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Category: Reflections Date: 18 Sep 97

“This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.” - Otis Reading


“There’s a lot of death about,” observed a visitor, flinging down a daily newspaper. Don’t I know it? Every day I pass the cinerary to get to the grocery, a graveyard to get to the mall and the forensic centre to get to work. You can’t escape it. You live minutes away from a fatal shooting or accident, or you knew the journalist who died, or the granddaughter of the politician who died. Then there are the car crashes which claim whole families, pregnant women left to die in supermarkets, air crashes, friends of friends who die young and old, succumbing to this fatal illness, or that.


And that’s not the end of it. Earlier this month, India and Britain publicly buried two remarkable women - each of whom in her own way appeared to have wielded tremendous influence worldwide. Just last week there were the mass deaths in Haiti, the deaths of children by Hamas suicide bombers in Israel, and an air crash or two, and yesterday the train in Bhopal went off its tracks killing another 70 people.


It’s like standing in a minefield. Nobody knows who’s going next. And each time it strikes, it’s a shock. Youth, health, strength, beauty, fortune, fame, philanthropy, are brushed aside by death like so many flimsy pieces of muslin. And even if you are a safe, obscure, quiet person, crossing the road can kill you. There are no guarantees. Some people deal with death by treating it as just another social gathering. “Oh it was lovely,” they say, “the flowers were beautiful, there were so many people there.” Fashionable hats nod up and down, and people say importantly, as if they’ve been invited out to a party - “I have to go to a funeral.”


I have always recoiled from that response, but it is probably healthier to look upon a funeral as very much a part of life, rather than an aberration of it. Births, deaths, marriages. Part of the same package. But I can’t get over the fact that an animated young face can wither so much with time and then disappear.


I mark Diana’s death as a historical moment, and I am also part of that history. The difference is the world will continue to remember her when I am gone. You know you have understood the fragility of life when you can contemplate a world without you.


Wanting All


And soon I will be old and one day I will be dead. I hate the thought of it. And yet we hardly ever live for the moment. And there is nothing wrong with wanting it all. Movement and laughter, travel, love, children, comfort, music, warm sunsets and bright snowy ones. It’s a celebration of life. So there is the slow, hard progression towards the material which is assumed to be the key to life’s happiness. So what if along the way we become ruthless in our workplace, stingy with our money and time, and blind to the misery around us, and finally see money simply as an end rather than the means. So what if we lose the wonder of life, the innocence and the laughter which we had once as children? The material world consumed us and we forgot our ability to take and give joy.


In a flash you and I are old and too tired to do all the things we were saving up to do. And the worst is we didn’t have a purpose in life. And here it lies, wasted and forgotten, and to no end. But the good part of living on the periphery of death on this tiny island is that it makes me marvel at being alive at all - or being left unscathed (by bandits or ill health).


The Nina Simone ballad comes to mind - so simple, that at first you wonder what she’s singing about - “Got my hands, got my legs, got my fingers got my eyes, got my liver.” I am not at all religious, but if I simply gulp, while I drive past the cinerary I say thank you God for keeping all the intricate machinery in my body intact so I can gulp, thank you for my eyesight (while I swerve dangerously into a gutter as the maxi taxi overtakes me), thank you for the gift of movement, even for the cellulite - at least it’s alive (the last as I pant around the Savannah).


Living knowing you can die anytime is stressful but has its compensations. I know it’s neurotic but death forces you over and over again to reevaluate your life. To eke out what is important and shed the superficial.


In this age of cynicism, it gets harder. We are cynical about every one and everything. We can hardly wait for someone to leave a room so we can make a face or criticise them. We are cynical about politicians and journalists, lawyers and businessmen, about rap artists, and rock stars, about writers and intellectuals. We are cynical about the way people got rich and why they remain poor. But I don’t believe cynicism is that hard, sophisticated thing it is made out to be. Cynicism is probably simply the manifestation of thwarted hopes and continual disappointments. The hard thing is, most of the time many of our perceptions are correct. No matter how much you resolve to be kinder to your fellow human beings, an encounter with meanness, cruelty, jealousy, or plain stupidity leaves you bitter - which gradually congeals into cynicism, and confirms the futility of it all.


Which brings me back to the deaths of Mother Teresa and Princess Diana. The response to the deaths of these two remarkable women is like bundling up the world and forcing all of humanity to stare in a mirror. Here we are, every race and nationality, watching ourselves grieve over a Princess we never knew or met, and marvel over another woman who spent her life in slums. A quick poll among us shows women took Princess Diana’s death a lot more personally. We see in this mirror what we women have known all along - the power not of grand institutions, elected officials, important treaties, armies, or corporations. Nothing false or artificial is reflected here. We see a princess who used her beauty and her mammoth fame to embrace the weak, the dispossessed, the battered, the lepers, the bald child dying from AIDS.


Magic Mirror


We see in this magic mirror which reflects us all that it took a woman’s death to shake a monarchy, create rivers of flowers, thaw out a nation which for centuries has been known for its pomposity and reserve - so that people embraced and wept in the streets. The image switches to India.


We see lying in state the body of a woman who had no possessions or titles. Presidents and queens are in attendance. We see mourners, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists among them, lining up for a last view of this unassuming Catholic woman who lived and died among the sick and the poor, in gutters and alleys. It was no mistake that these women died within a week of one another. For centuries men have written history books marking time with ugly wars, ordered at one go the deaths of six million people in gas ovens, massacred between themselves thousands of innocent people in Bosnia, created famine for millions by warring in Eretria and Ethiopia, opened fire and bloodied squares in India and China. All these inhumane acts are carefully documented by historians. The rise and fall of empires. The conqueror and the vanquished. This is the history we are taught in school.


For centuries women have been bringing up children, caring for the elderly, ill and poor, binding families, communities, and villages together, passing on the age-old spiritual value of service. Their sacrifices, their drudgery, their love, have not been recorded, and they have died with their unstinting service unrecognised.


Before the year 2000 both Diana, Princess of Wales, and Mother Teresa will be stamped in the history books of the world. The first for her glimmering beauty, her fame, wealth and position, which she used to help her constituency of the dispossessed. And the second for her single-minded, unselfish service to the wretched of the earth.  The analogy most used in describing these two woman so opposite in their circumstances but so united in their purpose of life has been that of light.


Real Purpose


Look in the mirror. The deaths of Princess Diana and Mother Teresa have jolted something that lies in all of us. A reminder that the real purpose of life is for all of us who are fortunate to reach out and help those who are not. And, in what is a tremendous reflection of humanity, our response to these deaths showed us that despite all our shortcomings, ultimately that’s what we believe in too. For the first time, in my lifetime anyway, I have seen humanity so united, women and men.


I feel privileged to have witnessed what is nothing short of an epiphany. We have all had a shot of the same potent injection. In a cynical world it may sound tacky. But it is a shot of love, and almost a divine reminder that civilisation does not come from wars, pomp, ceremony or corporations, but that a truly civilised world will be one which takes care of its most vulnerable citizens. Sometimes even death has a way of covering the world with light.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur