When death rattles the gate

When I hear that someone died, my first thought always is, “Well, that’s what people do.” I don’t mean to sound cocky but even though I haven’t lost too many people close to me to the unavoidable oblivion, I’m conditioned to death and destruction. Every day, I walk to work on the perilous national highway. I’d witness an accident or what remains of an accident at least once a week. Many a Monday morning, I’ve walked over streaks of dried blood and stepped over shattered glass. Perhaps that’s why I’ve become a little hard on the inside, and cold about reacting to news of death.

However, when I heard a colleague passed away yesterday, I realised that even I’m not all parched on the inside.

He wasn’t a friend, and so we seldom conversed. Though we sat in close proximity to one another, we didn’t work on the same projects, and so both os us were happy not forcing small talk.

But I knew him and he knew me.

He’d spend his day making phone calls to customers while I spend my day hunched over my keyboard writing to customers. Our work lives pivoted on the same matters, even though our paths never crossed.

Sometimes, when he’d pick up a call, I’d pick up my headphones because I wouldn’t want to get distracted by his whimsical narratives to people halfway across the world. Despite that though, I’ve observed him.

I know his routine: He reaches the office at 10 but comes to his place at around 10.15 clutching a cup of coffee, he skips breakfast and grabs an early lunch so that he wouldn’t miss much of his shift time, and as the clock strikes eight in the evening he gathers his things ready to leave. He’d then commute an hour to reach home.

I know all of this because I’ve seen him at it—every day for months together. I’ve had no reason to strike up a conversation, but he was an active part of my routine, too. Perhaps that’s why I went blank when I heard he was dying. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t work, I couldn’t write to customers without him nearby, chatting with customers.

I’m not grieving his loss — why would I grieve someone I didn’t even know? And yet, ever since I heard the news, abstracts of his conversations with others keep ringing in my ear. He hated artificial sugar — he once explained to new recruits in our team that they shouldn’t ever add sugar to their coffee. He vouched for natural sweetness, mocking those who claimed refined sugar is, indeed, refined. And I’ve seen him smile and decline when people offered chocolate—and yet, he’d always bring candy for his friends from his trips abroad.

Sitting at my desk, I wondered why my mind wouldn’t drift away from this man I knew so well, yet knew nothing about. Memories flooded one after the other as I thought of a distant afternoon when we sat in a meeting proofreading a slide show presentation for a common friend. We both discussed — debated — the use of American spelling over the more rightful British spelling. We both preferred the British version, but when I suggested we use American, which is more familiar to our audience, he shrugged in a casual way. He just couldn’t accept “z” in the stead of “s”.

It’s the little things that linger the longest. I didn’t have to talk to him for hours over a coffee to understand his tastes, I didn’t have to spend time and money outside of work to get to know him. I can still picture his almost-always black shirt, his swaying walk and the skip in his step, the whisper of a song on his lips. I didn’t have to be his friend for his death to impact me.

For me he was one of five-thousand colleagues, one of fifty team members, one of twenty cubicle mates. People die all the time; he’s no different. Except that this time, I felt it a little closer than I had expected.

Till death parts us

As coffee water—

abused wife, yet loyal bitch

tradition infused.

Lifesaver

“We’re talking about a life here!” With hands on her hips, Jane stood in the middle of the room, eyes and voice livid. She was addressing the lawmaker, her father, who sat smoking his pipe, cradling the arm of his couch.

“Calm down, Janet,” he spoke in a gruff, unperturbed voice, “Don’t strain yourself.”

“But,” she protested, “I’ve known Marigold all my life. They can’t slaughter her just because she’s growing. It’s unfair. We have to fight them!”

Her gazed at her teary eyes. “Don’t lose hope, yet. We’re in the right. The council may still reprieve your mango tree.”

Just a moment

Some moments in life, though fleeting, last a lifetime as memories. The first ray of light that breaks through the darkness, walking out like her majesty from behind a veil, to cast her arms of sunshine on the world anticipating her gaze; the fleeting, half-hidden moment before she reveals herself to us—that’s a memory that would sit forever in my mind. Like a longer-lasting flash, the sun rose from the depths of the night to the heights of the day—all in a matter of minutes. On the Kangchenjunga mountain, we waited from 4 am for the sun to show up. Because no two sunrises are the same and no two seconds during the rise are alike. If that’s not evanescent, what else is?

Sunrise in Kanchenjunga

What is a book to me?

When reading a novel, a short story, or a work of non-fiction, I don’t think about anything other than the story that the words in front of me tell me. I don’t care how the writer felt when they conceived the idea, how they strove to string words with words, how inviting the couch seemed when they had work to do. I don’t think about the trauma, the self-doubt, or the fleeting convictions a writer endures before they even get through the first paragraph of what they’ve imagined as a five hundred-page New York Times bestseller.

Holding a book, caressing the hardcover, flipping over to read the blurb, I’ve never even spared a thought about how a writer looks at their book. Published writers, I found out, have varied perspectives about their books. For some it’s a task — a taxing, yet compulsory process they need to endure to hear themselves speak their minds. For some others, like Anne Bradstreet, it’s like giving birth. I came across her poem where she says what it means to her to write and sell a book.

Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain,

It took me a while to understand the depth of her emotions, to appreciate her attitude. She extends the metaphor throughout the poem, addressing her book as a mother addressing her child. She apologises for her maternal instincts, for fussing over her child, for washing its face to make it presentable—for being a mother like any other.

I washed thy face, but more defects I saw,

And rubbing off a spot still made a flaw.

I stretched thy joints to make thee even feet,

Yet still thou run’st more hobbling than is meet;

I had always imagined, if I ever published one, that I’d be happy to put my book out, to let the world see and drop its jaws in awe. But Anne Bradstreet has a different view. She’s sad that she can’t afford a better overcoat for it, she doesn’t want to cast it away and force it to fend for itself. She wants her brainchild to live in grandeur and splendour—all the things a mother wishes for her child.

In better dress to trim thee was my mind,

But nought save homespun cloth i’ th’ house I find.

She’s helpless, a mother struggling to make ends meet, dabbling in poverty, hurting because she’s unable to supply for her child. However, though hesitant, she lets go in the end — because she has to. At last she accepts reality, gives in because the only way for her to live is to send her child out the door.

This is a wonderful poem to read again and again. Here’s the whole of it, if you’re interested.

The Author to Her Book – Anne Bradstreet

Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain,
Who after birth didst by my side remain,
Till snatched from thence by friends, less wise than true,
Who thee abroad, exposed to public view,
Made thee in rags, halting to th’ press to trudge,
Where errors were not lessened (all may judge).
At thy return my blushing was not small,
My rambling brat (in print) should mother call,
I cast thee by as one unfit for light,
The visage was so irksome in my sight;
Yet being mine own, at length affection would
Thy blemishes amend, if so I could.
I washed thy face, but more defects I saw,
And rubbing off a spot still made a flaw.
I stretched thy joints to make thee even feet,
Yet still thou run’st more hobbling than is meet;
In better dress to trim thee was my mind,
But nought save homespun cloth i’ th’ house I find.
In this array ‘mongst vulgars may’st thou roam.
In critic’s hands beware thou dost not come,
And take thy way where yet thou art not known;
If for thy father asked, say thou hadst none;
And for thy mother, she alas is poor,
Which caused her thus to send thee out of door.