Life’s Bald Head, Potbelly and Skin Colour


Surely, life doesn’t need theatrical effects to bring high-voltage drama into our lives. Without dark clouds, hooting owls and howling winds, it can simply drop a horrifying thought into our heads and cause edge-of-the-seat tension, the kind that fiction usually takes so much effort to create.

It was a perfectly sunny and happy day at work many years ago, when such a thought was put into my head by satan in the guise of a friend. He had dropped in for one of those idle chats. (And what do they say about idling and devil? Oh yeah, that.)

The conversation, as if by devious design, veered from work, bosses, wives to epitaphs. And since we were hovering around death, it didn’t come as a surprise when he asked, “Tell me, if you were to suddenly fall down gasping for breath and knew you had 60 seconds to death, what would your message be to this world and your loved ones?”

That would have sounded like a cousin of those stupid last questions that interviewers ask celebs on TV, had I not been in the mood for humour.

I gave him a few one liners and we both laughed, and he later left.

But for the rest of the day I couldn’t work.

“Really,” I began to think, “what would I want to say if something like that were to happen?”

Should I shout out all my passwords? Should I reveal all the secrets I know of people? Should I be thanking people for all that they have done for me? Should I use the limited time to apologise for all the wrongs done to them?

Time would run out on me before I mentally run through all the possible options and picked one.

On that day, I realised that along with life insurance and a written will, one has to keep a deathbed speech, too, prepared.

For two years after that chat with friend-cum-satan, I collected a host of deathbed stories from around the world and across cultures.

These are fascinating stories woven around people’s last words. The best came from China and India. Obviously. They have history and numbers in their favour. India alone has 1.2 billion potential deathbed stories waiting to happen.

If you overlook the morbidity of such a hobby, you will probably see realism meeting philosophy meeting spirituality in those stories, enhanced by a liberal dose of imagination over years of retelling.

I enjoyed collecting them. Not because I derived any sadistic pleasure from the plight of people gasping for breath and words at the same time. But because, through this exercise, I began to believe that the only time people say anything of any significance is when they are dying.

There’s a certain something about having lots to say but very little time and breath left to say it in. It brings out the best in people. It ensures that the message is concise, distilled, meaningful and relevant.

The deathbed is no place for polite warm-up conversations about the weather, politics and recent reads. People get to the point. It’s their last chance to say what they’ve wanted to all their lives, but didn’t have the courage, time or need to.

No other time in life does a speaker get such earnest listeners who hang on to every half-syllable uttered.

Deathbed statements are usually loaded with wisdom and are the best sum-ups of life, as it comes from someone who has seen it all, been through it all.

It’s like listening to someone talk about college life on his graduation day.

Like a bridegroom talking about bachelorhood on the day of his wedding.

Like what employees say at exit interviews.

Sometimes, it’s so profound that it takes a lifetime to understand or appreciate it. Also, because those are half-said words and sentences, they offer great intrigue, mystery and amusing misinterpretations.

I am reminded of a cute story from Jiangsu Province in East China. Elders there have been narrating it to their youngsters for generations, though I have no idea to what effect.

It is about a son who wasted all his life destroying his field, demolishing his house and digging up every inch of land, just because his dying father’s last words were: “Unearth the buried treasure, my son! Unearth the treasure!”

Many unsuccessful years later, on his own deathbed the son remarked, “I want to sing!” And he sang the only song he had ever sung in his life, stunning the people gathered around him.

“I am happy you unearthed the hidden treasure!” said an old wise one in that group as the son smiled and breathed his last.

There are many such wonderful deathbed stories in this world.

But, of all that I have managed to unearth, my favourite is from a tribe in Tamilnadu in South India.

It answers this cliché for me: If there’s only one piece of advice you can give this world, what would it be?

The answer is what the old village headman in the story, said at his deathbed: “Cover your bald head, reduce your potbelly and let your skin be!”

Though they found it weird, it is said that the whole village as a mark of respect for their leader, wore turbans, tucked in their tummies and stayed away from applying turmeric on their skins for a week of mourning. The lore says that this became a ritual every time someone in the village died- the dying would mouth the same words and the village would mourn the same way. It was believed that the soul would only then rest in peace.

The headman’s son who was barely six when his father died, was the only one who said that his father couldn’t have meant something this foolish. The son is believed to have spent all his life in trying to understand the meaning of his father’s last words.

The story that begins on a deathbed, ends on a deathbed, too- this time the son’s.

His last words were an explanation of his father’s last words, and believed to have put an end to the village’s strange mourning customs.

“All life’s problems are like bald heads, pot bellies and skin colour,” the son had struggled to complete. “Some can be overcome by smartness, some need to be solved by a strong will and some have got to be simply accepted with courage . And he who can distinguish the three is the only one who will be truly happy in life.”

Is there a more practical lesson in life?



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