I have been reading a thought-provoking book Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, an America-born surgeon practising in Boston, on the extremely familiar phenomenon of aging and dying. He says we deliver the old and dying into the hands of doctors and medical technology and accept its consequence as both moral and natural. Gawande is also a staff writer for the world’s No.1 literary magazine The New Yorker and winner of several awards for his writing.
He says hospitalization or admission to hospices is only half the job. The other half that must come from the family and the society to make what is inevitable a pleasant experience does not come readily. The position in India is better than in the United States, according to him because old age is respected inside and outside the family as fallout of a traditional value system. Old people are anxious to continue to do things they did as young men. Just one example will do to show how thoughtless we are in offering help to old people: The grandpa rises from his chair to get himself water to drink. Out of love and respect the grandson says, ‘Oh no, grandpa. I will get it for you.’ The old man resents this offer because it amounts to saying he can’t do things as he used to.
Despite all his effort the old man will reach a stage when he can’t do without others’ help. It is at this stage that hospitalization is no substitute for family care. If the younger feel it is a burden they must remember that they too would become old and need others to help them. The values that modern media transfer to the youth amount to a contempt for the old and glorification of the physical aspect of youth. The curves of women and the muscles of men are passing phenomena. This isolation of youth, as if it has a separate existence, from the life of the body is an extremely dangerous activity.
In simple words the Sanskrit saying Jaatasya Maranam Dhruvam states that you are born to die. The minute you are born the process of death begins. Every birthday, celebrated with ostentation in big hotels, is a year less of life. These are simple truths that one doesn’t need to read the scriptures to know. But that death is no death because, according to Hindu thought, it is precursor to another birth.
These truths have percolated to the level of both literate and illiterate men and women through classical and folk literature and music and performing arts. A lot of fear of death creeps into our system because as children we are not allowed to be present at the scene of death. When my grandfather died all the children were sent away to relatives homes so that they do not witness the last rites. We came back after my father and his brothers returned from the funeral ground.
When you see somebody very dear to you die it is a wrench you cannot bear. A person who a minute ago was living suddenly ceases to exist. When my father died in Hyderabad I was in Vijayawada. When my mother died in India I was in America. But when my wife and two of my siblings died I happened to hold their hand and physically feel life flowing out of their bodies. The memory of those moments makes me both happy and sad; happy because I was by their side physically experiencing the exit of life. Sad because I miss them and everything they could give me were they alive.
What makes me proud is the knowledge that out forbears meditated about life and death centuries before they entered the minds of other people. The country may have a million temples but the gods in them are ideas and not entities. It is a great synthesis of theism and atheism proclaiming that God has no form, no birth, no life and no death.