News of Deaths from Far Away

When Phurta Gyal sat down below the waterfall to read the letter, he intuitively knew that a tragedy had taken place — he only needed to know how his sister had arranged the words to measure its gravity. Water kept hitting the rock as stray drops carried by the wind fell on the pebbles and dried. A black-billed magpie flew by showing off its tail. The sunrays trickled on the waterfall producing a mini rainbow. Everything is transitory. Half an hour later he folded the letter and with it the memory of his brother-in-law.

Sitting below the waterfall, he gathered bits and pieces about death and dying that he had learnt from books and heard from elders. Quickly he assembled them from the corners of his fertile mind, and disciplined them in his own words.

Death is a step, a change of form or simply a new appointment. Mundane deities are said to foresee their death by decline in their vigour, withering of their flower garland, emitting of unpleasant body odour and excessive perspiration. We have neither such perceptible indications nor do we observe the subtle signs that tell us about our impending death as much as about our lives. We fear for death only when a serious illness befalls. Death, however, does not need a licence to announce itself. It is an independent agent answerable to our karma alone.

The sound of the waterfall and the stray drops falling and drying on the pebbles sharpened his recollection. He pondered deeper about the final stage — the cessation of life.

At the time of death the five elements dissolve into each other. Dissolution of earth element into water hinders movement and forces the eyes to lose their vision. Dissolution of water element into fire triggers drying up of bodily fluid and loss of hearing. Farewell the sound of music. Dissolution of fire element into wind prompts loss of physical warmth and sense of smell and finally the dissolution of wind element into consciousness causes inability to breathe and loss of the sense of touch. By the time the internal breathing ceases we begin our step into bardo. Death is a process.

Clutching the folded letter, he took a long breath. Death made him feel small, while an ant crawling on his arm made him feel big. Life is a series of contradictions. Everything ends in death, which is a beginning of another journey. He put the folded letter into his pocket and reclined on a smooth rock. Enormity of the clear blue sky brought memories of another death.

It was a warm summer’s day, exactly ten years ago, when another letter had arrived. A thick brown envelope wrapped in transparent polythene. His aunt, a nun living the life of a hermit, had already opened the letter. There was no trace of misfortune on the envelope as she had absorbed the shock, the sadness and angst of opening the heavy envelope. She navigated through the assembled words and calamity crowded into her face.

When she recounted the news of his father’s death, tears abundantly rolled down his cheeks. It was neither the intensity of sadness nor the piquancy of her narration that prompted his eyes to flood. The tears were for his father’s youthfulness — he was a forty-two-year-old man, the head of a family, and a father of five children. He was an ordinary human being liable to all the vices of the world. Yet, there were no wrinkles on his face and no one had suspected that his final appointment would come so soon. The clock fast forwarded its hands.

His aunt added a few words about her memories of his father. She knew him as a child and was fond of him. Shaking her shaved nun’s head she sighed, heaved her shoulders and said, “Why didn’t you take me instead?” Death cannot be exchanged nor can one conjure magic and play tricks on it. Death is perfectly serious. It announces only when the time is up.

Back in the boys’ hostel he hid the letter in his trunk. The rigidity of the school curriculum forced him to banish memories of his father to the far borders of his mind. Memories, however, don’t die. They wait for time’s prompting. At an opportune moment they rebound and prick our weak hearts.

Over the following years the letter shifted its residences, first into a plastic folder, where clippings from newspapers were stored, then into a leather briefcase and eventually into a photo album. A few days before he left school, he burnt the letter along with used notebooks and a bunch of assorted papers including photos of football stars, movie actors and skimpily-clad models. Papers crackled in the fire and blue smoke curled into the sky. As words bent in agony under the heat, the other news in the letter about his sister’s marriage disappeared into blackened ashes. Death overwhelms everything else.

His cheeks were wet. Perhaps, stray drops from the waterfall landed on his face. The blue sky, the gushing waterfall, the news of death and the memories of his father added fuel. The fire drove him to extract one more report of death from the labyrinth of his recollection.

One winter, exactly twenty years ago, he learned that his grandfather had passed away. It was strange, almost ethereal. He was ten years old. In his world of curiosity and innocence, where comics and catapults meant more, death was beyond his horizon.

He used to dream of his grandfather, a white-haired towering giant sometimes bombarding him with commands and at others showering him with stories. His dreams often ended up him wide awake searching for a human voice. Darkness never spoke. It made his nights longer.

When in class, Phurta Gyal measured time keeping his grandfather as the yardstick, considering him the oldest, older than the hills, rivers and trees. How could a child know that time is an infinite illusion. Its immensity and fluidity dries up the rivers and dwindles down the mountains. It was time that eroded his towering grandfather.

His aunt told him that his grandfather had died. Misfortune when not enveloped in words seemed lighter. Printed words made everything more solemn. She spoke as casually as possible fearing a child’s outburst. She did not need to fear. He saw his grandfather in his dreams.

Ever since the news of his grandfather’s death, he had learned to see everything in a new light, a new perspective, a new time frame. The old wall had fallen and from the debris of his scanty memories he laid a fresh foundation. He needed a new wall to lean on.

The black-billed magpie landed on a nearby rock and cawed, waking Phurta Gyal from his thoughts. Clouds resembling woolly sheep had formed in the north and the breeze from the river was chilly. He got up and drove away the traces of thoughts from his mind.

As he began to walk down, he eyed the magpie and thought out loudly: “Are you my brother-in-law?”

One can be free neither from death nor from its consequences.

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