Death: I’ve had 13 years to think

The most sacred cremation place in India: Manikarnika Ghat in Varanasi, where funeral pyres burn day and night.
A body lies on the steps of Manikarnika Ghat in Varanasi, where funeral pyres burn day and night. Concepts of death are very different in many Indian communities.

I’ve been immersed in writing about death after spending a week in Varanasi at a home where ailing, elderly Hindus go to end their lives. They want to die there because they believe dying within the boundaries of the ancient city of Kashi will mean moksha, or salvation for the soul.

The story — I will write more about that later — took me back to the deaths of my own parents in 2001. I cremated my father, Debabrata Basu, 13 years ago.

Every year, especially on March 24, I think about the events of that day. Of bringing his body home to our flat in Kolkata. Of going to Park Circus Market to buy garlands of marigolds and bouquets of white, fragrant Rajanigandhas (tuber roses). Of all the people who came to pay their last respects. Family. Friends. My father’s students and colleagues from the Indian Statistical Institute.

I think of how summer had already cut spring short that year. The temperature soared beyond 90 degrees as we made our way to the crematorium in Kalighat. I waited with my father’s body, under a hot sun. I felt exposed to the entire world, for seven hours. Time stood still then. I looked down at his gaunt face, his cold body. I touched his hand from time to time. Was it to make sure he really was gone? Physically, he was.

But his soul was free. He would be with me always, I thought.

I also lost a dear friend recently. Lateef Mungin, a colleague at CNN and before that, at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, died after suffering seizures. He was only 41.

I attended ‘Teef’s funeral at an African-American Baptist church in suburban Atlanta. Everything about it was so decidedly different than what I had seen at the cremation grounds in Kolkata and most recently in Varanasi. The way a body is laid out. They way we honor a person. They way we say goodbye.

In the last few days, death has again entered my life with the story of the missing Malaysia Airlines jet. I spoke with Mr. K.S. Narendran, whose wife. Chandrika Sharma, was on that flight. This is what he wrote to his friends last week:

I remain focused on what we have at hand by way of information, and stay with the knowledge that Chandrika is strong and courageous, that her goodness must count for something, somewhere. I carry firmly the faith that the forces of life are eternal, immutable and ever present to keep the drama ever moving. In the ultimate analysis, I am neither favored nor deserted. No one is.

(You can read the entire story on CNN.)

I admired Mr. Narendran’s quiet strength and how he coped with the knowledge that his wife may never come back home. It was a stark contrast to the way many of us display our anxiety and grief.

We all have to come to terms with dying. We will all die one day. That is certain. But there is so much uncertainty about what happens afterwards, about what we believe happens to us after our physical presence on Earth has ended.

Do you believe in heaven? In hell? Do you believe we possess souls?

Hindus believe in rebirth. They see it as another cycle of testing for one’s soul. That’s why people go to Benaras to die. That’s why they take God’s name and hope for moksha that will put an end to that undesirable cycle. It is an alien idea for Christians, Jews and Muslims. But who’s to say?

I am not sure I will ever come to any concrete conclusions. But I do know this. I feel my parents’ presence within me. And that will never go away.

Baba’s legacy

A new book of my father’s writings was released last week. “The Selected Works of Debabrata Basu” was compiled by Anirban Dasgupta, one of my father’s former Ph.D students who now teaches at Perdue University.

Dasgupta wrote in the introduction of the book that he took on this task with a great deal of apprehension. My father was the best teacher Dasgupta had ever had, he said. My father, he said, never used any notes or read anything out in class. He explained everything with effortlessness and clarity that Dasgupta said he never again experienced.

I know this to be true because I sat in on many of my father’s classes. I was not learned enough to understand the complexities of what he was teaching but I could see how at ease he felt with his students and why, they, in turn, admired him so. I never had a knack for mathematics, as my brother did, but I always did well in algebra, geometry, arithmetic, trigonometry and calculus only because my father took the time to sit down with me and explain why things were the way they were.

“Never try to memorize formulas,” he said. “They are a recipe for failure.”

In the book, his former students said my father told them the same thing. I suppose that’s why they all turned out to be successful.

My father was known as somewhat of a radical in the field of statistical theory.

In 1955, he published “The Basu Theorem,” a fundamental tool for proving independence of statistics, said his colleague Malay Ghosh. It is often used in statistics as a tool to prove independence of two statistics, by first demonstrating one is complete sufficient and the other is ancillary.

“The theorem itself is beautiful because of its elegance and simplicity, and yet one must acknowledge its underlying depth, as it is built on several fundamental concepts of statistics, such as sufficiency, completeness and ancillarity.”

Later in life, my father became a Bayesian. In other words, he believed it was necessary to incorporate prior knowledge, along with a given set of current observations, in order to make statistical inferences. “You cannot ignore history,” he would say to me as I proofread his essays, trying desperately to understand the formulas that came interspersed in stories about circus elephants and Martians who landed on Earth.

If you roll the dice a thousand times and it comes up six, then on the next roll, the chance of again showing a six are higher than any other combination, even though pure statistics will tell you otherwise — that your chances of getting a six are still one in six. There must be something going on to influence the roll.

I thought I would remember that the next time i hit Vegas, but I never really understood how my father was able to prove those theories mathematically.

As I skimmed the pages of the book posted on the publisher’s website, I felt incredible pride to be my father’s daughter (the first photo is of me with my father in 1969). I loved him deeply in life but I never took the opportunity to sit down and understand the world of numbers that engulfed my his head.

A decade has passed since my father died of Alzheimer’s, a disease that robbed him of all things, the ability to use his brain. Towards the end of his life (second photo), my father could not talk, could not express himself. I realized that the end was near when I asked him: “Baba (the Bengali word for father), what is two plus two?” He stared vacantly ahead, right through me.

I left his room at our flat in Kolkata and closed myself in mine. It was where all my father’s published works sat on a varnished bookshelf. He had led such an incredible life and I knew that day that I was about to lose him.

I thank Anirban Dasgupta for taking on this book on my father’s work. You are living proof of my father’s genius.