What did you witness first: a birth or a death?People in our neighborhood had livestock: a few cows, a chicken coup, a small army of goats. There were always the string of stray dogs and cats. It was only natural that we witnessed animal birth on regular basis. All the children in the neighborhood would anxiously wait the arrival of a new calf. We would spread the news of the fresh batch of yellow furry chicks. It was also not uncommon to find dead animals: a still body of a dead bird covered in crawling red ants on winter mornings; at the far end of the mud road, a rotting body of a dog crowded by humming big fat blue flies. At times a few of us would get together and go to the burning ghat on edge of the canal to see the dead bodies of cows, and on special occasions, buffaloes – some white thing coming out the mouth, the tongue sticking out, the eyes still open wide. Those were normal part of daily life in the rural India of my childhood. I am not counting those. I am thinking of human birth or death.
It is strange that, at my childhood, birth was more mysterious than death. Death was sad and scary, but not as mysterious. Death was not surrounded by whispers; death was announced with loud cries. Death came suddenly and caught everyone by surprise – even when Tilu’s grandfather died after he was in bed rest as long as anyone could remember. “It was such a shock, I never thought he would leave us so soon,” everyone said. Like the origin of the universe, birth was shrouded in mystery. We came to know about a new baby long after it was born. It was always hush hush. Everyone would be smiling, and talking, and there were sweets involved. So we knew it was a good thing. But it was always accompanied by whispers – as you got close to the women, they would lower their voice, and when you asked what they were talking about, they would stop and tell you that it was none of your business. “You are too young, go play outside,” all of them would agree. It made the birth real strange for us.
Death was loss of a something we knew. With time we coped with it. Birth was a sudden change. We had to live with it for rest of our lives.
I think I never witnessed a birth in my childhood, unless you count the time my sister was born in the city hospital, and I was in the hospital. It was a big place. I was a bit scared. Too many people in white dresses were running around. I think I spend all of my time trying to avoid a lady in white dress who kept on telling me not to be scared.
Death was more accessible. We would hear the news: someone is sick and the family called the doctor for an emergency visit. We knew it was serious. No one called doctors home unless it was life threatening. The prognosis was almost always the same. The doctor would pull the man of the house aside, and would whisper to him with a shake of head. “I have done all I can do. It is up to Him now.” We would stand on the other side of the bed or in the open veranda, and never could hear clearly. But when the women started wailing, we knew for sure.
We did not know what it was, but we were there to witness it. The bowl of water from Gangues, the sound of gown women wailing, the strong smell of something strange, the flow of silent men all were signs that death was close by. One by one the close relatives would be called to give a drink of holy water to the dying. My friends and their younger siblings were called at the end. Someone would hold their reluctant hands and help them perform the rituals. I always noticed my friends with great care so that I would be prepared when it came to my family.
We waited until the body was taken off the bed and moved to the floor. We would run to our home and ask our mother if we can go to the burning ghat. It was one of those rare moments our mothers would let us. We would silently follow the flower covered body, the smell of incense, the scattered popped rice, the chanting of lord Rama’s name. Our bare feet would be covered in mud by the time we reached the burning ghat. We would stand close to each other and wait for the fire to begin.
There is purity in fire.
For the next couple of days we would not fight. We would not play our regular games. We would talk about how sad our friend must be. We would ponder what happens after death. “If you are nice, you go to heaven,” someone would say. “There is no such thing,” another was sure to respond. “You know nothing,” rest of us would protest. Then there would be silence again.
Death was part of our life. We used to witness it. Even as a child we knew death personally. We knew how it smelled. We know how it felt.
These days, death is more clinical. Death is more sterile. It happens at the hospital, surrounded by the professionals. Children are tucked safely away from it.
Not sure if that is a good thing. May be in the effort to shield them from death, we are talking a bit of life out.