A few months ago, someone I knew passed away suddenly. He was in his early fifties and we have known his family and some close friends for many years.
His youngest son (alerted by his barking dog) found him unconscious with a heart attack on his bathroom floor late at night and with help from his driver, he rushed him to the hospital where he was proclaimed dead. His closest friends were with his son at the hospital. His wife was on a business trip in another city that day. He exercised regularly with a personal trainer. His trainer had noticed for 2 weeks that he didn’t have the energy to exercise and had advised him to get medical tests done. He had been experiencing chest pains for a few days and had done the due diligence of visiting a doctor, taking tests, etc. and was found to be fit.
To me, he was an acquaintance, but his death moved me deeply. Over the days of mourning that followed his passing, I found myself reflecting on the process after death by the living…the rituals, the ceremonies and the prayers. I found myself observing the mourners – his friends, family and loved ones. What were they thinking? Did they feel responsible? Could they identify with his untimely death? Did it make them fearful about the unpredictability of life?
Did the events that took place in his final living hours run through their head like a movie again and again as they stood at the crematorium paying their last respects?
As these thoughts raced through my head, I was inspired to write this piece of fiction. This narrative is inspired by the people who may have spent the last moments with him and I have written it with the humblest respect for all characters represented here.
Tuesday 13TH October 2015. 4pm. A Parsi Crematorium in Mumbai.
CAESAR – dog of the deceased
I must have barked for an eternity before Jonas heard me. I knew he was gone the minute I heard that loud thump. That thump shook my world. Then, it shattered it. My heart was racing, but the door to the bathroom was closed tight. In my canine vision, the two doors that I was shuffling between seemed impenetrable. I was in a void and my master was at the other end of that void. Unreachable. Forever.
I see him lying on the flat marble surface now, a bandaid to cover the cut from the fall on his chin. In death an ugly scar also looks beautiful. I almost licked it off before they put my leash on. Just when I was about to complain, I see him rise from his body, wink and me and come and sit by my side. Oh, that back rub feels so familiar. Sigh!
ROXANNE – wife of the deceased
How could this happen? How could he do this to me? How many times did I warn him that it would come to this? How? How? How?
I had just stepped out of the shower in my hotel room in Delhi when the call came. Jonas was barely coherent. Papa has fallen in the bathroom, he half-screemed; half-sobbed. I think he had had a heart attack…what do I do? Leave it to me. I will handle your papa….the familiar words were about to leave my mouth when the realisation came that I was 4000kms away, in another city and this was my husband…probably dying.
Rushing to the airport, booking a flight and boarding it was a blur of worry and confusion. Nothing prepared me for the final phone call before boarding though. He didn’t wait for me. He could have atleast waited. Poor darling. My life as I know it is over. The flight attendant announced the final boarding call.
Now look at all these people waiting to meet me… and say what? My eyes flit from Fardeen’s body lying on the marble to the preacher chanting prayers to my sons, looking lost, to my palms…sweaty…with apprehension or a dawning sense of dread?
BANSHI – Driver of the deceased
When Jonas Babu phoned me he sounded frightened. He said papa has fallen. Keep car ready. We need to rush him to Breach Candy Hospital. I was about to change out of my uniform. When I saw Jonas Babu support Sir’s limp body down the stairs, I rushed to help. Sir looked…dead, but I couldn’t say that. No, no I couldn’t even think that.
Rushing to Breach Candy Hospital I had a deep premonition of disaster. Everything was about to be ruined. The wait at the hospital was endless and painful. I worried and cried, then worried some more. Neeta madam and Milind sir were already there and I was a bit relieved. Jonas babu needed help, he was so young and Roxy madam was away.
They were out quickly, too quickly and that’s when I was forced to believe what my heart already knew to be true. Sir was gone. I glimpsed his body covered with a white cloth from head to toe and I rushed to him, distraught. My Sir, my employer of 24 years, my mentor even…was gone forever.
It took them 20 minutes to separate me from him.
My heart goes out to Roxy madam…why did she have to travel so much? If only she had been there, she would have known what to do, she always does.
DOCTOR FERNANDEZ – The doctor he visited in his last few days
I feel the piercing stares of Jonas and Jehangir, but I had to come. I had to see for myself. I had to give my condolences to him. I screwed up really big and it took all my courage to show up here.
His heart-beat was stable, his ECG reports were clean and his lungs were clear. I did my due diligence, or so I thought. What could I have missed that would have hinted towards this ending? I didn’t ask him about his left arm – he may have told me that it was painful to lift it since over a week. I didn’t ask him if he was under stress or duress – he may have mentioned working 18 hours straight for the last 2 weeks. He was not my regular patient. I did my best, then why do I feel so wretched? Can the dead hear the thoughts of the living? If so, Fardeen, I am sorry. Please forgive me.
Mr. MUKESH CHOUDHARY – the supervisor at the crematorium
Another one bites the dust…quite literally. This is a high profile case. The dead man was a rich chartered accountant. I should wait around till after. Eh Gaurav, hope you have called the whole team here. Give the family A1 service. Look at the sizes of the cars coming up for him. The guest list seems A1 too. Again there will be a traffic jam on the main road and the hawaldar will call me for clearance and a bribe. I better invoice them top rates.
Death is inevitable yaar. It’s a daily ritual here. I feel nothing. I am hungry though. Wonder what’s coming with the chai today…samosas?
MILIND DOSHI – dear friend of the deceased
Fardeen and I are the same age! Could it really be just around the corner for me?
God make this go away. Send me back my friend. Anyone but Fardeen. Fardeen was the last person I would have expected to go before me. Even though he was a heavy smoker, he exercised regularly and played squash. He had no belly fat and agreed that their social life was almost parallel to Neeta and mine, we have always been like this. Close buddies for 3 decades. How can these kind of friendships end like this? So abruptly, snatched away when you least expect it.
I have never seen Roxy distraught. Roxy…stylish, composed, fashionable and bubbly like sweet champagne! The sight of seeing her break down at the sight of him at Breach Candy Hospital last night at 1.30am, ghostlike, will stay in my memory for a long, long time.
Look at her now. Gracious, even now.
RITESH – Fitness trainer of the deceased
I should have called him last night when he didn’t turn up for his training. He had told me on Friday, “Ritesh, I will be there on Monday. I am not going for squash so I will come to the gym.” I always call him when he has informed me and doesn’t show. Damn this fever…its clouded my brain and made me forget. What if he had come for training? He could have had a heart attack right there at the gym!
I knew there was something different about him. He seemed stressed for the last two weeks. He wasn’t lifting the weights he could do easily a month ago. He seemed edgy and uncharacteristically quiet. I should have known something was wrong. We did ask him to get a doctor’s clearance.
5 years. I have been training him for 5 years and now he is gone. 8pm on Mon-wed-Fridays will seem quiet. Damn, I will miss him.
NEEL – Friend and well-wisher of the deceased
Why don’t people have parties instead of funerals? After all, the dead are happy. They are free. We are the ones left to mourn. Look at all these faces looking awkward. Not a smile. Should one appear uncharacteristically, it is quickly erased. Wasn’t Fardeen’s a life well lived? Wasn’t he well-loved? Didn’t he love what he did? Why do we mourn and not celebrate death? If it was up to me, I would throw a party at my funeral. With music. And the gyms cannot be shut. Not even for a day. I better tell Kriti. Infact, we should write it down.
JONAS – Youngest son of the deceased
I feel numb with responsibility. I am only 26. Papa was always the strong one. He knew what to do, what to say and who to trust. He said I’ve gone on mum. He said I needed to pay more attention at work, to learn the ropes, but I never listened. There was always a party to go to, a travel plan to make, some more sleep to catch up on. In that respect too, I took after mum.
Jehangir is married, we have moved into this sprawling new house and now i am technically the head of the family? I didn’t even know what to do when I found him fallen in the bathroom. Would things have turned out differently had I found him earlier? How long had Ceasar been barking before I noticed?
FARDEEN – the deceased
Caesar loves this backrub. He always has. I must watch over him.
I am sorry Roxy. I should have waited. I should have resisted the urge to go to the toilet.
Banshi, thank you my friend. You served me well. You mourn me earnestly. Know that I am fine.
Doc, it wasn’t your fault.
Milind, I was a workaholic, but I loved what I did. I have no regrets.
Ritesh, you were my pillar. You pulled me towards health everything my life went awry.
Neel, I wanted a party too. You know I partied hard, mate!
Jonas, my son, know that I am sorry to leave you. You were my favourite. Know that I am gone but I am here. I will always watch over you. And love you.
Now put me to rest.