RAVI ADVANI: November 1, 1966 - August 6, 2008
Ravi Advani died yesterday. The fourth of my contemporaries, one more of my closest friends, who went well before his time. But what is this time that we have an illusion of? What is this concept of time we have, where it is not quantified by mere numbers, but as an undefined period or space between birth and death?
I don't know. I'll leave such querying to more scholarly minds. Yet I cannot but help contemplating this aspect of our lives. We accord time such value, such importance. And then when our pre-conceived notions of life do not fit into this 'time' we believe is allocated to us, we are at a loss.
Still, Ravi, 9 years younger than me, has passed on. He died of many complications which wrecked his body over the years, finally resulting in a multiple-organ failure that ended his life. Of course he neglected himself. Of course he chose to consume alcohol in excess. Of course he lived life with the sure knowledge that he had plenty of time.
It was this last mentioned guarantee which he gifted himself that determined the way he wanted to live his life. He lived life to the full. Once more, another indeterminate and vague concept. The fullness of one's life is bound or controlled by individual circumstances. Ravi enjoyed his life in the best possible way he could. He used humour to buttress his weaknesses and failures, of which he had plenty. He bore no ill-will or grudges for any length of time. This too ensured that people took advantage of his warm heart, a generosity of pocket he could least afford, and his status as a bachelor without family of any kind. He gave in easily to others' whimsy and overbearing attitudes.
So when the time came for the truth of friendship to be put to the test, these so-called 'others' were found to be sadly lacking.
It was his destiny to have come to Aizawl in Mizoram and find his place on earth ten years ago. Before this move, he lived in Calcutta, the city of his birth, where we met. Just a few months before his migrating, he had been diagnosed with tuberculosis and was in a very bad way in the hospital. My late parents insisted on bringing him home to our house where they cared for him, nourished him, and ensured his recovery, just as they would have done for their own children.
Having lost his own parents at a very young age, Ravi had no real family of his own. There were relatives scattered here and there, but he never talked of them much, and certainly not in a special manner as many of us tend to do. He claimed me and my family as his own and yet he suddenly disappeared without notice and we lost touch for more than 5 years.
And then in Aizawl he found another family, another set of true friends. Makuka and his family, and the good doctors Jane and Zothan. They were the only people he talked of regularly, animatedly, and with all the emotion one comes to bear upon when talking of people one loves and who love you back. Unconditionally.
It hardly mattered that there was no blood connection. The last ten days of his life spent in a hospital was when, once again, this Mizo family of his did what blood relatives should normally do. They arranged for expensive medicines and bottles of blood, paid his bills (he was stone broke), sent him meals thrice a day, took it in turns to stay nights with him, and constantly kept me and my sister updated with his progress, or lack of it.
It was at their urging that I eventually decided to come see this friend of mine, someone I'd known for 20 years. Nearly half his life. Despite my not wanting to see him in the condition he was in, I realised we were brothers and it was the least I could do. I flew to Aizawl with a bad gut feeling and a heavy heart. He called me in the morning yesterday telling me that my flight was as per schedule, and that I should get him some fruits unavailable in Aizawl and the new book by Jhumpa Lahiri. At Lengpui, Aizawl's airport, I sent a text informing him I'd arrived and that Makuka was driving me up to my hotel. His last communication with me was a text in reply to tell Makuka that he wanted freshly boiled country chicken (a Mizo speciality) for dinner that night. I later learned he died an hour and fifteen minutes after that. The time I must have entered my hotel room.
Once again, his Mizo family showed what it means to be considered as such. Makuka brought Ravi's body to his own house, where his sister and others laid his body for people to pay their last respects. The entire neighbourhood and community, more than a hundred people, gathered to keep vigil till late at night with us. Most of them did not know Ravi, or had a nodding acquaintance with him. Yet they and the YMA, the Young Mizo Association, organised everything. From making and serving tea and food for all visitors, making his coffin, transporting it to the Chanmari cemetery, digging his grave, and today, to sealing his final resting place. The graveyard is on a hillside, and it is rocky, and at the end there were some 80 people who made sure the mandatory six feet was dug so that his burial could happen that very night itself.
I had been using his mobile phone to inform all the people in his contacts list about his demise. What I was really trying to do was somehow connect with a blood relative so that someone from his family would know. But I was not successful. Instead I received a call from an obstreperous, uncouth, arrogant man from Delhi who claimed to be Ravi's friend for four years (4 years!), who actually had the unmitigated gall to question our decision to bury him and not cremate him, since, he said, Ravi was a Hindu and had apparently told him sometime in the past that he had wanted this.
I think I knew Ravi better than anyone. We spoke almost every day once we renewed contact some 5 years ago, often merely enquiring about my normal, daily routine. He shared many of his thoughts with me. One thing I knew for certain was that Ravi was not religious. In fact he avoided such people and places as much as he could. At the end, it was the people who looked after him and who, as Ravi was keenly aware, were real family, who took the decision to inter his remains rather than burn them.
The horrible man from Delhi, a certain Vicky Chauhan, did not even know that Ravi was in hospital until he got my text informing him of his death. Who are such people who suddenly want to make decisions about what to do with a dead Ravi when they least cared for him when he lived? All they were, were good-time buddies. They used Ravi's position as the manager of an airline agency to get confirmed air travel during peak periods, on the assurance of gifting him a bottle or two of whisky, a valued commodity in Mizoram where prohibition is law. In fact, they would also help consume that whisky gift. I feel excessively violent as I think of these scum of the earth, and I would have no regrets if someone cremated them alive.
My third visit to Mizoram, though in extreme contrast to my earlier two, has again been a valuable learning experience for me. I am completely enamoured of this place and its people. I consider myself an honorary Mizo, not because they conferred it on me, but because I am honoured to consider myself as such. It is due to Ravi that such a feeling overwhelms me about this treasure-house of a people in the north east of India.
We in urban, urbane, globalised India have much to learn from them. Or perhaps re-learn. We need to once again absorb what I fondly term the tribal traditions that keep them together and strong in times of need and stress, and in times of joy and happiness. Basically, at all times.
In the cities of the plains, we are self-centred, self-absorbed and selfish, doing things more for their social acceptability and trumpeted acknowledgement rather than for the sake of doing it. This intangible, precious quality of doing good for others without question or motive reposes only in a handful. In Mizoram, it is the quality of its people completely.
The death in Mizoram of my dear friend Ravi Advani is not an end. For me, it is a beginning. I have found true friends who have easily inducted me into their families. I have also been witness to the true Christian spirit in action, something that for so long has been theoretical, perhaps liturgical knowledge for me. I saw it in my parents and a few others which I took for granted, rightly assuming it to be their nature. Now I'm happy to know that such a spirit exists in an entire community and people.
In contrast, there is Ravi's employer of eight years. The man minced no words to publicly denounce Ravi's philandering ways at his wake, and over the next two days when I met him again to pack and collect Ravi's personal effects. Neither was he sparing in the self-praise and congratulations he awarded himself as he told me and others of the 'lakhs and lakhs of rupees' he had spent on Ravi's medical treatment over the years. Yet he never had one good thing to say about Ravi whom he had kept questionably employed for 8 years, other than to be slightly impressed by his PR skills.
Of course the man is a non-Mizo, even worse, a Bengali, a person of my 'exalted' community. To some, that itself would be a moot point, as his origins are not of Bengal. In the three times I have visited Aizawl, I was made acutely aware of the regard non-Mizos have for Mizos. They are vile in their vituperation and slick with their abuse and slander. This feeling is especially strong among the Army in their avatar as the Assam Rifles. This same attitude is perpetuated by the non-Mizo businessmen and traders who profit tremendously from doing what they do in Mizoram. (Some of them have even married Mizo women...)
In all the Mizos I have met over the years (and I have met a great number), I saw no such reciprocal tendency of attitude. In fact I sensed, and empathised with the alienation which has been forced upon them. I see this alienation mirrored in the advertisements that litter the pretty mountain sides in which handsome Indians (non-Mizos) pose to seek the necessary custom of Mizos for cellphone services, cars, TVs, et al. Why, when these companies are anyway spending millions to advertise, can't they find Mizo models to do the same, and not further perpetuate this alienating attitude? It would, to my reasonably long experience, make good marketing sense. There has been strife and bitterness in the past between Mizos and non-Mizos, but the present generation have left those memories behind and are making sincere efforts to integrate with the mainstream Indian identity. The media too have made no real contribution to furthering such ties. Other than creating special shows, pages and such which mostly examine political happenings with immense erudition and nothing else, mainline newspapers, periodicals and TV channels have miserably failed in their purpose of also being a unifying factor in our lives.
Ravi's death in Mizoram has opened doors and windows for me. I shall be eternally grateful to him for doing this, not by dying, but by having chosen to make that place his home eventually. And giving me pleasant and worthwhile insight and understanding. The more I look at these, the more I appreciate that we are not separate communities, or races of people with fixed identities, creeds and morals.
We are, finally, human beings, and that is all we shall be able to take with us when we too die.