Often I find myself in funerals where I don’t seem to be moved to tears in spite of the fact that everyone around me is crying. This made me think, “Am I insensitive?” and though I did not have moist eyes even after looking at the grief around me, I knew I wasn’t.
Death is very powerful. It is the only thing that makes us aware how foolish we are to think that we are invincible. Death is a reminder when it happens to “others”. It is a gentle reminder when it happens to people we did not know very well. Sometimes, it is a funny reminder, when someone far off dies in a foolish way. We may not laugh at it, but there are deaths that we find ridiculous.
Death is sometimes a relief. When it takes away those whom we detest. Death is a necessity. It is controversial, but unavoidable when we need to preserve our self and when we need to rid the world of “threats” to our existence.
When I wasn’t moved to tears, death was for me, a formality. An inevitable event that everyone has to face. Something that is an integral part of the experience of life, that we can’t escape. In such cases, death is mundane. Sometimes, it is not even worth our tears or worth a second thought.
Above all, death is very subjective. That is why there are so many ways in which we can describe it. It means something different to people in different situations. It does not have a form. It does not even physically exist. When we cease to exist, others call it death. It is very real, yet we can never fully grasp it. We personify it and talk about it. But we never really succeed in describing it absolutely.
No matter what we may think of death, we have all thought that death is cruel. When it happens to people we love, it breaks us. For sometime, we can’t accept it. We want to overthrow it, like oppressed people want to overthrow their monarchs. We want to reverse it. We wish it happened to someone else. We imagine everything possible. However, as time passes by, we get on with our lives. The loss of loved ones create a void in us, but for others, life goes on as usual. The effect of death in such cases seems local. Very limited.
So when is death visible in all its power and splendour? When is it that it strikes a blow so hard that leaves us reeling for all eternity?
It happens at the death of a giant.
Not everyone has the capability to influence millions or maybe billions lives. Not everyone can change the way “humanity” looks at things. But every so often, when a man (or a woman) achieves that feat, he stands out. He stands tall. He towers above everyone else, people have to look up to him. He becomes greater than a mere human. He becomes a giant.
When such a giant falls to death, we all die a little. All the things he could have thought, all his visions, all the ideas that he could have had.. die with him. This leaves a void so big that it can never be filled completely. We are setback so violently that we can never fully recover.
2011 we lost Steve Jobs and Christopher Hitchens. These are people, who if I can’t even begin to describe. Stalwarts and visionaries, they weren’t known for what they did, what they did was known because of them. But, what made me write this post is the death closer home. The death of a fiercely intellectual young giant of 33 years – Ajita Kamal. Here is Ajita in his own words.
“I work with a team of activists to promote Freethought, Science and Reason in India.
If you are interested in networking on facebook to promote science and reason, I would love to add you to my friends list. The one thing that I ask is an understanding of the distinction between attacking people and attacking ideas. Ideas deserve thorough scrutiny, not respect. Those who are offended when someone else questions or even ridicules an idea that they happen to hold dear (for example, the idea that an invisible magic man lives in the sky ) need to have their priorities re-examined. However, people, with their thoughts, feelings, expectations and capacity for foresight, deserve at least as much respect as they exude. I am as unapologetically anti-religious as I am for human rights and freedom of speech. I believe in adopting a pluralistic strategy towards promoting freethought. We need both the “militant” atheists as well as the humanists. Sometimes building a community of freethinkers and creating social alternatives to mainstream culture can be the most effective and satisfying solution for furthering the freethought movement. Other times, simply laughing at these absurd and patently false ideas is the best way to initiate doubt and self-examination and to provoke believers into questioning these dangerous indoctrinated beliefs. Anger, ridicule, compassion and understanding are all necessary and powerful tools to be harnessed at the appropriate time towards promoting science and reason.
I am also an environmentalist and armchair philosopher, poet and musician, writer and nature lover, science enthusiast and sci-fi geek, rationalist and humanist, progressive and moderate, pragmatist and optimist, skeptic and naturalist and many other things. I’m putting all this down on my profile hoping to not have to deal with some of the avoidable mis-characterizations of my positions. I do not fit into a neat little box, and I prefer to stay that way.
Thanks for reading.”
Needless to say, in the Indian Freethought community, Ajita was a friend, philosopher, guide and much more. I never had the opportunity to meet him or even have an online discussion. However, when news of his death reached me, I felt devastated. The cruelty of death had reached me. It had pervaded me and taken me in its grasp. It was the death of a Giant.
As Ajita’s friends and family grieve over this tragic loss, I would like to offer my deepest condolences to them and quote a few lines, in honour of this brilliant young man, that happen to be one of the favorites of Christopher Hitchens and Roald Dahl:
My candle burns at both the ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends;
It gives a lovely light!
- Edna St. Vincent