Nepali Times
Here And There
Death in the family


My mother died this past week. It was not unexpected but it was a shock, of course. Death is most problematic to the living, let there be no doubt about that. Those who slip away into that "good night", as the poet Dylan Thomas calls it, are gone for good someplace else or returned to the elements from whence they came. But the living, they hang around and have holes in their lives to fill. Thus the mourning process.

Death in a developed country like Canada is orderly and accountability is mandatory. Even when someone dies of a serious illness in hospital-as my mother did-the authorities must ensure that wrongdoing didn't take place. The slightest doubt here will get the police and the forensic scientists involved. A natural death must be reported to various levels of government so that records be changed and sums of money paid out to survivors. The glorious Canadian welfare state, for which people of my grandparents' generation fought epic political battles, is being gutted by the mindless conservatism of the present age. But the spirit of sharing and compassion lives on among the elderly, the dying. They, after all, founded the system and it is only right that they benefit.

I've been going through my mother's will, her bits of property and her assets. Her bank accounts and credit cards must be cancelled, transferred to her husband's name. Property that they both held in common must be notified as having a single owner. The will is simple. Everything goes to my stepfather, my mother's spouse, but even then a lawyer will oversee the process to make sure other relatives-like me-aren't up to no-good. It's a deeply sad affair but also quietly encouraging. As ever when I'm in this part of the world, I feel fortunate, blessed, by the level of support that society and the system give to ordinary people. Like my mother. Like me.

Inevitably, I then start to think about what happens when a member of the citizenry dies in Nepal or anywhere else in the developing world. Understand here that I don't mean someone from the top the heap, of the blood royal or clan Rana. Not a business leader or someone who balances at the top of the caste pyramid. No one who is privileged enough to speak English or have a top class education, who reports to any institutes, think tanks or international aid agencies. No senior government people or former ministers or sports figures or members of Kathmandu's so-called intelligentsia. Not even the literati, the pop culture elite or the heritage mafia of the Kathmandu Valley. In short, I'm talking about the deaths of people who have, in their lives, not a single shard of privilege. Probably 95 percent of the Nepali people.

What happens when they die? Well, of course, a family mourns. Probably. There will be friends and neighbours too, distant relations and people who shared employment or labour with the deceased. A period of mourning will pass and life will go on. But what of the achievements of the dead-the possessions, the wishes for disbursement of assets and posthumous favours and so on? Even the poor have property. In Nepal at least, there are no guarantees of anything being just, fair or according to the last wishes of the deceased. For we all know how families behave, given a smell of booty or a chance to redress past grievances. And then there's the system, little changed in practise from two centuries ago. Rent seeking government officials and local power brokers of the left and right could come calling, demanding something in a property settlement. Anything is possible.

Various reforms to the Mulki Ain over the years have done little but entrench its vast inequities by tinkering with flavour of the month detail. As for provision of any sort for the survivors, welfare or a sharing out of accumulated centuries of booty by the landed rich, it's a laughable thought in a country where less than a tenth of one per cent pay taxes and no one with any money is willing to own up to its source.

On balance, I'm glad my mother died in Canada. For if I were Nepali, and the local equivalent of the social class that I am in my native land (lowly, some sort of Sudra probably), we'd be just nearing the end of the period of mourning, and bracing ourselves for the onslaught. The closure provided by tradition's benchmarks would soon be eclipsed by modernity's material demands. Death, like life, among the poor of this country is a hard business, little changed over hundreds of years.

Someone should pay for that someday.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)