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Home >Opinion >Columns >Intimations of mortality in this extraordinary year of setbacks

Death with meaning, I encountered first in the summer of 1979. Even if I, an 11-year-old, could not get it, I hoped it was there. Else, the shock of that last page would have been devastating. Leamas chooses to go back down to the east side of the wall, to his death. I had not seen it coming. Certainly not his choice, nor Smiley’s amoral duplicity in directing all to that inevitable denouement.

John le Carre, the bard of our frailties, false gods, and occasional redemptions, wrote of Leamas and Smiley in that masterpiece, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. Why was an 11-year-old reading that book? Because it was there. Which is what I did in summer vacations spent in my Nana’s house.

Battered as I was after that end, I could not explain to anyone what was happening to me. Because while the book was there in the house, no one else had read it. When I read Kabuliwala, and sobbed inconsolably, actually shaking from head to toe, I remember still, at least my mother got it. She too had read the story. After Leamas’s death, it was a sticky numbness.

Le Carre died last Sunday. Perhaps a closure to a year of encounters with death. The author’s demise I lament, but Leamas is personal, as has been this year.

Running clears my head. Last week while running, it took me a while to remember a friend, the news of whose spouse passing away reached me after I left her town. One of those rare visits when I did not meet her. But that’s a minor regret in the accumulation of this fatal year.

Keeping track of bad news from the previous week, it took me another while to recollect a friend who battles on knowing that the end is near. To be that confused when I am usually at my clearest is plainly from a visceral urge to forget.

The list is so long that I had to write it down. Only two are deaths attributed to covid-19. Nothing explains why there have been so many in a single year, about the same as the previous 5-7 years put together. Two were people I cared for deeply. Others were centres or anchors of life for people salient in mine, each now left with a hole of their own sort, altering my world because they all mean so much to me.

A few months after I turned 16, I was certain I was going to die in the next few minutes. Thousands around me shared that certainty. All false. But while it lasted, during those 30 odd minutes, our fate was inevitable.

By 5 December 1984, it was common knowledge in the city of Bhopal that there were two more tanks full of methyl isocyanate in the Union Carbide factory. Leakage from the first one had strewn the city with corpses two days earlier. Early afternoon that day, everyone heard, though few remember how, of the two tanks bursting. Frenzied by that very fear for those two days, fuelled by the terror of what the city had seen in one night, the belief was that the two tanks had enough to extinguish all life in a radius of 20 kilometres.

Amused, those who know me will be. My instinctive reaction facing certain death was to organize. I can’t recollect any fear, and I was too young to have regrets. My father was not in the city. I asked my mother to pack blankets to be wrapped around our heads, grabbed my brother, and drove our Fiat, without knowing how, to get our friend Shalabh, who was alone at his house. Returning home, we fled in the car, along with my mother and a much older terrified cousin. All of which were exactly the wrong things to do if the gas was indeed diffusing. But that we learnt much later. As I drove on Link Road No. 1, ineptly weaving through the hundreds fleeing on foot, a police van raced past, announcing that it was a rumour. We returned home. The grim reaper has whizzed past a couple of times more since then: On the edge of a 2,000-ft cliff and in an aircraft 37,000 feet above sea level that had a fire inside.

From 1984 to now, I have learnt that it is not hard to live being mortal, but excruciating to live with the mortality of others. This year, my universe of deep and intense bonds, which is the only way I know to live, has been shredded in unbearably many places. In front of a sizeable audience, someone recently asked me, with sincerity, “How would you like to be remembered?" At my age, and given the triviality of my life, the question expected much more than I could respond with. So, I dodged it truthfully with Sahir’s resonant lyrics: Main pal do pal ka shayar hoon… Kal koi mujhko yaad kare, kyun koi mujhko yaad kare (I am a poet of a few moments… Why would anyone remember me tomorrow). But it is not as though I don’t know the answer to that question.

Every few years, I have reread that book. The second time around, I got the meaning—of his choice, and so of the book. The numbness lifted. Leamas truly came in from the cold. By choosing empathy and love, over the artifice of the life of a retired spy. Read the book, if you haven’t.

And so, a year such as this, that has frayed and mortared the bonds that make life, can have only one answer. A resolve to give it everything, because mortality gives us little time and no warning. The only way to be remembered is, “Tried to do good and loved truly".

Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd.

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