The banality of deathWhat makes us assume that the lives of our fellow beings are expendable?
An obituary of Indian sociologist Yogendra Singh published in EPW magazine last week said he had 'died peacefully' while having breakfast. How can death be peaceful, I asked myself. Would his 'breakfast-death', if we could call it that, have been more pertinent had he been a food connoisseur? By that logic, British chef Gordon Ramsay might want to in his kitchen, yelling at his subordinates and throwing plates in every direction.
How'd you like your death if given a choice? Those who naively believe in the invincibility of their mortal lives may call this question invalid. Those who've accepted the infallibility of death may ask, ‘Why'd I even care how I die as long as I'm allowed to choose how I live?’ But those who do not so much as compromise between poached or sunny-side-up eggs for breakfast would certainly like to make a choice if there were one—a dignified death over an undignified one.
What constitutes a dignified death, though? Perhaps it is contingent upon the dignity of life that preceded it.
Many years ago, when an old neighbour of ours, an ex-rifleman, died when in his bathroom, I heard my mother say he had died an auspicious death. He had slipped and fallen to his death when taking a bath—and so the death was possibly an avoidable accident—but my mother still interpreted the death in her own way: The old man had, indeed, been metaphorically cleansing himself of the good, bad and ugly of this mortal world and preparing himself for an afterlife.
My mother's interpretation of the death of the old man—we do not know whether he'd appreciate a 'bathing-death'—made me aware that death is not just a private event that marks the culmination of life, but is also a public act that is open to a multitude of interpretations and afterlives. The caste-killings in Rukum (West), the Covid-19 fatalities, and the hunger and exhaustion deaths, among others, in the past several weeks in Nepal, have emphasised that the very act of our living—and ultimately dying—is also political.
We’ve been deeply disturbed by those deaths, even wishing if those individuals had had the privilege to live and die in dignity as they wished. But even as we mourn and deconstruct their deaths, we need to ask ourselves if we are willing to acknowledge the deeply rooted indignities that constitute our society. If we’d like to die a dignified death if given a choice, are we also willing to honour the life—and death—of fellow humans? After all, dignity, the virtue that acknowledges and values an individual's self-worth despite our differences—of caste, class, gender, ethnicity, religion and nationality, among others—with them, is the prerequisite of a humane society. To mourn those undignified deaths, we need to be able to step down from our metaphorical fences of privilege and indifference and engage in an empathetic relationship with other mortals.
No sight of death is eye-pleasing. Our eyes are trained only to appreciate the seeable and avoid the unsightly. We’re rightly shocked to see the corpses of Nawaraj Bishwakarma and his friends who were lynched and thrown into the Bheri River; of Surya Bahadur Tamang, a daily wager who died on a pavement in Kirtipur; of Malar Sada of Saptari whose life ended after fighting hunger pangs for four days; of Birendra Kumar Yadav who passed away of exhaustion at the Jatahi check post near the Indo-Nepal border after walking for 17 days to reach his homeland from his workplace in India.
Our shock at the sight of those deaths is, however, a bit rich even by our own standards of hypocrisy. We're pretending to see them only after they became a public spectacle. We’re either exaggerating our rage against the untimely deaths of those individuals just to feel good about ourselves or finding excuses to blame the deaths onto the dead themselves. Either way, our collective mourning appears a thespian act rather than a genuine willingness to dismantle inherited structural injustices. For, those deaths are not independent occurrences but a result of our selective blindness to the indignities our fellow humans have been subjected to. The mourning, thus, needs to be accompanied by a commitment to undo social hierarchies, or it’ll only be a means to cleanse ourselves of our collective guilt.
Dignity in life and death
If we need a reference point, Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights not only provides us with rights of dignity but also mandates us to act in a way that helps restore the dignity of others when it says, ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood’. To be able to live with dignity is, therefore, an inalienable right of a human being.
Although there is no mention of the term 'death' in the Declaration, Article 5 makes it clear that ‘No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment’. Closer to home, the 2015 Constitution also guarantees people’s rights to life, property, equality and liberty although it has failed to translate the spirit of the letter into action.
No declaration or constitution should even be necessary to remind ourselves that the universal quest for human dignity is evident to us if we are to consider this seemingly mundane question: How would we like our death? Would we be okay with being killed when we are on our way to marry our beloved; or when we are out looking for food; or when we are on our way back to our homeland? Or, would we like to die an auspicious, peaceful death while having breakfast or taking a bath in our private spheres, assured that our death won’t be banalised by a public spectacle?
What do you think?
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