By Roshan, New Age Islam
23 Feb, 2015
I was strolling in a park the other day when I bumped into Sheema-ji, a friend of my mother’s. It was ages since we had last met.
“So, tell me, what are you doing these days?’ Sheema-ji asked matter-of-factly soon after we had exchanged hellos.
Now of course you know what that question is meant to mean. When people ask you what you are doing, what they want to know is what work you are doing for a living—to make money. All of us do so many things every day that we can’t keep count of them all—thinking and talking, laughing and sleeping, eating and defecating, brushing our teeth and cleaning up our cupboards, reading and writing, fighting and loving, breathing and just being, and so on—but when people ask you what you are doing these days, they generally don’t mean any of these. Doing, for them, is an activity that is specifically geared to making money.
I had given up doing, in this sense, a while ago. And so, when Sheema-ji put me this question, I didn’t quite know how to respond. I wasn’t at all sure if I had the courage to say what I had determined I should the next time someone asked me what I was doing these days.
But, I said to myself, I had to be honest and brave and tell Sheema-ji what I was really doing. So what if she thought I was bonkers?
“Me? What I’m doing these days? Oh...Hmmm...I’m...I’m preparing for my death, Aunty,” I managed to splutter.
You won’t believe how pleased with, and proud of, myself I felt as these words escaped my lips!
Sheema-ji stopped in her tracks.
“What! Did I hear you right? Are you okay?” she asked, sounding very concerned. For all I know, she must have thought that I was seriously contemplating suicide. Or even that I was losing my mind.
“Come, come,” she said, grabbing my hand, “let’s sit down and talk this out.
We settled down on a bench.
“Is everything alright? You sound strange,” she said very gravely.
I hurried to relieve Sheema-ji of her anxiety. “Aunty, you do know, na, that death can come at any moment. I’m almost 50 now. And you? You must be in your 70s. We’re all rushing towards our deaths with every passing moment. You agree, don’t you?”
“But aren’t you just too young to think of death, son?” Sheema-ji shot back. “50 is really no time to think about death. You have so many years left. This is the time for to enjoy yourself. To have fun! You can think of death when you turn 80 or something. Why think about it now?”
To be fair to Sheema-ji, this is precisely how most people I know think. I used to think this way myself, till some time ago. I, too, believed that thinking about, or preparing for, death was something only for folks 80 and above needed to do—because they were supposedly incapable of doing much else.
Life for me was one, non-stop party. The purpose of life, I thought, was to indulge as much as I could in every possible sensual pleasure, with not a care about God, the soul, religion, death and so on. ‘Good’ food, ‘good’ movies, ‘good’ clothes, a ‘good’ home’, ‘good’ holidays, ‘good’ music, ‘good’ sex, a ‘good’ bank balance, and so on—this was what I lived for. This was what, I thought, life was all about.
It was only when I turned old and when it wasn’t longer physically possible for me to lead the same hedonistic lifestyle that I thought I might, in the few remaining years of my life, turn to God—in the hope that He would forgive me for all the many wrongs I had chosen to commit in my younger days. Till I got there, I had no need to think of Him at all.
Nor, I thought, did I need to think of death till then. After all, wasn’t I still too young to die? Wasn’t death something that happened only to old people?
It was with God’s grace that my views on these most important questions of life began to change.
“But death can come at any moment, na, Aunty?” I said to Sheema-ji. “Even a one day-old child can die, if God wills. It isn’t that I’m bound to die at 80 and not before that. Who knows, I might die this very minute!”
“Son, would you like to consult a counsellor?” Sheema-ji helpfully offered. “You really sound depressed. I’ve never seen you like this before.”
“Thanks, Aunty, but I won’t say I’m depressed,” I responded. “It’s just that all this while I’ve tried to shut out death from my consciousness, and I can’t honestly do this any longer. I mean, we all have to die one day, isn’t it? In fact, the only thing that we are absolutely sure is bound to happen in the future is that we are going to die, one day or the other. You can’t be sure of anything else at all. Think about it, Aunty.”
Sheema-ji shut her eyes and mulled over what I had just said.
“Hey, Roshan!” she exclaimed, breaking the silence after a while. There was a distinct change in her tone.
“It’s really strange, you know! I’d never thought about this before. You are absolutely right! I mean, I really don’t know if it’s going to be sunny later today or if it will rain, if my daughter will be polite to me or rude when I get back home, or even if tomorrow my husband may run off with some other woman! Honestly, the only thing I can be absolutely sure of is that some day or the other I am going to die! That really is an amazing discovery!”
“But, still, it doesn’t mean that you should be obsessing about death,” she continued. “I mean, what’s this thing that you said to me about preparing for your death? You really frightened me, you know. Sorry, but for a moment I thought that you meant that you were planning to do something silly to yourself—like jumping off a building or drinking poison. That would be really terrible!”
“Oh no, Aunty,” I hastened to assuage her fears. “I wouldn’t think of doing anything so silly. Of course, there were times in the past when I did consider taking my life. But I wouldn’t do that now. Life’s too precious a gift to squander away, no matter how difficult it sometimes seems to get. And what answer would I give God if I committed suicide?”
“Yes, son, I think no religion approves of that,” Sheema-ji added.
“When I said I was preparing for my death, I didn’t mean to say I was obsessing about death and that I had started detesting my life,” I explained. “What I had in mind when I said that was that since I know that I have to die one day, I now want to lead my life in such a way that I am properly prepared for my death and for the life in the Hereafter that awaits us all after we die.”
“The Hereafter?” Sheema-ji said, thoughtfully. “Yes, that is what they say—all the religions.”
“And they also say,” I added, “that your life in the eternal Hereafter depends on how you’ve led your life in this world. So, what I meant when I said that I’m preparing for my death is that I would like to lead whatever remains of my life in this world in such a well-prepared way that I could enjoy, if God wills, a good life in the eternal Hereafter.”
“Oh, so for this we need to prepare ourselves, isn’t it?” Sheema-ji whispered.
“Exactly, Aunty,” I said.
“And how do we do that?” Sheema-ji asked. And then, before I could say anything, she proceeded to answer her own question. “By remembering God often, I suppose. By doing good to others. By asking for forgiveness for the wrongs we’ve done. By leading a God-oriented life. Isn’t it?”
“Yes, Aunty, yes!” I exclaimed. “You’ve got the point!”
“So, what you’re saying is that our short life in this world being a prelude to or preparation for the eternal life after death, we must lead our lives here—every moment, every day of it—in a carefully-prepared way, so that when we die we can hope for eternal bliss in the Hereafter?”
“If God wills,” I added.
“Yes, of course, if He wills,” she said.
We then fell silent, each of us thinking our thoughts.
After a while, I turned to look at Sheema-ji. Her head was lifted up and she was staring into the sky.
Noticing me looking at her, she broke the silence.
“Do you know something?” she said. “I had never thought of life in this way. Of course I think I believe in God, but I didn’t think one needed to lead one’s life in a consciously prepared way, to prepare for death and then for the Hereafter by trying to live each moment as God wants us to.”
“I’ve lived a very unprepared life, you know,” she continued. “I’ve made hardly any preparations—for my death and for what lies beyond it. I mean, I’ve hardly cultivated any sort of relationship with God. I’ve never thanked Him for all He‘s given me. I’ve never thought that I need to lead my life in the way He, not I, wants me to. I’ve only asked Him to give me things, but never to guide me to do His will for me. And then, there are so many wrongs that I’ve done that I haven’t asked anyone’s or God’s forgiveness for. And, really, there’s so much good that I could have done to and for others that I didn’t do. To be honest with you, my whole life has been just about, as they put it, ‘having fun and making merry’. It’s been a very self-centred existence. Do you think I could change now—I mean, at this age? I’m 74, you know.”
“It’s never too late Aunty,” I responded. “My views changed just a year or two ago. And remember, you aren’t alone. Most of us are in the very same boat. I used to be there, too—till I could no longer run away from the reality of death by keeping myself so ‘busy’ doing things—doing just about everything else other than what I need to in order to prepare for my death and the life beyond—that I had no time or energy to think of death. But, then, no matter how hard I tried to keep away the thought of death—by thinking about other things and by keeping myself ‘occupied’ in doing this and that—I couldn’t. God led me to come to terms with the fact that I’m bound to die one day. That’s when and I how I was led to think that I needed to prepare for my death and for the Hereafter, by trying leading my life in the way God wants me to. It isn’t that I’m leading a perfect life and that I don’t slip up, though, but, with God’s grace, I’m trying. ”
“I see the point, dear. So, it isn’t too late for me to change, for me to start living life in a prepared way, preparing for my death, is it?” Sheema-ji asked. “I mean, you know the saying about leopards being unable to change their spots, and the other one, about old dogs not being able to learn new tricks!”
“Oh it’s definitely not too late, Aunty,” I replied. “You can change immediately, if God wills. You can start preparing for your death right away, this very moment!”