Why I Don't Think My Brilliant, Free-Spirited Brother Is In A 'Better Place'

17/11/2015 11:07 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Walk into the light

John Lennon said: "Life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans." These lines encapsulate that often painful and sometimes joyous uncertainty that life is. However, in some cases, as I have witnessed closely, death can happen to you when you are busy making plans in your life.

As human beings, we are all caught up in the idea of life, the idea of the soul and that of a spirit and of freedom. In all cases, these ideas are notions and are immeasurable and are defined by subjective beliefs and faith in something that can't be proven. For sure, we can say we are living and that is only since we can express ourselves in an animated way that displays that we are not dead and gone.

"If I were my brother, I would have walked out of the ICU and asked, what is this better place? Can you show it to me on Google Maps? Have you been there?"

Life, obviously, is far more 'real' than death is. Death is far more final than birth is. We know more about life even as we seek knowledge and explore ourselves and each other. But death? That's the intangible power that steals everything we created while living. Some say it frees us and others would believe it is destructive to those who are left behind. I wonder, the one that is gone -- if he goes somewhere else and is alive in that different space, would he have a view?

Death makes the idea of asset creation, society and material accumulation all so pointless. The rat-race appears to be a competitive ridicule of freedom and an emphasis on stress that is supported by a world of healthcare and medicine. Love, intangible yet touching, is often killed by the idea of life that focuses on the 'joys' of winning rather than living. And what does one win in this kind of race and competitive environment? Death? That was given to you when you were born.

Even our idea of freedom is at odds with the truth. The fact that someone gave birth to us, that life was a creation of someone else and therefore not entirely owned by us. We are nurtured by parents and governed by governments, politicians, media and the law. Our sense of freedom is invoked by constitutions and protests that hope to protect these rights. This freedom is a tussle and a life of negotiations.

Yet, within this reality you can find your space and ability to live on your own terms. You can live a life that can be recalled as one that was of a compassionate person who touched the lives of many, someone who appeared selfless and was a giver of joy.

Hardly two weeks ago, I saw a human being turn from active to inactive. I felt the spirit of positivity but could hold on to nothing that would let me believe, even for a second, that the 'intangible' spirit had a voice and a body of action that could carry on beyond that moment. That moment was deadly. The body was lifeless and the memories just so many.

I was told so often that this individual, my brother Dr Dwijen D Rangnekar, who was just over 50 and a half years old, had gone to a better place. This idea of a better place was something no one could ever describe. It is that same idea of a spirit and a soul that moves from body to body, living life and reliving it. And what life -- the one society defined with slots and frameworks?

If I were my brother, I would have walked out of the ICU and asked, what is this better place? Can you show it to me on Google Maps? Have you been there? He was a very logical, highly spirited man. His 'spirit' was a combination of compassion, intellect, humour and alcohol. This gave him the kind of freedom that made his 'short' life that much deeper and impactful than many who have lived far longer.

"For him, life was a stream and you just needed to know where to anchor, which bank to get off and what rivulet to take and how to get to the sea."

He didn't like to use a tea bag to make his beverage. It had to be the good old way that allowed the leaves to shed their flavour into boiling hot water. Instant coffee was for those who hurried pointlessly into a life of tastelessness. The wine could wait but for good reason. Old Monk would help warm up an evening. And single malt meant giving good attention to every malt. That, I guess, was his sense of purity!

A life such as this meant he would rather sit with the creators of feni in Goa to understand the relatively unknown drink to make it known to himself and others. He would prefer to spend hours and days in Ethiopia to work with coffee farmers and find ways of telling their stories and protecting them rather than exploiting their lives like some coffee chain had done. To those who knew him, he was a star who bucked a coffee (as Neil Young says) and never hesitated from doing so time and again.

For him, life was a stream and you just needed to know where to anchor, which bank to get off and what rivulet to take and how to get to the sea. That was the mainstream for him. It was never a stream without commerce but commerce did not dictate the route he took. Knowledge and curiosity did. His work on feni was copyrighted but not exclusive. That work had to be shared, that's what knowledge and intellectual property was about in his world. As the legal scholar and public interest lawyer Lawrence Liang said, Dwijen's work "demonstrated the rare instances when IP laws could also be used to promote the interest of local communities" and not rich corporations.

That was how compassionate he was. He once told me that society always celebrated the winner and they defined what victory was. "Have you heard of the story of the tiger and how bravely it ran to avoid being hunted down before it was ultimately killed?" he asked.

He would regularly send me updates on human rights, including matters that directly impacted my life -- my LGBT world. Even if the pain of cancer or the trauma of chemotherapy occupied the senses of his body, he would snatch out time to remind me that I had a battle to fight - for the rights of the gay community in India. He told me how important it was to test my limits and see no boundaries.

He almost always had answers but with that would come more questions, as he saw life as a step of logics and dynamism that could bring about change and new thoughts. He was never averse to the advent of technology or how many of the young spent hours on their phone. He had a way of putting these developments into perspective, although he believed that within any space that one created for oneself, there had to be space for engagement with people.

This was reflected in how he found the nooks and corners that most of us would have missed in any major city. He picked Brixton to live in at one time and I loved it for its art and not-so-beaten track that allowed it to keep a charm that was never manufactured. He familiarised some local Londoners with this part of the city (that they feared) as its 'culture' was to free, he told me.

"Life is lived only once, he said. The idea of another life was evidence-less. This belief of his had most likely made him the man he was -- a free spirit..."

In his speedy 50 years, he travelled across the globe and touched many lives. His departure to a world only he knows of, has seen hundreds of people expressing sadness, shock and loads of love for him. Everyone had a story to tell and just about all of them seem to have tasted his humour and probably even a cocktail that he invented. Some of them were luckier to try the food he would toss up in absolute detail with no ingredients from a processed food packet or can. And almost all said he was an amazing spirit with a strong will and filled with compassion!

Dwijen never lost the sharpness of his mind even after he reached the last stages of cancer and returned to New Delhi. His sense of logic and mental alertness were probably a challenge for doctors in the alternative medicine field who involved the idea of 'faith' and the 'almighty', 'karma' and 'destiny,' as part of a cure. One evening he referred to a conversation on the latter. Apparently, the contention posed to him was that your karma (actions) determined your destiny.

He refuted that thought. "Do they believe that someone invites rape or murder through his or her karma?" he smirked. "Or is the rapist fulfilling the destiny (through his karma) of the raped?" He believed in collective karma that led to collective destinies where paths crossed, underlining the importance of time and place in the journey of life. This thought extended to his idea of collective voices, movements and social justice.

Yet, he never minded being alone. Even if he closed his room door for hours, researching, writing and listening to music (that you would never find on a Billboard chart), those hours were probably spent creating that sense of a free spirit who helped liberate others from the perils of life that came packaged into the idea of mainstream life. His life was neither mainstream nor alternative. He believed in one life, to be lived on your terms. There was no alternate to that, he told me a few months ago.

Where he might be now is a mystery. We may console ourselves by saying he is in a better place or in our memories. But I doubt there is a better place than where he was at; whatever he created was better than any place. Wherever he went and whatever he did made things better for others - that's what he enjoyed doing. And I know for myself, I bettered my life through his inspiring knowledge, which was his way of protecting me while freeing me from the many structures of society. He instilled courage and guts and not fear! That's what kept him going in his battle against cancer for almost two years.

Life is lived only once, he said. The idea of another life was evidence-less. This belief of his had most likely made him the man he was -- a free spirit and someone who lived his life to the fullest with no expectation of another life or a better place.

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