Random Thoughts

Death in Perspective

Oommen Chandy, former chief minister of Kerala, is gone. Chandy Ommen, his son, is in. I have only nice things to say about the father. The son I have had no occasion to get to know. It is perhaps not necessary to know someone to wish him well. The son has, as the father’s political successor, my best wishes, whatever they may be worth. Let us echo the Lord, “this is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.”  

A popular view of death is that it is a great leveler. That messiah of irreverence, Bernard Shaw, demurred. Death is, in fact, not only a non-leveler but something that highlights the inherent or acquired inequality of people who pass. Consider Oommen Chandy’s death. Masses and mass media turned it into a supremely somber episode, demanding wholesome condolences that lasted a few days. There is a hackneyed story of a mofussil editor who insisted on the use of bold, large, capital letters when reporting any reportable death. Headlines languished through the entire width of his esteemed journal. 

One day Gandhi died. The editor was furious--probably not so much by that assassin’s dastardly act as by the cold reality of having not enough letter types to tell a tragedy of the twentieth century. Ommen Chandy’s death spread through the whole paper, caption lengthening from column one to column eight, bringing into hold relief the difference between what made him himself and someone, someone else. Few deaths in the past, if at all, occasioned such tearful downpour. Few people in the future may, in life or death, command such coverage. For anyone to accomplish it, our journals will have to enlarge their size and embellish their style.

Event after event has shown how hard a task it is to report death. Superlative is the degree in which obituaries are cast. Reminiscent of the wonder that our old sages of Nasadiya Sooktam sensed, “there being nothing, and there being no nothing,” our obituary scribes would make out that no one was greater than the one just passed, and no one would excel him. A forgettable occasion was when we set out to record for radio an obituary note. R Shankar’s death was an important political event. We were ready with the choicest epithets in our lexicon of adoration which A P Udayabhanu would not gobble down in silence. The disenchanted Congressman said he had a few bitter things to say, and he would not say on that occasion. That is it, say nothing unwelcome, Na bruyad satyam apriyam. 

There's the rub. One must speak truth, and truth shall be pleasant. The elemental urge for superlative deification issues from that recognition of human predicament. In so far as it struggles to be true and titillating, at once, death is an acute embarrassment. It requires the commentator to mouth nice words about the qualities and accomplishments never possessed by the deceased soul.

Which is why no scribe worth his salt, or, sugar, will feel blessed when forced to craft an obituary. How to praise the dead man and still remain honest is a severe challenge. It calls for some gumption, like the British journal The Economist has to call a spade a spade or something nearly as sharp. For a quick sample, read this quote from its Mahesh Yogi obituary. 

"The maharishi, who had studied math and physics at Allahabad University, had calculated that one person practicing the transcendental meditation he promoted could induce virtuous behavior among 99 non-meditators. He had already, in 1944, helped to get 2,000 Vedic pandits, learned followers of one of the four holy books of the Hindus, to chant mantras in an effort to bring the second world war to an end. He had again assembled meditators in 1963 to solve the Cuban missile crisis. But his ambitions were bigger—world peace, no less—and by the 1980s he had come to realize that to bring harmony to a world of 5 billion people, he would need 50m meditators."

What may nag one morbidly is the posthumous possibility of one being portrayed as a repository of virtues and wisdom one never had.   We can cite Rama of Ayodhya in defense. When the dead demon’s brother, Vibhishana, started berating him for all his misadventures, our great morality merchant, Rama said, “enough is enough. Bury the dead. No hostilities after death. Maranantani Vairani. 

The posthumous picture is difficult to define. By and large, fathers die to see their sons/daughters installed in their dirty gaddi. Fathers who work for the victory of sons are a rare species in our geopolitical setting. That creative generational linkage is not seen in Europe and West Asian kingdoms. Even Akbar the Great had to trounce his romantic son Jahangir once or twice. Akbar’s grandson was deposed and detained by his son. Alexander the Great was in danger of a mortal attack, furtively executed by his father, Philip. Timely intervention by Alexander’s mother Olympia saved him. Such filial atrocities and fatherly machinations are not seen as a rule in India that is Bharat.

Primogeniture as a system of succession has long been disfavored by many people. Son succeeding his father in a political office may not be a tribute to our glorious democratic tradition. We have roundly come to assume that a legislative gaddi occupied by a father or husband should devolve on their son or widow. Indira Gandhi to Rajiv Gandhi to Sonia Gandhi to Rahul Gandhi is an inexorable progression. Indira’s succession from Nehru had of course a short spell of rule by someone outside the family. It does not militate against the general rule of father bestowing his political estate on his offspring or grand offspring.

This is not to suggest that a son or daughter or widow should be punished and precluded from the transference of heritage. The sons and the widows must design their position and profession not as the progeny of the dead man but on their own. If it is turned into a treacherous tradition that a bereaved wife or son must be forced into the worn-out shoes of their forebears, it throws democracy overboard, an advanced form of oligarchy flourishing in its place. 

The communist parties must be given credit for steering clear of this family ball game. Once a young son is brought in to follow his aging or dead father’s legacy, the process of negation of the democratic principle. In a crude and gruesome hypothesis, a few thousand political families will be in complete command of the country. Positions of power and privilege virtually assigned to the new species of inheritors, nameless party activists will soon feel alienated. Though spoken in another context, another country, it is pertinent to cheer up: The leader is gone. Long live the leader!


More by :  K Govindan Kutty

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