Death in the evening
Posted on: 08 Sep 2010
Death makes its visit in so many bizarre ways, especially these days its so. News papers are full of such stories. Being run over by a speeding vehicle is normal. It does not startle us anymore than the news of a cow being trapped in a sewer. So it as if newer and newer methods have been invented by humankind to end a person's life. A coconut tree breaks into two and a mother and child are crushed to death. A girl tossing peanuts into her mouth lying down as she read her book is suffocated and dies in hospital. A person driving an ambulance carrying a very sick person who is counting minutes rather than days, might be killed not when his vehicle overturns, but it might so happen that the vehicle hits the railing of a bridge and the driver, instead of the sick person, is thrown into the water and dies drowning. The next day we can read it in the newspaper. Recently a man tried to hang himself but he was not lucky. The rope gave way and he hit the floor only to die. Therefore, a very important decision he took for himself could not be carried out. We wonder how many different ways have been invented to bring the curtains down
on life's drama.
However, it is sad. When I think of my brother's death. What comes to my mind vividly is the sheaf of hair on his head just before the pyre was lit because that was the only portion of his unremarkable body I could see. Logs had already been piled upon his lifeless body and it was very late and cold too for the logs to be removed to allow me to have a last look at his face. It was a wintry day in New Delhi and people who had gathered at the crematorium for performing the last rites were justifiably
concerned about the deepening night and the chill. Since I travelled from far I was the only person to arrive late. By the time I reached the place night had already fallen. In the crematorium the trees stood still, as only they can, impatient to go to sleep as people moved about. It was over soon. Though he was elder to me, ever since his death I have become elder to him, time has stood still for him whereas it had moved on for me.
A few months previously, I had bid farewell to him in a small railway station for the last time in very strange way, the strangeness not apparent to me then. Railway stations are places that induce in us a feeling of the passage of time. It seems to us that everybody at the station goes about his or her work lazily and in a predetermined way, whereas only we are in a hurry to leave.
I had wanted to wave my hands at him. So I remained at the station until the train left. However, it was not to be. His train was the first to arrive at the station and he boarded it and took his seat by the side of the window. Meanwhile, another train had come from the opposite direction and blocked my view. After sometime the second train blew its whistle and pulled away, only to leave me stranded because the train carrying my brother had already left. I could see it turning the bend and heading towards south leaving behind Ezhimala, the blue hill as a backdrop at a distance. He had expressed some worries as train travelers do before boarding it, but instead of pacifying him, I was dismissive and rather curt. It still rankles. It is too late. There is no way to say sorry to a dead person, it has not yet been invented. When I was a small boy, he used to accompany me to the
railway station trying to mitigate my homesickness as I left for my uncle's house to continue my studies. My brother died in a hospital due to some complications arising out of infection. What remains is the memory of that sheaf of hair, which normally
was unbending even after a lot coaxing with coconut oil.
Gangadhareettan also died in a hospital after struggling with the poison that inched its way up mixing its bluish tinge with that of the red of his blood. The Blue Nile watered his veins and killed him. He was my neighbor at that time, unemployed having lost his job as a ticket checker in a private bus company. He was married but the couple had no children. He was middle aged with a big moustache and portly. Persons with that sort of physiognomy and appearance have become rare these days, as one more malayali characteristic has disappeared from the scene. Those types only exist in artistic films now, so it was not surprising that he resembled Malayalam film actor Aziz but with some sprinkling of humor in his eyes. He used to regale us with stories containing sexual details and so was popular. One day as he was heading home at night he was bitten by a snake in a dark footpath littered with dry leaves. All of us used to take that risk when walking that path without the help of torches made of dry coconut leaves or torches with batteries. It was a narrow passage with mounds of earth acting as walls on both
sides. Even during the day, snakes are found in the vicinity. We in the village always tempted fate that way, as villagers everywhere do, risking life and injury to limbs. Some times, we were not lucky but generally it was peaceful coexistence with other creatures.
Occassionally a dog will turn rabid and people would chase it with thick pestles and kill it. Nevertheless, snakes were attacked brutally and killed mercilessly. The level of awareness was such that we felt that they had no right to exist, eat, procreate and die
normal deaths. A snake had bitten my father when he was a small boy. He hid that fact from the family for fear of losing his food at night.
Usually we had instant remedies for all sorts of emergencies but it is surprising that we did not have any for snakebites even at a place such as ours abounding in all sorts of snakes. Gangadharettan was carried home that night and immediately treatment
was launched, a healer was brought in. Volunteers were dispatched to collect herbs and medicinal leaves as night thickened. In hindsight, the fatal mistake was not taking him to a hospital or seeking help of a proper doctor. It is now quarter century since that incident, people at that time retained their perilous faith in medicine men.
As I had gone to sleep early, I was not aware of the commotion at my neighbor's house. Though the window overlooked his house I had closed it owing to the cold. Just before I fell asleep, I was aware of some faint noises coming from his house. But there was some distance between our houses and the noise was not loud enough to disturb me. Therefore, it was only in the morning that I came to know of the incident. His sister had come to my house, looking for something to be used as an
ingredient in the concoction for treatment. 'What is it chechi?' I asked.
Even in her distress, a very faint smile appeared on her face as she answered. What she said was true. I had seen persons searching for all sorts of things for medicines. Once a person came to our house looking for the root of a marigold plant, which had flower with red colour on its petals. However, the plant was not rare but it was special. It was to be used in a preparation to treat a person bitten by a rabid dog. I never knew what the fate of the man was as the person who had come to collect the root had come from far. People had lots of faith in roots. Plants, herbs and leaves and leeches. I had seen another healer using leeches to suck supposedly dirtied blood from a man's legs. The leeches dutifully hung on the person's leg and did what was bid of them. They had been collected from paddy fields and kept in bottles filled with water.
The first healer who had started the treatment had already told the man's relatives that they would have to bring another healer because the case was serious and complicated for him to handle. He explained to those of us around him about a special method to draw the poison out.
'Cut the hind portion of a chicken and put that on the wound. The dying chicken's body will suck the poison out. But for that you need to kill a lot of birds.' Then he took out a cigarette, lit it and blew smoke for emphasis. I did not know whether he had seen such an act performed or he believed in it himself. In the morning, a messenger was dispatched, as in the olden days when people set on foot to bring the news of death or invitations to weddings. In most cases, foot was the only mode of transport.
Messengers have a peculiar role to play in the treatment of snakebites. They covered long distances on foot. They arrived at the house of the healer with dusty feet and sullen eyes at odd hours, seeking help for their relatives or neighbors often
asking for directions on the way, as they would have only general information about the locality. The healer then interpreted certain signs apparent to him by observing the nature of the arrival of the messenger, his demeanor, the time, and accordingly was able to judge weather the case was serious, the type of snake that caused the injury, how much chance
the patient has and all the other details required to arrive at a decision. He would ask probing questions, all the time his mind working to read some signs. The healers were sometimes reluctant to intervene for fear of risking damage to their reputation, especially those who had built up legendary status as curers of snakebites. They just washed their hands off and kept their fame unsullied. They would have gathered enough stories of cure around them by then to be worried about the consequences of running away from a challenge.
In the morning, I went to Gangadhareettans house without any idea about how serious he was. I had never seen a person under going treatment for snakebite. It was more horrifying and sad than I expected. The treatment had already begun. He was
lying on a bed spread on the floor. He was surprisingly calm as he spoke a few words as a good host to all those who came visiting him as his sisters busied themselves with the preparation of medicine. He seemed to be able to control himself as he watched the scene around him. As required by the first healer people had already gone looking for a famous healer who himself, as the story goes, was the guru of the first one. The messengers then returned with the news that the healer had refused to come. He said that his coming was of no use. Perhaps he saw portents in the air that bode ill for the patient and withdrew sheepishly. As treatment continued, the situation was changing for the worse. Then entered a third healer, who was from the govt. hospital. The next day the famous healer who had declined to come earlier had a change of mind and paid a
belated visit in starched Dothy and long shirt. Perhaps he wanted to confirm his reading that the man had been struck fatally by a poisonous snake. This intrusion was certainly resented by the other healer and a quarrel ensued, heated words were exchanged between the two in front of the bystanders and finally the famous healer left the scene after the customary chewing of the Betel leaf. He spit the red Betel juice out, arranged his towel on his shoulder and walked away into the bright sun. They had disagreed on the methods employed for the treatment. That was that. The acts and scenes were following one another quickly and had started gathering speed. The final curtain was a few days away.
The world of Gangadherettan was becoming smaller by the hour. Death hid among leaves in the bright day and at night, it lurked in the corners. He still lay on the floor clutching a towel that was tied to the bar of the window. Perhaps he could see
the sky through the window, the faces of people peeping through it. He might have felt that the circle was drawing closer and tight. He was being hemmed in. It was the third day. The healer who sat on a wooden chair near the patient, passed comments freely as he was voluble and pitiless. He had the superior air of a man who among the gathering was the only person in charge of the situation. In the meantime, Gangadherettan had started making some involuntary gestures with his hands. His hands started groping on the wall as if trying to pluck something out of there. The healer perhaps correctly interpreted this as a sign and explained what it meant.
'The patient is nearing death. The movement of the hands is a sign of that' As the wind blew, the flame trembled. The words were spoken clearly as though challenging everybody to come forward and disprove it, and that too within the earshot
of the dying man. The verdict was unambiguous. Silence prevailed. Only a cruel chuckle was missing at the end of the sentence. Perhaps he was not cruel; perhaps it was the ethic and the spirit of the times that caught hold of him, or he wanted to show that he already had known what was coming. Gangadharettan received those words with his face remaining expressionless. Only his eyes shifted without any sense of direction.
Finally, the healer made a last attempt at saving life behind closed doors. As was his wont, he explained that procedure too. A large vessel was filled with hot water and he sprinkled it on the body of the patient accompanied with chanting of mantras. That was what he told us. His kidneys had failed by then. A doctor was summoned and on his advice, he was removed to the govt. hospital at Kannur 45 miles away from our village. The end came a few days later. I can still recollect his last journey as his body lay in the courtyard of his house on a makeshift stretcher made of bamboo poles to be covered in the customary red cloth and carried away.
(C.P.Vijayakrishnan is Deputy Editor, Mathrubhumi Kozhikode. Contact at email@example.com )