Category Archives: Life and Death

Of celebrating life, even in death — this category contains some of my more personal posts.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I didn’t “get” Catch-22 the first time I read it. That was some twenty years ago, may be I was too young then. Halfway through my third read a few weeks ago, I suddenly realized – it was a caricature!

Caricatures are visual; or so I thought. Catch-22, however, is a literary caricature, the only one of its kind I have read. Looking for a story line in it that ridicules the blinding craziness of a cruelly crazy world is like looking for anguish in Guernica. It is everywhere and nowhere. Where shall I begin? I guess I will jot down the random impressions I got over my multiple reads.

Catch-22 includes one damning indictment on the laissez-faire, enterprise-loving, free market, capitalistic philosophy. It is in the form of the amiable, but ultimately heartless, Milo Minderbinder. With inconceivable pricing tactics, Milo’s enterprise makes money for his syndicate in which everybody has a share. What is good for the syndicate, therefore, has to be good for everybody, and we should be willing to suffer minor inconveniences like eating Egyptian cotton. During their purchasing trips, Yossarian and Dunbar have to put up with terrible working conditions, while Milo, mayor to countless towns and a deputy Shaw to Iran, enjoys all creature comforts and finer things in life. But, fret not, everybody has a share!

It is hard to miss the parallels between Milo and the CEOs of modern corporations, begging for public bailouts while holding on to their private jets. But Heller’s uncanny insights assume really troubling proportions when Milo privatizes international politics and wars for everybody’s good. If you have read The Confessions of an Economic Hitman, you would be worried that the warped exaggerations of Heller are still well within the realm of reality. The icing on the cake comes when someone actually demands his share — Milo gives him a worthless piece of paper, with all pomp and ceremony! Remind you of your Lehman minibonds? Life indeed is stranger than fiction.

But Milo’s exploits are but a minor side story in Catch-22. The major part of it is about crazy Yossarian’s insanity, which is about the only thing that makes sense in a world gone mad with war and greed and delusions of futile glory.

Yossarian’s comical, yet poignant dilemmas put the incongruities of life in an unbearably sharp focus for us. Why is it crazy to try to stay alive? Where is the glory in dying for some cause when death is the end of everything, including the cause and the glory?

Along with Yossarian, Heller parades a veritable army of characters so lifelike that you immediately see them among your friends and family, and even in yourself. Take, for instance, the Chaplin’s metaphysical musings, Appleby’s flawless athleticism, Orr’s dexterity, Colonel Cathcart’s feathers and black-eyes, General Peckam’s prolix prose, Doc Daneeka’s selfishness, Aarfy’s refusal to hear, Nately’s whore, Luciana’s love, Nurse Duckett’s body, the 107 year old Italian’s obnoxious words of wisdom, Major Major’s shyness, Major — de Caverley’s armyness — each a masterpiece in itself!

On second thought, I feel that this book is too big a chef d’oervre for me to attempt to review. All I can do is to recommend that you read it — at least twice. And leave you with my take-away from this under-rated epic.

Life itself is the ultimate catch 22, inescapable and water-tight in every possible way imaginable. The only way to make sense of life is to understand death. And the only way to understand death is to stop living. Don’t you feel like letting out a respectful whistle like Yossarian at this simple beauty of this catch of life? I do!

Terror and Tragedy in Mumbai

Lo Hwei Yen was gunned down in Mumbai a few days ago. She flew there from Singapore for a one day visit, and walked innocently into a death trap that was set in motion probably months ago. My heart goes out her family members. I can understand their pain because of my own recent personal bereavement, although nobody can probably understand their sense of unfairness of it all. As we bury our loved ones and mourn the fallen heroes, we have to ask ourselves, what is the right response to terrorism?

My ideas, as usual, are a bit off the beaten track. And on this emotional topic, I may get a bit of flak for them. But if we are to wipe out the scourge of terrorism, we have to defend ourselves, not only with fast guns and superior fire power, but also with knowledge. Why would anybody want to kill us so badly that they are willing to die trying?

Terrorism is one of those strange debacles where all our responses are wrong. A naive response this attack would be one of revenge. If they bring down our skyscrapers, we bomb them back to stone ages; if they kill one of ours, we kill ten of theirs and so on. But that response is exactly what the terrorist wants. One of the strategic objectives of terrorism is to polarize the population so much that they have a steady supply of new recruits. Does that mean that doing nothing would be the right response? I don’t think so. If there is a middle ground here, I just cannot see it.

Another approach to wage an information war, aided by torture and terror from our side. Remember Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay? And extraordinary rendition? Clearly not the right way to go, any decent human being would agree. Every terrorist tortured is a hundred reborn. Every innocent tortured is potentially a thousand new terrorists. But what is the alternative? Ask a few gentlemanly questions and appeal to the terrorist’s better nature? Again, is there a balanced middle ground here?

Gandhiji would have said, “Let them come, let them kill as many as they want. We won’t resist. When they get tired of killing, we would have beaten them.” The old man is my hero, but is it the right response? It may be. If any and every move I make is only going to make my enemy stronger, I’d better stay put. But if I were to stand still like a sitting duck, my enemy doesn’t have to be strong at all.

When the terrorists seek their own death and reprisals on their kins, when they seek to sabotage peace processes, do we act dumb and play right into their hands by doing exactly what they want us to? Viewed in this light, the reactions to this attack from India and Pakistan disappoint me.

War on terror is not a war on its foot soldiers, who are merely stupid saps who got brainwashed or blackmailed into committing horrific meyhem. It is not even a war on its generals or figureheads, when chopping off one head only engenders another one in some other unknown place. This war is a war of ideologies. And it can be won only with a superior ideology. Do we have one?

A French Eulogy

[This is going to be my last post of a personal kind, I promise. This French eulogy was an email from my friend Stephane, talking about my father who was quite fond of him.

Stephane, a published writer and a true artist, puts his feelings in beautiful and kind words. Some day I will translate them and append the English version as well. It is hard to do so right now, but the difficulty is not all linguistic.]

Manoj,

Nous sommes très tristes d’apprendre le départ de ton père. Il était pour nous aussi un père, un modèle de gentillesse, d’intégrité et de générosité. Sa discrétion, sa capacité à s’adapter à toutes les choses bizarres de notre époque, son sens de l’humour et surtout son sens des responsabilités sont des enseignements que nous garderons de lui et que nous espérons transmettre à notre enfant.

Nous avons beaucoup aimé le texte que tu as écrit sur ton blog. La perte de quelqu’un de si proche nous renvoie aux mêmes questions de l’existence. Qu’est-ce que la conscience? Comment évolue-t elle avant la naissance et après la mort? Combien y a t-il de consciences possibles dans l’univers? La multiplicité de la conscience totale, la faculté d’éveil de chaque conscience, la faculté d’incarnation d’une simple conscience dans le vivant, végétal, animal ou humain… Tout ceci est surement une illusion, mais aussi un mystère que les mots de notre langage ne font qu’effleurer et survoler. De cette illusion reste la tristesse, profonde et bien “réelle”. Ce que tu as écrit sur la tristesse me fait penser à un poète (ou un bouddhiste?) qui évoquait l’espoir et le désespoir comme d’une frontière symétrique à dépasser afin d’atteindre le principe créateur des deux oppositions. Ce principe, il l’a nommé l’inespoir, un mot étrange qui n’existe pas car il contient deux opposés à la fois. Ainsi, je pense souvent à ce mot quand je regarde les étoiles la nuit, ou quand je regarde ma fille en train de dormir paisiblement. Je trouve notre univers d’une beauté totale, évidente, inexprimable. Puis je réalise que tout est éphémère, ma fille, ceux que j’aime, moi, et même les galaxies. Pire, je réalise que cet univers, c’est une scène de sacrifice où “tout mange”, puis “est mangé”, des plus petits atomes aux plus grandes galaxies. À ce moment, je trouve l’univers très cruel. À la fin, il me manque un mot, un mot qui pourrait exprimer à la fois la beauté et la cruauté de l’univers. Ce mot n’existe pas mais en Inde, j’ai appris qu’on définissait ce qui est divin par ceci : “là où les contraires coexistent”. Encore une fois, l’Inde, terre divine, me guide dans mes pensées. Est-ce que c’est vraiment un début de réponse? Je pense que ton père y répond par son sourire bienveillant.

Nous pensons beaucoup à vous. Nous vous embrassons tous très fort.

Stéphane (Vassanty et Suhasini)

PS: It was difficult for me to reply in English. Sorry… If this letter is too complex to read or to translate in English, just tell me. I’ll do my best to translate it!

Manoj Thulasidas a écrit :
Bonjour, mon cher ami!

How are you? Hope we can meet again some time soon.

I have bad news. My father passed away a week ago. I am in India taking care of the last rites of passage. Will be heading back to Singapore soon.

During these sad days, I had occasion to think and talk about you many times. Do you remember my father’s photo that you took about ten years ago during Anita’s rice feeding ceremony? It was that photo that we used for newspaper announcements and other places (like my sad blog entry). You captured the quiet dignity we so admired and respected in him. He himself had chosen that photo for these purposes. Merci, mon ami.

– grosses bises,
– Kavita, me and the little ones.

Death of a Parent

Dad
My father passed away early this morning. For the past three months, he was fighting a heart failure. But he really had little chance because many systems in his body had started failing. He was 76.

I seek comfort in the fact that his memories live on. His love and care, and his patience with my silly, childhood questions will all live on, not merely in my memories, hopefully in my actions as well.

Perhaps even the expressions on his face will live on for longer than I think.

Dad and NeilDeath is as much a part of life as birth. Anything that has a beginning has an end. So why do we grieve?

We do because death stands a bit outside our worldly knowledge, beyond where our logic and rationality apply. So the philosophical knowledge of the naturalness of death does not always erase the pain.

But where does the pain come from? It is one of those questions with no certain answers, and I have only my guesses to offer. When we were little babies, our parents (or those who played the parents’ role) stood between us and our certain death. Our infant mind perhaps assimilated, before logic and and rationality, that our parents will always stand face-to-face with our own end — distant perhaps, but dead certain. With the removal of this protective force field, the infant in us probably dies. A parent’s death is perhaps the final end of our innocence.

Dad and NeilKnowing the origin of pain is little help in easing it. My trick to handle it is to look for patterns and symmetries where none exists — like any true physicist. Death is just birth played backwards. One is sad, the other is happy. Perfect symmetry. Birth and life are just coalescence of star dust into conscious beings; and death the necessary disintegration back into star dust. From dust to dust… Compared to the innumerable deaths (and births) that happen all around us in this world every single second, one death is really nothing. Patterns of many to one and back to countless many.

We are all little droplets of consciousness, so small that we are nothing. Yet, part of something so big that we are everything. Here is a pattern I was trying to find — materially made up of the same stuff that the universe is made of, we return to the dust we are. So too spiritually, mere droplets merge with an unknowable ocean.

Going still further, all consciousness, spirituality, star dust and everything — these are all mere illusory constructs that my mind, my brain (which are again nothing but illusions) creates for me. So is this grief and pain. The illusions will cease one day. Perhaps the universe and stars will cease to exist when this little droplet of knowledge merges with the anonymous ocean of everything. The pain and grief also will cease. In time.

Sony World Band Radio

I recently bought a Sony World Band Radio receiver. It is a beautiful machine with some twenty frequency bands and all kinds of locks and tricks to latch on to distant radio stations. I bought it for my father, who is fond of listening to his radio late into the night.

Two days after I bought the radio, my father suffered a severe heart failure. A congestive heart failure (CHF) is not to be confused with a heart attack. The symptoms of a CHF are deceptively similar to an asthma attack, which can be doubly treacherous if the patient already has respiratory troubles because the early care may get directed to the lungs while the troubled heart may be ignored. So I thought I would discuss the symptoms here in the hope that it will help those with aging family members who may otherwise misidentify a potential CHF. Much more information is available on the Internet; try Googling “congestive heart failure.”

For asthma patients, a danger sign of a heart failure is persistent breathing difficulty despite inhalation medication. Watch out for breathing trouble that increases when they lie down, and subsides when they sit up. They may have consequent sleeplessness. If they show the symptoms of water retention (swelling in lower limps or neck, unexpected sudden weight gain etc.), and if they have other risk factors (hypertension, irregular heart beat), please do not wait, rush to the hospital.

The prognosis for CHF is not good. It is a chronic condition, progressive and terminal. In other words, it is not something we catch like the flu and get better soon. Depending on the stage the patient is, we have to worry about the quality of life, palliative care or even end of life care. Once a heart has started failing, it is difficult to reverse the progression of the onslaught. There are no easy solutions, no silver bullets. What we can concentrate on, really, is the quality of their life. And the grace and dignity with which they leave it. For most of them, it is their last act. Let’s make it a good one.

By my father’s bedside now, listening to the Sony, with all these sad thoughts in my head, I remember my first taste of real winter in the fall of 1987 in Syracuse. I was listening to the weatherman of the local radio station (was it WSYR?). While lamenting the temperatures going south, he observed, rather philosophically, “C’mon, we all know there’s only one way the temperatures can go.” Yes, we know that there is only one way things can go from here. But we still mourn the passing of a summer full of sunshine and blue skies.

The Sony radio plays on, impervious to these doleful musings, with young happy voices dishing out songs and jokes for the benefit of a new generation of yuppie commuters full of gusto and eagerness to conquer a world. Little do they know — it was all conquered many times over during the summers of yester years with the same gusto and passion. The old vanguards step aside willingly and make room for the children of new summers.

The new generation has different tastes. They hum to different iTunes on their iPods. This beautiful radio receiver, with most of it seventeen odd short wave bands now silent, is probably the last of its kind. The music and jokes of the next generation have changed. Their hair-do and styles have changed. But the new campaigners charge in with the same dreams of glory as the ones before them. Theirs is the same gusto. Same passion.

Perhaps nothing and nobody really passes on. We all leave behind a little bit of ourselves, tiny echoes of our conquests, memories in those dear to us, and miniscule additions to the mythos that will live on. Like teardrops in the rain.

Choices and Remorse

Remorse is the flipside of choice, and nostalgia the inevitable consequence of any relocation. I should know; I have relocated far too many times in my life — nothing comes for free.

In the sea of unsmiling faces trying to avoid eye-contact every morning, I miss the unexpected joy of a friendly face. Anonymity the price exacted and familiarity a willing sacrifice.

Searching for myself in the glaring lights of these metropolises, I miss the Milky Way and the stars hiding behind the artificial brightness of the skylines. Creature comforts at the expense of inner peace.

In the crystal clear waters at the postcard beaches of Cassis to Bintan to Phuket, I miss the angry waves of the choppy Arabian Sea and the boiling ferrous red beaches. The quest for a promised land at the cost of a paradise lost.

As my powerful sports sedan purrs away from the pack with near contemptuous ease, I miss my old Raleigh bicycle. Rich possession over simple pride.

While sipping the perfect wine matched to the incredibly minuscule helpings of incomprehensible delicacies, I miss a half-tea at Tarams and a mutton omelet at Indian Coffee House, and the friendship around it. Sophistication over small pleasures.

Watching National Geographic on large screens in all its HD glory, I miss the black and white contact prints from my dad’s old Agfa Click III. Technological perfection over emotional content.

And while writing this blog following as many rules of an alien grammar as I can remember, I mourn for the forgotten words of a mother tongue. Communication skills garnered at the cost of a language once owned.

It is not that I would have chosen differently if I had a chance do it all over again. It is the necessity of choice that is cruel. I wish I could choose everything, that I could live all possible lives, and experience all the agonies and all the ecstasies. I know it is silly, but I wish I never had to make a choice.