My mother’s mother, my grandmother, stopped living on Wednesday. She was in pain and I’m told that from her nursing home bed, she insisted that she be given no more medicines. As the phrase goes — and, I believe, it is meant earnestly by those who use it — during the last week, she had been left in the hands of god. Now, I don’t believe in god. But clearly, the ‘believing’ consensus would be that he had decided to make her die on Wednesday, or that he wasn’t very good at keeping an 80-plus woman alive no matter how much his admirers may have pleaded. Either way, I don’t think any overlying super-entity had any role in keeping my grandma alive or making her dead. She died when her body packed up. These things happen all the time to all people everywhere.
Despite my non-believing in god or ghosts or Sherlock Holmes (the idea of all these three being aesthetically appealing to me), I did feel angry on hearing of my grandma’s death. Angry at whom? At the situation. The last time we met a year ago, I hadn’t registered the meeting as even possibly being our last one. Also, however theoretically prepared one is about the death of an ageing loved one, the real thing still shocks.
I was still in the daze of broken sleep in a Jaipur hotel when I heard the news from Calcutta on Wednesday morning. My grandma was an extremely tactile person, the archetypal hugging-pressing-holding ‘large woman’ with fat cheeks who takes one back to the unhindered, almost pointless physicality of being children. So I remembered the (hundreds of? thousands of?) times when she smoothened my hair, pressed my head, squeezed my hands, shook with laughter, squeezed her face up in tears. I remembered also that she had been incredibly soft, like a living, shifting bean bag in a sari. When I used to collapse on her body, I felt no bones. She was a super cook, making the world’s meanest prawn malai curry; she had once played the tabla; she was nice, far too nice perhaps, to everybody she knew; and she loved cold drinks, but not half as much as she loved her beloved paan’n’zarda.
I miss her and mourn her passing without the need to believe that something more than my great-grandparents were responsible for her coming into this world, and that those around her were helpful in making her whom she was. There’s no god to be brought in either to thank or to blame. She will be valuable to me without her getting any metaphysical prizes post-mortem.
I don’t need anything godly to rejoice in the good things of life or to come to terms with the rotten bits (although I do mutter the Lord’s Prayer, learnt in Jesuit school, every time I have to go to the loo and there’s no loo nearby so as to keep my mind away from potential disaster). Don’t get me wrong, I’m very all right with others value-adding their joys and dealing with the rotten bits of their lives by believing in god. (My grandma believed.) It’s just that I can’t find sense believing or feeling the need to believe. Not to believe is not a socially or aesthetically reprehensible thing, you know.
The English metaphysician John Donne in his great defence of suicide, Biathanatos, wrote how “the scandalous disease of headlong dying” — the death wish — was not necessarily a sin. Unlike Christianity, Hinduism, if I’m not incorrect, doesn’t consider a person ending his own life to be a sinner worthy of hell fire. (Well, Hinduism doesn’t have hell fire, but you get the point.) Which doesn’t mean that a non-Catholic can’t appreciate why a suicidal needs to be talked out of killing himself.
With my grandmother, the last of my grandparents, dead, my parents finally find themselves in front of the ‘battle line’. Till Wednesday, my parents were still the cavalry, ‘protected’ behind the infantry of their last parent. They’re now the new infantry, with me pushed forward from artillery to cavalry, generational cannon fodder moving closer to the undefeatable enemy. I better enjoy this godless world as much and as long as I can — and I mean godless as a total compliment to this world that my grandma was in till Wednesday.