14 June, 2012


June 14, 2014
This is amongst the saddest stories i should ever be telling. Read only if you have the heart to stomach both anguish and revulsion. I don't have the heart to even edit it.

June 12, 2012 was otherwise a routine morning for me. As I was sipping my daily cup of milk that Tuesday on my dining table, my domestic maid was cleaning the front portion of our drawing room. In an unusually disgusting voice she screamed from the outside “Sir, darwaze ke paas se bahut gandi badboo aa rahi hai” [it is smelling extremely foul near the door]. Known to suffer the uncultured living of the people upstairs I mistook this for something rotten thrown by them into our little garden. I promised to talk to them and immersed into the pages of the three newspapers, that have come to virtually form my breakfast.

My house is a small complex of six ‘duplex’ flats owned by four occupants. All Muslims but barely does one talk to another, polarized as most of us are by our petty egos, and pampered self-righteousness.

My immediate neighbour, Salim Shams, had three cute children – a son and two daughters. Every evening when I returned after a tiring day at work I envied the joyful noises coming from this immediate neighbour’s house on the other side of our wall. Our ground floor flats also each had a small garden. His was a shade better than mine.
Committed to the long term empowerment, shaping of the values and mental and intellectual development of my only son and wife, I often thought I was a perfect father, a complete husband. But I was sometimes unsure if they thought of me so, too.

And here was Shams, who would take his wife and children out every evening for a joy ride, before going out for his pan and masala, and perhaps a puff, a second time. Their loud laughter accompanied often by the sound of the songs and dialogues of movies they must be watching on TV often punctured the silence of our house late into most nights. Taking a cue from him I started paying more attention to my family’s ‘short term’ joys and interests, contrary to my notion of what was actually good for them.

And then, suddenly all this stopped. We came to know that Salim’s family had separated. His wife left with their children, never again to return. No more the joyful screams, not anymore the familiar noise of daily outings, all felt silent. Salim became alone, but in the typical middle class consciousness would not clearly break free or start over again. In the years that followed sometimes he related to me the developments around moves for unification, divorce and property distribution.

Immediately after the Gujarat genocide of 2002 I and my wife signed a divorce, too, and formally separated a year later. Thus I have also been living ‘alone’ - although some interns – Indian and foreign – and some staff of SPRAT would often stay at my house, thus giving me some company. [SPRAT is the NGO I had founded in the wake of this mayhem, to promote harmony, rationality and empowerment]. Deeply involved in its affairs I scarcely had any time for social niceties, and to introspect my condition, my joys - or absence thereof.

It was this long and virtually stable scenario that was punctured by that scream of my maid, which I had so casually dismissed, as a typical everyday occurrence of uncivil middle class living. A few minutes later I had reached page three of DNA newspaper. And there it was. A few words under a kind of heading that we have all come to dismiss as normal: ‘Dead body found in Kashmera Society’. It went on to say how on the neighbour’s complaint police broke open Salim Sham’s house to find his corpse apparently rotting for three days in his bed room.

Salim was no great hero - I may even concede not a very desirable person. Scarcely did he reach out to others. But equally I never found him a nuisance, a threat to society or someone capable of harming anyone on intent. He was like the rest of one billion of us, more or less. Post divorce he had become a virtual recluse, retiring to his TV after earning his daily bread. No maid or friends used to visit him.

Given the culture of our society no one would bother to interact with the other. And so there he was, left to himself. Apparently he suffered some serious ailment [although rumours also mention suicide, poison, murder et al] and no one heard his despairs. Died inside his bedroom all alone right in the midst of people on all four sides and also upstairs. And yet no one had an inkling of his anguish, much less of his death. Until the most foul stench of his body announced his tragic end.

Bacterial biology takes into account no deeds, good or bad. Their job is to infect, rot, recycle. Someone’s death is someone else’s life. Human body houses trillions of cells, billions of bacteria, litres of blood, and significant amount of digested and undigested food and excreta, at any particular point of time. All these are perishable products. Within hours food if not refrigerated turns stale. Left in the open overnight it smells so bad we can’t handle. Our body is no different. For all our deeds, ambitions, aspirations, achievements, powers and positions, once dead our body just smells. Everybody’s body does. It is another of the irrefutable laws of nature. Our irrationality may propagate myriad fancied myths but the fact remains: bodies rot. And when they do, they smell most foul.

And yet I was aghast human body smells this bad, this unbearably foul. Salim Shams most certainly did not have to die this way, in the midst of all of us. Non one should. But then don’t we read of hundreds – sometimes thousands – of rotting bodies in Sudan, Nigeria, Kenya and a dozen other places every so often due to pestilence and war? Adolf Hitlers and Pol Pots killed in thousands and heaped up their skulls as trophies. Did these humans have to die this way? Small children completely incapable of even distinguishing between sin and piety; helpless women and the elderly. They all rot. And end up becoming our daily news. And statistics.

But this one news also smelt. And read very very bad. Even as I paid silent homage to the memories of a harmless neighbour I asked where did his achievements, marriage, factory, shops, family.. all end up: in the molecules most foul entering the nostrils of his neighbours.

Salim Shams now around 51 was a son, a brother, husband and father, an employer, a vendor, a customer. A neighbour. A human being.

So am I. And so may I end up in some people’s nostrils one day! Beware!

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