Death is All Around Us! Why Indians Need to Start Talking about the Will More Openly

POV

Death is All Around Us! Why Indians Need to Start Talking about the Will More Openly

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

I think about death a lot. Having lost both my parents before I turned 32, has made me curious about it – not in a morbid way, but in an examining, probing way. In fact, I am extremely fascinated by how we go on living our lives as though death is something that happens to other people. This ostrich-isation of death, the it-may-pass-me-by-if-I-ignore-it-with-all-my-might attitude of so many people around me often stumps me.

But every once in a while, something happens, a loved one’s illness, the death of a parent, a friend, an acquaintance – or a pandemic – that changes the callous and arrogant way we perceive death. And even though I hope none of you reading this has lost anyone close to you due to Covid-19, the uncertainty that the pandemic has brought into our lives has definitely made most of us realise and acknowledge our mortality and that we have little control over it.

I read a news piece recently where people in their 30s and 40s were drawing up their wills. Typically, people get around to making their wills in their 50’s but owing to Covid-19 uncertainty, younger people are getting it done on priority. It is happening the world over, Americans are rushing to draw up online wills, while Australians are seeking legal advice.

Wills, in general, are an emotional and complicated topic, but in Indian society, they are an absolute taboo. If you so much as mention it, you risk getting reprimanded, because, thoo thoo, who talks about death like that? Why do you want to attract buri nazar and bad luck by talking about death? Very few people have the clarity of thought and candidness about death that Rishi Kapoor‘s character in Kapoor & Sons had. In real life, forget ignorance, denial is bliss. But can we afford to look away now, when we don’t know what’s in store for us next week?

I am fascinated by how we go on living our lives as though death is something that happens to other people.

Divorced from all the emotional aspects of it, a will is simply a legal document that ensures a smooth and secure handover of all your assets – financial, personal, digital – to a trusted person/people once you die. Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? But the socio-cultural connotations attached to this piece of paper make it a very complicated topic to discuss without ruffling a few feathers.

For example, I grew up thinking a will was a bad, controversial thing, something that only families with a “dispute” needed. I vividly remember the day it was first spoken of in my family. It was among us siblings, and in hushed tones, so as to not hurt our father’s feelings. It was after my mother had passed on, and since she had always been the financially prudent one, all of us, my three sisters and I, as well as my father were a little lost when it came to managing the family’s finances. In the ensuing period, someone had duped our father of some property and we wanted to suggest that he make a will to avoid something similar in the future. But none of us could muster the courage to bring up the subject with him. It was just too morose.

We finally managed to speak to him about the delicate matter, he told us it was always his plan to make one, but he kept putting it off for later. Every time I look back now, I am so very grateful that we had that conversation and that a will was finally drawn. It has been over two years since he passed away and we are still not done with the rigmarole of transferring his assets to our names. The legal and bureaucratic processes in our country are a nightmare. Just the mention of a notary or the collector’s office gives me palpitations.

Wills, in general, are an emotional and complicated topic, but in Indian society, they are an absolute taboo.

And this frustrating experience gets 50 times worse if you don’t have a will. You will have to prove your relationship with the deceased so many times, and in so many different ways that even you will question the legitimacy of the relationship. What is a relationship anyway? Only moh and maya. That alone should make all of us at least think of drawing up our wills or start having conversations about it.

We should strive to normalise conversations around death and what happens afterwards. At the crux of it, a conversation about a will, is a conversation about death and we need to destigmatise both, to be able live and die in peace. Talking about your own will without any hesitation can definitely be a start. You don’t have to make light of it to separate it from the gravity of death, you only need to talk about the inevitable without letting emotions get in the way. Pragmatism is key.

When we think of death, we think of endings, but we should realise that it is also the beginning of someone’s life… without us. Grief is a deeply personal experience, everyone deals with it in their own way. Leaving them one less burden to deal with only seems fair.

Coronavirus has made us change our lifestyles, question deep-rooted practices and put a sharp focus on our mortality.

You may not have any dependents right now, or may not have significant assets, but all of us have our possessions that will outlive us. Physical and financial possessions aside, we have our entire lives stored on our phones, laptops, cloud and we need to be responsible for this ever-growing digital footprint. It is only practical, then, that we address what goes to whom or where, who gets access to our social media accounts etc., while we are living and healthy. And it is only fitting that it is done according to our wishes, than leaving grieving loved ones grappling with our belongings.

Coronavirus has made us change our lifestyles, question deep-rooted practices and put a sharp focus on our mortality, better than any life insurance ads ever could have. Earlier we went on with our lives as though we are immortal, but now, when even a grocery run makes us think about illness and death, it is time to buck up and become a rationalist.

Like Winston Churchill says in the series The Crown, “We’re all dying. That’s what defines the condition of living.” And what we make of our current condition of living is entirely up to us. Faced with uncertain times, being pragmatic and prepared seems to be our safest bet and now is as good a time to have that conversation about your will as any other.

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