Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Death: An Important Conversation

Originally published in The Hindu, June 28, 2016

I opened the topic with my mother while I was reading Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. “By the way”, I said, as though I were going to talk about the weather, “when I die, I want this-and-this to be done, and I don’t want that-and-that to be done.” Then I asked, “What about you?” Amma wasn’t offended. She told me easily about what she wanted done when her time came. It was not a long, detailed discussion; it was over in ten minutes. I said, “Okay” and went back to my book.

Later I said to my father, “By the way, I had this discussion with Amma. She said this-and-this. What about you?” He told me his preferences too, promptly enough. About funeral arrangements, about the material things that we leave behind, about end-of-life care, and other things.

Ever since I was introduced to the terms ‘palliative care’, ‘end-of-life care’ and so on, I had been reading about the importance of having conversations with our family about our wishes surrounding death. This was a conversation I had been postponing for long.

What struck me was how quickly the answers came. There wasn’t much reflection or thinking needed — clearly because the thinking had already been done, over and over many times. It just had not been discussed with me. Well, who knew which one of us would be the first to leave? That’s why I told them my wishes too. I am glad I had this conversation, because though I was aware of their ideas in general, there were some finer points that I had not thought of — which they both had obviously considered down to the last detail.

Continue reading in The Hindu

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Power of Faith a.k.a The Human Will

I happened to read two books almost back to back earlier this year. (The titles are not relevant.) At one look, there is nothing common between the two. You probably cannot find two stories that are more dissimilar.

They take place at two different times - the first, a hundred and fifty years ago and the second, less than a decade ago - and at two different places - almost on opposite sides of the globe. The men follow different religions. Their lifestyles are poles apart. Their circumstances are incomparable. But if we look deeper, there is something that connects them. The protagonists of these tales are thrown into the worst possible situation - that of a slave's life (Indeed, what suffering can nature inflict that is worse than what we do to each other?) - and they survive merely because of the strength of their faith. One prays to Jesus, the other to Allah. At the end, their suffering is over - the one finds peace in death, and the other returns to a life of freedom.

Both stories are not 'real' in the true sense of the word; but based on real people and real incidents, as the authors have explained elsewhere.

I was struck by the common theme that seemed to prevail - every time something happened (in every page, things only got worse, never better), the protagonist said to himself, It is God's wish. And that gave him the strength to endure it. Every time he waited for the suffering to end, he said to himself, God will end it when it is time. One read his Bible, the other knelt and prayed.

Every day they wait for a miracle. However, nothing throughout the story - nothing - happens, which could be termed an intervention from God. He does not move a leaf or give a sign to these people to show that He is with them. On those days when their hearts weaken, they look up to the indifferent sky and wonder, How many more days?

They firmly believe that this suffering has a purpose, and that it will end some day. That God had some plan for them. That we are all travellers tossed into the tumultuous ocean, having to fight our way to the surface day after day. That even in the midst of such torture, if they could lend a hand to one other person, their life has attained some meaning. When they look around, they see other victims, and in their tiniest way, they try to be kind.

Finally, when deliverance does come, it comes of their own efforts, through a chain of events that they themselves had set into motion.

If we change those stories, and remove the suggestion of God from it, say, we make the protagonists atheists, then what would happen? Would they be able to survive the hardships? Probably, yes. Merely by the strength of their will. But the chances are high that they would have given up, long ago.

The Human Will is powerful as well as creative; just look around to see its infinite capabilities. But it is also lazy; we have enough evidence of that around us, too. It would rather be idle than create. It needs to be awakened. It needs to be called.

Which is why, I think, we need God. We need the idea that someone higher than us has the power to change our miserable lives. That there is a purpose to this suffering. If we are told that there is no one up there giving a damn about us, that every thing we do and endure in this life has no meaning whatsoever; we have nothing to struggle for. Not all of us are made with a will of steel. The moment our boats begin to rock, we give up and surrender to our fate. There will be no struggle, no effort to save ourselves. Most of us would perish within no time. If we have faith, we can convince ourselves that He is watching. He will help us. He will save us. 

Which brings us to the conclusion that wise men have arrived at, long ago. There is no God but the one that resides in ourselves. God is the thread that we invoke to find the strength that is already within. When we are afraid, we chant God's name, and wake up the courage that was dormant inside us. Did God do something? Yes, and No. Might I even go so far as to suggest that the notion of God developed as an evolutionary requirement to make the species strong enough to survive? I suppose God and Science aren't on opposite sides, after all. One could very well be the by-product of the other, a tool to ensure survival.

Which is also why it is meaningless to go seeking God, or to argue whether He exists, or to fight over Him. 

Saturday, June 11, 2016

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

The seventy-five year old and his daughter waited for their turn. Their contact person within the system had sneaked inside and moved their file to the top. An hour of waiting later, the name was called. Both went in.

The room was small, and two young doctors were seated in one corner by a table. One of them was tapping away on the computer. The patient and daughter stood respectfully before them. There was a chair but it was pushed away to the other corner of the room, to be used perhaps only in very rare cases. The daughter wondered why the doctor did not suggest moving the chair forward and seating the patient on it. If for nothing else, at least because the patient was a much older man. We do generally pride ourselves on our Indian sense of respect for elders. He instead discussed the illness, asked about this or that relevant to the case and the patient answered politely, his body language conveying respect. The doctor sat back, threw his arm over the arm rest, and seemed to have an air of superior knowledge. He might have made himself more comfortable but the tiny room did not permit much luxury. His knowledge was superior, without doubt. The patients who visited him were ordinary people, who knew nothing about human anatomy. If the doctor said the blood test had to be repeated, the blood test had to be repeated. If he said the heart had to be taken out, it had to be taken out.

A few minutes later, the daughter, barely concealing her annoyance, pulled the empty chair from the other side of the room, and said, "Sit down, Dad."

Nothing changed in the doctor's countenance. Whether he regretted not asking earlier or whether he found her action unnecessary was not clear. He continued talking. The discussion was over quickly enough and they were given a form to sign. As they left the room, the next person was called and two men of forty-five or fifty years of age came in.

The daughter, leaving the room, observed in part-astonishment, part-understanding, that the men who went in had left their footwear by the door. She had earlier observed the same outside the laboratory door, and other doors in this hospital. In some rooms, for certain tests, it was necessary and there would be a notice asking patients to leave their footwear outside. But everywhere else, people were doing it just because of their tradition. One did leave footwear before entering a house or a temple. Why should a doctor's room or a lab be any different?

A few minutes later, realising that she had dropped a certain important document at the doctor's room, she went back to find it. She saw that the two men inside were standing and listening attentively to the young doctor. The chair that she had pulled forward was ignored and they were clearly not asked to sit. She said nothing, picked up the document and left the room.

Dear Doctor, those men took off their chappals at your door, not because they were idiots, but because they revere you. Show them some kindness, ask them to sit, speak compassionately. One of them has complaints of the heart, for God's sake.

With great power comes great responsibility. Spiderman may have been the one to popularise this quote, but it is certainly not limited to him. We all hold power over something or someone. Doctors certainly do hold a lot of power over many of us. More than anyone else, doctors are the ones we visit the most.

As a very wise man once said to me, we must remember that every single person we meet is superior to us in at least one thing. He / she is an expert at something that we have never been able to master.

Friday, June 3, 2016


The visitors had informed prior to their arrival. So there were snacks and tea waiting for them.

The old woman sat by the television which was switched off, her back supported by a pillow. The guests observed her without blinking and watched for any change in her behaviour. The old woman watched them without blinking, her eyes running from one to the other.

She asked each about their families, their children, their sick parents, their dead grandparents, their estranged siblings and their divorced spouses without any apology. She had always had the authority to ask questions. Now she was as old as she was, her authority had become her right. They replied, as carefully and blushingly and mildly as they could, sometimes keeping their eyes away from each other, sometimes trying to change the topic. The old woman made sure her questions were answered. Sometimes she pointed to the biscuits and asked them to eat.

They left after an hour, their duty as relatives done; they could visit now when she died and speak about how lucid and coherent and healthy she had been at their last visit, despite being so old and withered.

“She has no memory problems,” they said.

“I think the daughter had just made it up. She was asking us all about our families, and the people she had known long ago. She has no problems.”

“I suspect foul play.”

“The daughter doesn’t want to take care of her, it’s the same story with all old parents. Pathetic.”

“But what does spreading stories do? She has to take care of her anyway.”

“Yes, but it will make others think she’s doing a sacrifice.”

“What was that she said something about the girl being locked up?”

“I didn’t get that either. That was after the television was turned on for the news. I couldn’t hear.”

“Yes, me neither. But I thought she said, the girl is locked up and she cries at night to be let out.”

“Which girl might that be?”

“Her own grand-daughter. Who else?”

“Oh, no.”

“I didn’t see the girl anywhere.”

“The daughter said she had gone out.”

“Could be a lie for all we know.”

“Oh, come on.”

“Well, I don’t think the old woman is lying. Why should she?”

“Anyway it was a difficult and unpleasant visit, I am glad it is over.”

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