Saturday, May 18, 2002
T H I S  A B O V E  A L L

Have you ever thought of death?
Khushwant Singh

S. PRASHER, retired Commissioner of Income Tax, the moving spirit behind the save Kasauli Society has this disturbing habit of tossing questions at me to which I have no answers. This was the second time he asked me: "Have you ever thought about death?"

"Indeed I have," I replied. "I think about it all the time. I’ve read as much about it as I could. I found no answers." I quoted my favourite lines on the subject:

There was a door to which I found no key,

There was a veil beyond I could not see;

Talk awhile of Thee and me there was

Then no more of Thee or me.

"Omar Khayyam!" he said triumphantly. "But surely there is more to it than just admitting you do not know. The body goes, perhaps with it the mind as well. Your memory remains in some people’s minds while they are alive. After them even that is gone. You may leave charitable trusts in your name, you may write books that may be read after you are gone. That is not what I mean. What about consciousness?"

"Consciousness of what?" I asked. "Where does it survive? It has to be something more tangible than the notion of consciousness."

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Kashi: The oldest place of pilgrimage
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Travelling in a women’s compartment
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Glimpses of Urdu poetry
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Stamping the police
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Beer came before bread
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Getting away from the world... to be in Goa
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Coping with the death of a loved one
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Count the blessings of old age
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He proceeded to explain at great length. Most of it was beyond my comprehension. I tried to bring him down to earth. "Most thinkers play with words, some talk of death as an integral part of life. Iagree. Some compare life as a journey on a train; some get off at one station, others continue a little further. Bhola Nathji in his The Secret of Death writes: ‘One can deny the existence of God, but one cannot deny the existence of death....Life is that which must go, and death, that which must come.’ Ientirely agree, but does that tell us where we go when we die? Does anything of us remain when we are gone?"

Most people who have written on the subject have dwelt more on the inherent fear of dying rather than death. They give false assurances that death is nothing to be scared of. John Donne (1573-1631) describes it as "merely a form of rest and sleep":

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;

For those whom thou thinkest thou dost overthrow

Die not, poor Death; not yet canst thou kill me.

For Donne, Death was, "One short sleep past, we wake eternally. And death shall be no more: Death thou shalt die."

Brave words like those of a man shouting loudly in the dark when he is frightened of ghosts. John Keats (1795-1821) who died at the young age of twentysix had no such illusions of something surviving after he "ceased to be". He knew that he had a lot more to give but felt he was "fair creature of an hour" after which love and fame would "sink to nothingness."

The key word, Itell Prasher, is nothingness. Death erases our bodies, minds and everything our bodies or minds may have achieved in our lives.

Prasher is not satisfied with my answers. But he has no answers to offer besides conjecturing that consciousness remains. Where? In the air or empty spaces? He exhorts me to think more deeply on subject. I promise to do so fully aware of the fact it will get me nowhere. Have readers of this column any idea of what remains of us after death? I will welcome their ideas. But no more of re-birth in another form nor the Day of Judgement. They are old stuff with no rational basis to them.

Old is gold

My earliest recollection of England during my first year in college was being taken to see the Old Crocks Race from London to Brighton. The people who took me were an elderly Scottish couple Mr and Mrs Dansmuir. A friend of theirs was participating in the race. The couple got in their Sunday best; he in a black hat, cravat, black-coat, grey-black striped trousers and spats; she in a fancy bonnet tied with ribbons and floral dress. I had no idea what it was all about. We turned up along the road leading to Brighton. A succession of jalopies, the likes of which I had not seen since my childhood came chugging down the road, cheered by bystanders Driving them were gentlemen in Edwardian outfits: deer-stalker caps and knicker bockers. Ladies with be-ribboned bonnets were wearing crinolines. Most of the cars were of the World War I vintage with bulb horns and foot boards. They could have been thrown on a scrap heap but age had given them respectability. They were worth their weight in silver.

I have seen odd vintage models in India mostly belonging to erstwhile princely families. The Statesman of Calcutta was the first to revive interest in vintage cars. Interest in Old Crocks has been revived by a band of enthusiasts led by Diljit Titus of Titus & Co. of Delhi and Tarun Thukral, GM, Le Meridien Hotel. The Heritage Motoring Club organised a race of vintage cars starting from Le Meridien to Jaipur, 600 kilometres away, and back to Delhi. Prizes were given for the best maintenance and performance as well as to the most tastefully dressed drivers and their companions. The eldest in this was a Minerva, 1924, a Bentley, 1929, followed by Ford, Railey (1934). It also had Henderson Motor Cycle (1920). At one time vintage Rolls Royces were only owned by princes. Today it is liquor baron Vijay Mallya of Bangalore who owns 260 old cars, including a 1913 Rolls Royce called Silver Shadow.

Isn’t it ironical that if you want to sell your three-year-old car, you will be lucky if you get more than half its original price; if you hang on to it for another 50 years, you may get ten times more than the sum you bought it for.

Humourless nation

Shashi Tharoor, a senior officer in the UN, author of several first-rate books like The Great Indian Novel and Riot, while reviewing Stanley Wolpert’s biography of Mahatma Gandhi rues the fact that most Indian leaders were singularly lacking in a sense of humour. About Gandhi he could quote only two examples: "Asked once what he thought of western civilisation, the Mahatma replied: ‘It would be a good idea’."

"Upbraided for going to Buckingham Palace in London in his lioncloth for an audience with the King-Emperor, Gandhi retorted: ‘His Majesty had on enough clothes for the both of us’." Neither remark figures in a book that averages half a dozen quotations per page.

Nehru is given credit for only one witty remark. In 1949 when he was due to visit the USA, he remarked "One should never visit America for the first time." (Whatever that meant?)

Indira Gandhi was no better. Tharoor quotes two instances of her not-so-ready wit: "In India," she remarked once, "our private enterprise is usually more private than enterprising." But from what one knows of the lady, the comment had probably been scripted for her.

And her comment on her refusal to meet Yahya Khan on the eve of the Bangladesh War of Independence: "You cannot shake hands with a clenched fist."

Krishna Menon often lashed out against the British, Americans and his traducers. These were usually ill-tempered diatribes which only his sycophants described as humorous. He could never take anyone making fun of him.

We Indians take ourselves far too seriously. People who can’t laugh at themselves are usually humourless.

In my dealings with Indian politicians, two men stood out as exemplars of ready wit and showed the ability to give back as good as they got. One was the late Piloo Mody of the Swatantra Party. I have often quoted his remarks in the Rajya Sabha when he had the entire House in fits of laughter. And today we have Laloo Yadav. You cannot find his match in earthy, rustic humour anywhere else in India. Atal Behari Vajpayee does at times inject a little humour in his speeches but he does not dare to take on Laloo Yadav at the game.