Thursday, April 29, 2010

Being Dead

[Selçuk: Sep 20, 1985-Forever]

Emily Dickinson, one of America’s most powerful poets was a recluse. She had extracted a promise from her younger sister to burn all her papers after her death. Thankfully Lavinia didn’t set a match to her famous sister’s poems. Dickinson’s poetry survived, and is considered among the finest in the world -- for her lifelong fascination with the inscrutable theme of dying. Emily met her maker in 1886, age 55, and is buried in Amherst, Massachusetts, very close to our very own Agha Shahid Ali’s final resting place. Shahid deeply loved Emily’s works.

Agha Shahid Ali’s hauntingly beautiful poetry evokes a very private pain in us. He died of a brain condition at 52. I have often wondered why God chose to put the rotten tumor in one of the most gifted minds of our times. Deep in his mind-matter. Why are the most matchless of men the first ones to get marching orders? Why do the finest fall first? Why do the young have to die? Why is parting so awfully painful? I get no answers. Only an eerie static. Like snow falling on a silent night. Oft times we have to learn to answer our own questions. And answers are such mousetraps.

I knew this wonderful Turkish guy who was pals with me. He too had a beautiful mind. I would sometimes give him some silly shaggy dog story: that when he laughs on phone I can distinctly hear Cheshire cats meow in the background. “I mean it Selçuk, I’d say for effect”. “Shut-up, Sam he retorted, there are no Cheshire cats in Istanbul”. “Only Pisîka Wanê, which is perhaps Kurdish for Van cats.” “And guess what, Sam, I have a cat in my lap right now”. “Didn’t I say I heard mewling”, I chortled. “But the cat is so quiet, Sam, he replied innocently. “You freak me out”. Ofcourse he had informed me in an earlier chat about the cat and he would simply misrecollect.

Selçuk was a regular guy with boyish dreams full of blue dolphins.
He lived by the Bosporus. With a gift for languages, he became a translator at 23. I used to get mails containing Turkish glossary from him. He quietly fed fish in the strait that connects the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. Mackerels, sardines, and tunny would swim to him to nibble at small chunks of food he threw at them. Makes me feel content in a strange way, he explained. I thought he was being seraphic to the fish in a selfish world. Selçuk ceased breathing yesterday, carrying to his youthful grave, many such small secrets. The fish of Bosporus may well go hungry.

Personally I feel like a potpourri of emotions – between being awful and helpless. I hate losing people I love. But I lose people from time to time. Every time I love people, they just seem to go away forever. My unmarried aunt died of cancer on a windy autumn evening. I cried a lot, I remember, shaking like a young leaf on a maple tree. Many years later mom breathed one last time. It was a bitter wintry afternoon. I was 17 and I loved her like a teen. She didn’t open her eyes even as I kept wailing like a banshee. The dead never open their eyes. They aren’t allowed to. I don’t know why.

Rafi, the guy who helped me grow up fell off the roof from his small two-room home last year on a rainy day. I was not in Kashmir. I never am. Something happened to his head. In a week he was dead. Tears welled up in my eyes when someone rang me up. Rafi used to pray and fear God a lot, like all mortals. They say that fireflies glow by his grave now. I refuse to believe. He was 40 and shouldn’t have been in that cold grave. Fireflies make-out when they emit those lights.

Selçuk was the last person I’d like to see dead. He was too tender footed to go. But he is gone. At least he has no fear now. After the first death, there is no other, Dylan Thomas suggests. I think I agree.

I seem to have figured it out by now. There is this veil – that is what I reckon, death is. It is dark and rag-like. Stitched in many places by some glum thread. When it flutters it spews a scent that gives you heartache – the size of wild blue yonder. No one who walks into it, ever walks out. They are exaggeratedly proper about it.

We, the living, are always asked to move on, pray for the dead and forget. But how can one forget memories? Death ends a life not a relationship. I don’t think I can ever forget my aunt, my mom, my Rafi maam, my Selçuk. I can’t afford to. I intend to immortalize them.

As Dickinson wrote in her insanity:

Bereavement in their death to feel
Whom We have never seen --
A Vital Kinsmanship import
Our Soul and theirs -- between --

For Stranger -- Strangers do not mourn --
There be Immortal friends
Whom Death see first -- 'tis news of this
That paralyze Ourselves...

Who, vital only to Our Thought --
Such Presence bear away
In dying -- 'tis as if Our Souls
Absconded -- suddenly –

If they don’t allow cats, I hope they let Selçuk translate laughter in paradise.