An obituary holds our hand, telling us how to mourn. It culls stories and emotions from memory’s bottomless mouldy caverns, standing between the silence of death and the drone of life. The intensely personal becomes public.
This season of obituaries, some written, some unwritten, has led many of us into a territory which, till a couple of months ago, we had no reason to visit. We are thinking of mortality. Mass death is in our midst and, this time, the television screens have shed their gossamer sheen. Death gives pause, it doesn’t flit by. Social media has failed to distance us from the ubiquity of death.
In this season, we feel the loss of an Irrfan Khan differently. While the statistics are unharmed (after all, it is just one more death), our response has mellowed. It seems more sincere, less wordy. Isolated in our homes, we feel it with greater honesty than if we had to get ready at 6:30 am and catch the metro, or drop the kid to school.
Obituaries will elide the loss of migrant labourers or those in care homes. Some might merit a Facebook post from those who knew and loved them. In our imagination, however, we may see them and feel that tremor of empathy:
There is no hurry now. That the texture of each life is different is something we always knew. If one were to try and write of the many ways in which those lost lives mattered, their richness or complexity would be confounding.
For the entitled, people dying in droves have long been “elsewhere” people. They were truly the forsaken because they had ceased to matter. When have we not looked for causes, abused the politics and ideology, treated it as comeuppance or blamed the race or the faith for mass deaths? As if our rationality could comprehend those events and, given a chance, prevent them. This is not to say that critiques are redundant or that gutsy men, women and others who resist the mystification of violence in “ordinary” times are not to be cherished. However, somewhere along the line, we have bartered our ability to grieve for the other, for dead chatter.
When Prince Hamlet in Shakespeare’s tragedy dies, his friend Horatio utters what is perhaps one of the shortest obituaries: “Now cracks a noble heart/ Good night sweet prince/ And flight of angels sing thee to thy rest”. The choric voice in Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus laments the death of the great scholar, dead too soon: “Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight, /And burned is Apollo’s laurel-bough/ That sometime grew within this learned man.” Thus, the waste that each sudden death represents is brought home to us.
Would we have come close to pausing and mourning for the faceless dead, if not for this profound sense of vulnerability?
Can we learn from the art of the obituary? Cutting off the chatter, can we focus on a life instead? Can we regain the time and ability to mourn? Pre-pandemic, Delhi was hit by riots. We divided ourselves into camps, miles away from the besieged. We turned liberals, nationalists, tepid humanists, rationalists. We could not grieve for those in pain, opinions and ideologies got in the way.
The obituary is born out of the need of the one who survives, reminding us of our shared humanity. Today, we share sounds of birds singing, dinners cooking, bread baking, flowers rioting, poets, artists and children laughing, creating, everywhere. The obituary captures the lives of such subjects, more aware of how they lived and what they wanted to leave behind. In recreating what is lost, it fuses the trivial and the magical. This genre combines intimate gratefulness for the gift of a life and mourning for its passing. There will be anger, reparation, excuses, retaliation in the times to come. Will the obituarial impulse that so many of us have experienced in the interim be entirely lost?
This article first appeared in the print edition dated May 7, 2020 under the title “Season of obituaries”. The writer teaches English at Kalindi College, University of Delhi.