At the end of The Aeneid, Aeneus finally stands triumphant over his adversary, Turnus. Turnus knew he would die at Aeneus’ hands and went to fight him in that knowledge, but knowing too in his honour and courage. In his final moments, though, Turnus still begs for life. Life clings to itself above all else. In Nature, mothers will defend their offspring, but not to the point where it would involve sacrificing themselves, when sacrificing the offspring would leave life still with the mother and time yet for another batch of offspring. Turnus begs but it is no use and, in the words of the Penguin translation, ‘the limbs of Turnus were dissolved in cold and his life left him with a groan, fleeing in anger down to the shades’.
I have written before that life in India seems to me much earthier. Perhaps as adjectives go this one lacks clarity. Three vignettes from my day might let you cleave to the idea I am trying to put across.
After lunch I went for a walk through south Bombay to look once again at the buildings and the bustle. As I walked down the wide, shady and empty road that runs along the side of the docks a lorry rushed past me and it did so with a surprising thumping noise. Looking round I saw a cat lying on the road. But it wasn’t lying normally. It was staring frantically about it and standing up on its front legs. Its back half lay dangling behind it. The lorry had driven over its back, crushing its back half and hind legs. The lorry had gone on without a pause to wonder what the noise or bump was. It had stopped but only because there were traffic lights and the driver was oblivious to what had happened. The cat was not oblivious to its plight, not yet. It tried to run away but could not and as it tried to run from the site and from the pain it managed somehow to twist itself round and over, the dead weight of its back half holding it back and making any purposeful movement impossible. In its frantic movement though, flipping its back over must have severed the spine and spinal cord completely for the cat soon lay down, moving only its head. Then it lay lifeless, dissolved in cold. It never even mewed: it acted out its death scene in silence. A young boy across the road moved over to it, flipped it over to see if it was dead and then dragged it across the road by is hind leg to leave it in the gutter.
Cats die all over the world and are run over by cars all over the world too. I put my stamp of interpretation on what those wild, staring, frantic eyes signified, but I have no real idea. It was not that the death was callous or intended. It was not just that I find watching an animal die slowly rather upsetting. I noticed too the, perhaps not indifference, but certainly the matter of fact manner in which the boy and others in the street took in the scene. Life is much harder out here, for everyone, man and beast, and death a far more real thing. But it is not just the attitude to death which makes me call things earthy; the attitude to life does the same.
In the morning I headed out of Bombay to see the Sanjay Ghandi National Park with its safari. This is a drab affair, even for Mumbai. The safari is a bus ride through two enclosures, the first with some tigers and the second with a couple of lions. The bus is terrifically noisy, so we will hardly be able to catch the great cats unaware. It is encased in metal grills too, but rather pointlessly so since the side door does not shut fast. The cats, though, seem no danger and take no notice of the bus and its noise and fanfare. They just lie there, in the dust, or in a shallow pool of water in a massive concrete saucer. They appear drained of life, of energy and even (literally and metaphorically) of colour. They just lie, weighed down with ennui.
Back in Mumbai, after the big cats and before the little one, I passed a monument to Bombay’s heroic past. It commemorated the part played by the Docks in the Great War. Captain Eric Douglas was singled out for special mention. He, an engineer, had refused to abandon his gun emplacement even when the infantry were routed. Going beyond what the corporatists of today would call his remit, he rallied the infantry and reformed the line, delaying the Germans in their advance. In the face of withering fire he walked along the line of his men and guns restoring resolve to their hearts. He was killed in a skirmish in 1918.
Death is commonplace and life often drab and too often harsh. But India and Bombay are also full of energy and their history full of heroes and excitement and colour and life and death that makes the faded shades of current life for so many in Mumbai today so much the starker.