The tyranny of questions

She was slouching on the sofa with a glass of sugar water in her hand. Her plain golden sari flowed around her, wrapping her like a bed sheet. It was a birthday party for her 99-year-old cousin and she herself was around 90, glean gone from the eyes and lips shut tight. Surviving past the age-mark 84 was not her only accomplishment, I was told. The quiet woman in the golden dhoti was the only nonagenarian who had gone to school, (in British Calcutta) to come back to teach as a professor at Ratna Rajya campus and published collections of short stories.

As the woman stared languidly at the space, bobbing her head out of her reverie only to ask others around what the conversation was about, a chill ran down my heart. I must have misread her: no one wants to step at the doorstep of death full of regrets and dissatisfaction, but I wondered at the meaning of living through it all, through the accomplishments described to me and those hidden in her memories. She could not or did not want to gush about her own life. What now? I wanted to ask her, but only mimicked her lost gaze at the guests pouring in.  

My great-grandmother was 111 when she died. My grandmother is nearing 84, my mother is 46 and I am 28. None of us, the living, talk to each other about our lives lived; our eyes are always on the future, at the point right before death. We should not live in our past, for that shuts the door to the future, but if future holds obscurity, a jumbled recollection but no explanation of the past, what would it have been all about then? Why do we celebrate birthdays and mark the years gone by?

In a fascinating but convoluted movie about hypnosis and memory implantation, Trance, the hypnotism therapist, played by Rosario Dawson, tells the antagonist, Frank, that memories are identities, not for others but for ourselves. We select memories to constantly remind ourselves of who we are. If those memories get lost, or are forgotten or replaced by false ones, we lose ourselves. Is it that simple? Is it just survival, just Darwinism—the driving factor behind moving on?

I am going to make assumptions: If I had asked the old lady about her volumes of short stories, about why she published them, I doubt I would have gotten one single straight answer. Years of hindsight would have given her an answer, or many, but different from the one that drove her to write and publish those stories. She could also easily just say, “Just because. I just did it.”

That answer, if ever uttered, would never be satisfactory. The famous book on Paul Farmer, Mountains Beyond Mountains, brilliantly showcases Dr Farmer’s struggle to provide equal medical service to the world’s poor. The book is a page-turner, but none of the pages provide a glimpse into Farmer’s philosophy, into the guiding principle, the drive that makes him leave the comforts of Harvard Medical School and set up health camps in Haiti. What makes a man want to do ‘good’? We all talk and think about changing the world, helping the poor and creating an equitable, just society. But not every one of us equates that with food and takes that extra step. Tell me, Dr Farmer, how can you be a good man? Tell me old lady, why did you publish those stories that no one knows about? Give me a personal, not a textbook, reason.

I know where the torture is seeping from. It comes not from asking questions, but from not being ok with not having answers. Rationally, I understand the meaninglessness of it all. Emotionally, I still grapple with that truth.  I am not Richard Feynman, who genuinely smiles through it all.

Here’s what Feynman had said in a 1981 BBC interview: “When you doubt and ask, it becomes a little harder to believe. I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing, than have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible answers and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I am not absolutely sure about anything.  And there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask, why we are here. But I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in the universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell possibly. It doesn’t frighten me.”

The old woman in that golden sari, with a slouch and a stare, with all her wonderful achievements amounting to nothing—that frightened me.

Published on 5 July 2014, The Kathmandu Post