I’ve made many sales pitches over the years, but I never expected to be making one to Death himself.
It started with coughing up red one fine day. I usually expect to be greeted with ‘good morning’ messages on my family WhatsApp groups rather than blood, so I was understandably alarmed. A battery of doctor’s appointments and tests later, and the diagnosis was handed back to me – lung cancer, 4th stage.
Being a chain smoker, I should not have been altogether too surprised by this turn of events. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but feel cheated when, as I was returning from a chest x-ray, I saw my colleagues going through their daily pack on the footpath, swapping their lewd tales. “Why me and not them?” I lamented.
The doctors had not given me long to live. The exact number of months didn’t matter, anything less than a full life is not enough. I decided that it was too soon for me to go. I had just been awarded the Oberoi contract after weeks of overtime. I was not going down without a fight.
Conventional medicine failed me utterly. Every oncologist I met advised me to set my affairs in order and enjoy the last few moments I had left on this good Earth. What good is a doctor if they cannot fix you? I decided to take matters into my own hands.
I did a little research online. Turns out that if medicine fails you, there’s not much else you can do. Well, I navigated to page 2 of the results. I met up with a sadhu of some sort who’s contact I got from my maid. He advised me to drink cow urine and perform inhalation with eucalyptus leaves every day, while chanting mantras from a book he gave me. Oh, and for the best healing, he would need ten thousand rupees.
I’m in sales. I know bullshit when I see it. I told him to stop giving me his black magic nonsense and give me the real deal.
My no-nonsense manner evidently rattled him. Me coughing up blood on his floor might also have helped. He drew a crude map to some caves in the outskirts of the city. “This yogi has real power. But be warned, even we holy men are afraid to deal with him,” he stammered. I wondered what could be more intimidating than my boss after a fight with his wife.
I headed out to the caves the very next morning. The map was crude but accurate, and I was quickly able to locate the cave which held the supposed yogi with real powers. It looked unremarkable from the outside, with the same dark rocky entrance as every other cave in the vicinity, but I sensed a presence within. Out of a sudden sense of respect, I put my mobile on silent and headed inside.
I found the yogi seated in a painful looking lotus position at the very end of the cave. I could barely see, so I turned on my mobile’s torch.
“Hey, turn off that light!” he squawked.
“Sorry, sorry,” I mumbled as I switched off the flash.
He grumbled indistinctly as he lit two candles and set them beside him. He gestured for me to sit before him.
“What is It that brings you here?” he asked in a powerful voice.
“I am dying. I want to, well, not.” I replied matter-of-factly.
“Everyone must die young one. Such is the nature of life. All that is created must be destroyed. We all belong to the Atman in the end,” he said solemnly.
“Yes, but I feel I am dying too soon. I would like to talk to Death to see if my time can be delayed. I’m sure I could make him see the benefits of keeping me alive for a little longer.” I said with practiced smoothness.
He stared at me incredulously.
“Well, there is an ancient ritual that one can do to invoke Death. But be warned, if you fail to get what you want, you shall die instantly. What’s more, your karmic balance sheet will be put severely in debt for invoking such a dangerous ritual.”
“No worries, I’ll work off the debt in a series of small EMIs. Or I guess I should call them ELIs, Equated Lifetime Instalments,” I replied.
His face continued to have that incredulous expression as he began his chanting. I didn’t understand much of his gibberish, but I certainly felt a certain energy in the air as he continued. I held my tongue until he motioned for me to get up.
“Take this knife and cut your thumb. Let a few drops of blood fall into the cup I’ve placed here,” he said, placing said cup in front of me.
“All you need is the blood, right?” I enquired.
“Well, yes. Cutting your finger would be the easiest way to obtain it, so unless…”
“There’s an easier way then,” I said, as I stuck two fingers down my throat and brought up the cough. Bright red blood, and perhaps a little sputum, fell into the earthen cup.
He looked squeamish now as he continued his ritual. After some more chanting, he got up.
“It is done. Death shall visit you at midnight. I suggest you keep yourself mentally and physically prepared. After tonight, your life shall not be the same,” he proclaimed.
I thanked him and handed him my visiting card. I told him to come over for dinner someday.
I headed back to my abode and began my preparations. Unfortunately, I had very little information on this Death fellow, but I imagined he would be pretty grumpy having to deal with people’s karmic balance sheets all day. A soft, friendly approach then. I would have to ingratiate myself to him, show him I’m on his side, and then apologize profusely for the inconvenience I’m putting him through.
I began making notes. I fired up my laptop and started PowerPoint. My favourite corporate template was already loaded and ready to go.
“Slide 1 – Why I Should Not Die,” I muttered.
No, too negative. I need to convey the positivity of having me alive.
“Slide 1 – Why I Should Live”
Too blunt. I need to ease Death into the argument before making my core points.
“Slide 1 – Value-addition and Global Synergy from Survivability in Extenuating Circumstances”
I quickly finished my presentation and got to work setting the house. Illness had made me prioritize the cleanliness of my abode a little less than I usually would, but I reasoned that it would make a good impression on Death. I also set to work on some food. I didn’t know what cuisine Death preferred, so I arranged for some Paneer Butter Masala and Naan. Always stick to the classics. I purchased a bottle of Chivas Regal and set a couple of glasses on the bar. Alcohol always makes deals smoother.
With all my preparations done, there was nothing to do but wait.
Time passed. I rehearsed my arguments repeatedly. But there were only so many times I could practice fake laughing at Death’s jokes in the balcony. I glanced at the clock. It was almost midnight. The yogi had told me Death would visit at midnight.
It was getting late enough to be worried. I once again stepped into the balcony and looked down. Except for a drenched street dog that was lying down miserably near the gate, there was not a soul to be seen anywhere. Rain water had puddled under the lamp post. A breeze ruffled the mango tree in the courtyard and a few twigs fell down and broke. Thunder rumbled in the distance. Did I hear a soft knock at the door? I turned back…
I headed towards the door nervously to investigate the source of the knock. Peering through the eye-hole, I glanced outside. Amidst the rain and darkness, I could not make out anything. Disappointed, I turned back, thinking that I imagined the noise. But then I heard scratching…
Brazenly, I flung open the door, to see a mongrel lying on the doorstep. It was thin and you could see its ribs sticking out. Its dirty brown fur was matted and patchy, and it was drenched from being out in the rain. Yet surprisingly, it gazed up at me alert, with intelligence in its eyes.
Thunder crashed overhead. Understanding crashed in my head.
“Welcome, Yamraj,” I began, flustered.
The dog transformed smoothly into a tall, thin fellow wearing a thick brown coat and brown pants, topped off with brown leather shoes. He was fair and clean shaven, with dark hair slicked back from the rain. He wore no accessories of any kind, no necklace, or rings on his fingers. He carried with him a slim briefcase. Curiously, he smelled faintly of incense.
“Welcome,” I repeated, regaining my composure. “You are precisely on time.”
“As I always am. May I come in?” he asked.
“Please,” I gestured inward and invited Death into my home.
He walked confidently inside the hallway and took off his shoes, placing them neatly together on the shoe rack. He fished out a black handkerchief from his pocket and vigorously rubbed his hair, trying to dry it off. He patted it down and set it with his fingers. I watched the ritual silently, trying to gauge his mood and personality.
I led Yamraj into the dining room.
“Would you care for some refreshments? I have an unopened bottle of Chivas sitting in my cabinet,” I offered.
“No, thank you. Let’s get down to business,” he replied briskly.
I was a little crestfallen. “How about something to eat? I’m sure it must not have been easy travelling in this rain,” I attempted.
“Well, a hot glass of plain milk would be welcome,” he relented.
Excited at having something of value to offer, I bustled into the kitchen and brought out a tall glass of steaming hot milk. As a generous host, I also served up some buttered toast and fresh Shrewsbury biscuit on the side.
“Ah, you pamper me,” he exclaimed, looking at the spread.
“It’s the least I could do,” I said, waving off the compliment.
He polished off the milk in one gulp and took no more than two bites to demolish the toast. He must have been famished.
Nibbling on a biscuit, he pulled out his briefcase. “And now, let us finally get down to business.”
I pressed my hands together, ready for the game to start.
“Why should I grant you an extension to live?” he asked, straight to the point.
“Allow me to explain with the assistance of a presentation,” I said, bringing out my laptop and firing up the presentation that had been warming up on it since mid-afternoon.
As I launched into my performance, I noticed Yamraj watching with rapt attention. He might have been lord of Death, but the fellow was at least professional, and took this meeting seriously. I endeavoured to impress him just as much.
I had peppered my talk with a lot of humour, poking fun at myself and at life in general. Self-deprecation is one of the most endearing forms of humour, and I had hoped it would make Yamraj see me more favourably. I had to balance not taking it too far and making me look underconfident. That wouldn’t help my case, I thought.
Brandishing the charts and laser pointer, I led Yamraj down a story of my life, 42 slides long. I described my upbringing, my goals and objectives, my capabilities, and achievements. I impressed upon him what the world stood to gain from my survival, and what it stood to lose lest I die prematurely. I added some emotional triggers by including my childhood memories, the budding romance with my girlfriend and the deaths of my closest relatives. I used props, testimonials and powerful quotes looked up on Google.
His face registered absolutely no emotion.
I concluded my presentation. “Any questions?” I asked.
“Yes. There are precisely 1,80,613 people who have similar or better qualifications as compared to yours, and who are currently dying. Why should I spare you, and not them?” he asked.
“Well…” I began slowly, at a loss for words. “I would like to ask how many of them have given back to the world as I have, and as I can.”
“That narrows it down to 64,729 people. Still doesn’t tell me why you should live, and not them,” he replied bluntly.
“Ah, well…” I struggled. Suddenly, an inspiration hit.
“By summoning you, I have demonstrated rare initiative, resourcefulness and a will to survive. Surely these qualities are valuable enough to justify preserving my life,” I reasoned, smiling slightly at my quick thought.
“That narrows it down to 7,” Yamraj whispered softly. I was horrified at the implication.
I sat down, dumbfounded. I had not prepared for this eventuality.
“I don’t want to die. I have a lot left to do,” I said, my voice cracking slightly.
“Everyone does, my child,” he said soothingly.
I noticed the tiny smile playing upon his lips. I was falling into the same pattern as all men near death do, as Death had seen far too often. The deal was sliding his way. I had to pull it back.
I had to escalate.
“I’d like to file an official complaint against my death,” I said formally.
“What?” said Yamraj, looking genuinely dumbfounded.
“I repeat, I’d like to file a formal complaint against my death. It was wrongly issued, and no proper justification or notice has been given for its issuance. I’d like it to be retracted as soon as possible.”
Yamraj guffawed loudly.
“Ha ha ha ha! This is priceless! There is no office open to take your complaint, I’m afraid,” he said, wiping tears of laughter from his eyes.
I remained composed. “Then I’d like to take the matter to your superiors. You are not carrying out your duties very ably, I’m afraid.”
A flicker of annoyance crossed Yamraj’s face.
“I have no superiors. I am the Lord of Death,” he said coolly.
“You do,” I said stubbornly. “The Atman sits above you,” I ventured wildly.
Yamraj stared at me with an odd expression.
“Do you even know what the Atman is?” he mocked.
“I don’t need to. I wish to take up the matter with this Atman. Please put me in touch with him so I can file a formal complaint against my death and your conduct.”
Yamraj looked genuinely angry now. He plunged a hand into his pocket. I winced.
He retrieved a Nokia phone from it, an old black 1100 model. He dialled a number and called.
I couldn’t make out the conversation between him and whoever, or whatever, was on the other end. I simply waited.
Yamraj cut the call. In a sudden motion, he plunged his hand into my chest.
I blacked out.
When I regained consciousness, there was only blackness around me. I had died, I reasoned. The plan failed. And now my karmic balance sheet would be infinitely in debt, more so because of my little scene with Yamraj. I broke down.
All at once, I sensed a presence around me. Not just around, but inside me, and outside. It seemed to permeate everything.
“You called for me, child?” said an indescribable voice.
“Am I dead?”
“When one is with me, one is neither living, not dead. One simply is,” came the reply.
“But I don’t want to die. I want to live. I have so much more I wish to do,” I pleaded.
“There is no reason to fear death. Remember Krishna in his words to Arjuna. The body suffers many cycles of life and death, but the soul is impervious, impenetrable. You have merely cast off one set of clothes, and will soon don another one. Nothing more, nothing less.”
“But the clothes I wear fit me. I have acquired capabilities, skills, and powers in this life I can use to help others, to help ease pain and suffering. What is the point of throwing it all away and starting from scratch? Those 1,80,613 people are out there, waiting to be helped,” I argued fiercely.
The presence smiled, or, I sensed a warmth emanating from it.
“A will to live, so strong, so powerful,” it exclaimed.
“Nurture this will, young one, and remember your promise. Wear your clothes well.”
And the warmth became uncomfortably hot. I felt the heat sear my mind, erasing all thought, all feeling.
I saw white coats scurrying about all around me.
“He’s awake! Give him O2 stat!” said someone frantically.
I opened my eyes fully. I was lying in a hospital bed, syringes and tubes attached to various parts of my body. I saw a familiar face beside me.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Some crazy guy brought you here, saying he found you collapsed in some caves outside of town. You’ve been critical ever since, shuttling between life and death. But now…” she cried hopefully.
“It’s a miracle. You might make a full recovery.” She whispered.
I stared at the ceiling, thinking back on what had happened. It was most certainly not a dream.
That meant I had a promise to keep.