The Dead Body

On March 31, 2011 by admin

Manindra Gupta  (Trans. Abu Hossain)

The fable of the Brahmin and the Brahmani used to be an amalgamation of the mythical and the folk. The duo lives in that hutment right at the yonder corner of the village. The Brahmin, a simple guy, partly a simpleton even. The Brahmani, a termagant—a long life of travail and tribulation has made her utterly irritable at the fag end. The story could take different turns once you reach this juncture. For instance, he discovers a pot full of mohurs, guarded by the yaksha, among the ruins in the jungle, or impresses the lord of the land with his witticism and makes a fortune, or gets swindled by a conman, suffers harsh words from the Brahmani and chooses exile.

This story of the twosome is actually our story—mine and my friends’. We get swindled everyday and our predicament worsens. As long as we were working, we were fishes secure within our respective shoals. A retired life is one of needless, sundry humiliation.

How and where our fulsome sons and daughters spend their time, what drives their lives, I am rather unsure. Internationally acclaimed pundits doing the circuit or surefooted asocial danseuses adept at social dos—whatever their trade be—they have traversed a long way from us indeed. We oldies are vulnerable like the groping Brahmin couple of the tale. We queue up at the bus-stop, hear someone holler ‘get up, do get up.’ Soon the bus waves past, an anomalous bell ringing. We are left standing. An odd shove here, a thrust there in the crowd, (we hope to parry, but invariably fail) easily leaves us cold, downbeat, fallen.

I recall the visage of old, weary Dhritarashtra, at the conclusion of the battle at Kurukshetra, returning with blooms and supplicating water—hungry, weak with fasting, trembling, superannuated, rapidly losing interest with living. Soon he enters the entrails of the forest with Gandhari, Kunti and Sanjay. And a fierce forest fire engulfs them. Sanjay entreats the old king to flee. The feeble king replies that he would rather scorch himself up. It is ideal to give up ones life to water, wind, fire and fasting. You may take leave Sanjay.

King Bimbisara died of fasting too. I have noticed unwell creatures, nearing death, hunt down a quiet spot—quit food and await stilly until death arrives. Possibly their being wishes to touch some primordial pulse before departing for good. The threesome in Mahabharata also sat motionless.

Modern death is a messy, troublesome affair. Face to face with death one realizes how perilous our circumstances are. These days there are hardly any treatment options at home. And nursing homes are veritable leeches. And then at the threshold of his last breath, the patient is pushed into a ventilator: artificial respiration initiates. Four or five days in that state, stark pale with death long ago, the nursing home declares the patient to be brain dead. The dead body and a bill of few lakhs are easily handed out.

In the name of wellness and treatment, partial dead-bodies thus enter the chain of transaction. And a complete and spectacular disrespect for the dead starts right there. On one hand, the abhorrent antarjali-jatra, on the other, this horrendous ventilation: is there no simpler, more natural route for the patient on the death roll? Howsoever agreeably we lead our lives, in death we proceed towards the grandeur of the infinite and the unseen. These last couple of hours, at their very moment of disappearance, let not the dead suffer contempt from those who stay back.

I would not have been so garrulous but for a jolt that I received the other day. I had gone to the samshan-ghaat, in solidarity, to witness the last rites of a neighboring friend. The gentleman, his wife, his kids—the whole family is illustrious, scholarly and free-minded. Probably the luster of scholarship had dried up the humidity of their bereavement.

In every civic, popular or natural society, the disposal of the dead merits some procedural aspects. Various as the formalities are, one basic thread binds them: that we do not consider the dead to be gone, vanished, non-existent. The idea is to see that a modicum of love and benediction guide us even as we dispose off a body who had been possibly a fellow traveler with the living for so long and so richly. And to wonder and consider the remains before it surpasses touch and feel.
The Eskimos of North Pole are an ancient lot. How do they resolve this conundrum of the wobbly, unsure old age? Once the old man realizes that he is unable to hunt, is dependent on his kinsman for food, the lumbering weight of life is getting better of him—he gets holds of a catamaran, and one evening quietly ventures on to the sea. Night in front, the ocean wide, below 30 degree Celsius the temperature. But he won’t return. What would happen to him, his body, his existence? The community is there by the sea-shore to bid him adieu. There are all kinds of traversing that final expanse: sometimes with such communal approval, at times alone and fasting—awaiting passage, and who knows, may be denying certain treatments even in the midst of mortal pain.

There is a breed of sanyasis whose mortal remains are left to be eaten by the creatures of the wild. The whole of the Tower the Silence precisely hinges on such an understanding of the relationship of the living and the dead. Some practitioners are given water-burial, so that they enter the food chain via fishes and other aquatic creatures only to re-emerge materially. There is nothing demeaning about returning this earthly body back to the earth. Now, the usual rites are either internment or cremation. Two kinds of mentality work behind these differing procedures. Burial implies that he is around, his existence being mysterious now and he has left secretly to live elsewhere. The pyre suggests his unencumberdness, his transparency, the voyaging out: one can well glimpse the clarity of the blue sky through his being.

Bereavement ties us up with the dead, to his bodily existence. Our minds remain shrouded and turgid at that point. Once that cloud gets uplifted, with tonsured heads, we re-enter our natural existence again. Before returning to this naturalness, we propitiate the dead with water, rice and prayers even. This formal rites are pretty divergent and yet not uncommon. The Yui Indians would trim their long hair as a mark of their grieving. The Yuis had no recourse to blades and scissors. So, they would bunch and hold their hair and burn patches over a slow flame.

Closer to us, there are certain natural and humane practices associated with the disposal of the dead. After death, the body, in its own course, excretes. So, the idea is to give the body a thorough bath, change accoutrements and get it ready for the pyre. And someone will keep on a tactile connection to the body. You are not abandoned, we feel and touch you—this assurance the dead receives. Will these be considered counter to progressive norms? Is there anything ritualistic or transcendental about this ongoing and newly forged relationship? If the artistry and rites of information dissemination is so carefully maintained, why be so fleeting with the dead? Life is being so color fully garnished every passing moment; can we not dye the dead with the color of joy for a day?

Let me get back to that samshan-ghaat where we left my free-minded neighbor. This is a study in precision. The hearse brought the dead unostentatiously, accompanied by the young son of the dead and other well-wishers. In a few minutes the necessary permits were obtained from the undertaker. The hearse left with its due once the body on the stretcher got unloaded. The funerary retainers, those accompanying, meeting after a period may be, softly exchanged pleasantries. The dead body—the forlorn Mr. Mukherjee, slept there lonesome with his neat rimless glasses and kurta-pyajma. After an hour or so, the furnace got vacant and was available, as it belched out curious smelling smoke all around. Unwashed, thirsty and hungry Mr. Mukherjee had no chance to bid adieu or exchange a few parting words with his escorts. The furnace door got bolted, the button pressed and the flames leaped out in earnest. Wonderful, now he will burn on his own. Nothing more to be accomplished. The whole retinue—son, grandkids and hordes of kin and friends took off in a few minutes for their respective homes. Mr. Mukherjee kept on burning alone. And once he leaves the crematorium, who knows, clueless,  where will he wander off all on his own!

Manindra Gupta is a poet and narrativist, working from Kolkata.  His collection of critical essays on poetry–The Otherside of Moon and his autobiography–The Ageless Mulberry, are pathbreaking quests on the nature of the human predicament within the cosmos.

3 Responses to “The Dead Body”

  • Shrimoy Roy Chaudhury

    Thanks for a very refreshing piece. But I wish Manindra Gupta had commented on the novel “Antarjali Jatra” in this context.

  • Prayag Ray

    Thank you for this essay. I thought this it was wonderfully well written and insightful.

    I loved the point about the psychological and spiritual importance of disposing of the dead body. It is perhaps true that the bereavement of the living is tied up to and exacerbated by the presence of the dead body. A return to normalcy is contingent of the disposal of the body. I think this is also because the dead body is the abject, the absolute Other of the living body, and is thus intolerable to the living.

    I wonder how one would understand the burial rites of the ancient Egyptians, from this perspective. Given the above statements, does their obsession with preserving, rather than disposing of the dead body, not seem counter-intuitive?

  • Maninder Gupta’s reflections on the dead body are centred round his observation of Mr Mukherjee’s dead body being disposed off in an electric crematorium. He doesn’t quite approve of the aseptic and no-nonsense way the relatives behave on the funeral. He prefers the age old practice of bathing the dead body keeping a tactile connection to the dead body connoting ‘you are not abandoned, we feel and touch you – this assurance the dead receives.’ The author obviously is all for a mushy sentimental approach to the dead. In the process he cites from various cultural practices of the posthumous rituals. I wish he had also taken note of the contemporary practice of donating one’s body to a medical institute for research – a very altruistic and rational approach to death both by the dead himself as well as his next of kin.
    I found myself at complete variance with the author when he writes ‘modern death is a messy and troublesome affair’ and ‘nursing homes are leeches’. The state of the art hospitals and nursing homes take professional care of the dying with competent drugs and instruments relieving the pain of the patient and help him in easing and prolonging his life which his amateur and naive relatives could never do. I would anyday prefer being looked after by a professional competent doctor/nurse to a well-meaning affectionate but clumsy kin in my age-afflicted malady.
    I think the choice is between sentimental and rational approach.

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