My first intimations of mortality arrived when a friend of mine fell off the mast of a ship. I was 20 years old at the time, standing alongside other former classmates at his funeral. He had decided to become a sailor on a merchant ship after graduating from college, but bad weather made him miss his footing. That was why we stood there glumly, trying to make sense of it all. I hadn't considered the idea of dying until I stood before the wooden cover of his coffin that morning.
I was raised in a small Roman Catholic corner of Mumbai, India, a part of the world that simply didn't teach men to accept death, let alone deal with the emotions it leaves in its wake.
As boys, we were taught to stifle our tears; as teenagers, to grin and bear everything. Men were taught to take death on the chin and move on. We shied away from displays of grief and joked when tears surprised us by rolling down unbidden if we let our guards down. I grew up learning to clench my fists when threatened by sadness — the loss of a race on Sports Day, a promised gift that failed to materialize on Christmas morning — and bite my lips to stop myself from crying.
My father armed me with no clues — my uncles with no pointers on how they coped with their own losses. There were no self-help manuals, and discussions about death were as welcome as conversations about sex. (To be clear, there were no conversations about sex.)
Nonetheless, death was as common as life before the birth of modern medicine, with babies born at dawn and snatched away by dusk. Some parts of our continent still raise children with an intimate knowledge of endings, teaching them to accept the idea of a world where a parent or sibling may pass away suddenly, taken away by a stray bullet or strategically placed landmine. In India, death can be fairly prosaic in the rural parts, but still has the power to shock in a big city. And so, at 20, I struggled with the idea that someone I knew had ceased to be, leaving open the possibility that I could die, too.
My father armed me with no clues — my uncles with no pointers on how they coped with their own losses.
The next time I confronted death was a few years after I adopted journalism as a profession. It was a man named Daniel Pearl, whom I had come to know while he was posted in Mumbai. He was kidnapped and then beheaded for doing his job. The world watched in horror as video footage of his execution was uploaded on open networks and laboriously shared in a world that had no social media platforms yet. His murder taught me that what one did for a living also mattered, and that staying away from life at sea was no guarantee of a long and happy life on land.
I wanted to weep again, but didn't. This was a public death that affected many people, but I was left cold even though it had happened to someone I knew personally. A decade later, another colleague of mine died, a man named J Dey. He was gunned down on a busy street for doing his job. We worked together at the same newspaper, and had a last group meeting hours before the incident. Six years have passed since that killing, and I have yet to come to terms with it.
I did weep at the funeral of my grandmother, but stopped after she was buried so that I could smile at those who offered their condolences. I went back to work as if nothing had happened. No one knew of my loss, even though this was a woman who had stood outside my kindergarten all day to make sure I wouldn't feel lonely. I pushed her death to the back of her mind within weeks, thinking of her only in the moments before I fell asleep, when her face would flash before my eyes. I couldn't even grieve in private.
I fail to understand why men are held to this stoicism where I come from. I don't know why I was taught to embrace silence in a toxic culture of masculinity where emotions are repressed. This must affect our mental health, after all, which is then ignored because men are also taught to reject therapy in my part of the world.
I find it strange that my culture in South Asia constructs gender roles that damage men and women in different ways, holding them to ideals that are demeaning at best and damaging at their worst. These rules are rarely discussed, passed down without question via problematic transmission from one generation to the next. In my case, it was my father who called me a sissy whenever he found me crying.
I should have cried more. I should have held the body of my dead childhood friend and wept.
I find myself questioning the idea of what it means to be an South Asian man a lot more as I get older. I think of death with an unnatural calm these days, as I contemplate the salt and pepper in my hair.
I should have cried more. I should have held the body of my dead childhood friend and wept. I didn't because it wasn't cool, and because I was afraid of how my classmates would react. Relatives of my deceased friend openly wept, but none of the boys in my class did. Some of them thought it appropriate to joke because there were girls weeping at the funeral.
I should have wept for the journalists who lost their lives, because they were people I knew before they became statistics. I should have wept at the office when my grandmother passed away, because I missed her terribly. I didn't want my colleagues to think I was soft, so I buried the memory of her presence instead.
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To talk about death is important, because the silence that surrounds it once created a fog around other important topics such as sexuality. We are born and must, therefore, die. To not accept it, or to accept it without being taught how, must only make this harder for those who come after us. I like the idea of embracing my inevitable demise, and feel the need to talk about it a lot more now than when I was younger. I also find the idea of death easier to accept, along with the need to grieve for as long as I choose to.
I want to be able to cry, not because I am no longer a boy, but because I am finally a man.
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