I've been maintaining this blog (for better or for worse) over the last eight years. Over these years, its natural evolution has led it into becoming something of a niche place for discussion of music in general and Qawwali in particular. Rather than trying to return my existing blog to its pre-Qawwali eclectic roots, I decided I’d start anew on Tumblr. So if you’re interested in music, Qawwali and subcontinental culture, keep reading/listening/watching/commenting here. For all of the above and everything else under the sun, head on over to my Tumblr page .

Friday, July 9, 2010

...Of Death

Long ago, when the number of people I held dear who had either died or been injured in the almost daily acts of terrorism all over Pakistan became one too many, a hard-edged,cynical resignation overcame me.

When I was very young, I had tried to make sense of why people would want to murder someone who was not only innocent but the very antithesis of violence. I had tried to get my head around the assassinations of Hakeem Muhammad Saeed sahab and Prof. Ghulam Murtaza Malik among countless others. But the five traumatic years that I spent in Rawalpindi finally made me give up the futile effort. Literally every other week, there was a blast within two miles of where I lived. Me and most of my hostel-mates gradually got so insensate that we'd be nonchalantly prepping for our exams amid sounds of gunshots and explosions, popping off to the TV room every 5 or 6 hours to "catch up on the carnage" as it were. The focus shifted from whether there was any loss of life in the most recent incident to whether our exams would be delayed or, even more inanely, would we be allowed to leave the hostel for a night on the town or would the hostel gates be closed because of security reasons and we'd have to take a more, ahem, circuitous route.

I think it's come naturally to me, this cold, indifferent attitude towards death. And it has been augmented, if anything, by my training as a medical student .I've been taught from the first day to think of death as a natural occurrence to be delayed as long as possible, anticipated, prepared for and then forgotten before getting on to the next delay-anticipate-prepare-forget cycle. This fits in perfectly with my attitude towards most of the things that I find troubling.

Lately I've begun to wonder if this strange apathy has been with me from the start, or have I gradually immured my senses. The first death that registers in my memory is that of a childhood friend. 'M' was a hockey player, which is saying something considering he was in 2nd grade. Our school was right next to the train tracks and he lived on the wrong side. I have many memories from back then and one of the most vivid is getting to school and just after the morning assembly, hearing the news that M had been run over by a train. Apparently a strap from his schoolbag had gotten struck in the tracks as he was crossing them and he couldn't disentangle himself in time.

Then there was 'A' in Sargodha who had a congenital renal disease that meant he couldn't come out to play very often and the only explanation his mum used to give us was,"Beta, 'A' beemaar hai." A year or two after we had moved to a new city,dad called up his father to ask how 'A' was doing, he got the shocking news that 'A' had passed away the previous month from complications of his condition.

Both these people had been more than mere acquaintances, being pretty central in my (even then) limited social circle, but I don't remember anything more than a passing sense of shock and a day or two of brooding before I'd relegated their passing to the very back of my mind.

Lots of my relatives have died over the years, from obscure distant relations to people very close to me, and apart from only one occasion,I don't remember myself shedding any tears or going into a phase of depressive remembrance. Such behaviour isn't completely strange because in the rural surroundings that I grew up in, a death and it's subsequent rituals are especially designed to distract (at least the male members of the family) from grief and the act of grieving.

In villages the paraphernalia of death serve as a great emotional buffer. The services aren't restricted to the funeral and the burial or even the 'Qul'. They may involve the 'Saata'(7th day), the 'Gyaarvanh'|(11th day), the 'Ikeevanh'(21st day) or the 'Chaleeyah'(40th day) depending on how long the local custom and the financial situation permit. These forty days aren't spent in ceaseless mourning, at least not by the deceased's next of kin. The formalities and rituals of death, from the thrice daily khaana peena with it's own peculiar rules about when to serve what to whom, to the management of the 'satthar' and the 'mukaan' where the men and women respectively are seated, to the 'bhaajis' and 'manjis' and what not, ultimately serve to help the bereaved family find closure gradually. They also provide the family's extremely reluctant youngsters ample opportunities to be trained in what my father calls 'the real life'.

Of course there is genuine expression of grief, with histrionics and screams and sobs and highly stylized 'baains' that may look very distressing to the casual observer but are essential in providing emotional release, especially to the female mourners. A quiet period of mourning just isn't consistent with our culture and these wails and cries are almost essential. As Munir Niazi sahab said,

رونقیں ہیں موت کی
یہ بین کرتی عورتیں

It's been two months since I've started my house-job, and almost every other day I see patients who are dying. Around half a dozen have died natural deaths on my watch. Death on the wards has it's rituals too. With each, there's a decision on whether to resuscitate or not, followed by the medical confirmation of death, the ahnding over of the dead body and the official paperwork. If I were to be a tad more emotionally affected by it, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be able to do my job properly. I've seen plenty of new doctors overcome by the sheer emotional shock of a person dying in front of them. And in all these cases the judgement gets clouded, the reflexes get sluggish and professional integrity is compromised.

Maybe this clinical hardheartedness of mine isn't such a bad thing after all.


  1. What a nice discovery - I am enjoying your posts. Brilliant...

  2. And, by the way I agree with you on Lahore - it is still a great place despite the traffic

  3. Thanks a lot Raza saheb. I've been a silent admirer of your blogs for a while now, and I can assure you the feeling is mutual. No doubt about it, Lahore is the bees' knees!

  4. Nice one. Atleast you have an excuse to be de-sensitized, or more of one given the Dr badge, sadly it's seems apathy is becoming instinctive.
    Today, i woke up to the sound of ambulance sirens and my first reaction was 'crap not another blast' turned out it was a 'medical emergency' for a change.

  5. I think it's the other way 'round. Maybe I drifted towards medicine because it suited my apathy. But yeah, I know what you mean. Numbness and apathy are defence mechanisms too y'know.

  6. Truth is, I don't see anything wrong with being apathetic (when it comes to death, I mean). Death, is inevitable. The mode, the time do vary but I wonder whether maybe we grieve not for the deceased but for ourselves. We are shocked not by his death but by the fact that we too can also die unexpectedly. If a closed one passes away, the grief is probably because of how his death will affect us.
    'Desensitized' people are usually those who have always in some way been emotionally detached.

    Or maybe I'm just too cynical.

  7. That's pretty true but I don't think death's inevitability takes anything away from its emotional response. And the grief is probably mostly due to sudden permanant absence and everything it entails, rather than a sudden realisation of one's own mortality. As Proust says, People think they're not afraid of death if they think about it when they're in good health.