Dealing with death in Pakistan?

Vaqar Ahmed demonstrates that in death, as in life, Pakistanis can have very different experiences

Dealing with death in Pakistan?
Cast a cold eye,

On life, on death

Horseman, pass by

Thus reads the tombstone of the great Irish poet W.B. Yeats.

But neither life nor death is easily taken with the detachment that Yeats speaks of. Lives of people, as we all know, vary widely, but so does death. Except that we avoid gazing at death for too long.

Take the process of dying and its aftermath.  While the end result is the same, the rich, the middle class (which my brother’s driver calls “medium-class”) and the poor all die differently.

Recently, one of the sweepers in our apartment building did not turn up for four days.  I asked the other sweeper who happened to be his family member.  “Bas ji, doo ultian aeieen aur who khatam ho giya.” (Well sir, he just vomited twice and then he was dead).  The man had been working for years and we had never heard that he was sick at any time. The sum total of the information leading up to his death was that he fell sick and died within two days. He would have been carried to his grave with little pomp or fuss. The grave, perhaps, would have been left unmarked and un-built. Next day, his son would pick up the father’s inheritance, the broom, and offer himself for the job his father was doing.  If he is lucky, he would get the job and work at it until the day he gets his own two vomits.

Image credits: Randy Glasbergen

In the God-fearing middle classes death is imbued with a strong sense of a special calling from Heaven.  A person I knew at work thus described the passing away of his uncle. “He was perfectly fine.  At night he called his family and told them to maintain unity among themselves. Next morning he woke up as usual and said his Fajr prayer as was his habit. Then he lay down on the prayer mat, recited the kalima and closed his eyes. After a few hours we were worried that he had not moved. When we tried to wake him up, he was gone. Clearly, he knew that his time had come!” Such a story is usually greeted with the appreciation of the great connection the gentleman had with the powers above. One unique feature of the middle class, particularly in the province of Punjab, is that they avoid using the Urdu word inteqal or mawt for passing away. The usual manner of communicating the sad news goes like this, “Kall meray uncle di death ho gai” (My uncle died yesterday).

The ones who make the greatest fuss about death are the rich. Somehow they think that their money gives them the privilege of living long as they wish. So they get admitted to the best hospitals and expect the doctors and nurses to get them well somehow. During the illness their relatives constantly complain about the poor quality of the hospital services and the incompetence of the doctors, etc.  When the angel of death escorts out such a patient, the relatives claim that the death was entirely due to the wrong injection or the inability of the nurse to take the blood pressure reading for the fifth time during the day. There are vows that never again would they go back to that particular hospital and they should have taken their patient to a particular hospital in London where everyone comes out alive and doubly healthy.

The same pattern repeats itself when the time comes to inform the friends of the deceased through a notice in the newspaper. The poor guy who died in two days after two vomits cannot even think of placing such a notice. And the best that the pious middle class person – who already knew about the day he would meet his Maker – can do is to place a micro-notice in an Urdu newspaper. The prominent notice in a leading English language newspaper is the exclusive domain of the rich and famous. The obituary often lists the achievements of the great individual. Sometimes, even the relatives whose names appear in the notice as mourners provide some information about their status – perhaps that of a former ambassador, general or retired commissioner of income tax.

Finally, the notice says that all those who knew the dear departed should pray that God places him not just in heaven but in – as was the case during their earthly existence, too – “Jannat kay oonchay darjaat” (the upper echelons of Paradise). So the class system that humans have created in this world is expected to exist in the Hereafter too! Presumably, the sweeper would get a grade 1 shack in heaven while the man with the death notice in English newspaper’s main section would reside in the VIP section. I am sure the rich man expects that the sweeper will clean his house in Paradise!
I am sure the rich man expects that the sweeper will clean his house in Paradise!

There is, though, a fourth group which has its own unique and egalitarian take on death. That would be the insurance companies. I remember looking at an insurance policy some friend of a friend of friend was trying to push on me. The section on the compensation listed the following conditions and payments:

Loss of 1 limb – Rs. 50,000

Loss of 2 limbs – Rs. 100,000

Loss of 2 limbs and back injury –
Rs. 150,000

Death ONLY – Rs. 250,000

It seemed from the list that the smartest or most lucrative way to die was to lose all limbs and have the back destroyed – so as to get the maximum compensation of Rs. 550,000. Or am I being unreasonably optimistic?