Do we need cloud-seeding to shed a tear?
Life's Like That is a column by Suresh Pattali, recounting his musings on everyday life
British actor and documentary maker Peter Ustinov and his cameraman Rory O’Farrell were waiting a few metres away for a scheduled interview when Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated on October 31, 1984. Only a hedge separated them from Gandhi as she was gunned down by two of her bodyguards at the Prime Minister’s Residence, No 1 Safdarjung Road, in New Delhi. “It seemed quite unreal,” Ustinov would say about the harrowing experience in later interviews.
Call it perils of a profession.
Doctors face such a predicament periodically. The patients they chat up a couple of minutes before the surgery fail to make it. The first responders who attended to a bleeding Mrs Gandhi or Princess Diana after her car crash in the Pont de l’Alma tunnel in Paris would have prayed hard for their patients to fight it out. Death becomes part of their daily routine, and they are trained to look stoic and face it nonchalantly.
Scribes who witnessed the deaths of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi who was blasted to pieces during a campaign rally in India’s Tamil Nadu state, Philippine opposition leader Benigno S. Aquino Jr who was shot in Manila on an airline staircase upon return from self-exile, American president John F. Kennedy who was shot while riding in a motorcade in Dallas, former Pakistan premier Benazir Bhutto who was gunned down in a bomb-and-gun attack in Rawalpindi would have screamed a thousand silent cries in the aftermath.
A natural death that shook me up a fortnight ago was no less poignant. I had seen my father and mother go. I had seen, soaked in dripping blood, accident victims breathe their last as I ferried them to hospitals. I had seen a few lucky ones make it in what we call a providential escape. But the death of the 90-year-old protagonist in my last column was so terrifying, I was unable to lift my fingers to pen anything last week.
The ink had hardly dried, and the magazine was yet to see the light of day when friend and neighbour Jose called to break the sad news.
“Dad passed away an hour ago. I saw him go in live feeds from close circuit cameras,” he said, words breaking up in agony. He sounded incoherent when I directed him to an express PCR test facility so that he could catch the earliest flight home to take part in the last rites of his beloved father.
“The prognosis wasn’t bad. I expected him to hit a century.” Disappointment stained his words.
I wasn’t listening. I was stuck in a rut of guilt and shame. Bright morning rays streaming through half-parted curtains highlighted the column where I debated if it was right for Jose to install a camera in the bedroom of his aged parents. While Jose harped on the safety of parents, I was adamant it was an infringement on their privacy. Did my words bring a curse upon the family? As I started to read between the lines, words trooped into my cognitive space wearing long black robes. My headline, ‘Privacy vs safety’, sat on the judge’s bench. After several rounds of cross-examination, I stood tethered to the witness box, head heavy with guilt, to listen to my sentencing.
Before packing to go home in the late afternoon, Jose played the screengrabs of his father’s last moments. Something which I had argued in my column as sacrilege. Siblings and children had been summoned as the old man suffered breathing problems. An oxygen cylinder was by the bedside. Jose’s brother lay beside him holding his dad’s hand tight in a gesture of assurance. In frames taken after a few moments, the frail body lay motionless as a couple of people attended to him. The curtain had come down on what Jose said was “a tumultuous life”.
So, who won the privacy debate, after all? Jose, myself or his father? The jury is still out a fortnight after the old man reached his heavenly abode.
On a live feed, Jose’s aged mother and a couple of others sat beside the coffin. Covid protocol had restricted the gathering of mourners. Feeds from outside the house showed a bucolic locale with numerous puddles from overnight rain. In his hurry to take me on a virtual tour, I saw in Jose a quintessential villager who refuses to let go of his life before the petrodollars.
“That’s the large pond with a rest house in the middle where dad and I had spent much time fishing,” Jose reminisced after freezing the visual. I envied him. It’s too late for me to restitch the umbilical code I had snapped. I had buried nostalgia under the sands of time.
As Jose gave me a hug before boarding a car to the airport, I wondered if his or my children would live-stream our last visuals. Technology might evolve by then. Teleporting and time-travel might replace archaic methods like video-streaming. Robots might replace undertakers and priests. Artificial intelligence might make all the weeping and wailing less pretentious than the humans. You never know, we might need cloud-seeding to shed a few tears.
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