When you are caught between life and death

What happens when you are stuck between the two?


Suresh Pattali

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Published: Thu 21 Dec 2023, 5:50 PM

Once upon a time, just when I was on the brink of discovering English, maybe in or before grade four, I used to see two regular columns in the English newspaper that dad borrowed from a neighbourhood teacher: Obituary and Matrimony. Both carried photos of, in a broader sense, the newsmakers. This happened long before dad settled down back in India and unveiled a brown hardback in the same dramatics as we unpack the latest iPhone. He called it a dictionary and spelled it out phonetically.

But Obituary and Matrimony had become familiar to me even before the book release and I somehow came to believe they both meant death. Back in the day, so stupid I was (wifey says I still haven't grown up) I thought the "Sound Horn" notice seen behind Indian vehicles was a brand name. Over the years, I realised that my early assumptions about Obituary and Matrimony were exquisitely cruel but realistically accurate — almost — except that one is sudden, and the other, slow. Jokes apart, it's this acquired skill to trivialise life and death that keeps me strong as I navigate a minefield of personal issues.

So, what's the topic today, Mister?

I am still struggling to clear out the vestigial hangover from a two-day visit to my birthplace last month. It was so rushed I didn't even have the time to step inside the four walls where I was born and breathe in the smell of Amma. My itinerary is generally prepared by my eldest sister, who is also my local sponsor. I am always “C/o Subhadra”, and it works. On top of the well thought-out checklist would be visits to those in the inner family and social circles waiting to be summoned next by St Peter.

It's during such visits the skills I had acquired to look at a colleague or a neighbour as just another human, and death as just another event on a given day, crumbles to the ground. That's when I shed my outer skin like a reptile and become homo sapiens yet again. That's when I feel the surge of human blood in my veins one more time. That's when I want to peel my veneer and throw it to the wind. That's when I could feel the warmth of human breath on my frozen soul.

There was a time I was appointed the emissary to visit any bereaved family back home. Where there was death, there was yours truly. And believe it or not, I was so invested in death I would even strike a tête-à-tête with the departed soul, standing in silence in a corner of the room where the body was laid before cremation. Depending on how good or bad the person was when he was alive or if I had a score to settle, the conversation would end with a "good riddance" or a "happy journey".

Somewhere, sometime during my life journey, I taught myself to be stoic in the face of death. I had no choice. Emotion has no space in the newsroom. When a bus plunges into a ravine, I would wait for a higher casualty figure. The higher the deaths, the higher the page views. The higher the page views, the higher the revenue. I operate in a space where the death of 200 humans in a plane crash makes no news, but a lone survivor would be breaking news.

There were people who breathed their last lying in my hands, one among them being an accident victim whose skull was crushed by a speeding bus like mandarin pulp. I scooped him up in my hands and rushed to a hospital, but he could not make it. But the dead are comparatively easier to handle than the living. During my last India trip, the person I had to visit was none other than my mother-in-law. She's over 90 but manages herself with steps as wobbly as a toddler. She heard me as my shouts rang in her ears.

"I can hear you now," she said.

"Who am I?"

She flashed an innocent smile, signalling her ignorance.

"I am your son, Suresh." I repeated it a good number of times.

"How can I recognise? It has been ages since you last came." She again smiled like a baby.

All this while, her own daughter - my partner - was cuddling up to her, planting kisses on her forehead and shoulders. Several minutes passed with no sign of the mother and daughter talking, but everyone else took it for granted that the old lady had recognised her daughter. But I had my doubts.

"Amma, do you know who's in your arms?" I asked. She cast a quick glance at her daughter and turned back to me.

"Who is this? Tell me, Amma." I lifted her chin and persisted.

Amma smiled again, this time as if she had made a mistake by hugging a stranger.

"This's your darling Dubai daughter."

The floodgates opened and everyone there was moved by the thrust of emotions. Here's the lady who bore my partner, educated her and thrust her into a brave new world, and still failed to feel her pulse. Age had destroyed her faculties. I had fought many a playful fight with her during my honeymoon days and thereafter. I wasn't thrilled about the fact that I had left such an indelible mark in her life that she could recognise me, but not her own daughter. It was agonising to witness a shadow play of distress and helplessness on her face. She pressed her lips together.

I urged wifey to leave as quickly as possible. As far from memories as possible. The wind that blew from the golden rice fields had stopped. The sun had set somewhere behind the still palm trees. My legs gathered speed. I was too scared to stay.



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