by Gautam Pemmaraju
Because I could not stop for Death
He kindly stopped for me
The Carriage held but just Ourselves
– Emily Dickenson
The wise emperor of Marguerite Yourcenar’s masterful Memoirs Of Hadrian, says to his successor Marcus Aurelius that his frail, diseased body is fast approaching its demise. It is the evening of his life. Despite the “vague formulas of reassurance” that his loyal physician Hermogenes offers him in an attempt to mask the imminent end, the sage old man knows that he is sure to die of a dropsical heart. The time and place is uncertain, and he “no longer runs the risk of falling on the frontiers, struck down by a Caledonian axe or pierced by an arrow of the Parths…” but he does know that his days are numbered. His body, a faithful companion all these years, may well turn out to be “a sly beast who will end by devouring his master”. But what of the moment itself, Hadrian contemplates:
I shall die at Tibur or in Rome, or in Naples at the farthest, and a moment’s suffocation will settle the matter. Shall I be carried off by the tenth of these crises, or the hundredth? That is the only question. Like a traveler sailing the Archipelago who sees the luminous mists lift towards evening, and little by little makes out the shore, I begin to discern the profile of my death.
Often enough in literary descriptions we find familiar tropes: the inner light dims, an ethereal illumination brings in the uttara kshanam, a phrase used in literary Telugu to describe the dying moment. A most intriguing phrase if ever, it can be translated in numerous ways but the most literal one appears to me the most elegant. The moment exists ‘up there’, in some mystical northward quadrant, and as we approach it, it reveals itself. As we apprehend it, it embraces us. The Northern Moment is then the final one. It is the peak of earthly life. There is a wide fascination for the dying moment – how will it come to pass, in what circumstances, will it be filled with pain and suffering or under the comforting shroud of sleep, will it be in the presence of loved ones, or alone, on some forsaken highway? Will it be a ‘good death’ or a ‘bad death’? How indeed do we imagine our final moments?