In the country of death*

By Rajesh Kumar Sharma

My wife announced the death of two drowned squirrels when I returned home from work. She wanted me to fish out the dead bodies immediately. And she said I must also soon get the plumber to replace the broken tank-lid.

Looking into the tank, I found four floating bodies. Three I could easily fish out, but the fourth slid over like a bladder every time I tried to adjust it on the stick. It was relatively heavier and bigger. I later guessed it could have been pregnant: several weeks ago I had seen a squirrel gathering woolen bits and hauling them away with great care.

A few minutes later, having cast the plastic bag with the four squirrels on a garbage heap, I returned home. But the strange event burned on in my mind. Why did they die together? Were they trying to rescue one another after one had accidentally dropped into the tank? Or, did the death of one squirrel drive the rest to suicide?

These questions will never be answered. Four liveswith perhaps many more waiting to blossom shortlyhad ended, and how inanely! The final struggle must have been awful: their mouths had been tender pink on the underside.

My sadness was short-lived, although the pain persists. (Mother said she had been wondering where all the squirrels in the house had suddenly hidden themselves.) In comparison, the death of my two dogs a year ago had left me distraught for a long time. I miss the squirrels no doubt, but their death has not somehow really wounded me.

It seems the deaths scattered in the landscape of memory work differently upon the consciousness than those concentrated in it at a site. The concentration attracts you and makes you dwell on it. You cannot simply plunge into and then quickly escape the awareness of death the way you may if you happen to occasionally visit a graveyard or attend a cremation. Concentrated death is slowly overwhelming. You begin to abide in it, a migrant to the country of death. The sights and sounds of the familiar country no longer assail the senses. The vision begins to adjust to the virat, the divine-cosmic.

I have a faint memory of some illustrations in my school textbooks. One of these was of the town of  Mohen-jo-daro, the hill of deaththe town that flourished and then suddenly, mysteriously died in the ancient civilization of the Indus. It got its name from the pile of human bones that greeted the archaeologist's spade with a funny, cynical defianceHamlet's encounter enacting itself across ages and civilizations.

The earthquake that razed whole towns in Gujarat in January would have merely authored a few more Mohen-jo-daros but for the communications that prevent the isolationand quiet burialof a mass entombment of living people. The instruments of the spectacle poked death into every eye. Maybe, death got trivialized in the process, but not without treating life to a mixture of trivialization and glorification. My friend, returning after a week spent in the first Mohen-jo-daro of the millennium, looked profoundly reconciled to death. He had seen through it all. He said he did not see why one should favour life over death when the two could not be really distinguished. Death is not a stranger, he said. It is just that we refuse to acknowledge its omnipresence.

Three days after he had returned from Gujarat, burglars broke into our office and set it on fire. Two hours after the fire--the plastic of cooling monitors smelling like overcooked adulterated spice, the smoke rising, and the policemen sniffing around like dogs--he gazed at the ceiling and remarked, "Could any painter do the ceiling as perfectly black as that smoke?" And we both laughed. People, who had come to offer their condolences, felt obviously cheated. They looked so offended that we had to immediately assume the standard solemnity, and postpone our pleasure to a more solitary hour. Death can distortor correctperspectives rather scandalously.

The awareness of death in wholesale reinforces, too, the memory of the deaths that you have lived with. You count the dead whom you once knew and who mattered to you personally, and you discover with surprise that you have suffered so many bereavements, so many deaths. The lapse of time between those deaths ceases to effectively exist for you. The temporal contraction deepens the concentration and tears the lid off vintage death.

Rajesh Kumar Sharma

Department of English

Punjabi University, Patiala 147002



*Published in Copyright 2001 Rajesh K. Sharma. All Rights Reserved.