A bizarre mixup, and my closest encounter with human death at that point in my life.
I didn’t know how to react at the time. It seemed like one of those things a person should be shocked at, disturbed by. Maybe I should have cried. I didn’t know.
Fifteen years later and I still don’t know what to think about our mortality. A visit to the Ganges-side burning (cremation) ghats fills ones senses with intense heat, smoke, chanting and the sights of wrapped human bodies melting on open flames. In a seemingly perverse way, while standing near the flames at the funeral pyre, I strain to see the flesh on a skeleton melt away. Still, though, I don’t know how to react.
Today was Gandhi Day in India, and World Literacy Canada celebrated the Sunday morning with a Gandhi ‘party’ for the kids who frequent the community centre and participate in our tutouring program. A morning of singing and speeches and children dressed up in Gandhi glasses, followed by an afternoon off. A quarter weekend!
A little arm twisting and persuading at lunch, and I had a companion for the afternoon. Our destination: Sarnath, a nearby town renowned as the place Buddha gave his first sermon to his five disciples after attaining enlightenment. We took a rickshaw on the way there, and walked up and down the streets trying to find the bus, to no avail. “Sarnath? No bus.” We gave up and retreated back towards Varanasi Cantonement Railway station, dodging the usual melee – dogs, cows, motorcycles, barbers – and stopping to buy some street treats on the way. Sugary crystallized pineapple from one of many little carts lining the side of the busy road.
We were having a good time. India is a fun place to meander. It’s not leisurely, but it’s certainly not dull. As we walked towards the rickshaw stand to arrange for our private transportation, there it was again. Death. Laying in the gutter at the central railway station, one shoe half on, eyes half open, glassy. Still. Dirty.
I still don’t know how to react.
It’s more than just death, more than the sight of a man’s body lying lifeless. It’s the thousands of people that must have also walked by, the nonchalance. There were no police, no ambulances, no pylons cornering off the area, no fanfare, no notice. It must be, to many people, a fairly obvious and not uncommon situation. A very poor, very skinny, probably very ill man, died. He wore the same clothes he probably wore everyday. Eventually, like is done for cows, dogs, etc, his body will probably be loaded on to a cart behind a bicycle and carried to the river.
But my mind can’t stop there. What was this man’s life like? How did he die? Was he sleeping, there on the street? Did he collapse? Did he crawl along, desperate to escape? Did he know he was about to die? Does anyone miss him?
He lays there as Varanasi is in the full swing of a festival, Navarati. Millions of lights dazzle at temples all over the city, an elephant parades the street, many men are drunk and in the mood to party. Children are up late at night, excited by the lights, the replicas of their favourite gods, the camels, the parties and fanfare. The streets are packed. Traffic isn’t moving.
And this man died.
And I don’t know what to think. Should I feel pity? Should I feel regret, that I couldn’t help? Should I feel guilt? Should I think nothing much at all? He is certainly not the only person to die in Varanasi today.
What does it mean to die with dignity? And who I am to judge whether a death is dignified?
Death, it seems to me, is death. Whether it’s laying in a gutter filled that reeks of urine or in a polished cedar casket and surrounded by imported flowers.
I’ll never know the lives of the man in the photos or the man in the gutter. Isn’t it perverse that it takes a death to jolt us into reflection on a life?