled ropes of the boat. I would have strangled right there and then if the boat hadn’t capsized at the same time and in the same direction, causing me to be trapped directly under the upturned boat by its tenacious coils, the lengths of which prevented me from striking out from either side and breaking surface. It was then, as the oxygen ran out and water threatened to enter my lungs, as each movement of the boat buffeted by the waves threatened to either knock me out or strangle me by tightening its hold around my throat that I appreciated once and for all the true terror of knowing I might die, or rather knowing I will die. It was a truly sobering realization. There were no romantic flashbacks of the past as popularized in fiction, nor any great insight into the meaning of life. The only emotion I remember is abject terror, translated into a desperate quest to save myself. I struggled against the ropes in every way possible, kicking at the boat to dislodge its hold, all to no avail. I was tiring out fast, and my movements getting feebler under the pressure of the current. My eyes stung in the salty sandy water and my skin was already breaking into bruises and scratches which I wouldn’t feel until much later. Just as the weight of my aching neck and head grew too much to bear and I began to lose the will to fight that sheer coincidence sent a merciful wave at just the right angle to dislodge the choking hold of the rope around my neck and free one of my arms. With newfound urgency I managed to wrench out of the harness and kicked off the side of the boat at the same time as a wave shoved it to the other side. The first lungful of cool sea air that followed was the best thing I’d ever experienced. It hurt to breathe but each gulp full had me thankful anew to be breathing it. It took a while to orient myself to my surroundings. There were swimmers and divers all around, fighting the waves to reach us. Not more than a few minutes must have passed since the boat capsized, yet I felt as though I had emerged after months of struggle. Gasping and weak, I allowed a swimmer who reached me to pull me back away from the sea, this time using the waves to move us faster back to shore. My sister had been rescued first it seemed, for she was already on shore by the time I reached. My father came close after. He’d escaped safely too but hung back shouting himself hoarse for my sister, not knowing she had been rescued first. I chose not to think about the fact that he never looked for my whereabouts. I had been the last to be rescued; being trapped under the boat they had not been able to locate me. The thought brought home full force the realization that I could have died but for sheer chance circumstances, a thought that had evaded me again in the heat of the rescue operations.
Our mind attempts to protect us, by denying death or distracting us from our contemplation of it. However traumatizing the experience, my own consciousness hurried to cover up my close encounter with death, concentrating on the exciting experience rather than relive that terror which comes from absolute certainty. Ever since, I occasionally wake up in the middle of the night, or get a jolt of fear while awake and deep in thought, when a vision of absolute nothingness rises before my eyes with the sudden damning conviction that there is nothing after death and our life is but a tiny spark in the midst of eternal meaningless darkness. The thought of such insignificance and meaninglessness is so daunting, and the idea of the world carrying on irrespective of our existence so unbearable, that our mind hurries to close the idea up again, with the result that the vision or realization disappears as soon as it appeared, leaving only the cold clammy feeling of an uncertain dread in its place. The realization of our miniscule existence in the enormous scheme of things can’t fail to be accompanied by a lack of faith in the meaningfulness of our insignificant lives. It’s an idea probed time and again by writers and artists alike, yet it is one that can yield no answers. It causes us to question the nature of existence itself, and the justification behind its repetitive mundane pursuits. Albert Camus’ defining work Myth of Sisyphus provides the classic metaphor to represent this confusion. Our life and its pointless endeavors get compared to the mythological Sisyphus’ eternal task of fruitlessly rolling a rock uphill only to have it roll back down again. Dali’s Persistence of Memory too speaks to me of the nature of time and life, of death and continuity. It portrays time as envisioned in human context and imagination, and the result is unreliable, liquid, time and life a melting entity rather than their rigid and structured conventional representation. The painting and its theme reminds me of Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway, which has perhaps more aptly been previously named ‘The Hours’. The novel follows multiple stream of consciousness narratives of multiple characters that all overlap in space and time, time in their imagination being no linear entity but rather a flexible, capricious one, molded through perception and emotion before finally culminating abruptly with death. As with my near death experience, when a few minutes of terror seemed to last a very long time indeed, here too the relativity of time is represented as an essential fact of human existence, making the attempt to quantify and structure time narratives, though the recurrent imagery of the chiming of the hours, seem unnecessary and absurd. Woolf herself, much like her protagonist Clarissa Dalloway, was obsessed with life and death, and like her other protagonist, Septimus Smith, actually chose suicide as a means out of her struggles with life.
Ultimately what Dali, Woolf, Camus, and even the writers of children’s fiction in avoiding the subject dealt with is man’s inability to contemplate his own transience without tremor, resulting in his constant struggle to justify a temporary fleeting existence, the necessary obsession with what comes next and the desperate quest to justify what came before. What is left is an eternal cycle of repeated events, of action with no possible reaction save more of the same. Hence does our mind distract us from contemplating an end, hence do I go on quite contentedly with life despite questioning its validity, hence do we all stop ourselves from curling in terror at the thought of an absolute end, but beguile ourselves with worldly distractions and pretty myths. Time is an illusion, death an inconceivable absolute, and all we have is today, and more of today. If that is absurd, so be it. Whoever promised us meaning in any case? What we can do, is just continue. A scene from Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot comes to minds, wherein the two characters Vladimir and Estragon, stuck in a cycle of repetitive events they cannot escape, have the following altercation:
Well? Shall we go?
Yes, let’s go.
They do not move”