The forecast on the phone says, “rain throughout the day”. It’s perhaps ten in the morning, maybe eleven; I am happy about not being on a clock. I step out into the balcony. It feels as if I was last here a long time ago. The sky is overcast, and it might rain as the day progresses. I notice my bougainvillea. It’s already winter, but they are blooming. I can’t recall the last time I observed them up close, or any of the other plants in the balcony for that matter; even watering them was delegated to the house cleaner months ago. Many of them have overgrown, and some have weeds as tall as I remember those plants themselves – beautiful weeds nonetheless. I see the open-air gym equipment in the opposite park; I don’t know when these were installed. When life is on a treadmill, one stops paying attention.
Until the universe jolts you back.
When my father was diagnosed with his virulent lung ailment three years ago, he was already in a phase of life where he would be irritated with himself about small things that he couldn’t manage to do: climbing a flight of stairs, going for a long walk, changing car tyres, or eating heartily at a wedding without upsetting his stomach the next day. Most of it, perhaps, is just ageing. Parts of it, maybe, is contributed by his ailments. We grew up hearing stories about him carrying an entire sack of wheat on his back, which would then be washed thoroughly, soaked in the sun, and hand-grinded in a small stone mill by my grandmother. Or about one of his childhood friends I have met several times, who still can’t hear very well with his left ear because my father slapped him hard during an altercation in his younger days. About his travels far and wide across India on shoestring budgets, and his long inter-city office commutes in rickety government buses in the then roadless state of Bihar. By talking about them more often, he seemed to long for his days of strength and vitality. He sold off his old scooter a few years ago and switched to a simpler electric-start two-wheeler because the scooter was too heavy, the engine’s ignition required arduous kicks, and the machine was getting difficult to drive. Now he drives the new two-wheeler slowly, and almost never drives his own car.
Mortality is a difficult subject. It’s not something one would pick as a conversational topic in gatherings. Nor is it something one would think deeply about over evening coffee after returning from work. And yet, it’s cognizance is all-pervasive in culture. There are tomes of eclectic prose on the inevitability of death, and plentiful exquisite poetry on the beauty of it. Somewhere, it’s associated with solemn pride, elsewhere with liberation, and in yet another context with transcendence to another life. “May you live long” is almost a universal blessing. Perhaps this assumption of the primacy of human breath isn’t completely unfounded; everything else, all the thoughts, actions, hopes, despair exist and create a living experience defined by the existence of the breath.
However, perhaps breathing isn’t sufficient in itself. One doesn’t merely desire to live longer, but – and this is seldom acknowledged – one wants to live with agency. It’s not about how many constraints of flesh and bone can be conquered by biology to prolong health and survival, what ultimately matters is the agency left for the body to observe, think, act, share, and experience. I notice my balcony closely now. I feel my own breath, and the faint fragrance of flowers, leaves, and soil mixed with it. I feel the chill of the air burnishing my skin. It has begun raining, and the fragrances change yet again. What portent can be greater than the grace that manifests in all this abundance? And what fortune is greater than my agency to observe all this?