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I have been called a lot of unflattering things in my life. One of the earlier ones of that series was that I was hard-hearted, which I countered by pointing out that I was perhaps harder on myself than anybody else. Thankfully, my accuser concurred. One of the recent epithets in the same vein is that I’m cold and calculated, and I use my head to think rather than my heart;  I believe it is a fair assessment. Then again, using my head is the only way I know how to think (which, of course, is exactly the sort of cynical comments that earned me the said assessment.)

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Candle that Burns Bright

A classmate of mine from IIT passed away a few days ago. When I heard the shocking news, I wanted to write something about him. What came to mind were a couple of disjointed memories, and I thought I would share them here. For fear of causing more pain to those close to him, I will keep all the identifying references to a bare minimum.

We used to call him PJ — an acronym for a mildly insulting expression, which probably had its origin in our academic envy. PJ was academically brilliant, and graduated at the top of a class filled with almost pathologically competitive and bright IITians. This intensity that he brought to bear on the less superhuman is part of my first memory.

Troubled by this intensity, we once formed a delegation to appeal to PJ’s better nature. I don’t remember who initiated it, or even who was there in the delegation. But it certainly feels like something that Lux or Rat would do; or Kutty, perhaps, if we could get him to do anything at all. Anyway, we approached PJ and requested that he take it easy. “What is the big deal, man? Slow and steady wins the race, you know.” PJ’s response was an eye-opener. “Sure,” he said, “but fast and steady is better!”

I’m sure this fast and furious pace of PJ’s brilliance brought him many well-deserved accolades later in a lifetime perhaps best measured in terms of its quality rather than quantity, impact rather than longevity. But PJ was never an all-work-and-no-play fellow. I remember once when the MardiGras girls came to the Mandak dining hall (“mess”) to eat. Studying them with that hapless fervor that only a fellow IITian can fully appreciate, we discussed this development with PJ. He said, “Yes, we want to mess with them!”

IIT happened to us at an age when friendships came easy and the bonds forged stayed strong. With PJ gone and the connections a bit weaker, I feel a bit of unraveling. And the melancholy words that ring in my mind remind me — ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.

PJ was a brilliant man. I hope his brilliance would be source of strength and courage to those close to him. You know what they say, a candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long. With one of our brightest candles flaming out, what I feel is a sense of some darkness descending somewhere far.

Photo by armin_vogel cc

Death of a Parent

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.