I have always been fascinated by death. I don’t really know when it started, this pre-occupation with mortality. The earliest I remember being seduced by the thought of death was in the mid-eighties. Indira Gandhi had just been assassinated by her own bodyguards and the assassin had been sentenced to death. By hanging.
Being all of four, I didn’t really know what hanging meant. I asked my Dad and he explained. Me being curious, I asked for all the gory details. He told me how they would get a last meal, be taken to the gallows after midnight, their face covered in a black cloth, hiding their pale, bloodless, fear-ridden face. The lever was yanked by the hangman and the body would plunge. The eyes would be pushed out of the sockets and the man would lose control of his bladder and wet himself. Maybe my Dad didn’t go into so much detail but he was pretty elaborate. He was shocked the next day when I drew a picture of a man hung by the neck, eyes bulging and pee running down one leg.
I was mesmerized. Not at the thought of someone dying or justice being done. I was fascinated with the image of a man knowing he was going to die and not being able to do anything about it. The concept of a last meal, ‘Who would want to eat anything?’, I thought. I wondered about the mother and the family of the guy about to be hanged. What must go through their minds? Would they close their eyes and imagine the pain? Would they dream about the cold, shivering face of their son or brother? Would they wish that they could hold his hand through this ordeal, this journey into the unknown? Would they silently pray and pretend that the journey would be peaceful, knowing in their hearts, that it would be anything but?
Much later, I would renew my interest in Indira Gandhi’s assassination, when I visited Delhi and went to Indira Gandhi’s house, now a museum. They’ve displayed the saree which she wore when she was shot, the bullet holes clearly visible. Goosebumps.
Over the years, this death obsession has come and gone. If I come across something gruesome, it usually haunts me for days. I try and imagine myself in that position. When Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by a suicide bomber, there was a picture in India Today of the moment just before the bomb went off. Rajiv had a smile on his face, bending down to greet the person touching his feet. I would pretend to be Rajiv in my mind, bend over and imagine how it would feel to have my head blown off.
If by now, you think I’m some sort of weirdo, you would not be entirely wrong.
In our second year of medical school, we had forensic medicine as a subject. This entailed us having to attend post-mortems for two weeks. Post-mortems are depressing, and stinky. Really stinky. My friends and I used to douse a handkerchief with a perfume one of us used to carry (Boss by Hugo Boss) and hold it to our noses. I still can’t use that perfume to this day, takes me back to the autopsy room. In related news, if anyone wants that bottle of Hugo Boss, it’s yours.
One day, we were in the autopsy room and there was a body of a lady who had just been burned to death by her in-laws because her parents didn’t meet their dowry demands. Her time of death was 11am and here we were, at 1pm, staring at her body. All I could think of was that, 2 hours ago, this lady was screaming away. Crying in pain. When the autopsy commenced, they opened up her stomach to collect the stomach contents and half digested bhindi (okra) flowed out. The doctor conducting the autopsy casually spouted “Oh look, her lunch.” I almost lost mine.
As a resident in obstetrics and gynecology, I was posted at a peripheral hospital, where we lost a patient to postpartum haemorrhage. I knew that patient, followed her for more than 6 months, we had a relationship. There was no indication beforehand that she’d land up with such a complication, no effort was spared in her resuscitation. She just bled away. On being informed of her death, her husband didn’t know how to react. He said “But she was fine this morning, she made lunch for me, didn’t have any problems… How did this happen?” Medically, it’s hard to explain that sometimes, shit happens. Sometimes, you’re just destined to be a statistic, against all odds. Looking at that clammy, ashen body, suturing the wound of this now dead lady, I couldn’t think. I was imagining what her last moments must have been like. Slowly, the lights fading.
There would be many such times when I’d go back into this death spiral. But, a few stand out.
Recently, on the 26th of November 2008, Mumbai was attacked by Islamic extremists. It was shockingly close to home. So many people that we knew were at the Taj or the Oberoi hotels. Some of them we knew very well, one in particular. This upstanding gentleman was on his way to the airport when he was called back by his friend to meet up at ‘Tiffin’, the upmarket restaurant at the Oberoi. Apparently, he sought his counsel for some business affair. He was one of the persons herded up by the militants and hauled up 20 flights of stairs and then shot. They were all made to stand against a wall and were fired upon. The friend who called him there, survived, by pretending to be dead for 4 days, ignoring the decomposing smell of his friend’s body and those of 20 others next to him. I always imagine that they never really would’ve thought they’d die. Something would happen, some rescue, maybe an elaborate prank. After all, who ever imagines their death at the hands of terrorists, taking a bullet to the face?
Do you guys remember that Nina Ricci perfume ad? The one with the gorgeous russian supermodel, Ruslana? The one featuring pink apples? Ruslana committed suicide in 2008 and is now the subject of a documentary. I read an article in Newsweek about it recently. Ruslana killed herself by jumping off her balcony. The funny thing is, she didn’t just take a step off her balcony. Her body was found 8.5 meters away from the building edge. She didn’t just jump off, she ran and leaped off, almost soared. Flew to her death. No traces of alcohol or drugs were found in her blood or urine. Insane.
Is it wrong that this fascinates me? Does it reflect an inner fear or some forgotten emotional trauma? Am I wrong? Do I need help? I’ve never felt the need to get myself assessed because of this. The fascination has never escalated beyond the point where I felt the need to do something stupid.
Till the time there is death I guess, there will always be death voyeurs. I’m not a death voyeur but I certainly won’t turn my back on a gruesome scene. I have this incessant need to know everything about it. What they felt, I’ll never know. But, I’ll keep imagining it.