During dinner at our home in New York, where he ate frugally and judiciously avoided all liquor and sweets, the iconic Bollywood star Dev Anand talked about death and finality. He was always frank and open about any issue. He respected my career as a journalist and never shied away from tough questioning or querying. What was most interesting during that particular conversation was his positive attitude to life, even as he engaged in a disquieting discussion about mortality and transience. He was completely rational about death, life merely flowed neatly into it, he explained, so what was there to be afraid of or the need to be preoccupied by it. Just concentrate on living and doing what you enjoy best, he said. That was Dev’s core philosophy.
He also commented that he wanted no fanfare when he passed on, he just wanted to go quietly wherever he was. He preferred the Western approach to the end: no hysteria, no spectacle, no drama. A private ceremony. A discreet conclusion. And that was precisely how it came about. Dev died suddenly in his hotel room in London of a heart attack, at the age of 88. His only son Suneil took care of all the rites and rituals necessary in the British capital itself, following that up with a simple tribute held later in Mumbai to honour his father’s memory.
Compared with the dignity of Dev’s departure, like a comet spinning off silently into the night sky, the circus and disturbing display surrounding Sridevi’s death baffled me. I don’t know who was to blame for my discomfort: the merciless and relentless media filling us in on every minute detail for four full days, facts on one channel clashing brazenly with others, as they indulged in superfluous, superficial and distasteful speculation; the hysterical fans and oglers who came out to watch the crème de la crème of Bollywood on parade, most dressed in white, heads bent, hiding behind huge designer eye-wear while clutching their mobiles (even in death, technology cannot take a back seat!); the Dubai authorities with their accidental drowning verdict repeated day after day ad nauseum for three excruciating days. The entire tragedy turned into a tamasha instead of a time for retrospection and a sense of calm: something the lovely lady projected in her life.
The most disturbing aspect was evident at the funeral procession. Huge crowds milled on both sides of the passing cortege, beautifully bedecked with rows and rows of white flowers. Their hands were raised straight up in the air as if responding to a chant glorifying the late actor. A closer look, however, showed that they all had mobiles in their hands, busy clicking snapshots of the motorcade. Such a sad response. A prayerful silence with heads bowed as Sridevi made her final journey to the crematorium would have been far more appropriate.
As a nation, we appear to be a hysterical lot. On the one hand, we preach detachment and yoga, extolling meditation and mental strength, which the West has lapped up in its desire to reduce stress and fervour in their lives. But on the other we love to transform everything into a feverish, frenetic, chaotic show. I have personally witnessed shrieking, wailing, chest beating women in many parts of India when confronted with a death, friends sitting by their side urging them on to cry some more. When I asked onlookers about the need for this excessive demonstration of emotion, they explained that if the bereaved family members did not carry on so, it would seem they were not sufficiently affected by the tragedy. Compare this agitated state with the dignity of Major Kumud Dogra who carried her five-day-old baby girl in her arms, stiff upper lip, to pay her last respects to husband Wing Commander Dushyant Vats who had been killed in a fiery plane crash in Assam. Or the poise and classic demeanour of Jackie Kennedy, clutching the hands of her two young children, as they walked together behind the caisson carrying US President John F. Kennedy’s coffin from the White House to St. Matthews Cathedral, where the funeral Mass was held, and then on to burial at Arlington National Cemetery. Such valiant, elegant women. Their courage, resilience and indomitable spirit, while bidding their partners farewell, are an inspiration. Death is an intrinsic component of karma and we should accept it with the fortitude and forbearance of mature adults. It is fine to grieve, to cry, to sob, but not to elevate it to histrionics and drama-queen status.
In an abstract published in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, Bengaluru-based scholar and psychologist Dharitri Ramaprasad attempts to understand emotions and distress from the Indian traditional point of view. “In our philosophical texts, the view of emotion lays emphasis on desire as the root cause of emotional upheaval,” she writes. “Desires are seen as arising from the contact and attachment of the ego or ahamkara with the external world and are caused by a sense of imperfection, incompleteness or non-fulfillment. Ego or ahamkara is distinct from the true Self or atman… Patanjali’s Yoga shastra indicates that suffering is due to ignorance about one’s true Self (avidya). Hence, suffering or dukha arises from within and not from the outside world. The Bhagvadgita which traces all emotional experiences to the gunas, (sattva, rajas, and tamas) and the Natyashastra of Bharathamuni have contributed to the understanding of emotional experiences by underlining the recommended path for self-transformation. Regulating emotions, both emotional experience and emotional expression, is an integral part of the recommended Principles of Living.”