The Grave Yard Shift – Musings On Delhi, Death And Dignity

I have reached the age when my first action on a morning is to grab the newspaper, feverishly scan the obituary pages and, finding that my name is not there, release a pent up sigh of relief and proceed to read about the latest scam of this government. Perhaps I’m slowly progressing towards senility, though one can never be sure for, as Bill Cosby famously remarked, the good news about senility is that when you become senile you never know it! But there is something about the monoxide of Delhi ( which passes for air), however, that of late has been driving my thoughts to the contemplation of matters relating to the visitations of the Grim Reaper or ” Passing Away” ( as they call it here, as if the departure of the soul from the body was akin to a bout of terminal flatulence). My contemplation of these grave matters is a detached one, of course, as that of an observer, but I still wonder what occasions it. I suspect it is because Death is never far away in this city- every time you step out of your house you stand a good chance of being run over by an S-class Mercedes, or of being shot by some Dirty Harry cop who takes you for a terrorist, or of drowning in a sewer man-hole the Corporation forgot to cover, or of being poisoned because the lunch you ate in that eatery was cooked in a drum of pesticide , or of being blown up by a bomb planted by someone who pines for a return to the glory days of either the Mughals or the Mauryas : the possibilities are endless. But you get my point- one starts noticing matters relating to Death. I’ve been doing this for two years now and find some aspects fascinating.

Take, for instance, the obituary notices in the Delhi papers. Every single departee is stated to have ” left for his/her Heavenly Abode.” I find this puzzling, for I know for a fact that for the average Delhi-wallah this Heavenly Abode is right here! For the typical Delhi-ite Heavenly Abode is anywhere in South Delhi( Hell, of course, lies on the other side of the Yamuna river). To fine tune this concept by communities, HA for the Bengali is Chittaranjan Park, for the Punjabi it is Golf Links, for the Marwari it is Greater Kailash, for the retired defence officer it is Defence Colony, for the Yuppie it is Gurgaon, for the Tibetans it is Majnu ka Tilla, for the Politician it is Race Course Road, for the Glitterati it is MG Road or Vasant Vihar, for the Bureaucrat it is Chanakyapuri, for the Industrialist it is Amrita Sher Gill Marg. There CANNOT BE any other heaven for these Delhi wallahs, so I presume that the fond wish of the ” nears and dears” of the poor departed sod would be that he takes re-birth in the neighborhood of his choice as given above. This would partly explain why the population of Delhi has been increasing at such an alarming rate, for nobody ever goes away, not even after handing in their pail.

The other thing I’ve noticed with these obituaries is that the ones left behind invariably pledge ” to follow the cherished values and high moral conduct ( of the deceased) which would forever be( their) guiding light and beacon.” Now, given the typical behaviour and conduct of the Delhi-wallah, this doesn’t say much about the deceased, no disrespect intended. The “high moral conduct” usually consists of abusing your neighbor for parking in front of your house, slapping the driver who dares to overtake you, jumping any queue with total aplomb, groping any lady below seventy stupid enough to get onto a bus and similar stimulating behaviour. The ” cherished values” they follow are even more ante-diluvian, consisting of lofty principles such as: Do unto others before they do unto you, Blessed are the meek for they shall never know what hit them, There is a sucker born every minute, Hand in Cash is better than cash in hand , Screw thy neighbor AND his wife, and similar uplifting principles. So you see why we can never rid the city of this lumpen sub-culture-its something its citizens owe to their ancestors who have to be revered in the typical Hindu tradition!

Delhi is the net-working capital of India and therefore people here love nothing more than attending weddings and funerals, especially those of important people: an invite is not necessary, just as it is not necessary to know the dramatis personnae involved. Over the years I have become used to strange faces at weddings, but it was only recently that I encountered one at a cremation! I was at the cremation of a relative at Lodhi Crematorium, where seven other pyres were also flaming. A hushed crowd stood respectfully around each. A man in immaculate white kurta-pyjama sidled upto me, nodded at my relative’s pyre, and whispered: ” Is – sorry, was- that Shri—–?” I shook my head regretfully. He nodded his head imperceptively and moved on to the next pyre. I kept my eyes on him and saw that he went to all the pyres, one by one, looking appropriately mournful all the time, whispering to some random people, and finally sidled out of the gate. He obviously didn’t know a soul there, so what was he doing there? Why would he spend a whole day looking for the funeral of someone he clearly didn’t know well at all? Did he simply want to mark his presence, or was he doing it out of respect for the deceased person? Did he attend cremations as a past-time or was he just fascinated by death? Since that incident I have observed such people at other cremations also- they hang out at the fringe of the crowd initially, speaking to no one, but come to life when some known/ important/recognizable figure appears, genuflect to the worthy, and then remain by his side all the time, whispering God only knows what to him. I have even seen some slipping visiting cards to the person!

Delhi’s bureaucrats are generally faceless, which is probably a blessing to the citizens of a city surrounded by so much ugliness! But it is in the DNA of a bureaucrat to be want to be noticed so they occasionally give in to the temptation of laying a foundation stone or two provided, of course, that Shiela Dixit has not beaten them to it. So one can see the odd Stone in front of a building or flyover or bus-stop, and one doesn’t grudge them these little sops. But inaugurating a cremation platform or shed? Who would ever consent to such a ghoulish idea? Someone has, in the Lodhi Road Crematorium( you can go and see the name yourself). Just outside a shed with four platforms( donated by ONGC) is a stone on which is engraved the name of the worthy( a Director in the Ministry of Urban Development) who ” inaugurated” this unit a couple of years back! Is this macabre, or am I being too severe on him? Sometimes I wonder- did they also arrange four dead bodies to cremate for his benefit, and was he given the honour of lighting the flames, in a devilish twist to the time honoured Hindu tradition of lighting the sacred lamp? Did he have to glorify himself at the very spot which should remind us of ” dust unto dust”, or of the words of the poet( John Donne?) :

” Sceptre and crown
Must tumble down
And in the dust be equal made
With the lowly scythe and spade…”

The flavour of the season for people who, like me, are ready for their final boarding call, appears to be accounts of Near Death Experiences( NDE). I’ve read Anita Murjani’s ” Dying to be Me” and Dr. Alexander Eban’s ” Proof of Heaven” and Dr. Brian Weiss’s ” Many Lives,Many Masters.” What they all have in common is relief at being freed from the body, a blinding white light, choral music, angelic beings accompanying them, someone( usually a deceased close relative) telling them that their time has not yet come and a disinclination to return to the ravaged body left behind. To be perfectly candid, this commonality of experience can be either reassuring, or suspicious, depending on individual assessment, and I guess I’m not in a position to pass judgement on it till I’ve been through such an experience myself-the last Near Death Experience I had was some years ago when my wife caught me texting ( sexting?) an attractive PA in Shastri Bhavan but I guess that won’t qualify as an NDE according to Messers Murjani, Dr. Weiss etc.! But what IS interesting in all these accounts is that the versions of life after death all correspond to the postulates of the Abrahamic religions( Christianity, Islam, Semitism) only-of their concept of Heaven, God, the type of beings who reside there etc.! The Hindu concept, to my mind, would be quite different for we don’t have a distinct God figure towards which the soul gravitates( the blinding light) as Hinduism teaches that God is present in every object and creature; in our case the soul doesn’t reside in Heaven or Hell everlastingly but is reincarnated into some other appropriate life-form( which is all the reward or punishment we can expect); there are no celestial or devilish figures patrolling these realms. Considering that two of three writers mentioned by me belong to the Christian religion ( Mrs. Murjani is a puzzle because she is a Hindu but her experience corresponds quite closely to that of the others.

However, I note that she has spent her whole life outside India exposed to Western values, cultures and thoughts- could these have coloured/influenced her perceptions at a sub-conscious level?)-it is quite clear to me that these two gentlemen are trying- maybe unintentionally- to validate their religion through their NDE “experiences”. And this in itself is enough to create a strong doubt in my mind about the authenticity of their experiences and to raise all manner of questions: Does the religious divide which exists between peoples on earth continue even after Death? Are there separate post-mortem realms for people of different religions? Are the Abrahamic religions the only true religions and other religions mere hallucinations? Would an NDE by a true-blooded Hindu corroborate the experiences of the others mentioned above or would it be different, reflecting Hindu beliefs? Disturbing questions, but unless these can be answered the jury would be well advised to continue its deliberations and not return a verdict in a hurry.

It is inevitable that Death takes everything from the dying but what is NOT inevitable is that it takes away one’s dignity in that last moment too. The dignity I am talking about is not that of crowns, of robes of office, the bank account in the Cayman Islands or the Mercedes parked in the garage: what I refer to is the dignity of the human existence that comes from being with one’s family, in the house built with one’s own hard labour, not being dependent on another, of being aware and fully conscious of the state of one’s existence, of being able to make firm choices, of letting go when the time has come. This, in essence, is the ultimate dignity a human being is entitled to, regardless of his economic, religious or social status. We are today being robbed of this dignity at an alarming rate by an unholy alliance of technology, medical rapaciousness, rising incomes and misplaced sense of duty. The act/ moment of death today robs one of all dignity, or of any sense of choice or control over one’s life. Just think! Go over the last ten deaths of persons known to you- how many of them died at home and how many in ICUs or hospital rooms? Chances are nine out of the ten belong to the latter category. Death in a hospital environment demeans the human spirit and memory like nothing else-your last memory of your loved one-if at all you are even allowed to see him or her- being one of tubes stuck all over the body, the face covered with an oxygen mask, the mouth grotesquely distorted by a fat ventilator tube, the smell of chemicals all pervasive, the sound of screams of other patients adding to the all enveloping despondency. The person on the bed is either knocked out by the drugs, or, even if conscious, is unable to talk by the medical extrusions in his body. The eyes are generally the give away-if you’re lucky they are closed, otherwise they move frantically from side to side, reminding one of nothing more than a trapped animal desperate to find an escape. Every NDE account I’ve read emphasises the person’s feelings at this moment-the desire to leave the body, the resentment at being forcibly restrained, the longing to be free of its physical baggage. Should this be the manner of a human being’s departure from this world?

There was a time, not so long ago, when death was not such a traumatic and dehumanizing experience- people died in their own comfortable bed, in a house they knew, surrounded by those they loved and who loved them, conscious and grateful in this knowledge; they could sometimes say a last few words or, if incapable of this, their silence was one of contentment. The soul was not held captive by force but could leave at a time of its own choosing. But all this is in the past now.People are no longer allowed to die gracefully: they are packed off to hospital ICUs, punctured with a dozen needles, injected with litres of drugs, operated upon in redundant procedures, monitored by a dozen consoles-and then finally pronounced dead. The family goes back home, their conscience and sense of duty assuaged by the hefty hospital bill presented-and settled- before the body is handed over to them.

I constantly wonder if this has been a change for the better. True, many more people are indeed saved to live a few more years. True, it is the duty of any family to do all they can to save a life. True, we must make full use of the advancements in medical technology. But, if we are brutally honest with ourselves, we will admit that there comes a moment when we know that the end is inevitable, and yet we persist( either out of a sense of duty, or out of desperate hope) to subject the one we love to further tortures. In this we are generally encouraged by rapacious hospitals and mercenary doctors whose PRIMARY objective is to make money not save lives. They dangle before us new tests, medicines and procedures, and we succumb. Forgive me for saying so, but this is a manifestation ultimately of our selfishness The problem is that today we refuse to accept death, so arrogant have we become with our technology and our science.

Sometimes our persistence works- the patient survives, but dependent on others for ever, living the existence of a vegetable. We must ask ourselves-is it worth extending a life by a few more months or years if the existence has to be at such a sub-liminal level? Is quality more important or quantity? More and more people are beginning to ask these questions now-even doctors and health administrators, I’m glad to note-and the concept of the “living will” is taking shape. By executing such a will a person prohibits the use of any life-support systems to keep him alive. California has even enacted legislation to make this a legal right, subject of course to safeguards. I would be delighted to know if any other country or state has similar legislations. Can India show the maturity and compassion to follow this path?- frankly, I have grave doubts, given that even the Supreme Court of this country refuses to allow a nurse, raped , sodomized and battered into a vegetable 27 years ago, existing in an insentient coma all these years, to die. It needs a wise and compassionate society to strike the balance between life and death. We ceased to be one long ago.

Avay Shukla retired from the Indian Administrative Service in December 2010. He is a keen environmentalist and loves the mountains. He divides his time between Delhi and his cottage in a small village above Shimla. He used to play golf at one time but has now run out of balls. He blogs at

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