11 April 2016

The girl who loved obituaries

It was a crisp October evening in London. I was walking down Pentonville Road as she walked up it, and then I saw her, bundled up in a beige overcoat - so different from what I was used to - waving at me. I grinned and skipped forward to cross the road, and we chatted the whole way to McDonald’s, where we proceeded to order a box of chicken nuggets and exclaim at things.

It seems fitting to open with this anecdote, not only because it was our first meeting in a foreign land - an apt beginning of new stories - but also because Shikha had just come from a talk at King’s Cross by Ann Wroe, who had been speaking about her new book on the myth of Orpheus. I’ve been fascinated by this mythological character for years, but this is really not about me; the point of this opening scene is that Shikha had just seen in person one of her idols, the obituaries editor of The Economist. 

It’s an odd sort of trait to proclaim that you love reading obituaries, as she did, but hey, I love cemeteries, so who am I to judge? Our partiality to these associations with death is, however, not quite morbid; to quote Wroe: “The death...is rarely interesting. It’s what the spirit did as it inhabited the body, the impact it made as it burned through, the revelation of its essence through the murk of earthly existence, that I want to catch.” And both are, above all, against forgetting. The words of a favourite literature and classics professor often echo in my head - the biggest fear in art and life is that of oblivion. We think about legacies, relationships, doing something meaningful with the time we have, so that our life doesn’t go by unwitnessed, so that even after we’re gone people will remember us kindly, remember our stories, remember.

This is not an obituary.

But it is an anniversary, and even though dates and events often seem meaningless, as though we don’t think of someone every time something we used to do or talk about together reminds us of them, I thought I’d write something to share the reminiscing. Words, especially le mot juste, can sometimes be hard to come by; a part of me just wanted to play ‘The Boxer’ on repeat and not bother with them, but here I am, on a balmy April evening in Delhi, telling a story of somewhere else.

I turn to Ann Wroe as I write this: it is hard to compress a life into a moment, but a motif, incident or conversation may provide the key. For me, it is a memory, simple and almost banal, but so clear that I have more than once lost myself in it, only to realise with a jolt that it will never happen again.

Yet, as Wroe reminds us through the myth of Orpheus, we can never quite summon up the past.

I used to think of Orpheus’ journey into the underworld as a futile endeavour, for he ended up, in his apprehension, looking back and losing Eurydice all over again. But perhaps she was moved that someone loved her enough to follow her into the land of the dead and plead for her life. Perhaps the fact that there was someone who would do that for her was enough.

What will survive of us is love.

"That is the whole point of Orpheus," says Wroe, "that he represents life, and he enhances our own lives."

Onward.

Kensington Gardens, 2011

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