Columns | Memory
On the Death of a Friend
Funerals are a catharsis rite for the living
24 Feb, 2023
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
TEARS ARE A SWAMP, not a river. The tears burst and dried, but took some time coming, perhaps an hour of loneliness after the early morning phone call whose ring you recognise through the telepathy of dread. They erupted and eased in periodic spells. Then the mind told the heart that this placebo was futile. Tears would not bring Tony back.
Tears and words—these words—are a palliative, a surrogate path to reconciliation with loss, a way to negotiate through the inexplicable paradox of death and survival. They mean nothing to those who have gone. They are a crutch to help the living walk through the toxic swamp of mourning that kills a little of your own existence. Tears are the toll we pay on the bridge of return to that feeble place called normalcy.
The witchcraft of death leaves one indelible mark. In that instant when a close friend leaves forever, we suddenly become older.
Death is not callous. Death was written into the contract the moment we were born. Eventually everything becomes flotsam and jetsam in the stream of consciousness. We must take what solace we can from memory, knowing that memory itself is a medicine which knows when it must fade. Life is a sequence of occurrence and memory, from casual to searing, from ephemeral to enduring; memory drifts into a vault and selects itself into compartments.
Our best memories will seem self-congratulatory, so let them sleep in that private vault. Memory will freeze that final frame: Tony will sit frozen on the olive-green sofa of my apartment holding a slightly angled glass and wearing a slightly ambiguous smile through that evening when three friends met for another eclectic mix of frank conversation built on the trust accumulated through decades of decisions, differences, and those occasional but exalted instances of triumph in some endeavour. That evening happened just days before Tony’s last holiday. Who knew it would be the last?
Who knew when we first met more than four decades ago that our friendship would last as long as it did?
Rather typically, Tony waited a bit too long to shape his final dream. For the last five years, he filled every lull in conversation by promising himself that he would escape the tensions of a demanding profession and find his way back to the motorcycle-wanderlust he loved. But he kept creating new deadlines. The last one passed when the daughter he doted upon went to America for her college education. His beloved wife Parul had fashioned a second career in photography. The age of worry was over. Freedom beckoned. Tony postponed his response.
Or forgot about that appointment in Samarra.
The Sultan of Baghdad had achieved such phenomenal success that he had no enemies left. He disbanded his army and police but kept his intelligence bureau. Its only mandate was to stand guard on the walls of Baghdad and let the Sultan know immediately if they saw the Angel of Death approaching. That day had to come. The Sultan mounted his favourite white steed and raced to Samarra, about a hundred miles from Baghdad. As he entered the city, the first thing he saw was the Angel of Death. Puzzled, he asked: Why had the Angel not gone to Baghdad? “Why should I go to Baghdad?” replied Death. “My appointment with you was in Samarra.”
Tony’s appointment was in Bhopal. That remorseless Angel stabbed Tony’s most generous and therefore his most vulnerable spot, his heart.
Funerals are not for the departed; they are already in another space. Funerals are a catharsis rite for the living. For me a funeral has too much finality. I want my last memory of Tony to remain a warm face against an olive-green sofa, not a cold body drowned in earth.
Don’t worry, my friend. We have defeated the odds before. Now comes our chance to defeat time.
About The Author
MJ Akbar is the author of several books, including Doolally Sahib and the Black Zamindar: Racism and Revenge in the British Raj
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