Socrates and Chicken 65: A mockery of death
Life's Like That is a column by Suresh Pattali, recounting his musings on everyday life
“For most of us, death is something that comes upon us. We cannot predict the day or the hour when we will die. Socrates, by contrast, died in complete control, and his death fitted perfectly with his life,” British classicist Emily Wilson wrote in her book, The Death of Socrates.
We are not Socrates. Not everyone would feel delighted at the opportunity to die by downing a cup of hemlock in one gulp. Who will have the gall to say she or he has been cured of the disease that is life and should, therefore, be thankful to God?
We are not Socrates. Times are also bad with the Covid pathogen lurking in every nook and cranny of the world, not just in Athens. Not everyone would get the opportunity to have a webinar on life and death in the ICU with friends or disciples. And that too, at eight in the morning, when Xanthippe was away in a Dubai school and the Plato, Crito, Critobulus, and Apollodorus of the Akoya neighbourhood were either working from office or on Zoom calls.
The Gadfly of Athens had all of his ideation team minus Plato by his bed to have a soulful brainstorming about the existence of life when the poison crept up his chest. I don’t have that luxury.
As I lay down in my bedroom where I had sentenced myself to death, a pain shot through my rib cage and inexorably to the left hand. I remembered what the Asclepius of a Sharjah hospital had cautioned: “Myocardial infarction mostly strikes in the morning.” Like the jailer who checked Socrates’s leg for numbness, I checked my blood pressure by myself. It had climbed to 190/90. I told myself what Socrates said to his despairing followers: “Be brave.”
While waiting for a call back from the Sharjah Asclepius, I called my author-friend Pappan to say the Socrates philosophy is cock and bull stuff: Soul, afterlife, immortality and the karma stuff which we read every day on WhatsApp forwards.
Pappan refilled my cup of hemlock.
“Don’t write off Socrates. Just like life is an experience, love is an experience, and beauty is an experience, death could be of the same ilk. We can’t negate what we have not experienced. You aren’t sure sugar is sweet until you savour it. Let’s not be judgmental. We should be thrilled to experience any new thing. Let’s celebrate it.”
“I doubt Socrates celebrated death. The ambience was sepulchral with a slew of weeping disciples and a tearing jailer by his side,” I argued before Pappan returned to writing.
I felt the need to be at least graceful and thankful in death. I kept the front door open. This dwelling place was a rented one which I did not want a paramedic to break open. I kept the washroom door ajar before looking at my reflection with absolute equanimity. No one outside the world has seen this visage greyed like a sun-burnt African savanna. Five minutes was all it took to dye and groom myself for what Socrates said was a new journey. An ironed Polo and cargo shorts, much simpler than the Gandhian outfit.
The whole exercise reminded me of Yojiro Takita’s Oscar-winning movie Departures. I felt like I was in the shoes of protagonist Daigo Kobayashi, who makes a living by grooming travellers to the next world. In a ceremony of incredible grace, Daigo washes the corpse and dresses the traveller in his best suit and accessories and makes up the face in exquisite detail. Eventually, in death, the former cellist finds lessons of life. Fast-forward to the pandemic times, I realise death is more inclusive and equitable than life. Arguably, what Socrates and coronavirus taught us is the same: “O Crito, life is a disease.”
My mind wandered into rustic vignettes of Socrates followers in India. Many communities in Tamil Nadu, who believe death is a relief from pain and suffering, organise dance performances to celebrate death. The highly comical visuals of the corpse made to sit on a chair wearing facial makeup and dark shades (Did I miss the face mask?), while drunken mourners sing and dance during the funeral procession, is fresh in my memories.
The 2,000-year-old Painsara ritual, or the dance of death, performed in the hills of Uttarakhand and the drunken celebration by the Satiyaa gypsy community in Rajasthan that wears new garments and beats drums of happiness to bid adieu to the departed soul are all plagiarised versions of the Socrates philosophy. Or is it the other way around?
I remembered that as his legs began to feel heavy, Socrates lay down on his back. So did I, and covered my face with a hanky that an old flame had given as a token of virgin friendship. It still smelled of the Brut her brother brought from the Gulf in the nineties. She was like a boy who loved Brut and bikes.
As the BP reading crossed the 200-mark, I called Xanthippe in the middle of her IB workshop to inform her I was watching a firework in my chest.
“Book Careem and go to a hospital,” she hissed.
“A taxi? Death comes in a chariot. You don’t read Emily?”
“Emily, who? Your new GF?”
I could hear the rumbling chariot outside. I parted the draperies to find a red LPG delivery van gleaming in the sweltering heat.
I realised I am missing the musical part of the celebrations. I played My Heart Will Go On and Green and Green Grass Of Home before unsubscribing Spotify. I then played Arya Dhayal on Insta. Such unpretentiously beautiful music. Romance is the last thing one would think of when death’s in the air. I still longed for a drop of the elixir and was about to ping Angelica (Myrto for Socrates) when the doctor called back.
“How are you now? Come down quickly,” he said.
“Are you sending the chariot?”
“Are you mad? I am sending the ambulance.”
I read Plato in the carriage and on several scanners in the hospital, after which the doc summoned me.
“It’s your Spondylolysis. Miles to go before you pop the cork, sonny. By the way, what were you reading last night?”
I was disinfecting the book cover with a sanitiser at the consultation exit when he shouted from behind: “Crito, we ought to offer a cock (Read Chicken 65, semi gravy) to Asclepius. See to it, and don’t forget.”