But a good measure of a person’s life is how they are remembered after they are gone
When I wrote about P.D. James a fortnight ago in my column, the last thing I expected was that she would be dead in a matter of weeks. There was something about her that seemed immortal and immutable, as she produced murder mystery after murder mystery in a writing career spanning over half a century. But, in the end, death comes to us all, and it came to Phyllis Dorothy James as she reached the venerable age of 94.
The moment I heard about her passing, I pulled out the first book she had ever written (and the first P.D. James I had ever read), Cover Her Face. And there on page two was the prescient phrase: “…there was wisdom in knowing when to die with the least inconvenience to others and distress to oneself…”
I can only hope that that was the kind of death she had. But what I am quite sure of is that she will never really be dead to those of us who loved her books. And even a hundred years down the line, when someone picks up one of her titles – Shroud for a Nightingale, Murder Room, Devices and Desires are just some of my favourites – the justly-chosen words, the sharp observations, the tautly-worked plot, the nail-biting suspense, will bring her back to life in yet another reader’s imagination.
What better legacy could an author ask for than to live on in her books? I am quite certain that James would ask for no more (or less) than to be remembered for her literary oeuvre. After all, this was a woman who was such a fan of Jane Austen that she took off from where Pride and Prejudice left off to write a murder mystery, Death Comes to Pemberley, set a few years after Darcy and Elizabeth have settled down to domestic bliss in their sprawling estate. Maybe two centuries down the line, another author can pen a similar homage, in which Adam Dalgliesh finally finds marital happiness and settles down to cosy domesticity with Cordelia Gray. (Though why wait so long; maybe Elizabeth George can get cracking on this right now!)
But as I read the many obituaries of James, and began re-reading Cover Her Face (the perfect start to reading all her books yet again, in chronological order), I began to think about the nature of death itself. In James’ books it is inevitably violent, sometimes brutal, and always shocking. There is no sugar-coating, no polite side-stepping, no euphemisms, and certainly no discreet aversion of the authorial gaze. James wants us to confront the horror of murder upfront and realize the violence – both physical and emotional – it brings in its wake. In her books, death strips away all dignity and privacy from those it visits, leaving their lives open to the vulgar, even voyeuristic, curiosity of others. In a sense, her murder victims lose more than their lives; they lose all control over how they are viewed in death and after.
And in some ways, that is a more terrible loss. All of us, at some level, want to remembered in the best possible way when we finally pass over. We want our loved ones to cherish our memory, we want our grandkids to remember us as more than a yellowing picture in a silver picture-frame. We want our lives to have had some meaning. We want our legacy to live on after us.
But the funny thing about legacy is that it can mean so many different things to different people. Some want to be remembered for the businesses they built; others for the kids they raised. Some want to live on by establishing charitable trusts in their own name; others seek absolution in leaving all their worldly belongings to the children they neglected while alive. Some want to be remembered for their kindness, others for their talent, and yet others for their power and prestige.
But, at the end of the day, none of us has control over how it ends. So, while some like P.D. James are celebrated for having led a long and fulfilling life others like Phil Hughes are mourned for having had their life cut short by cruel fate. Even as obituaries for James flooded the papers, Hughes, the Australian cricketer who died days after being hit on the head by a bouncer, was commemorated the world over with the hashtag #putoutyourbats . Everyone from cricket legends like Sachin Tendulkar and Shane Warne to ordinary folk who loved the game, posted a picture of their bats with a cap on top to pay tribute to the batsman who would forever remain 63 not out.
As I scrolled through all the tributes, my thoughts went back to a funeral I had attended only a few days before when my dear friend, Murli Deora, passed away suddenly after a brief illness. There was sadness in the air; how could it be otherwise? And yet everyone only had happy memories of Murli to share. There was the tearful old man who remembered the time the young Mayor of Bombay had helped get his son a school admission. There was a young woman, escorting her grandmother, who had had her cataract removed at one of the eye camps he organized.
Everyone I spoke to had wonderful stories about how he had touched their lives. Maybe, when all is said and done, that is the best legacy any of us can ask for. To have touched even a single life – and left it better for your presence. And yes, to live on in the hearts that you have touched.