Talking of death

When death is all around us, a tree can teach us about life

bijoy column

The pandemic has made it impossible to hush up death. No more “not in front of the kids”, as nearly everybody has lost someone in these last few months. If losing loved ones is not hard enough, social restrictions make the observance of death more painful. More excruciating than loss is the inadequacy of closure — crowdless funerals, solitary grieving, and the numbing statistical normalcy of it all.

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Around us, people are making a life of it. While the initial days of the pandemic were all about feverishly tracking stats, today we barely glance at the body count. We don’t talk about it. The government doesn’t talk about it. Leaders don’t talk about it. Instead, social media feeds are flooded with sage advice, cooking triumphs, exercise milestones… everything but death. 

None of this keeps death away. We only learn new ways of looking away. 

As a boy, I was haunted by the fear of death. Maybe it wasn’t death, but how the dead continued to inhabit the realm of the living.

On vacation nights, spent in a family home set in the inky darkness of rural Kerala where electricity was a skittish newcomer, the abundance of stories we consumed amplified the unspoken terror. Every juicy tale lapped up during bright daylight hours transformed at dusk into a terrifying nightmare. Ancestors lovingly memorialised on the house walls, adorned with dusty garlands of sandalwood shavings, turned into disturbing apparitions after nightfall, their knowing eyes shadowing you everywhere, seeking you out. 

Personifying death itself was the call of a mysterious bird. My grandmother, who told me things about birds, informed me of its name in Malayalam — Kaalan Kozhi, the Death Fowl. Kaalan is another name for Yama, the dark god of death who is symbolised riding a buffalo and brandishing a noose to drag away souls. This nocturnal bird was believed to announce his arrival with its quavering call.

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Decades later, under the less morbid auspices of a birdwatchers’ field club, I came to learn of the Death Fowl’s true identity. This tormented creature was a Mottled Wood-Owl, a harmless night bird that was hunted by those who feared it. Its misfortune, for no fault save that accursed voice, was to pay with its life. 

That vast backyard in Kerala, dense with undergrowth and spooky stories, had been the site of many funerals — my forebears had cremated their dead here, the spots marked by saplings of varying ages. Some had turned into lofty trees, nourished on ashes and possibly embodying the essence of the departed souls. We were warned not to venture too far deep into the backyard. Since the fear of snakes didn’t deter us children, we were served stronger admonitions: The sleeping spirit of an ancient clansman might stir, the elders warned. 

Particularly out of bounds was the Sarpa Kaavu — a sacred grove consecrated to serpents, and dominated by a lofty Yakshi Pala, the Devil’s Tree. The Yakshi, my cousins told me in hushed tones, was a tormented female spirit seeking the blood of men. Nocturnal in habit, she had back-turned feet and loose tresses that covered her hollow back. Her eyes glowed like embers and her lips were stained with betel. She seduced men of caste and led them to their doom — an erotic fantasy gone terribly amiss.

It was symbolic of a woman standing up to patriarchy, but I was too young to realise that. 

We never saw the Yakshi, but every rustle in the undergrowth evoked her name. At night, I struggled with sleep. One October night, the cloying fragrance of the nocturnal blooms sought me out, rousing me in the wee hours. I tip-toed to the window and peered at the tree. The moonlight gilded its pale white blossoms with a waxy translucence. 

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If this was an icon of death, it was certainly possessed of a seductive beauty. My icy fear was replaced with something warm and human. The tree, as alive as the rest of us, had drawn nourishment from our flesh and blood. Woodland burials may have become a fad in the West, but my ancestors had been one with these trees for years — by tradition, choosing a grove instead of a grave.

Today, we die with indignity in hospital beds, hooked up to machines to be kept alive longer than we need, attended by people who have never had a stake in our lives. The final conversations around our passing are not remembrances, but of settling insurance claims.

Death, to our ancestors, was a life event. 

And I owe it to a tree for imparting that wisdom to me. Interestingly, the Yakshi Pala also answers to the name of Blackboard Tree — its botanical name is Alstonia scholaris, and its wood has been traditionally used to make slates and blackboards for little scholars. 

Why not call it the Tree Of Life?

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