Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Of life, death and living

May 22, 1991:  I had just gotten ready to leave for a picnic at the zoo with my friends when our neighbor rang the bell. "Did you hear the news?"

It was 7 a.m. Ma was in the restroom, Dad had just brushed his teeth. "No," he said. "Why?" The neighbor said, "Rajiv Gandhi was killed last night." We didn't even know how to react. The youngest prime minister of India. The most dynamic politician of our times. Gone. Just like that.

Mom's eyes welled up when she heard the news. It wasn't the age of multi-channel TV browsing; there was no internet; we read the newspaper; heard the story on the radio; and got updates by word of mouth.

He was 47. I, 13.

I vaguely remembered when his mom, former prime minister Indira Gandhi, was assassinated seven years ago. Mom and dad kept referencing that eventful day in light of Rajiv Gandhi's shocking demise. They were stunned that two members of the same family could be killed so brutally in less than a decade.

I didn't comprehend the politics behind the assassination, but I remember losing my appetite; feeling a sense of gloom and hopelessness; and wondering what could have been...

August 31, 1997: Woke up to this headline: Princess Diana Dies in Paris Crash. "Impossible!" I shrieked. How could she die? She was so young! An accident? What? The paparazzi drove her to her death? That doesn't even make sense. For the next 10 hours, I sat glued to the television.

BBC dedicated the day to an analysis of the circumstances in which Di departed. Then there were the wedding videos. The documentary on her life as an outwardly charming princess, inwardly depressed wife. Princess Diana wasn't even Indian! I hadn't followed her life history. I didn't see her regularly in our local news or on TV. But, still, her death affected me.

I remember watching the funeral procession; William and Harry with their innocent little droopy faces; Sir Elton John singing Candle in the Wind; Earl Spencer's eulogy; and the thousands of people who showed up at Buckingham Palace to express their grief over the untimely demise of the People's Princess.

Mother Teresa had died a day before Princess Di's funeral, but for some reason, even though her death was a bigger loss to the Indian people, Diana was on top of my 19-year-old impressionable mind. Such a fairytale-like life -- with some modern-day drama to boot -- coming to such a sudden, horrific end.

October 5, 2011: It was 4:35 p.m. on Wednesday when a colleague came to my desk and said, "Mansi did you hear thenews?" Her face was ashen white. I jokingly asked, "Who died?" and she said, "I just received a text. Steve Jobs just passed away." "No way!" I exclaimed. He couldn't have. I immediately went on Twitter. It was going viral with the news. #SteveJobs and #RIPSteveJobs fast becoming popular hashtags. But Twitter couldn't be relied upon (or perhaps, I just didn't want to believe what I had heard and was seeing). I called my husband who works at Apple. "What happened?" I asked. "Yeah...it's true," he said. "We all knew it was coming..." He was right.

Since August 24, when Steve stepped from his position of CEO, we knew he had very little time left. But still. For him to leave so suddenly ... a day after the new iPhone 4S was announced ... it just seemed so wrong. With him, even though the news was "expected," the shock was just as tangible and unexpected.

I felt the same deep sorrow I had felt first in 1991 and then in 1997.

I didn't know any of these people. I hadn't met any of them. And yet, I found myself mourning. That same feeling of, "This isn't fair," kept rearing its head ... and then that feeling of helplessness ... the realization that such is life ... the overwhelming feeling of mortality.

When Rajiv Gandhi died, I was nowhere near his age, and yet I felt he was too young to be snatched away from us. When Princess Di went, I  hadn't experienced love and marriage and yet, in her death I felt wronged. I wanted her to have experienced a happy life. She never got the chance.

And with Steve, as has been said over and over this past week, there is an undeniable sense of feeling cheated -- the man was a visionary with so much to offer the world. He transformed entire industries ... the way we interact and engage with devices and with each other. He shrank the world manifold while taking Silicon Valley genius into homes worldwide. With him it wasn't just a sadness because of the void that was created, but a deep, all-engulfing, extremely selfish sense of overpowering grief ... disappointment at being robbed of the chance to see what else his creative genius could offer ...

I wasn't the only "fan in the distant" mourning in 1991 or 1997. I am joined by millions of others all across the world in 2011. These three people couldn't be more different. Their contributions to this world uniquely apart. Their charisma, their ability to be a commoner while standing apart from the crowd, distinctly similar. Their impact all powerful.

They went too early.

In a world plagued with short-term memory ... in a life that seems increasingly fragile with each passing year ... these losses seem to stay. They are a reminder that life is full of unexpected turns. And that there are no guarantees .

At the risk of stereotyping, let me say that Indians have a tendency to save for tomorrow. It's almost in our DNA. We grow up seeing everyone around us "planning for the future" ... a future that they may not even be alive to experience. And we internalize it.

With Steve Jobs' demise and the memories it has raked up, I've become ever more cognizant of the fact that life is for the living here and now. Don't pinch corners for what will be ... what is, is all there is.

The three-year-olds I hang out with seem to understand that concept so well. They don't know what tomorrow means. They aren't aware of the concept. And everything in the past is simply "yesterday." That's really how simple life needs to be.

Today is all we have. Let's make the most of it.

This post originally appeared on my blog, First Impressions.