Investing in the afterlife
Two back-to-back deaths last week. "A beloved husband, a doting father," Dr Ginisha Gupta, one of my son's batchmates in medical school, wrote in a touching Facebook tribute about her father's sad demise in New Delhi. I had spent a day with this amiable surgeon when he visited Dubai some years ago. Dr Tilak Gupta was young at heart and there was an air of joviality around him that doesn't typically delineate a doctor. Like many North Indians, he loved to crack South Indian jokes, which never hurt me. A doctor who had worked in Yemen, he wouldn't mind a second stint abroad, so I followed him to a couple of Dubai hospitals to check out opportunities. Then he died.
On the same day, a couple of missed calls and messages from Colombo brought more sad news. One of my most beloved aunts had passed away. Born in Kandy and married to an Indian migrant, she was lucky enough to see all her children well-placed in life, including her son who passed out of IIT Kanpur and became a US citizen. She literally presided over a United Nations at home with her sons-in-law and daughter-in-law drawn from different religions and nationalities. Then she died.
Death, as we all know, is an indisputable certainty, but there's hardly any certainty about its ingression, while birth is a highly anticipated affair with a blissful gestation that lasts several months. Life, or what's left between these two points of optimism and pessimism, is the summation of innumerous episodes of disillusionment, which come in waves. One wave begets another. Every day, as I sit on this parched beach of life, awaiting the sunset, I count the number of waves that wet-kiss my feet. The cold kiss that leaves me in bizarre nightmares. And this one is about my encounter with a coffin seller.
Despite the sepulchral nature of his business, the coffin trader was a positive person, patient enough to listen to his clients' requirements. He could have asked why I was picky about a coffin because its occupant wouldn't complain about the box being an inch shorter or the veneer being thinner than water, but this guy was a gentle entrepreneur.
"Gentleman, why is this shop named Down to Earth?" I enquired.
"I admit it's clichéd, but there isn't a better name than this. It suits my business. I deal with people who're literally going down under."
"That's interesting. Can you custom-make a coffin?"
"For an adult or a child, Sir?"
"For me. This is a pre-order, but I need some modifications."
"Sir, a coffin isn't a sports car that you drive up the heavens. But tell me which human wouldn't fit in the standard six-foot box?"
"Listen, I'm not asking you to fix a noisy exhaust, sporty spoiler or booming subwoofer."
"Sir, I guess anything more than six feet might need the church's permission. It's a universal size unless the dead is a wild beast."
"I have a medical excuse. I'm claustrophobic, so I need some holes on the box. Is it possible?"
"That can be done. Anything else?" He walked me around his workshop, showing me different woods to match different tastes. A coffin may be the last piece of luxury one could own in this world. "Nobody comes here for window shopping," he said.
"Maybe if you can make it bit wider, just in case I want to stretch."
"Customising will cost more. If that's okay, I'm okay."
"Money is not an issue. To feel at home is more important."
"You are right, Sir. In a way, you are leaving for your real home."
"See, I am a writer and reader. Can I also have some space to sit up and use my book?"
"No issues, Sir. I guess what you probably need is a small plot of land, not the default six feet."
"Land is not the issue. I have some Congress friends."
"Oh, then anything is possible. You think you might also need a kitchen space and a scullery?"
"Not a bad idea, buddy. You may drop in for a drink."
"No, thanks. I'm still in love with this world despite all the civil wars I fight at home."
"Do you think we can have a balcony space, just in case I crave fresh air?"
He brought me back to the shop and leaned against a robust coffin. "Perfect size. Did he customise it for himself?" I wondered.
"Sir, I believe you have come to the wrong place. Look there, you go down High Road and turn left from Newton Circus. That's where you should be going."
"What's there? Undertakers?"
"No, Sir, there are a few architects. You are asking for a villa, not a coffin."
"Are you pulling my leg?"
"Never mind, Sir. Philosophically speaking, you don't need to build one. The Master Architect has a tranche of ready-to-move villas up there, overlooking the placid lake of peace. Had you invested in goodness since the time you came into the world, the key could have been in your hands by now. Excuse me, Sir, I've another customer."
"So, I ain't eligible for the prime property," I said, as he disappeared into a forest of coffins."