An Indian Adoptee Reclaims His Voice in the Desi Diaspora
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Tag: Varanasi

I say ‘dies,’ Sasmita says ‘expires.’ The words signal a major cultural difference.

October 17, 2015

Earlier this summer I read a fascinating article titled ‘Death, Redesigned.” As I read the piece, it struck me how vastly different the West views death and how Sasmita and Indians view death.

The story begins with Paul Bennett, the founder of Ideo, a design, marketing, and branding firm in San Francisco Bay. It’s famous for among other things, bringing the world a standing toothpaste tube, creating Apple’s first mouse and re-engineering Pringle’s potato chips.

Bennett realized the way the US discusses death, the funeral industry, and everything related to dying in the United States seemed outdated.

While he admits there is much about death beyond people’s control, there is he posits, all that happens after someone dies. We actively make choices about those things.

He started zeroing in on all the unspoken decisions around that inevitability: the aesthetics of hospitals, the assumptions, and values that inform doctors’ and families’ decisions, the ways we grieve, the tone of funerals, the sentimentality, the fear, the schlock. The entire scaffolding our culture has built around death, purportedly to make it more bearable, suddenly felt unimaginative and desperately out of date. “All those things matter tremendously,” Bennett told me, “and they’re design opportunities.” With just a little attention, it seemed a few metaphorical mirrors affixed to our gurneys at just the right angle he might be able to refract some of the horror and hopelessness of death into more transcendent feelings of awe and wonder and beauty.

To begin with, I have never once heard Sasmita say anyone died. She calls death ‘expiring.’

Her youngest uncle ‘expired’ on Christmas Eve 2014. It was a traumatic event, mainly because her family is on the other side of the world. She could not be with them as they celebrated his life.

By saying someone expired, it seems to me that she is more in touch with the act of dying. They see it as a natural progression in one’s life.

To say a person died seems harsh, separating their identity from their body. Whereas for me, to say one has expired is a gentler way of saying the same thing.

Food reaches an expiration date and is no longer safe to eat; humans reach a point where they can no longer survive. To clarify, for me, the fruit expiration analogy breaks down when one discusses sudden and early death. Death’s such as a child killed in a car crash seem weird to call ‘expiring’, however, Sasmita still calls it that.

The United State avoids talking about, contemplating or evaluating death. We are terrified of death. But many people across the globe have the opposite attitude towards life’s end.

In India, death is not taboo, because it’s viewed as a shared human experience.

One cannot escape it and people are unafraid of it. I think a few major reasons for this are:

  • Indian identities are wrapped up in the community, the strongest social bond in society. People are more connected, humanity enjoined, making death easier to examine and discuss. In the US, we value individual identity, relishing separation as unique people. Indians see individualistic tendencies as outside the norm, viewing people lacking social ties or strong group identities suspiciously.
  • India has a larger population. When there are 1.2 billion people in your country, death is common and not easily hidden.
  • Hinduism’s dominance in all cultural spheres, particularly its emphasis on karma and death. For example, the goddess of Calcutta, Mother Kali, is known as the deity of death and destruction. For millions of Indians, they view their life as one of small value, instead of living with the faith of a rebirth on a higher social plane or wealthier existence.

One of the oldest cities in the world, is Varanasi/Benares/Kashi, India (it is called all three names). It is essentially a city of death. Tens of thousands, perhaps even millions, pilgrimage to the river banks of the Ganges cremating bodies on funeral pyres.  In some areas, entire hotels are packed with Hindu pilgrims waiting to die in the ancient city’s holy confines.

Anyone can watch bodies being ceremoniously burned at the large Ghats which dot the Ganges riverfront.

It is a surreal experience because, for Westerners, cremation is an intimate, closed, family only affair. In Varanasi,  it’s still sacred. But there is nothing private about it.

My friend Adam and I visited there in 2011. It was mesmerizing watching a body burn just a few yards away. I will never forget it.

And the smell, well, you can only imagine how awful that was. But yet, my friend Adam and I sat there, transfixed, for nearly an hour as the flames consumed the entire body, head and all.

Even today, I could write a whole post just about my Varanasi experience. The memories are stamped in my mind forever.

There is no US city where people make pilgrimages to die.

Rather, we spend billions of dollars trying to extend our lives through medicine.

It seems as though every month someone publishes an article asking questions about the end of life care in the United States or ways to live longer.

Most people in the US never want to think about death and life’s end. We ostracize our elderly because they remind us our mortality. In India and many other parts of the world, older folks are revered and honored.

In Western funerals we wear black or dark clothing, signifying mourning. We’re finally embracing the reality that our loved one is gone.

When Sasmita and I discussed what color sari she would wear for our August 2012 wedding, I asked if she would wear white. Aghast she replied, ‘Definitely not, women only wear white saris when someone has expired.’ I had no idea that was the case.

Thanks to Sasmita, I’m learning about the differences between India and the United States on a variety of topics, including death.