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Pages of Life
The nature of death
Death not only leaves the dead permanently so, it also temporarily numbs the living into muteness, senselesness, and a whole lot of anomalous behaviour, until the ultimate acceptance of the effect of its strike as an inevitability, which usually takes a while in coming. Shyamli's grandpa believed that death revelled in the torment and terror of those alive every time it struck and was determined to deny it this pleasure.
The short story that follows is about how he managed this and taught his granddaughter the technique as well.
Pages of Life
It was a bleak winter morning. Bleaker than other days, as the distressing happening-to-be was expected, and barring a miracle, was a certainty. Shyamli's 90-year-old grandpa was on his death-bed and the doctor attending on him had estimated that he had no more than a day left of his earthly sojourn.
The previous year, the same physician had announced that going by normal medical conditions, his patient's body would hold out for a year more. That his assessment had been correct, made the family members to be convinced that his latest reckoning too couldn't be wrong.
Defining incidents that are remembered as life’s milestones, generally happen unexpectedly. Some however, standout as a beacon and can be seen through the otherwise unfathomable haze of the future. This was one of them.
The old man had been the cheerful kind; non-interfering, yet always there for the family members in times of need. Over the past few years, his failing health had left very little strength in his frame for any involved physical activity, but his alert mind had nine decades of living experience to delve into and come up with suggestions to problems, for those who sought his opinion.
In a society where the average life expectancy was about 65 years, he had seen more life than most and consequently had been witness to a larger part of the incredibly varied means by which life confronted and rewarded its denizens.
* * *
Shyamli and her grandpa had had a special relationship. She was his pet and he was his protector, guide, and constant companion. When an infant, she would ride in his arms during long walks along the shores of the lake that was situated not very far from their residence. As a school-going kid, she would walk the distance to the school premises and back, holding his little finger.
Even when she was old enough to commute to school on her own, grandpa would still go along with her in the morning and be standing patiently at the school gates to give her company during the trudge back home under the uncomfortable glare of the afternoon Sun, holding an umbrella up for both of them to take cover under. Little gestures that meant a lot to both of them and cemented their bond, ever so closely.
When the girl was old enough to understand, inquire into, and explore more complex subjects of life, the two would read together books on a range of subjects. The long Sunday expeditions on foot to the two libraries, one of which stocked books by international authors and the other, publications by their Indian counterparts, were as exciting as the evening and late-night book reading sessions that followed during the remainder of the week.
Animated discussions about what they had gleaned from the books during the past week, would enliven the journey, making the hour-long, six-kilometer walk each way, seem like a leisurely stroll in the neighborhood.
The old man spent much of his daytime writing. It was an activity that came to him naturally. Humans have adapted, advanced, and honed their proficiency as the highest form of social animals to such an extent they cannot be without expressing their thoughts to the world around as spoken or written words, or as deeds. Being one of those who talked less and age restricting his body functions, Shyamli's grandpa found himself channelizing his interaction with the world through his literary output. He loved writing stories for children, telling them about the wonders of existence in a language they understood.
Needless to say, his darling granddaughter was an integral part of this exercise as well. He would discuss the plots of his stories and their characters with her and even accept her suggestions at alterations, for try as hard as he might, he could only view the world as an adult, while Syamli could yet see it as a child.
* * *
Variance of thought
It was with the advent of such exchanges that signs of perceptional discord began to surface between the two. The die-hard altruist that Shyamli was, she found her grandpa's tendency to exterminate genial characters in a story, abhorring.
While the old man had long moved on to a realm of thought where righteousness and sinfulness were relative notions - subject to circumstances, the girl was still in a domain where the lines between the two were very clearly and sharply drawn.
"Why do you have to do away with good beings? It is the bad ones that need to go," Shyamli would vehemently protest.
Her grandpa would attempt to convince her about his bent of thought by arguing that dying for a cause only enhances the worth of the good beings, while the bad ones draw upon themselves so much more scorn by continuing to live.
The girl would be far from being convinced with this reasoning, though as she grew older, she began to reluctantly admit that sacrificing an affable character did lend an element of tragedy and sorrow, which was so essential for a good story. The wretchedness of reading about a favorite character die could not however still be overcome.
The old man assuaged her by reminding that both good and bad characters died at some page of the book. It was an inevitability of every story as it is with life – for all stories only mimicked life. To be able to be with those that one adored, one only needed to flip back a few pages and they would be there – alive and well!
* * *
The aniticipated moment soon arrived on the cold morning. The old man's breathing gradually became labored and weak. His eyes stared ahead seeing nothing. All family members gathered around to silently bid him adieu and death dealt its final blow.
Having accomplished its designated task, it lingered on to see the living suffer distress at their loss, as was his wont. It knew about the special bond between his quarry and the girl who kneeled at the bedside holding the now-dead man's hand, and expected an uncontrolled outpouring of grief. To its utter surprise, it saw the girl stoically get up and walk away to her room. Death followed her.
Shyamli went to her desk, brought out her album of photographs and flipped through the pages. Her grandpa smiled back at her from every one of them. And he was alive even on the last page, as he was in every situation that she could recollect of her seventeen year long association with him.
Death had been bested.
* * *