Saturday, November 1, 2003

In love with death
Khushwant Singh

Khushwant SinghNO one can be in love with death. Then there are people who may be disillusioned with life, in unbearable physical pain, betrayed by their kin or those they love or suffer huge financial losses, who decide enough is enough and call it a day by taking their own lives. That is not being in love with death but a means of escape from a world they can no longer face. I do not regard suicide as a crime: everyone has the right to put an end to his or her life.

Death is the theme of Mary Wesleyís novel Jumping the Queue (Penguin) first published in 1988. It minimises the gravity of killing people you donít like and lauds the decision to take oneís own life while still in good bodily and mental health rather than suffer the pangs and indignities that come with old age. Her story is contrived, as many good stories are. It abounds in black humour which adds to its readability. Wesley does not attempt to explain the phenomenon of death or why some people are better able to cope with it than others.

Matilda Poliport, recently widowed and mother of four grown-up children, lives alone in a cottage some distance from a seaside village. She was very much in love with her husband and one evening had slapped a girl who had an affair with her husband so hard that she fell on a frozen lake and was drowned. Matilda put the girl out of her mind. She also discovered that her husband had been unfaithful to her many times and had an incestuous relationship with their daughter who was Matildaís favourite child. She took the discovery in her stride as she took the death of her husband on a Paris street while on a secret mission. She had no illusions about people. She was still attractive and uninhibited but preferred to live alone by herself.

Her only love is a gander (male goose) named Gus. He was her watchdog and her lover. When anyone came to the cottage he honked loudly and if it was someone he did not recognise, attacked him as geese do with their necks stretched like a lance. He made love to Matilda the same way the swan made to Leda in Greek mythology. He sat in her lap and excreted when he was happy. Matilda did not mind his soiling her clothes and making a mess all over the cottage. It was true love.

One day Matilda decided she would end her life. She gave away Gus to a farmer who lived ten miles away and had six geese. She thought having a harem of his own, Gus would not miss her. She had a hearty meal of cheese and French wine while sitting on a rock overlooking the sea. She meant to drug herself, jump into the water and let the current take her away to her doom. Just then, a young man came along and sat beside her. He introduced himself as Hugh Warner. She recognised him because his pictures were in all the papers and on TV. He was on the run from the police for the murder of his mother. Actually, he had tried to kill a mouse which frightened his mother and while trying to smash the rodent with a tea-tray, he had smashed his motherís skull instead. He was dubbed as one who had committed matricide and everyone was asked to look out for him for he had an unusually long nose. He too decided to drown himself in the sea when he ran into Matilda. Matilda took him home and kept him in hiding.

One day Matilda found a stray puppy bitch and brought it home. She named it Folly. Meanwhile Gus, instead of enjoying his harem, killed one of the geese and found his way back to his cottage and his sweetheart.

So the days passed. The only visitor allowed in the cottage was a stocky middle-aged, bearded paunchy Jones who was in love with Matilda, and though rejected, came to call on her every day. He befriended Hugh Warner and they played chess with each other. He also helped Hugh to exchange pounds he had into Francs and Deutchmarks so that he could get out of Britain and live abroad. The day before Hugh was to take the night train to the London Airport, he took Matilda to bed. He was young enough to be her son and full of sexual vigour. For the first time in her life, Matilda found fulfilment in her life. Then tragedy struck. Gus was killed by a fox; its body was claimed by a young constable who took it home, to have his wife cook him roasted goose. Folly, who had taken to Hugh in a big way, followed him to the railway station and was run over by a car. Matilda was left with the ever-loving Jones who helped her to bury Folly in the garden. Matilda was left alone. This time she took no chances. She went to the same rock over-looking the sea, ate her fill of cheese and emptied a bottle of French wine. She swallowed pills to numb her senses and dropped into the water. Her body was picked up by fishermen.

Jumping The Queue makes good light reading. It mocks convention, laughs death in the face and mercifully preaches no sermons.

Back to mountains

I reach my destination, Raj Villa, Kasauli at 1.30 pm. It is still the closest and the nearest hill resort from Delhi. Though the hillsides are hit with wild flowers, I have only a few dahlias in my garden. And strangely, few birds. They donít need my bird bath to wash themselves or slake their thirst. There is plenty of water everywhere. Theyíve reared their young; they have another few months to look for mates with song and display of plumage. And there is a pestilence of mosquitoes as fat as house-flies. I have to smear myself with odomos before I sit out in the garden, to watch floating clouds lit to fiery orange and gold by the setting sun. Itís lovely. I ask myself how long will this paradise-on-earth will be mine to see? Then breathe a heavy sigh and turn indoors.

I was apprehensive about Billoo not recognising me. I had left him over two months ago. He did. As I stepped out of the car, he gave my hand two licks of recognition. He joined me at tea-time. For a while he was full of questions? "Where were you all these weeks?" he asked turning his head from side to side. I explained I had to be in Delhi to earn my living. He understood and accepted a biscuit I gave him as a token of goodwill. Then he scampered off to tell his friends of my return. Soon there were four dogs chasing each other round the lawn and indulging in mock battles. I noticed all of them were boy dogs; not a lady bitch among them. I fear my Billoo is a gay.

A frisky young langour baby escaped its motherís embrace and clambered up a telegraph pole. It thought it would have a swing on the wires to show its skill to its mother. No sooner it touched them, it screamed loudly and fell on the road with a thud. Its mother picked it up and clasped it against her warm bosom. She knew her child was dead but it would not let go of it. Her entire troop of langours gathered found her, sat in a circle to condole her loss which was theirs as well. A more heart-rending sight of animal grief I have never seen before. Monkey mothers carry their dead babes in their arms for several weeks, perhaps till they are pregnant again. Canít monkeys tell the living from the dead?

I was so absorbed looking at the greenery that one thing I forgot to say about my journey. There were two members of the Lok Sabha occupying seats behind me, a Sardarji and a Punjabi Hindu. As soon as the train pulled out of New Delhi railway Station, the Sardarji began talking. He talked non-stop all the way to Ambala while the other answered with a grunt or two. I turned to my daughter Mala and said, "This fellow has been talking non-stop for one and a half hours. I admire his stamina and the other fellowís patience. I never saw either open his mouth in Parliament." Apparently they heard my voice. At Ambala they left their seats and found two others. And resumed their one-sided dialogue. Doesnít it ever occur to people that talking too much is bad manners which disturbs those who are sitting near them?

Karva Chauth

Santaís sleep was disturbed due to noise early hours of the morning. He snubbed his wife; she was up so early. "Donít you know it is Karva Chauth today? Tuhadda hi syapa kar rahi han; tuhadi lambi umar vaastey (Donít you know today is Karva Chauth; I have to make all the fuss and fast for your long life)", she replied. In the evening, she directed Santa to fetch some essential items for her to break the Karva Chauth fast.

A full moon at about 8 pm and the mohalla was bursting with hustle and bustle; women exchanging their thalis. Banta came in to have the glimpse of Mrs Santa in her best make up. By the time, it was already 10 p.m. and Santa was nowhere to be seen. Mrs Santa was in a rage and was very thirsty. Banta quipped, "Oh; you are fasting for his longevity and wish to marry him in every birth but where has he gone?" She burst out, "Pata nahin kithe mar gaya aaj?"(I donít know where has he died?)

(Contributed by Madan Gupta, Spatu)