India is overflowing with people. With more than a billion inhabitants and one of highest population growth rates in the world, it is poised to soon become the most populous nation on earth, overtaking China which is roughly twice its size geographically. The government has been working for years to enforce centralized family planning and halt the growth, but the reality is that the majority of Indians who inhabit the nation’s diverse countrysides need children–to help with the farming, to build houses, and to take care of their parents in their old age. As with medieval Europe, frontier America, and countless other agrarian societies, these people have not just one or two kids, but five or six. This is partially because many hands make light work, but more importantly because many diseases, disasters, and dangers also make light mortality. Having a brood of children ensures that enough will survive to get the job done.
There’s no way around it: death is everywhere in India. With so many people, how could it not be? To the Westerner, however, the Indian response to death is confusing. At home we are shocked by the passing of anyone but the incredibly old and spend endless energy mourning, lamenting, and figuring out how to carry on in the absence of our treasured loved ones. Indians love each other–there is no question about that–but deep within their being is a tacit acceptance of the necessity and frequency of death. They do not necessarily welcome it, but they do not let it cripple them when it occurs. They go on living…quickly.
No doubt much of this quiet resignation stems from the Hindu faith, shared in some form by the majority of Indians. Life is a seemingly endless cycle of rebirth from which the ultimate goal is escape to a godlike state of transcendence known as moksha. If you’re anything but the highest member of the highest caste, you have a long way to go to achieve moksha, and therefore many more births and deaths to endure. In this sense, death is not a tragedy but a stepping stone to karmic perfection.
All of this sounds interesting in theory, but after three weeks in this country, we’ve gained a first hand understanding of just how fleeting life is here. Working at a home for the children of the leprosy-affected, we knew there would be death in the background: we just didn’t realize how much and for what reasons. One or two of the children are orphans, but only in a Western sense. A teacher explained that the only true orphans in India are those without any extended family. The death of a mother and father, while sad, simply means that grandparents, aunts, and uncles take over the rearing of the child. One beautiful little girl here has no mother and father not because they died, but because her father denied paternity. The only condition on which he would allow the mother to remain with him was to give the baby up, in her case to her grandparents.
What is more common for these kids is to be missing one parent. Many have lost mothers and fathers to disease and some to suicide. One little girl’s father hung himself shortly after her birth. Her mother remarried and conceived another child only to have the second husband repeat the shocking act of the first. She will give birth in one month. Another little boy’s father died within the past few weeks, but he does not know it. It seems cruel that we, as outsiders, possess this sensitive knowledge, but his mother wasn’t prepared to share the news with him just yet. One of our favorite little girls, a bubbly, energetic force of nature, lost a brother last week. The director told us he went fishing and “fell in the water and didn’t come back up. It took three days to find him.” When I asked how she had taken it, he said, “She cried for a little while.” As I watched her with her family, who came to visit on yesterday’s monthly “Family Day,” I couldn’t fathom how they could so quickly be smiling and laughing in the wake of such a tragic event. I am not faulting them for their resilience, quite the contrary. I just can’t imagine how I would get out of bed in the morning if the same had happened to me.
Many of the women here are widows. One is young and cheerful, the mother of three. When I asked one of the other teachers about her husband, she said, “Oh, he expired.” (This seems to be the favored expression for “died.”) “Oh,” I grimaced. “How sad. What happened?” “I don’t know,” was her simple reply. The cause of death was irrelevant. He is gone and she must go on; in her case, working at a place that gives her room and board, educates and houses her youngest chlld, and has helped her make similar arrangements at another school for the other two. I worried a lot about asking the kids about their families for fear I would dredge up too much pain, but their responses are always the same. “My father expired.” “My mother expired.” “Father, no mother.” They smile, give me a hug, and move on. I sit shellshocked and want to hold them and tell them everything will be ok.
They don’t seem to need my sympathy any more than the lady down the street. We noticed her thatched hut, which sits right next to the human poop field, on our first walk between the two schools. Bicycle tires adorn the outer walls, which look like they would topple with a light breeze much less the all too common monsoon rains or rare tsunami (the 2004 one hit hard here). On a subsequent walk we asked one of the staff about the curious dwelling and whether it was in fact inhabited. “That man that lived there, he died.” “When?” I gasped. “Last week. He was riding his bicycle on East Coat Road and was hit by a car.” “How awful,” was all I could come up with. “Three people die on that road each day in Chennai.” This is the road we travel multiple times every day since the upper school sits directly on it and our house a few blocks off it.
shocked that one of our neighbors had come to such an abrupt and violent end, but were even more surprised when we learned his widow was still living in the shack. As we drove by with a van full of shouting children on the way to swimming lessons, the driver honked and paused to chat with her. She smiled, made small conversation, and told him that all the bikes her husband had kept (some sort of business I guess) had been stolen since his death. There was no sadness on her face, no plea for sympathy, only a friendly, toothless smile. Life goes on.
Just after this encounter, we learned that one of Tom’s colleagues, a 30-something Indian software engineer, had been killed over the weekend in an auto accident in Delhi, where we’re headed next. Traffic accidents are not a surprise in this country given the sheer craziness that dominates the roads, but for such a young, promising professional to perish in his prime was. Death, it seems, is everywhere…even at the beach.
With every visit, we’ve encountered a canine corpse and loads of refuse lining the shore. During our last visit, Kieran found a keepsake he insisted on taking home, the broken neck of a terra cotta pot. I worried it was too heavy and sharp to haul back to the house, but he begged, and who am I to deny a kid I’ve stripped of all his worldly playthings a momentary shot at happiness? As soon as we got back, he broke out a Sharpie and lovingly decorated his newfound treasure. Soon thereafter, Gopi, the director of RSO, came up to our room to check out some photos of the kids Tom had been working on on the computer. Kieran was traipsing around with the pot on his head. Gopi gasped. “Kieran, where did you get that.” “At the beach.” “You must never bring these things back here,” Gopi explained gravely. “Why?” we asked. Are they too dangerous? “This is for the dead people.” “The what?” “They burn the dead people and put the ashes in these pots and then throw them into the ocean.”
Ohhhhh. So Kieran had been frolicking around the house using someone’s coffin as a hat. Oops. Major cultural faux pas. Gopi’s mood lightened as he laughed it off with us, and we promised never to repeat our mistake.
If in three weeks we can encounter so much shaking off of the mortal coil, imagine what life must be like for Indians who have large extended networks of friends, family, employees, and co-workers. Spiritual strength, temporal courage, and even a bit of levity are required to deal with its pervasiveness. Even so, we’ll probably never get used to sights like this…
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