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Ask Mint | A rendezvous with the word death

Ask Mint | A rendezvous with the word death
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First Published: Sun, Dec 07 2008. 11 56 PM IST

Updated: Sun, Dec 07 2008. 11 56 PM IST
You have two options,” said my chartered accountant. “You can write your last will and testament bequeathing your wealth to someone. The beneficiary will get it after your death.”
The other option? “That is to make a gift in contemplation of death.” You hand over the property straightaway. That will save a lot of paperwork and bureaucratese.
That sounded rather simplistic to me. Still, there were questions I wanted to ask. Can someone who is 80 years old and in excellent health make a gift in contemplation of death, when really death remains a distant prospect and is not in his thoughts? Or again, can someone in his twenties, suffering from a grievous disease, make such a gift? Is contemplation of death a legal issue or a philosophical issue?
Our rendezvous with death is scheduled the moment we are born. Maugham’s story Appointment in Samarra reminds us of the presence of death close by. A servant complained to his master that he saw death in the bazaar and she was threatening him. He then rode away to Samarra to escape death. The merchant went to the bazaar and asked death why she had threatened his servant. Death replied: “I was not threatening him. I was only surprised to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”
The English language has a large number of euphemisms referring to death. “Passed away” is perhaps the most common. Then we have “breathe one’s last”, “go to a better place”, “be no more”, “rest with the angels”, “sleep in Jesus”, and its Indian version “attain the lotus feet of the lord”. The practice of using such euphemisms is likely to have originated with the superstitious belief that to utter the word “death” was to invite death.
On the one side, we prefer not to mention death directly and look for softer words. On the other, we make extensive use of dead as an intensifying adjective. You can be dead certain, dead right, dead tired. Walking along the green and pleasant streets of a small town in the US, I came across a board that had the words DEAD END. My feet drew back the moment I saw the words. I would have preferred to see “blind alley” or “cul de sac” there. When someone asks me, “Are you ready to meet the deadline,” I envisage eerie images of the noose being around my neck.
We say dead of night but not dead of day; dead of winter but not dead of spring. When I am driving my car and someone gives me directions by saying, “You will not miss it; it is dead ahead,” I cross myself and consider aborting my journey.
Last year we read the story of an astrologer who knew the day he was destined to die; he then pre-empted death by taking his own life the day before. There is a similar story about Chalchas, the astrologer to the Greeks during the Trojan war. Brewer’s Dictionary says that he “died of laughter at the thought of having outlived the predicted hour of his death”. Some people can be defiant in the face of death. In his best-selling book, Death Be Not Proud, John Gunther describes the valiant struggle of his son Johnny to overcome a brain tumour and his death at the age of 17. Poet John Keats said he was “half in love with death” and wanted to “cease upon the midnight without pain”, listening to the plaintive music of the nightingale. In his moment of bliss, on being reunited with Desdemona, Othello says, “If it were now to die/ ’Twere now to be most happy.”
Today’s print and visual media see death as a stark fact, and sometimes just a statistic. If you happen to be a celebrity, rest assured that your obituary has been pre-written in the editorial offices, ready for release the moment you depart this world; and if you happen to be Jayaprakash Narayan, you could even get a chance to read your own obituary as released by the press. It is said that JP offered to write a foreword to the publication.
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He look at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.
Comments can be sent to plainspeaking@livemint.com
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First Published: Sun, Dec 07 2008. 11 56 PM IST