Death Announcement

It became a habit, almost an obsession: wanting to know how and why people died, especially when they were not supposed to.

An old latticed window, Srinagar © Ashok Malla

Jill and I were born around the same time, perhaps at exactly the same time, not far from each other: I, in the relative comfort of a carpeted room, in front of a large, gilded mirror, aided by Khatija, the midwife, who could have been 50, 100 or 200 years old. She had brought new entrants to this world on a regular basis—scores of others like me, over (who knows?) centuries. 

Khatija never bothered herself with the other side, the exit, whether in relation to the ones she brought into this world or even to herself. Mortality was beyond her comprehension; so single-minded was she and so efficient in carrying out her important work that she even refused to look at the kabristan that lay within a stone’s throw of her street. Jill, on the other hand, was born in a hidden corner behind the main street, in the space her mother had created for the unknown number of puppies she was delivering, and all of that without any aid. 

Jill managed to move away from the rest of her siblings and her mother not long after her birth. Maybe she got lost and drifted quietly into our house through the main door, large enough to have let an elephant in and almost always open until dusk. Her arrival remained unnoticed while all the attention was on mine. She was at least capable of making a choice so soon after her birth, while I needed a few spanks on my bum to even make me want to join the living. I then needed further help moving up to the sizeable breast my mother had so generously offered me as she had done to almost a dozen others over the years, including a few who had not come from her womb. Such was her generosity. 

“I became rather attached to the taste of what came out of that breast.”

I became rather attached to the taste of what came out of that breast, as well as to its feel; what went into my mouth was not exactly sweet but was nonetheless soothing and, I learnt eventually, nourishing. I liked it so much that it took me several years and many reprimands from forward-thinking, modern people to be convinced that enough was enough. 

Jill, on the other hand, being offered no such luxury or privilege, considered herself lucky enough to drift into the house like a field mouse. She was noticed, not long after, by the grand old lady who had by then gotten tired of looking after her own and then her children’s children. Her own two daughters had left their children for her to take care of a long time ago and had moved on, unwillingly, to the other world, the “flower garden” as they called it. It was a cruelty nature inflicted often upon people back then, especially women, through childbirth, consumption, ear infections and other ailments. There was nothing to stop nature’s carnage.

Jill got fed very quickly when the grand old lady noticed her, without asking any questions. The wagging of her tail, followed by a couple of gentle barks, was enough to indicate her gratitude to the grand old lady, her saviour. She remained there in the large house for her entire life, never actually entering the lady’s sanctimonious home. The grand old lady became quite possessive of Jill. She would not tolerate any negative comments about having her in the house, even if it offended people’s religious sensibilities. She only allowed Jill out of the house to the area at the back, in the shade of the two large Chinars. Jill often looked at her mistress with gratitude and affection, while the grand old lady only showed determination to take care of her, as she had with whatever else had been thrown at her over the years. She had no time for sentiments, as these had never served any purpose for her.

“Everyone was in awe of her and dared not speak back to her.”

The grand lady did everything herself with little help from others. Despite coming from a very noble and well-to-do family, she had never been to school, like others of her generation. Her husband had long gone to the flower garden, probably a victim of one of the many ailments, mostly infections, that slew the young and the old alike. She was nevertheless determined to live life her own way and deal with people on her terms. Everyone was in awe of her and dared not speak back to her. This was true not only of her family and relatives but of the shopkeepers in the neighbourhood, too, where she went to get her groceries. 

Her interactions with the dhobi, who came every two weeks, were the most interesting. In her dealings with him, she displayed her amazing intelligence and grit. While she had no concept of written numbers, she could do complex multiplications, additions and subtractions in her head, using a system that she had designed herself. The sheets to be laundered were counted and marked as a full article by the length of the line she drew with charcoal on the wall: this counted as a basic unit, so to speak; shirts were half and pantaloons were three quarters. 

The poor dhobi was unable to fathom her method of calculation as she multiplied so many three-quarters and added so many halves, etc., all in her head; he simply trusted her and never argued. There would have been no point. Her stubborn determination showed in her slightly wrinkled but attractive face, a face that was a mixture of pink and white, topped with silvery white hair and her steely blue eyes. All her teeth were still intact and perfectly white. She covered her head, as did most women of her generation, with a white starched head-dress that she replaced every two weeks with the help of her sister-in-law and her only surviving, equally pink-skinned, daughter. 

Jill, having been given a large place of her own under the broad stairs, became part of the daily goings-on, while remaining largely unnoticed. Every morning, however, she would make her presence known with a few gentle barks announcing the arrival of any visitor. I initially took no particular notice of Jill except for seeing her as much a part of the large house as its curved stairs. These received a little light from two small, latticed windows, allowing just enough light for the sun to catch the dust dancing in the air, fascinating both me and, I think, Jill. Soon I began to sit every morning on the edge of Jill’s habitat and join her in watching this dance of dust in the thin rays of sunshine. There was something mysterious about it that I began to share with Jill, without knowing what it was.

Houses by the river, Srinagar © Ashok Malla

While Jill was not allowed to cross the border of sanctity of the grand old lady’s home, I, as an occupant in the other part of the grand house, had free access to her living quarters within the huge house we all shared as separate families; however, that access stopped abruptly at the entrance into her kitchen, as it did for other children visiting her and for anyone else whom she considered not pious enough. That included her own grandson and all the Muslim men, like the dhobi, or the woman on whom she depended for the delivery of essentials like raw milk; boiling the milk achieved the removal of any impurity, religious or otherwise.

In my child’s mind I was baffled by how she let us children gather around her after she had finished her meal, to tell us mythical stories that she narrated with patience and delight, but would not drink from a cup we had used without washing it a few times. Only once did I ask her, during one of these regular encounters, why she lived more or less alone. With considerable irritation, she told me everyone else had gone to the flower garden a long time ago and “that is how it is.”

One night, very late, almost in the early hours of the morning, Jill began to bark with an unusual intensity and woke everyone in all quarters of that large dwelling. I remember her barking and what came after it. I heard a loud voice from the street, like an announcement from the government of an impending curfew. A man’s familiar voice said, “She is gone, and the baby girl survived.” It seemed a very strange thing to say, but things became clearer the following day. He was talking about his sister. The announcer had been none other than the grand old lady’s grandson. This was, for the grand old lady, another death to absorb, another number being turned into a cipher.  

“Death is just the shadow that follows life from the beginning, revealing itself, taking complete charge inevitably, sometimes even inappropriately and at inopportune times.”

It was undoubtedly then that I first noticed the beginning of a series of life and death events that continued for years, having shared this first observation with Jill. The births seemed somewhat inconsequential except perhaps for the parents, and were generally expected. There was nothing particularly remarkable about them. Death was different, however. Much later it became clear to me that, at the end of the day, death is just the shadow that follows life from the beginning, revealing itself, taking complete charge inevitably, sometimes even inappropriately and at inopportune times. In fact, I am obliged to say that Jill introduced me to the idea of observing death when it happens and taking notice of it, especially when it is, so to speak, unnatural, whether in its timing or its method. 

It became a habit, almost an obsession: wanting to know how and why people died, especially when they were not supposed to. In my child’s mind I did not see the point of this senseless cycle of birth and death. Why be born in the first place if the person is going to die? There seemed no guarantee of any particular period between the grand entry and then the exit. Naturally I began to worry, especially since I was able to recall the whole process and all the screaming coming from the women when I did not cry, and the eventual jubilation when I did. 

Why on earth would these adults be so happy at this little runt crying his lungs out? All this time these adults apparently knew that the same child, that is, yours truly, would someday die for sure. When exactly, they did not know, and they hoped it would be after they had all gone to the flower garden themselves. The only thing the entry and exit had in common was crying, the crier being the entrant in the case of birth, and the not yet departed in the case of death. This much I noticed as soon as I noticed death, thanks to being pointed in that direction by none other than Jill! 

It intrigued me, what people did when someone died. Much of what I soon learned was mourning for the one that was gone seemed somewhat ugly, even a bit hideous. All the wailing and crying, often ritualized when put on display by women, and the complete silence by men. I learned eventually that mourning was a necessary consequence of death. 

“It is in that mourning that the deceased acquire perfection in all aspects of life.”

It is in that mourning that the deceased acquire perfection in all aspects of life. Characteristics that make them divine get attributed to them, especially by those whose grief and connection to the deceased are not really profound. To the ones who grieve in the truest sense, suffering the loss as they would the loss of a limb or sight, the deceased remain real, with all their virtues and flaws. The little acts that may have been committed by the bereaved or the deceased become profound and uncomfortable memories that haunt the survivor. Many other small acts of a more soothing nature tend to supplant the former, if for no other reason than to allow the bereaved to survive and move on with the rest of life that is yet to be lived. 

At the end of a cold winter, as the melting snow was being replaced by mud and little streams of water were running down the narrow streets, something sudden and unexpected happened. Jill passed away at the age of 12, which I was told was old age for a dog. I was, however, reassured by adults that this age formula did not apply to me. 

The grand old lady accepted Jill’s death with her usual quiet fortitude, as if she expected it, and arranged a very private but ceremonial funeral. She wrapped Jill’s body in a sheet of silk and hired a shikara from Ghulam Hassan, the shikara man who always took her to visit her side of the family, three bridges further down the river. I wanted to go with her, but she was having none of it. I was told later that she took the neatly wrapped corpse to bury Jill in the plot of land that her family of origin had owned for generations at the northern end of the city, close to the last bridge. No one dared ask her for any details when she returned. The next day she resumed the daily routines of her life. 

“My fascination with the theme of death, or I could say my obsession with death, had progressed to reading death announcements in the newspaper.”

By now, my fascination with the theme of death, or I could say my obsession with death, had progressed to reading death announcements in the newspaper—an extension, an elaboration of my earlier budding preoccupation. In the middle of a hot summer, I got hooked on reading newspapers in the library after school finished in the afternoon. Unlike the matrimonial announcements, which were more appropriately invitations, there was no mention of “colour of skin,” the most important part of the matrimonial announcements. The dead were not given the honour of being described as “of wheatish” or “fair” complexion, nor was it mentioned if they were five and a half feet tall; however, religion and caste were alluded to almost invariably. 

One day, in a corner of the paper, I noticed an announcement: a 22-year-old Pandit girl had passed away in the valley, under “unusual” circumstances. I wondered why a young woman would just suddenly die like that. There was no childbirth this time; none was mentioned. 

She was no ordinary girl, I soon discovered. She was the first young woman in a population of four million to be admitted to the newly established Regional Engineering College, an almost exclusively male engineering institution and had been about to graduate with a degree in civil engineering. She was a star. I began to ask questions from those who happened to know her and her family. It seemed almost everyone knew everyone else back then. My questions were initially brushed aside like irritations caused by buzzing mosquitoes, of which there were plenty that summer.

Sometime later, I learned she had died of poisoning. “Lalita must have been out of her mind,” I overheard people say. What was she thinking? Was she really expecting to spend her life in the comfort of a Muslim household, no matter how handsome, kind or intelligent Yusuf was, no matter how progressive his family was? Hunh, how silly of her to have all those crazy thoughts. She obviously had not paid attention to the silent but firm rules about not marrying a Muslim and had ended up paying with her life. 

If anyone had asked her the question, she might have replied that yes, indeed she had expected to do all that; yes, and why not? After all, she had been part of numerous conversations with her family on socialism, equality, the meaninglessness of religion and the disasters it fosters. Had the great leader not implied that mixing religion with social and political discourse would impede progress in our new independent country? Maybe people just tolerated what he said because, after all, he was the beloved leader of millions and had he not announced our famous tryst with destiny? 

People heard him but did not always listen. They dared not speak back to him even though they did not like what he said. People admired his progressive ideas but mostly ignored them. Lalita’s family was different. Not only did they listen, they also articulated all those ideas in their own words and in their daily discourse. 

Poor Lalita had been made to believe what mattered was moral character and the value of being human, above all else. She had obviously not been aware that her family had said what they had said as part of conversation to pass their Sundays in friendship with their Muslim neighbours, especially the ones who had talked of unity, progress and such things while playing bridge, which tended to elevate the intellectual rhetoric as the players made their biddings. 

“3-no-trump” was soon to be followed by a discussion of the latest article on socialism and the significance of supporting the local Democratic National Conference, members of which were fellow travellers. 

It had not, however, been made explicit to her that most of what was discussed was between and for boys and men, who were the majority in the household; and even if they were not, it would not have mattered. These discourses took place between them; she happened to be listening and they would acknowledge her nods of agreement with their progressive ideas from time to time.

“She had not properly understood the limitations of her freedom.”

There must have been a big misunderstanding about what was meant by “equality.” Lalita did not pick up the nuance that the men in the family were much more equal than she was. She had not properly understood the limitations of her freedom and of the progressive nature of those around her, at home and elsewhere. She let her heart act out what her head had heard and witnessed. After all, why not? Why should she not have thought that it was possible to break these taboos? 

She had explicitly broken the barrier of becoming an engineer with full approval from her progressive family. Then there had been a precedent of another Pandit girl who had married a Muslim man for love. Lalita had learned, not long before, that this young woman had not lost her name, her identity or her religion (if it had been of importance to her), nor did the man have to endure any sacrifice or hardship of a similar nature. 

But then people said “Aha! You are making a mistake. That all happened in England and only got imported to the valley after it had all been said and done”; and also, “They were different.” What did they mean? Different in what way? Class? Money? or something else, like what part of the city they lived in? I think now it must have been all of that. Anywhere in the city further north and west, beyond the first bridge, everything was different. An increase in the number of bridges (two or more) to your address meant that different rules applied. Everyone knew that much.

What should Lalita have done? Should she have waited a few years, graduated, gone to Vilayat, obtained a license to be ignored for marrying a Muslim or a Christian? Then the latter would have been a smaller transgression but an obstacle nonetheless. Should she have controlled herself, given her heart a rest, put it on pause for a few years? What would have saved her life without losing her heart, losing love? 

The problem was that there was no way to convey all this to Lalita now that she was gone. All communication channels had been cut on the funeral pyre. Ashes do not respond to such wisdom. They simply stare back at you and demand to be dispatched rather promptly into a body of water, never to be seen again. 

There was indeed no dearth of streams and rivers in the valley that would absorb her remains and take them far away, eventually to the Arabian sea, away from the cruelty of her people. The body was cremated, the ashes disposed of, and her death was ultimately buried in a mound of indeterminate collective amnesia. 

What remained were a few lines in an obscure part of a newspaper that was meant to go largely unnoticed.

Srinagar © Ashok Malla

Ashok Malla, Professor Emeritus (Psychiatry) at McGill University, was born in Kashmir and lives in Montréal. Having published hundreds of scientific papers, editorials, book chapters and commentaries on serious mental illness and youth mental health, he has only recently embarked on pursuing his long-term interest of writing fiction.