How to Live & Die.

Rowing down the Ganges at twilight.

Rowing down the Ganges at twilight.

Freedom is for the educated people who fought for it. We were slaves of the English, now we will be slaves of the educated Indians—or the Pakistanis.

Khushwant Singh writes those lines in his Train to Pakistan. He died today at the age of 99 and it saddened me. Last year, after my Indian sojourn, an old friend of mine who used to be a journalist and is himself also in his twilight years, invited me to his office. He had heard that I was going to India and he wondered if I could visit a friend of his.

When we met in his office, I revealed that I had already returned.

“Ah, never mind. Maybe you’ll go another time. It’s just that my friend Khushwant Singh is in Delhi and since you were going, I thought you might want to visit him.”

My face fell, as you can imagine. In Delhi, my favorite bookshop had all of his books but I hesitated to pick them up because I feared my luggage would not close. I returned home with Tagore and other authors whom I felt spoke to me then.

At the airport, I saw Singh’s books again and hesitated. I can’t understand why but maybe, as a consolation, I can think of regret as an invitation to return.

This quote above helps me understand why my friend found kinship in Singh. He’s among the writer’s I would really like to be like someday. And because his words matter so much to me, I leave you with an excerpt from the piece, How to Live & Die, published for Outlook India in August 2010 (I’m taking liberties and borrowing the title for my entry. If you work for Outlook and would prefer I change it, please let me know.):

I don’t believe in rebirth or in reincarnation, in the day of judgement or in heaven or hell. I accept the finality of death. We do not know what happens to us after we die but one should help a person go in peace—at peace with himself and with the world.

I’ve lived a reasonably contented life. I’ve often thought about what it is that makes people happy—what one has to do in order to achieve happiness.

First and foremost is good health. If you do not enjoy good health, you can never be happy. Any ailment, however trivial, will deduct something from your happiness.

Second, a healthy bank balance. It need not run into crores, but it should be enough to provide for comforts, and there should be something to spare for recreation—eating out, going to the movies, travel and holidays in the hills or by the sea. Shortage of money can be demoralising. Living on credit or borrowing is demeaning and lowers one in one’s own eyes.

Third, your own home. Rented places can never give you the comfort or security of a home that is yours for keeps. If it has garden space, all the better. Plant your own trees and flowers, see them grow and blossom, and cultivate a sense of kinship with them.

Fourth, an understanding companion, be it your spouse or a friend. If you have too many misunderstandings, it robs you of your peace of mind. It is better to be divorced than to be quarrelling all the time.

Fifth, stop envying those who have done better than you in life—risen higher, made more money, or earned more fame. Envy can be corroding; avoid comparing yourself with others.

Sixth, do not allow people to descend on you for gup-shup. By the time you get rid of them, you will feel exhausted and poisoned by their gossip-mongering.

Seventh, cultivate a hobby or two that will fulfil you—gardening, reading, writing, painting, playing or listening to music. Going to clubs or parties to get free drinks, or to meet celebrities, is a criminal waste of time. It’s important to concentrate on something that keeps you occupied meaningfully. I have family members and friends who spend their entire day caring for stray dogs, giving them food and medicines. There are others who run mobile clinics, treating sick people and animals free of charge.

Eighth, every morning and evening devote 15 minutes to introspection. In the mornings, 10 minutes should be spent in keeping the mind absolutely still, and five listing the things you have to do that day. In the evenings, five minutes should be set aside to keep the mind still and 10 to go over the tasks you had intended to do.

Ninth, don’t lose your temper. Try not to be short-tempered, or vengeful. Even when a friend has been rude, just move on.

Above all, when the time comes to go, one should go like a man without any regret or grievance against anyone.  Iqbal said it beautifully in a couplet in Persian: “You ask me about the signs of a man of faith? When death comes to him, he has a smile on his lips.”

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