A Man Can Die But Once

Uma Kukathas | Essays

A fortune teller told my grandfather he would die at age seventy, so he spent the better part of that inauspicious year in bed, covers pulled over his head, waiting. I heard this story in bits and pieces from my mother, thirty-five years later, as she lay in her own bed close to death.

According to Mum, the afternoon of his seventieth birthday, after a puja at the temple and a celebratory lunch at his house in Ipoh with several dozen close family members, her father, my Thatha, went into his bedroom, changed into a white lungi, and crawled into bed. He called for his wife and told her, voice quivering, that his time was almost up. He had learned from a horoscope reading that he was going to die.

Thatha explained to Grandma: it was no charlatan who made this grave prediction—it was Mr. Arasu, an astrologer with an excellent reputation in their small Sri Lankan Tamil immigrant community in Malaysia. Arasu had read many of their children’s wedding horoscopes and grandchildren’s birth charts with absolute accuracy and guided business decisions in the last years that had earned them excellent profits. Grandma knew as well as he did that Arasu was steadfast, respected, and not prone to errors or mischief.

The visit had been routine, to check dates for a business expansion, but as Arasu studied Thatha’s horoscope he looked agitated. He read the chart several times, eyes darting nervously, without uttering a word. Thatha could tell something was wrong. Arasu didn’t want to say at first, but Thatha insisted. “It sickens me almost as much as it must sicken you to know this, sir,” Arasu said, finally. “But I foresee your death. And it will happen soon.” Arasu didn’t point to an exact date but told Thatha it would take place in his seventieth year. He said there were signs it could be violent.

In response to his devastating news, Grandma, never one to be philosophical or sentimental, told Thatha not to be ridiculous. As he lay huddled on the bed weeping, she changed into her favorite gold and green silk sari, took her time choosing just the right handbag and shoes, and went to the movies. She thought that was that.

But the next day Thatha refused to leave his room. And again the day after that. On the third day Grandma stormed in, tore back the curtains to blind him with the afternoon sun, and began shouting. She reminded him he was healthy as an ox and the only way he could go now would be to rot in this room or die at her hands. How long did he plan to go on like this? What would people say? And how did she end up forty-five years ago with an idiot and a pauper fresh off the boat from Ceylon who had made every day for her a struggle, when her family could have married her off to any number of suitable Ceylonese men already well established in Malaya with plenty of money, property, and sense?

Nothing changed Thatha’s mind. He stayed in his bed wrapped in a white sheet and refused to see anyone or do any of his usual activities. No temple visits, no meetings with the property manager who ran his plantation, no afternoons on the porch sipping tea and gossiping with his cronies or doling out sage advice to his children or grandchildren.

But this being the tropics, before the week was up, Thatha began to reek, and the room along with him. Grandma moved to the guest room. When the stench finally became too much even for him, he got up, bathed, and put on a clean lungi. He lit incense and laid bougainvillea he plucked from the garden at the feet of the Ganesha statue in the puja room. He also did his calisthenics, checked on the chickens, played with the dogs, and read the newspaper. He rummaged through the fridge and demolished all the leftover rice and curry and ate an entire block of Kraft cheese. Grandma took care not to fight, in case the violence set him back. They took several meals together as though nothing had happened. But after a couple of days, without warning, Thatha was back in his room, shrouded in white and moaning softly. The cycle repeated itself endlessly.

Most of Thatha’s twenty children, my aunts and uncles, came to see him at some point during those months of misery. They made the pilgrimage from across town in Ipoh, from across Malaysia, and from across continents to beseech, cajole, and plead with their father to come to his senses. Mum didn’t go, because we lived in Australia and she couldn’t leave my sister, who had cerebral palsy. But she called frequently and learned the details from various siblings who were there. They had different takes. A few, the more Westernized ones, thought it was inconceivable that their father could fall victim to this superstitious nonsense—he had been a high school science teacher for twenty years before climbing the administrative ranks and becoming the state school superintendent. Most of the others, who knew and used Arasu’s services, never doubted the veracity of the reading but thought their father should at least live out his remaining months with dignity. A handful tried to arrange for another fortune teller to come to the house to give a second opinion, but Thatha refused. They considered asking Arasu to come and recant or do another reading, but decided that could be disastrous. There was, as usual, considerable infighting among the brothers and sisters about exactly what to do, and as a result they mostly did nothing.

One thing they all agreed on, though: it was shocking to see their father idle. In all his years, the man had never paused or taken a breath for anything. He was always working, hustling, taking care of new babies (Grandma was a hands-off parent), buying real estate, planning a new investment. By the time he retired five years earlier he had accumulated an impressive amount of wealth, considering his lowly beginnings and modest profession. He did this all while raising twenty children and sending most of them—and all eleven girls—to university to become doctors, lawyers, accountants, and teachers. Mum explained that Thatha’s striving was all to prove himself to Grandma’s parents, even though they didn’t live long enough to see his success.

Thatha languished in bed until the day Uncle Anand came to visit. Anand was a cardiothoracic surgeon and insufferable know-it-all who had settled in the United Kingdom. He wasn’t the oldest, or even the richest of Mum’s siblings, but he was Grandma’s favorite, and everyone was even more afraid of him than they were of her. He rarely came home to Malaysia, having little tolerance for the backwardness, uncleanliness, and chaos of his birthplace. When he did visit, he loved to point out every instance of the country’s, and his culture’s, failings. He wore crisp, tight dress shirts and tailored trousers despite the heat and humidity and demanded that he be brought a fork and knife for his meals even when everyone at the table was already eating using their fingers. (All of Anand’s attitudes changed, and in fact completely reversed, years later when he married a famous Indian classical dancer, but that is another story.)

As soon as he arrived from the airport, Anand lost no time bursting into his father’s room to announce he had arranged for the old man to see a psychiatrist. He had made calls from the UK and found the best person in Ipoh. The appointment was tomorrow, and they needed to be ready by ten. A car would be waiting.

Father, Anand said, as he castigated his siblings, was in need of proper help. He was having an existential crisis and a mental breakdown. Anand meant to sort it all out. The siblings grumbled at Anand’s presumption and his ability to do in one day what they had failed at for eight months, but within days of his visit Thatha was back to his old self.

Mum told me she didn’t know if Thatha ever went to see a psychiatrist or for how long; it was never spoken about. Even years later no one dared bring up the incident of Thatha’s predicted demise and lost year. I don’t remember hearing anything about it until Mum told me the story, seventeen years after he was gone. Mum said that if the affair ever did come up in conversation, usually as a time marker for an event or milestone he had missed, Thatha brushed it off and changed the subject. She said he was embarrassed by what others thought of him, but I understand why he wouldn’t want to relive those months of torment, when he thought his life was over and he could do nothing about it.

Thatha eventually died at age ninety-seven, in his sleep at home. He outlived Grandma by fifteen years. She died at age seventy-seven, several months after they were held at knifepoint in their house. Three men broke in, tied my grandparents to living room chairs, and ransacked the place. They found a small amount of cash and took Grandma’s jewelry and her large collection of silk saris. At the hospital, Grandma, heavily medicated, wept. She described everything her husband had done to protect her during the ordeal. When the men first entered, his first instinct was to shield her. He told them about her weak heart, begged them to let her go. The men pushed Thatha aside and pulled the gold wedding thali off Grandma’s neck. When she screamed, Thatha lunged at her attackers, and they struck him to the floor. When they were tied up next to each other as the robbers looted the house, Thatha whispered words of comfort to her. She was the love of his life, he said; he would always keep her safe. When the men left, Thatha dragged himself through the house still tied to the chair to call for help and then found a knife to cut them both free. Grandma couldn’t believe how brave he was, as if he was not at all afraid of death.