The last journey in (soiled) India

Today is December 24. A week before, my father, who was 85 years, six months and a week old, passed away peacefully. He was at his residence, in his bed, when the end came. A moment before and a moment later, it is too late. It is inevitable, more so in ripe old age, after one has lived a full life. Yet, sadness envelopes. Human loss aversion is intrinsic. Human being without the soul is referred to as a mere body. The soul lives on, after death. We do not see it and hence we develop no attachment to it. It is what breathes life into the body. But, the physical form matters to us more and we identify with it more. Hence, the sadness when the physical body becomes lifeless. One more vindication as to the importance of the physical form in spiritual pursuits. Without the physical form to behold, spiritual pursuits are difficult for most.

Thanks to sane and sensible advice, we were able to give our father an end that was marked by as much dignity and peace as it could be possible under the circumstances. No one wishes their old relatives to be subjected to the indignities of modern medicine and treatment. It is such a poor reflection on both the modern, western medicine and its practitioners. Thankfully, there are quite a few practitioners with conscience and it is their sane and wiser counsel that guided me, as that of friends who had been there and done that.

It is hard for me to describe how I went through the rites that prepare the body for the last journey (Veedu varai uravu; veedhi varai manaivi; kaadu varai pillai; kadasi varai yaaro). God gives the strength. The cremation ground in Madurai – and it is must be true or truer for most cities – is a sight to behold for its gloomy, depressingly unclean, unkempt and unhygienic condition. It is not fenced. It is strewn with litter and garbage. Stray dog and stray sheep roam the cremation pits, looking for the leftover food that are fed to the dead relatives. It is in such surroundings that one bids good bye to the soul, wishing it a peaceful afterlife. My relative who accompanied me the next day when we went back to collect the ashes felt traumatised by the conditions and wondered why any sane person would come back the next day, instead of cremating the body electrically and collecting the ashes the same day. Simply put, these things could and should be done differently.

Modern science and past-life regression studies now validate most of the thought processes and assumptions behind rituals associated with the soul’s last journey before it reaches the other world. The soul needs to be nourished and supported on its journey. The rituals are as moving as they are meaningful. It is a different story as to how far people of our generation can expect our children to perform these rites for our last journeys. This does not mean that they are any less affectionate. Simply, the longer and more steadily we move away and move our children away from their roots, the more difficult it is – in simple practical terms – to bring them back to the roots. Unless, of course, their vasanas bring them back on their own. That is something that we know not much about and over which we have very little control. More importantly, physical facilities, arrangements and conditions such as the one described above are not going to motivate them one bit, to do so.

The breathtakingly wonderful contribution that this civilisation, religion and philosophy had made to the cause of human evolution and elevation is completely nullified and offset by the collective indifference and even hostility to the material conditions that are needed to foster spiritual practices, advancement and evolution. May be, let me pause a bit here. Or, is it that these conditions drive one to the point of vexation with material living in this country and drive them either towards spirituality or to a well-practised insensitivity and indifference or send them overseas?

System reset

On Monday evening (Dec. 8), I arrived in Madurai on an unscheduled visit after a frenetic weekend.  In the second half of last week, my father (who is 85 years and six months old) had suffered two (minor) falls and had become disoriented. His routine and that of my mother had been thrown off-gear as a result. There were no major injuries, fractures, or blow to the head. Yet, some damage has taken place. Mostly due to the age factor.

My aunt’s mother – who lived to a ripe old age – used to remark that old age was a curse. For many, it is mostly true. It is hard on them and it is hard on others. The society – especially the so-called modern society – has not evolved a proper template to deal with old age – especially ageing and passing away (or, letting them pass away) gracefully and with dignity.  The lack of template is not merely an issue of health or medical care.

For the most part, modern allopathic health care in India, especially for the aged, is insensitive and is a financial drain on caregivers. Hence, there is a need to balance the ‘need to be seen as doing something’ vs. what is optimal for the care-receiver. One has to discount the potential future scenarios too, to the present. It is not easy. That is why it makes sense to have some templates, develop some principles and concepts to deal with these issues when there is no need for them.

When things begin to go wrong, even the so-called educated, the spiritually inclined and the aware people in care-giving positions are at their wits’ end. Consequently, there is a risk that they overdraw on the ‘spiritual’ or ‘good karma’ balance in their accounts. Further, no matter how inevitable death is and especially so in ripe old age, a pall of gloom descends. The mood is a bit morbid. Emotional batteries drain little faster. One needs to be aware of it and find ways to keep charging them too.

Dan Ariely’s popular TED talk reminds us that in situation involving complex decision-making, we are unprepared. Stress, anxiety, frustration and anger are our natural responses to the complexity of the decisions involved. Obviously, they are unhelpful.

My good friend Bharath Krishna Shankar came up with an excellent social intervention initiative for teaching Life skills to high and higher secondary school students. Perhaps, he should do another programme for those who are in their forties to sixties now, as to how to grow into caregivers and care-receivers, as they age. It could be called ‘Ageing Skills’.  He called his Life Skills programme, ‘Thalir Thiran Thittam’ in Tamil and he could consider naming this, ‘Narai Thiran Thittam’. At the minimum, ‘Narai Thiran Thittam’ syllabus should deal with managing (to put it bluntly, lowering) one’s expectations from the world around us as we age.

Alternatively, there is ample merit in the proposition that, when we are lucid, we could write down a ‘manual’ or checklist for our children as to how to deal with us when we become incapable of deciding or articulating our thoughts, emotions and logic.

Most relatives want the sick, old person to be restored. But, the question is ‘Restore to what state?’ In Microsoft Windows, if a newly installed software or device malfunctions, there is an option to restore the system to the state that prevailed before the installation was attempted. The hope is that the system would be stable. With humans, it is not possible. But, emotionally, people want to try to do a ‘System Restore’. With humans, the new equilibrium will most likely be unstable and the next system crash could be more damaging to them and to the caregivers.

By no means does the previous paragraph suggest ‘abandonment’ of the old (the sick and the infirm) to their fates. Apparently, a friend of my friend had told him (my friend) that he would give his children the right to administer the ‘Pillow’ treatment to him, in seemingly irretrievable or impossible situations. I am not suggesting anything as specific as that or any other specific measure.

It is about having a clear idea of what one wishes to accomplish, of its execution, of the methods, of the resources, of the costs (material and other costs) and, more importantly, of the counterfactual. These are not easy things to do even in situations where no emotions are involved. They are doubly harder in emotional situations, especially in the Indian cultural context.

At a societal level, India with its huge numbers, is about to face an old-age epidemic. In a few Southern States, demographic trends are already comparable to those in greying Western European countries. There is both a business opportunity and a social need in providing for comfortable old age – whether healthy or not – with sensitivity and attention to detail. As it is, we are woefully ill-equipped.

A vital silver-lining in the cloud is the presence of a capable, confident and considerate nurse made available by Lifeline Nursing from Trisoor which is a not-for-profit institution. The service does not come cheap. But, it is worth it. Such a facility is needed for the benefit of the health of the remaining caregivers in the family as much as it is needed for the person being cared for. You can look them up here.

Tail-piece: About nine months ago, I wrote a blog post about Shanti Sadhan. This is the residential enclave in Madurai where my parents live. Perhaps, it is time to rename ‘Shanti Sadhan’ ‘Sulphur Sadhan’. The vehicle population has exploded. It will be interesting to take a reading of vehicular pollution inside the enclave. School buses picking up students could do so from outside the compound. But, Indian roads have no bus-bays. These buses are liberal polluters in the morning hours. In one way it is good that internet (with good connection speed) is not available. Children come out and play. But, the vehicular pollution is bad for their lungs. Behavioural science has recorded that humans are myopic. Are Indians more so?