Vinay Lal

(Part I of this piece appears as “The Culture of Death in India” on this site.)
12 September 2011)

[First published in “The Crest Edition”, Times of India, 12 September 2011, as “Our But To Do and Die”.]

Death seems to cast a long shadow in India.  If famines, as these are ordinarily understood, no longer strike India, and life expectancy has increased to the mid-60s, malnutrition remains endemic, afflicting close to half of the population.  The advocates of ‘Shining India’ crow over India’s economic growth, but India also leads the world in infant mortality, fatalities from road and train accidents, HIV/Aids infections, and much else that the country would rather not advertise to the rest of the world.  The colossal loss of lives at construction sites, mines, hazardous waste sites, shipbuilding docks:  all this remains largely undocumented, on the rare occasion dignified by mention in a newspaper or a footnote in a human rights report.  Tens of millions of females are, in the euphemism made popular by Amartya Sen, ‘missing’.  Some degree of ‘concern’ for the poor has now become part of the sanctified middle class sensibility, but the conviction persists that the poor will always remain poor.  The middle class has even come to hold to the view that the poor do not experience death as it does, and that the loss of loved ones means comparatively little to those who are both accustomed to sudden death and have, by giving birth to a large number of children, taken out insurance to guard against Yamaraj’s unexpected moves.  We give little thought to the fact that the poor cannot afford the luxury of long mourning; tears are not theirs to shed, work lies ahead:  ‘Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die.’

Whatever the merit of those views which dwell on India’s demographic excess, Social Darwinism, the great gulf between the rich and the poor, the callousness of the state and the grinding ineptness of government machinery, or the supposed absence of the individual in Indian culture, they do not take stock of how death is experienced and the changing contours of the culture of death.  The course of the long history of attitudes to death in the West was to culminate, Philippe Aries argued in a seminal book on the subject in 1976, in a concerted attempt to obscure the social reality of death.   Throughout the nineteenth century, improvements in sanitation, hygiene, and nutrition, besides the more celebrated innovations in medical care, led to enhanced life expectancy and it seemed as if the moment of death could be forestalled.  Yet this grand narrative of progress was to be rudely disrupted:  the trench warfare of the ‘Great War’ which saw millions of young men being sent to death like so many sheep being taken for slaughter, and the nearly countless dead of the World War II, deepened the resolve in the West to restore the pact which would render death, as Aries terms it, ‘forbidden’.  The entire care of death in the West has, over the course of the last few decades, been turned over to professionals and managers.   The loud mourning that characterized the 19th century has been replaced by quiet funerals; to the extent possible, death has become sanitized.  Responsibility for the patient is handed over to nursing homes and, of course, hospitals.  Ivan Illich described these chilling developments as ‘the medicalization of death’.

India presents the greatest possible contrast with what may be called the death of death.  However much we may attempt to banish the dead from our lives, there are people dying in our midst –– from malaria and dengue fever, untreated and undiagnosed illnesses, accidents at factories and industrial sites, and so on.   In every middle class family where there are cooks, drivers, maids, and washerwomen, there are such stories to be told.  But death is everywhere in more ways than we imagine.  The dead are taken through the streets to the cries of ‘Ram nam satya hai’.  The dead continue to exert a visceral presence through the living, through elaborate funerary rites as much as the fact that males and females of Hindu families might become walking signifiers of death.  If males shave their heads and facial hair, the upper caste Hindu widow is recognized by her simple clothing and renunciation of the right to adorn herself.   Banaras is the City of Light, but it must also be unique among the world’s great cities in being devoted to death; one goes to Banaras to die.  Banaras is the great cremation ground; and in its midst, along the riverfront, is Manikarnika, the epicentre of the dead.  Where most other cultures bury their dead, Hindus burn their dead.  The body –– the physical body, the body of history ­­­­–– is placed on the funeral pyre for all to see; and when it has been burnt to ashes, those who make their living off the cremation ground sift through them in search of valuables.

The dead and the living are knotted together:  in the words of the Shanti Parva (175.24), ‘Death is connected with life from the moment one is born’.  The Mahabharata is also clear that one may suffer a psychological death long before the biological fact of death stares one in the face:  death takes many forms, among them hatred and greed, anger, and the drunkenness of the mind (Udyoga Parva 42.7).  Beyond all this, as the Mahabharata recognizes only too well, there remains the one insuperable fact of life.  When it comes to death, the human instinct is always to think of the death of another, not the death of oneself.  In the justly famous passage of the Mahabharata that has come to be known as the ‘Yaksha Prasna’, Yudhisthira is asked what is the most wondrous thing in the world.  All around oneself, says Yudhisthira, one sees death and the fire of destruction, countless number of living beings taken to the beyond; and yet one persists in the belief that one alone is immortal.

Copyright:  Vinay Lal, September 2011.