Saturday, November 5, 2005


Moving tale of American values


Khushwant Singh

I have written a lot on the subject of death in my columns and in a long introductory chapter to my book Death at my Doorstep" (Roli). I believe that everyone over 50 or 60 should ponder over the inevitability of death and evolve his or her own formula of how to cope with it. Neither going to temples, gurdwaras, mosques or churches nor spending long hours in prayer or religious rituals should be a thinking person’s approach to the enigma of death. This only amounts to avoiding reality by escaping into make-believe about existence and its extinction.

I got more reactions from readers on this subject than I received on the other topics I have dealt in my columns. One of the readers was J. M. Rishi, a Punjabi industrialist, who I have never met. Our correspondence continues. The latest from his side is a book entitled Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom (Doubleday). It has been on top of world’s bestseller lists for many weeks. I am not surprised.

The book is written in simple language in short sentences and short chapters — some no more than a page long. It tells one of the futility of wasting one’s life in making money. Even if one piles up a huge bank account, it gives no sense of fulfilment. From buying latest cars, large houses to living in luxury — all of which has become an accepted part of American life is in the end utterly futile. Even if you win the rat race, you remain a rat. The perennial reminder that you can’t take any of it with you should make you think.

The story is built round Morrie Schwarts, retired professor of humanities of Brandeis University, a Jewish institution, and one of his students Mitch Albom, the author of the book. Mitch attended Morrie’s classes every Tuesday. They were more like discussions on the values of life then lectures.

After graduating Mitch joined the Detroit Free Press and became a very successful sports writer. He lost contact with the old professor till he saw him on a TV channel being interviewed on the purpose of life and the meaning of death. The professor was in a wheelchair. He was paralysed from the waist downwards and stricken with a terminal disease. He was not expected to live beyond a few months.

Mitch re-established contact with his professor and made it a point to visit him every Tuesday (as he had done in college) carrying a tape-recorder with him. On successive Tuesdays, they talked about moral values in the limited time given to them. Professor Morrie upholds most of what Americans believe in: happy families, sanctity of marriage (no cheating), importance of friends etc. He likes being hugged, kissed, massaged and frequently breaks down into tears—not because of fear of death but of pent-up emotions.

Morrie dreads the day he will be unable to wipe his own bottom. Nevertheless that day comes. He also has to use a catheter to get his urine taken out. He has long bouts of coughing; phlegm oozes out of his nostrils and mouth. The disease continues its remorseless invasion of his body. When the end comes, his wife and sons and a horde of friends are in his home. However, he is alone in his study when he takes his last breath.

It is a moving tale in support of conventional American values. But it is disappointing on practical tips in how to face death. He makes passing references to the Buddhist concept of the need for forgiveness, compassion and detachment. How can you be detached when you crave for human company and love physical contact? I believe in the Hindu-Buddhist advice of the need to distance oneself from the world—first vanprastha and then sanyas before one sets out on the long lonely road about which no one knows anything.

Ustad Daman

His real name was Chiragh Deen. Daman was his takhallus (poetic pseudonym). He was the most celebrated Punjabi poet at the time of the Partition of India in 1947. He refused to accept the division of the country on the basis of religious differences into a Muslim Pakistan and a predominantly non-Muslim India. He was a Sufi mystic who spoke his mind without fear of consequences. And, a severe critic of military dictators who ruled over Pakistan for many descades. His most quoted lines censure the state of affairs in his country:

Pakistan diyaan mujaan hee maujaan chaarey passay faujaan hee faujan. (Pakistan is great joy and more joys wherever you look there are sepoys and more sepoys.)

He goes on:

Jidhar veykho sirgat paan

zindabad meyra Pakistan

Jidhar veykho kulchey naan

zindabad meyra Pakistan!

(Wherever you look its shops selling cigarettes and paan

Long live Pakistan!

Wherever you look its shops selling bread and naan

Long live my Pakistan!)

After reciting the lines at a public mushaira in Lahore, he was handcuffed and locked in jail.

Lesser known than the lines quoted above is the epitaph he composed for his tombstone. His grave is in the compound of the mausoleum where Madho Lal and Mussain, two homosexual Sufi poets of the early 17th century are buried. There is reference to the Punjabi habit of throwing one end of the shawl over the left shoulder before leaving, known as bukkal maarna. It runs as follows:

Sarsari nasar maaree jahaan andar

tay jindagi vark utthalya main

Daman koes na milya rafeeq mainoo

maari kafan dee bukkal tay challya main

(I took a cursory glance at the world

And turned over the pages of my life’s story

I, Daman, found no friend anywhere

and so I threw the shroud over my shoulder and went.

Native born

After returning from a foreign trip, Banta asked his wife: "Do I look like a foreigner?" Wife: "No, why do you ask?"

Banta: "In London, a woman asked me if I was a foreigner."

(Contributed by Shivtar Singh Dalla, Ludhiana)