Lately, I find myself thinking about mortality — not mine in particular, but as a general concept. Maybe it’s do with my advancing age. But I guess the pandemic has brought into stark relief the one absolute certainty of life: death. No one will escape it, and yet every time a near and dear one passes away, it feels like the world has come to an end, and we experience emotions of shock, disbelief, sadness and anger. So when is the right time to die? Will there ever be a time where we will accept death as being fair, just and timely?
Legendary Indian Bollywood actor Dilip Kumar died recently at the age of 98. The industry, the country and the diaspora were in mourning. And even after weeks after his death, editorials, tabloids and other social media are dedicating column after column to celebrate his life and mourn his passing. His last on-screen appearance was in the commercially unsuccessful Qila in 1998 — that was 23 years ago. I know I’ll probably be lynched by Dilip Kumar fans for saying this, but can we let it go already?
My father passed away some years ago at the age of 79. I was inconsolable. People offered condolences, usually followed by a sympathetic nod of the head saying ‘He lived a full life”, suggesting that maybe his passing was somehow justified. It would make me furious. How dare anyone decide what a full life was and how long it should be lived!
A few years later, my friend lost her father, and she was devastated. He was 84. And I remember saying the exact thing to her — ’at least he lived a good life and went peacefully’. In my head, her father had 84 years on this earth. Mine only had 79. So I felt justified in stating that it was his time to go. Luckily I realised my mistake and apologised to her immediately.
And so, I have been thinking about mortality. The average human lifespan is 79 years. That’s roughly 30,000 days. We may live longer than the average, but death is imminent. The Latin phrase ‘memento mori’ literally means ‘Remember that you must die.’ The term has its origins in ancient Rome, where it is believed that slaves accompanying generals on victory parades whispered the words as a reminder of their commanders’ mortality to prevent them from excessive pride.
So why don’t we talk about more it and design and ‘own’ our experience? When we leave this world, our last thoughts should not be ‘We did not get the life we wanted.’
In the grand scheme of things, our life on this earth is brief. If we think of what is important to us, our most deeply held values, we realise that the duration of our lifespan is not important. It is what we leave behind that is of consequence.
Sometimes I buy juice and water for the car cleaning guys outside supermarkets. Once in a while, I pay the 5 or 10 dirhams bills at grocery stores for labourers in the line ahead of me. It’s a small gesture, and a smaller amount still — but their surprise and joy at this small act make my day.
I am not a saint. I do this for selfish reasons. I hope that my good deeds cancel out my bad ones in the final tally, and I leave the world with a net positive of good deeds and blessings. I told you I’m getting old — forgetfulness, vision and loss of hearing are probably on their way. But I now think more of others than I think about myself. So it seems the positive emotional changes that one is supposed to experience in old age are thankfully already here.
Hima Pathak is a banker and writer based in Dubai