AS OUR END approaches, a whirlwind will sweep everything away, including us. We may be in the grip of severe physical pain. Our breathing will become difficult, we may literally feel our extremities begin to get cold, the cold advance towards our torso, and then our heart. There will be an emotional whirlwind too. If we are at all conscious, we will realize that the break with everyone whom we have loved, with everything we have valued doing is going to be total, it is going to be absolutely final. Howsoever many dying relatives we may have attended on, when it is our turn the event is going to be totally unprecedented. There is no time now for doing the things that we should have done and haven’t. There is no time now to undo the things that we have done which we shouldn’t have. In any case, wasn’t the whole damned thing worthless? What was the purpose of it all? And even though we may have read and heard a thousand times that we are not being singled out by Yama’s emissaries, that 150,000 to 200,000 others will die on the day we do—assuming there is no catastrophe that day—we may be assailed by the unfairness of it all. ‘Why me? Why today?’ After all, there will be so many things that have yet to be done, so many projects that are almost complete, but without us will now go to wrack and ruin. And, of course, there will be the dread of what lies ahead. Will I survive in some form? Will I see those who used to love and take care of me, and have gone earlier? Will I ever be joined again with the ones whom I love here?
By definition, at that time we will lose control over our body. It may also be that we will not be in a position to control our mind: if we die of an accident; if our mind has wasted away because of dementia or Alzheimer’s; if we have slipped into a coma; if to keep us from pain, for instance, the doctors have drugged us into unawareness. But barring these special circumstances, the only way to lessen the turbulence will be to control the mind. And here too, the objective for us need not be as lofty as it is in, say, The Tibetan Book of the Dead—for instance, that we will be controlling our mind so as to attain a particular type of reincarnation, that at the final moment we will have such complete control over our mind that we will be able to cast ourselves as a sort of dart into the womb in which we have decided to get reincarnated. For the overwhelming majority of us the objective will be infinitely more modest—to ensure a peaceful dissolution of the mind at death.
For a peaceful dissolution of our minds, the first requisite clearly is that we should have completed the mundane things that dying requires today.
Some of us will have assets at the time we die. So that they do not spark any trouble, we should have written and registered a will. There are two or three things that I learnt from writing the joint will that Anita and I have registered.
First, everything in it is in accordance with Anita’s wishes. Second, we have ensured that all beneficiaries and the relatives closest to Anita have copies of the will and have read them— our hope is that if anyone is going to contest any part of it, s/he will do so while we are alive so that those left after us are not inconvenienced in any way.
There is no time now for doing the things that we should have done and haven’t. There is no time now to undo the things that we have done which we shouldn’t have. In any case, wasn’t the whole damned thing worthless? What was the purpose of it all? And even though we may have read and heard a thousand times that we are not being singled out, we may be assailed by the unfairness of it all
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As I feel that death has been medicalized and that so many of us are subjected to absolutely useless procedures, and that rituals have become routinized, I have added that (i) if I am braindead, or there is no hope of my returning to a useful, independent existence, I should not be put on life-support systems; (ii) that such organs as can be of help to anyone should be harvested; (iii) and that my body should be cremated without any ritual. Finally, so that neither Anita nor anyone else should be inconvenienced in any way, I have specified that there must be none of those gatherings that have become de rigueur—no prayer meeting, for instance, no memorial meeting.
I learnt one thing from a dear friend and a doctor, and that led me to alter one clause. In the original draft, I had written that after such organs as could be of use to others had been harvested, my body should be handed over to some medical college that needs corpses for education of prospective doctors and surgeons. But the doctor informed me that in India, medical colleges, etc., are not short of corpses. And the dear friend told me about what had happened in the case of a friend who had passed away having left similar instructions. The family had to suffer great trauma in the ensuing months—haunted by the thought that now his heart would have been carved out, now the brain would have been scooped out, now the legs would been sawed off. So, I altered the paragraph in our will to a cremation with no religious ceremony. In a word, we should write out what is known as a living will. A will that deals with these problems—whether we are to be put on life-support systems, when these are to be switched off, how our body is to be disposed of, etc. This is essential to spare our dear ones from traumatic decisions, and possible feelings of intense guilt.
There are three further bits of information that may be of use. The first concerns assets. A lawyer friend told me that he had seen many a bequeath become a real burden for the person to whom it was assigned: a relative had left a house for them; but they did not have the funds to pay the taxes that fell to their lot along with the house; as a result, they had to sell the house to pay the taxes. This becomes that much more of a problem because when one has to sell property in such compelling circumstances, one has to reconcile oneself to selling it at a disadvantageous price. So, be careful in what you wish upon another!
The second lesson concerns parents like us who have handicapped children. We are continually plagued by the worry: ‘Who will look after our Adit? How will he be looked after?’ Anita had a wonderful idea—‘compatible needs’. A cousin, say, may be in need of a house and funds, which our estate could provide and, once we were gone, she or he would stay with and look after Adit. This has not worked out: Adit’s cousins love him dearly, but they are all busy with their lives, some of them have settled far away, none of them needs a house or funds. So, we had to think of an alternative. With the help of a lawyer friend, we have set up a family trust, and transferred a substantial part of our savings into that—I had thought of transferring all our savings to the trust, but my lawyer friend counselled me not to do so: you never know what contingency may arise which may not be covered under the objectives of the trust, he said, so keep a part of your savings in your own names. Anita’s sisters, her brother and his wife, and one of her dearest friends are to manage the trust. Three things have to be kept in mind while making such an arrangement. Laws differ about the formation of trusts—because persons have done all sorts of things in the name of trusts, there are many complex provisions regarding the setting up and operation of such trusts, even when the need they are to fulfil is manifest. So, one must seek the advice of a good and trustworthy lawyer friend for this purpose. Second, none of the trustees should have anything to gain from the death of the poor child. Third, in the normal course, our circle will consist of persons of our own age, and it is this circle from which trustees will normally be selected. As a result, the trustees will be dying close to one another. So, there must be an orderly plan for inducting new members, and, if possible, it should be included in the original trust deed. A plan in accordance with which, when a trustee dies or is incapacitated, the other trustees are to induct a successor—in our case, they have to be chosen from among cousins of Adit: a cousin who knows law, another who knows finance, but ones who will devote the time which may be required; and who, above all, have a compassionate heart. It is also useful that they should be made familiar with the trust and its working well before the need arises to induct them—that will enable them to help the trust when their turn comes, and it will also give the existing trustees the opportunity to assess their willingness to devote time to the handicapped child.
Parents like us who have handicapped children are continually plagued by the worry: ‘Who will look after our Adit? How will he be looked after?’ Anita had a wonderful idea—‘compatible needs’. A cousin, say, may be in need of a house and funds, which our estate could provide and, once we were gone, she or he would stay with and look after Adit. This has not worked out
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WRITING A WILL IS liberating. Since we came back to Delhi in the mid-1970s, we have always lived in our parents’ house—with them when they were alive, and in it since they have gone. Writing and registering our will proved a liberating experience of sorts. We have always looked upon the house as our parents’ house. Now that we have assigned it to a nephew, and the house that we have built in Lavasa to a niece, we feel all the more like transitory tenants—and lucky tenants at that, ones whom the owners have exempted from paying rent!
Having written a will, there is a caution: do not keep revising it, unless, of course, there are unavoidable developments—say, someone to whom you assigned something predeceases you, or proves himself to be an unimaginable scoundrel. I know of a person who wrote a will but kept a hawk’s eye on the conduct of those he had named as inheritors, especially their attitude towards him, and kept changing the bequeaths as they behaved the way he expected them towards him or not. Instead of the will being a liberating instrument, this can make it yet another chain of bondage. First, in going on revising the bequeath, we will be perpetually watching and judging others: does ‘X’ deserve what I am leaving for him? Will he put it to good use? This will only reinforce a trait we have to erase, the habit of being judgemental. Second, by revising the bequeath in accordance with our latest whim, we will be asserting that the possessions are ours: i.e., we will be deepening possessiveness; having assigned them away, we will be clinging to them. Third, by giving something to someone on paper, taking it back, and assigning it to someone else, we will be assuring ourselves that we are still in control, that we can change the fortunes of others, we will be assuring ourselves that we can still help and hurt others—all this will only bolster the one thing that we have to attenuate, our ego.
A will, a living will, a trust to look after a handicapped child— these are mundane concerns. Yet, they can make all the difference between being anxious and unsettled in the final weeks or being at peace. But there is more. Thinking up what we need to do even in regard to mundane matters to be at peace in the end is not like making up another ‘to-do’ list. If an item gets left out from the ‘to-do’ list for today, it can always be written into the list tomorrow. But for that ultimate list, an item left out is left out forever—there will be no time to add to the list and do it. Therefore, this final list, and doing those things, has to be preceded by an act of imagination. One really has to imagine oneself lying on a bed, dying, and then think back to the things that one should have done. The list will be only as good as our imagination. And acting on that list will be only as good as our love for the ones dear to us is deep.
(This is an edited excerpt from Preparing for Death | Viking | 528 pages | Rs 799) by Arun Shourie to be released on October 26th.)
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