Vantage point

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

On Someone Else's Terms

Even after all these years in the police force, I can not get accustomed to the stench of death. This job can get you used to all kinds of smells. More so in this city, whose overwhleming characteristic is not its spirit but the variety of stenches it emits. I have gotten used to the smell of stale urine, dried blood on a passed out criminal, impromptu garbage islands that dot the city, sweaty terrycot, salt pans, reluctant sea breeze... but I can not get used to the stench of death.

And the stench of death obviously hung heavy in the shamshan, the cremation grounds. I stood on the pathway leading up to the electric portion of the crematorium. Where bodies were incinerated in a few minutes. I always found electric cremation very shallow and mechanical. A burning wooden pyre helps you grieve, helps you get closure, as you see a loved one consumed by the flames gradually. In electric cremation, the only closure you get is the clink of the metal trapdoor of the oven as it shuts after you put the body in.

There were just a handful of people for his cremation. His mother, sister, a few aunts and a couple of friends. And of course me. I used to be a close friend once upon a time. Once upon a time, when we were kids, growing up in the dingy lanes of Mumbai's northern suburbs. Our friendship belonged to a much simpler time, when all that mattered was fun and games. The games served as our masters. We knew their rules because we set them. Our little world was run by our own rules, and friendship meant being in the same team in a game we own.

As we grew up though, we drifted apart. We were still playing games, but this time the rules were drawn by someone else, and the rules were as ruthless as could get. As a child, if you were out first ball in every game you played, you would still be in the team. No one would want to disocciate themselves from you because you were bad at the game. You merely got teased about it a lot. But the games we played when we grew up were not kind on the losers. The bizarre rules, whoever drew them up, required us to do everything short of jumping through hoops. There was one inane exam after another, one interview after another, promotions, pay hikes, rewards. Here the losers were rudely cast away. Yet each of us managed to find some game we were good at. One friend became an engineer, the other started writing movie scripts, the third ran his own restaurant. And I became a cop. We all internalised the rules of one game, and then lived as much of our life on our own terms as possible.

Not him. He failed at everything. He was the opposite of Midas. Everything he touched turned to crap. One failure after another, forced him to live life on someone else's terms. Every time he tried to break out of the rut and soar high, he found that the quagmire around him made it impossible to flap his wings. And he kept sinking deeper.

"Thanks for coming, beta", his mother was next to me. "He always respected you a lot."

"And I respected him, aunty. He was a good man. Very kind-hearted". Good man...kind-hearted, those were the best things you could say about him. He was not the greatest inspiration for a stirring eulogy. And I, knowing what I knew, felt even more sorry for him.

"Has the boy in the car been arrested?" she queried with a hint of anger

"He has run away to Dubai. Immediately after the accident, he realised that he had killed someone, and headed to the airport. His father is a big businessman. A lot of influence. But don't worry, aunty. I am handling this case personally. I will ensure that he goes to jail."

Some people use vindictiveness as an outlet for their extreme sorrow. Others find their extreme sorrow eclipsing their vindictiveness. Aunty clearly belonged to the first category.

"Yes, beta. I want him to hang for what he did. He feels that just because he is a big man's son, he can crush people to death?"

She thanked me once more and went to talk to some of her relatives.

A short while later, the attendant called out his name. The family started moving towards the electric oven. I couldn't take it any more. I slipped out of there and walked towards my jeep. Once I reached the jeep, I reached into my pocket and took out the note I had found on him, and read it for possibly the millionth time.

I do not wish to live in a world that is created to make me feel worthless. I am sick of living life as a complete failure. I will not lead a life without doing at least one thing on my own terms. Dying. I am ending my life in the Arabian Sea.

He had wrapped the note in a plastic bag and sealed it so it would be unharmed even after the sea had ravaged him. He was on his way to the sea late at night, but was struck by a speeding BMW while crossing the road just around 50 metres from the beach. The impact killed him on the spot.

I tore up the suicide note and shed tears for my friend who could not even die on his own terms.