There was a time when people I knew were either getting jobs, promotions, or begetting children and celebrating functions marking stages in their growth. They used to discuss problems of their admission into schools and grades in their term exams. Terms like ‘donation’ or ‘capitation fee’ were unknown. We attended weddings, birthdays, cocktail parties, soirees, dinners, and concerts.
Occasionally a remote death occurred. Rarely someone we knew died – mostly an unnatural death. An accident or an incurable disease, like cancer. I wrote letters of congratulations, or of condolence as the occasion demanded. For weddings it was wishing the new couple ‘a long and happy married life’ – till my benign boss advised me to add the word ‘fruitful’ before ‘married’. ‘You must wish them children because a married life without children is a barren existence’. I had not realized that till then. I took it for granted that marriage bred a la Mark Twain, children — and contempt. But then I looked around and found it wasn’t so in every case. So thenceforth my letters of congratulations were standardized. Of course there were exceptions in the case of close friends. Those letters were informal and light-hearted, and had some jokes about the perils of matrimony.
I tried to be original when sending a letter of condolence to those left behind. But there had to be some pontification on the inevitability of death – and our helpless in the matter. The loss of the bereaved family was always irreparable because the ‘departed soul’ became noble by its sheer exit.
Then there was another round of weddings and births in the next generation. Children had grown. They were flying off to the States, getting back for their marriage but rarely returning. We were all engaged in supplying highly skilled slaves to the U.S. But all those occasions were celebrated. Friends had all come to occupy high position and I seemed to know everybody who mattered in the town. More flattering, they seemed to know me. There were rounds of parties in the season.
Sicknesses, retirements, deaths started occurring with a greater frequency. But they were meant for others. I visited convalescing friends to wish them speedy recovery. I showed up to mumble a few words of condolence to the bereaved family. A tentative formulation, which underlined our helplessness in this Great Chaos. For no reason people were getting sick, suffering pain, dying. I put in a couplet or a ‘sloka’, which said all.
And now events, which were earlier meant for others, have started occurring to me. Superannuation – that dirty word one day was used for me. The civil list for the year listed my name under ‘wastage’. A life wasted, indeed. But too late to realize. Hypertension, angina, angioplastry, open-heart surgery, dialysis are some of the new terms which I learnt from friends who had experienced them. The talk of grandchildren dominates our infrequent encounters.
And death. That final curse. That ultimate release from misery is now claiming friends and colleagues all around. So many that I had listed in the ‘oral history references’ in my last book have already gone. The obituary column in the morning paper sets my day’s agenda. I meet friends on funerals. Autumn leaves are falling all around me. The season for condolences has come to stay.
* * *