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MahaMementoMori: Fables Beyond COVID’s Warning Wall – The first in a monthly series that gently reminds us to remember what life would be like if we succumbed to a pandemic. While settings shift from India to America, and characters change as well, each story explores the vital nature of relationships in life and death.
I, Ganesha, have transcribed the entire Mahabharata, so the few hundred words that follow will go by in a prosodic flash.
At 200,000 lines of verse, Vyasa’s great Indian epic (“Maha” means great; “bharata” is another name for India) is the world’s longest poem. Eons ago when it was written, I agreed to be Vyasa’s scribe on one condition: he had to recite the Mahabharata without pause, barely catching his breath between verses. In turn, the great sage insisted that I understand all that he said before I wrote it down, all in one sitting. In that era, we did not shake hands; we merely exchanged our “Namaskars” and proceeded with the recitation and transcription.
I wrote and wrote until my feather pen broke, but Vyasa continued his dictation unimpeded. Per our agreement, I had to keep up. What to do?
It is now a matter of common knowledge that I broke off a tusk and used it as my writing utensil. But there were several concerns that I had to address before making this decision: Could I have availed myself to another feather? Had Vyasa been a bit more patient, might I have taken a few minutes to search for a quill of a different sort? Which one of my tusks, left or right? How painful was it to perform auto-dental surgery? Should I have imbibed bhang or an anesthetic of another sort?
No one has ever asked me these questions except for one man whom I shall call Dr. Devotee (or DD for short).
Over the past many millennia, and most definitely during the past quarter-century in this Silicon Valley mandir that I call home, many have taken my darshan. Some devotees like DD are regular visitors, seeing my elephantine trunk daily. However, most so-called devotees come to me only when they are launching a new enterprise or purchasing their first vehicle; they seek my blessings as the Lord of Beginnings who removes obstacles. I believe this latter group of temple visitors considers me to be some kind of proactive management consultant or preemptive car mechanic. At the end of their Sanskrit prayers, they say in a mix of English, Hindi, Tamil, and a host of other Indian languages, “Please Ganesha-ji, make the journey ahead trouble-free.”
After belonging to the category of regular visitor for many years, one day DD arrived at my mandir teary-eyed. He told Pandit-ji that his mother had been diagnosed with an illness. Pandit-ji brought him to me, did a small puja, and insisted that all would be fine. After Pandit-ji moved on with his evening rituals, I motioned DD to sit and reflect on life. Like many before him, and countless who will follow, he began with an arti:
Jai Ganesha, jai Ganesha, jai Ganesha deva
Mata jaki Parvati … Pita Mahadeva.
When he came to the part about mothers being like my own mother, Parvati, he broke down weeping. I consoled him. Holding back sobs, he continued reciting Pita Mahadeva…fathers are like my father, Shiva.
DD asked me if it was true what Pandit-ji had said, that all would be well with his mother.
I told him that I do away with all obstacles except one — death. There are cancers of different sorts: AdrenocorticalAnalAtypicalteratoid, BoneBrainBreast, LaryngealLiverLung, PancreaticPenileProstate, VaginalVascularVulva. This A-to-V list is sadly longer than the Mahabharata’s cast of villainous characters. To those imploring that I assist with treating carcinomas and metastases, I compassionately say, “Please know two things: (1) I am not an oncologist, just the simple elephant-headed son of Goddess Parvati and Lord Shiva; and (2) death is not an obstacle, it is samsara’s portal enabling rebirth.” They usually leave vaguely unsatisfied with my response but believing that Gods must know of what we speak.
DD was different. He pondered, “Hmm. Portal. A part of the cycle of life. Yes, death is but a portal. But don’t all of us want our loved ones to stay on this side of that door as long as humanly possible?” With that, he left the temple and returned home to his wife who surely consoled him better than I could.
After an understandable interregnum, he resumed his regular visits. On the day that DD returned, he placed 101 ladoos near Mushak, the mouse who sits loyally near my feet. Grinning from ear to ear, Mushak inquired about the sweet largesse. DD quietly whispered as if demonic carcinogens would be awoken if he spoke too loudly, “Mom’s cancer is in remission. Jai Ganesha, jai Ganesha, jai Ganesha deva. Mata jaki Parvati. Pita Mahadeva.”
Years went by. At our mandir’s 25th anniversary, DD and his wife celebrated with us by bringing along his mother and father.
Years went by. DD and his wife asked Pandit-ji to officiate their children’s weddings.
Years went by. DD and his wife fed all of the temple’s devotees in honor of his father’s 90th birthday, a day when his mother and father renewed their marriage vows in front of friends, children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
One day, he asked me the unasked questions about the time so long ago when I broke my tusk to complete the Mahabharata. Like all storytellers, I thoroughly enjoyed regaling my audience with the stories of my life. This audience of one patiently listened to my tangents about feathery pens and my embellishments about copious bhang before making a request: “Ganesha-ji, would you kindly serve as my scribe?”
Stroking my belly, I murmured something about being quite busy with my prominent role in the mandir. He looked crestfallen and said, “I don’t have much time. As such, I’m writing a series of fables about Gods I have prayed to, objects that have served me, words that I’ve written, work I have done, people I have known, the neighborhood I live in, and a garden that nurtures me.”
Intrigued, I said, “Please know we have time. What is the title of your book?”
Cheered by my interest, he responded, “Memento Mori: Stories Beyond COVID’s Warning Wall.”
My Latin is not as sharp as my Sanskrit, so I asked, “Memento mori? As in ‘remember your death’ is it?”
Dr. Devotee shared the smile of a man who is grateful to be known by another. “Quite right. Remember your death. I hope our readers see themselves in these stories and appreciate every day as if it’s their last.”
Triumphantly, I pointed to the tip of my left half-tusk and said, “Our readers, indeed! Come here every morning when the mandir opens. You recite. I write. Our readers will have their MahaMementoMori.”
Dr. Raj Oza has written or contributed to: Globalization, Diaspora, and Work Transformation; Satyalogue // Truthtalk: A Gandhian Guide to (Post)Modern-Day Dilemmas; P.S., Papa’s Stories; and Living in America. He can be reached at satyalogue.com or amazon.