Neelesh lies motionless in a dusty, dark brown ground hollow, in a sand-silt-clay combined earth bowl, his soft, spongy body muddied, bloodied. His extended metallic blue-green plumage with its sea-foam undertone, and its multitude of eyespots, is all askew, spun-out. And, a portion of his exposed, bulging, flesh fizzes with insects, the bug sounds blurring into a long, whirring noise. A white noise almost.
Beside him, that is half of him, bright, yellow, mustard flowers, with their pale green arrow-shaped leaves, and tall, slim stalks sway, even as they release little clouds of nitrate. Pungent whiffs that sting the nose, and the eyes.
Neelesh’s head, and legs are missing.
From over the hollow he lies in, and from the slits in the mustard stalks, you can still see the zigzagged portion of his savagely-cut, bulbous jugular, made light with the loss of head, and blood. As his underside. Made bereft of its support, with his understory completely gone.
It is hard to believe at this moment that his neck, once rich with iridescent blue, swung like a snake in dalliance or in quest for food. Or just like that. Just because he felt like. Or that his even-toed gait, and agile mating dance was admired by everyone who chanced on it.
It is the cool month of February in 2021, at our farm, in Mehrauli, on the outskirts of New Delhi. It is the time when the sun cannot decide whether to dim its light with shadow play behind clouds or shine with a light impishness so as to reflect a mere suggestion of heat. This unlike its avatar in summer where it brazenly flays the skin of the earth, and certainly of people, plants, and animals.
It is also the time when the land is vibrant with water-air-earth scents, with whistling birds who cannot contain their joy, with scurrying squirrels and chameleons, as with buzzing insects.
And, it is most certainly the time when our manicured greens are plump with unruly flowers, gaudy-red poppies, pink petunias, white lilies, mustard marigolds, mauve roses, yellow zinnias, and indigo shoe-flowers, all of who grow in wild abandon.
Ironically, Neelesh, our peacock, loses his life when the earth around us, here at our farm, on the capital of the country, moves uncomplainingly to the rhythms of a diverse life, to the interplay with the world around it. When everything around is so full of promise. When everything is lush with the covenant of growing.
For us, Neelesh’s death is a grand absurdity.
Over the month of January, we see Neelesh, our favorite and regular peacock visitor, ail with what we believe to be some kind of pox in his left eye. He barely sees with it, yet he tries to keep this eye-slit parallel to the grass. This for a prey-eye vision in the world he feeds from. Be it berries, flower seeds or the wiggly mass of worms that squirm in the soil. Ants, millipedes, crickets, termites, centipedes, and flying locust.
Neelesh comes more often than ever that month, every day and evening, his extended plumage and all, to demand his share of grain from our bird feeder.
“I believe he is asking to be fed rather than be allowed to seek his feed because of his condition,” my cook, Reba, asserts.
She is the one who has named this peacock Neelesh, which translates in Hindi as blue, and is the one who feeds him grain on demand, as assiduously as one would feed a brawling baby on demand. She makes small balls of mashed up rice, and leaves it lying if ever he wants “a change of taste”. And, the large cement water bowl that he drinks off is always full, “in case he is wary of bending too low, and is scared of being caught unawares by marauding monkeys or menacing cats,” she says.
By the end of January, Neelesh finds it hard to fly to and fro from his perch on the tall silver oak tree, one among the many that lines our boundary wall. So mostly during the day, he plinks and puckers around our greens, gathers himself together into a ball to rest in sunny patches, frightened by everything other than us, and in the evening, when he eventually decides to rest atop the tree, he emits cries. We believe his screeches to be hollers of alarm, conveying to us his fear of being eaten up by stealthy predators who use the night to subterfuge their intent, and his sleep to complete their kill.
It was one of the many cats that slink around at night on the farm that got Neelesh. At least, we at the farm believe this to be so. We have our suspicions on a tom cat we have named Bagadbilla because he is wild, grumpy, and smelly.
In this month of March, we are still trying to deal with the aftershocks of our experience as we are struggling to pull peacock Neelesh’s story in. It is a fluid feeling. We still grieve for his smell, and fear of death before succumbing to its abyss. For his loss of dignity and privacy in death, that, maybe, we denied by becoming spectators to it. And, for our inability to respond effectively to his beseech for help, for our failure to save his life.
My ex-colleague from a green organisation I worked for, Shoma Arun, who rushes to comfort us, says this, to us, and to Reba in particular, “There is no world in which humanity exists apart from the natural world. It is clearer than ever that our fates are intertwined, that our world should be a circumambient one, one that sees and accommodates the inter-connectedness and inter-dependence of living species. So take comfort in the fact that you have tried to cherish, and help a creature as much as you could, and as long as he lived. That you have played a role in nature’s orchestra, not that of an imperious conductor who believes he can control fates or nature’s design, but that of a contributor.”
“Why does the earth pull in a creature’s story thus? Why are we all just mud-marrowed bones in the end? Why do all our stories, human, plant or animal, end in dust-covered death?” asks an insistent, tear-stained, sixteen-year-old, Kunal, our gardener Nandlal’s son, who draws and writes verses in his spare time.
He does not understand Shoma’s words. Or believes that his question is different. I know he also asks because he has just recently lost his grandmother. His mother says to me that morning, “His tears still feel as if they come all the way from his toes.”
None of us have answers for him.
What we do know is that Neelesh’s brutal, abrupt death makes us confront ours. It makes us face up to the fact that death is part of our living. It makes us confront the truth that death, and its aftermath, is frightening. And, that the idea of the oblivion at death being like nonexistence before birth is too scary to think of. To understand.
Days later, our psychologist friend, Leela Singh, brings some instinctive wisdom with her. “While we live in the present, with our brains that shield us from our eventual death with crafty ingenuity, we ingrain ourselves in biology, one that helps us live. We shut down predictions of death, believing that it happens to others, not us. It is called the escape treadmill. Yet death is a leveller. It will happen to every one of us,” she says.
“How does one handle this eventuality, the finality of death, especially if one has no belief in the afterlife? If there is no belief in being absorbed by God or a higher power, realm or consciousness? That at this point we lose the journey’s map altogether? This even as I am a Hindu living in India?” I wish to know.
“You need to cultivate the capacity, and responsiveness to this eventuality across your lifespan. In essence, having a good death is about how you live a good life,” she says reflectively.
Is this our answer then?
That death will come no matter what. In any way that it will. Like the rain that will fall. Like the sun that will shine. Like the wind that will blow. And that what we make of death, and how we react to contact with it will depend on us. It can be terrible, satisfying or seemingly merciful. It can be what we choose it to be. Just as we can choose what we make of our life.
Is it up to us then to decide on how to confront death? To still the fear of dying, as rigor mortis waits to creep in, and before the pronouncement, “Pupils fixed and dilated. No heart sounds. No breath sounds. No pulse” is made?
There is no denying that despite these arguments, and answers, the mystery, and fear of death remains.
I would say, for me, personally, though I have realized that true sorrow is the loss of life, not the state of death or the act of dying.
More importantly, I have come to the realization that there is time to understand the afterlife. Who knows, if I do understand it, and gain faith in it, my fears of death may just fall away? The earth, land, water, and sky may turn alive with possibilities. Of our energies returning in altered forms and states.
Chitra Gopalakrishnan uses her ardor for writing, wing to wing, to break firewalls between nonfiction and fiction, narratology and psychoanalysis, marginalia and manuscript and tree-ism and capitalism.
Author profile: www.chitragopalakrishnan.com