Memento Mori


By Malangba Bangormayum

Heard that his mother passed away. I called him to express my condolences. “She didn’t suffer. It all came to pass in a matter of a few minutes”, he told me. She was mother to six children. My friend was her youngest son, the fifth of six. Last time when I visited my friend, six months ago, I met her. She prepared me tea as I was about to leave. She had been through a minor heart attack. She was on medication for a skin condition for a very long – as long as my friend could remember. Though very fragile, not because of age but because of the drugs, one could still see that she must have been an extraordinary beauty at one point of time. That tea, I felt, had to be cherished considering the situation and the health condition of the one who was making and offering it. “Black-tea without sugar” brings amusement to many. She too was amused this time, as she was before. That tea became the last, a brief one, over which we had a conversation. I had to run somewhere.

Tea-drinking in some cultures have been taken to a different order. One can find the phenomenon of ritualised tea-drinking in these cultures where tea-drinking becomes a symbol of the value of everydayness and the significance of the moment. The acts of serving and receiving tea are done in the background of the realization that, that particular moment of togetherness might be the last. This could be a deeply unnerving realisation. The inevitability of death is unsettling. It can overpower, it can terrorize. The spectre of death, one’s own death could be frightening. But, it could be taken, and has been taken, as a launch-pad towards unimaginable freedom, wisdom and compassion: compassion towards oneself to start with. Death as the inevitable could give a perspective, perhaps the only anchorable perspective to life. Death can impregnate life with meaning, which otherwise could be an absurdity. If this makes sense then death becomes the reason for celebrating life, celebrating the moment. Death as an inevitable eventuality can make us realise eternity in the moment. To have lived a moment well is to have experienced eternity.

In some religions, the monks keep human skulls in their chambers. These relics of the transient nature of life are known as memento mori: a memento of the potentiality of one’s own death; the inevitable event, the inescapable horizon of the momentary ‘blip’ of one’s consciousness in the un-hemmed and infinite unknown. There is this church father. He was born in Tamil Nadu. In terms of age there is a big difference but circumstances have brought us together as friends. He told me, in one of our conversations over tea, that when he dies he shall be buried in a cemetery in Dimapur. It is part of their way of life to prepare their own grave while living. And he has prepared his there. They also have silent evening prayers, which are in preparation for the moment of death. They prepare to be ready to have a ‘happy’ death, with the grace of God. If one comes to think of it, there is an aspect of this attitude of acceptance of death in our community. We have a kind of tithing towards the wood for one’s own funeral pyre. This everydayness of death has to come with a certain maturity of consciousness.

I have always marvelled at courage in the face of death. When you don’t have something; it could happen that you marvel at it all the more. I have in mind the collected courage of the samurai warrior while crossing swords or religiously disembowelling oneself; the tranquillity of the one who said, “Tell them I had a good life” when breathing his last. I have marvelled how they could face death with such equanimity. The answer seems to lie in the preparation for, and acceptance of death.

When I was a school-going boy, I used to wait for the school bus in front of the crematorium. There was not much choice because that was the designated stop. Sometimes, the thought used to come that one day I too shall be going through those gates – horizontally.

An event of birth could be a plurality of events depending on how many different calendars you commit to. Though the event of one’s birth is the same for both the moon and the sun, the event’s return would be different according to different ways of marking days and seasons. It surprises many of my friends from other communities when I tell them that I have two birthdays. One, my mother celebrates by offering prayers to the Lord. One I celebrate with friends. The first one my mother celebrates with a preparation of kheer. The latter, I, were I a bit younger or a bit more trendy, would have celebrated with cakes and candles, things which my son associates with birthdays.

I was born on the day of a festival. And lovingly, this student of my father called me by the name of that festival. According to the tale that my mother tells me, he got the milk for the preparation of the kheer that is customary. He knew that my family was hard-pressed for money, so he got it. He passed away three years ago. I still owe him something for that milk that he got for my first ‘birthday celebration’. Or, is it my petty mind doing a mental transaction of what is owed and what is due? My birthday is round the corner. The festival on which I was born is coming. Let me celebrate it, and with it let me repay some part of the debts that I have incurred.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here