Spirituality is a funny thing. When I was a teenager my great-uncle Vishnu, who doubled as a self-proclaimed palmist, read my hand, wiggled his eyebrows a lot, and foretold that I’d take a spiritual turn at the age of 28. It is indeed true that that year I spent ten days in a vipassana meditation retreat in Myanmar, but while I maintained the requisite state of silence and abstinence, the thought-bubble over my head was filled with hashes, ampersands and exclamation marks, and I spent my time trying to snack on the inside of my cheek because they didn’t feed us very much. I made, on the whole, a lousy monk.
Still, I’m not one to refuse to think about death on the grounds that it’s too morbid; in fact, I’ve been accused of a degree of over-enthusiasm about the subject, even though all my ruminations end with me sidling off into some shallower, splashier little reverie, the spiritual equivalent of lying in the grass and blowing soap bubbles.
I find baby philosophy about death very solid, and a good deal more sensible, than The Tibetan Book of the Dead. My niece Tara, who’s almost four years old, is a leading light on the subject. A few days ago she walked into my mother’s house and looked tenderly at the photographs of my late father and grandmother. “Dada died,” she announced. That’s right, said my mother. “That’s so sad. Badi dadi died too,” said Tara. Yes she did, we said. “Why?” she wanted to know. Oh, she got very old, and when people get very old, they die, my mother told her. “Yeah!” said Tara, as if my mother had just earned a gold star. She flounced up in her rainbow-striped jacket with an enormous pink flower clip in her hair and led me to the porch.
“When people get old,” she explained in a gentle, soothing voice, “they get wrinkles and their hair goes white, and then they get little and die. It’s very sad, but everyone dies. I want to tell you something,” she added, dropping her gaze delicately, “one day, maybe soon, you’ll become big and old and then, one day, you might, might, might die.”
I said that I definitely would.
“Yeah. But not now,” she said, trying to keep me calm. “First you’ll get old and you’ll have to walk with a cane and somebody will have to help you walk with the cane.”
Will you help me walk with my cane? I asked her.
“Maybe,” she said, “but maybe not.” She considered me with genuine pity and said, “I won’t die for a long time, because I’m new. But you’re not so new.”
Right again, I said grumpily. What happens, do you think, when you die?
“Your skin comes off and all the bones of your body go away,” she said. “And it’s not nice to live without your skin and your bones, so you die. Everyone has to die, yeah. But not now.” Then she picked up my mother’s phone and said she had to make a phone call to Badi dadi. “Hello?” she said, “Is that Badi dadi? I just wanted to say it’s okay.” She had a burbling conversation with her dead great-grandmother and returned with the news that all was well, and that Badi dadi had become new—and that was pretty much all anyone really wanted to know anyway.
Then she sat me down on the porch steps and draped a white handkerchief carefully over my head. “Now you look very nice,” she said. After a while I took it off and she said coolly, “I wouldn’t do that. Your hair isn’t so stylish.”