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Of the wide world I stand alone, and think Till love and fame to nothingness do sink. (Keats)
on 7 July 2017
This is a collection of essays and random thoughts penned by the acclaimed writer Christopher Hichens during the time between him being diagnosed with incurable esophageal cancer and when he became too ill to write anymore. Understandably it is not an easy book to read, considering the trademark brutal honesty of the author and it certainly should not be recommended as a bed time read to anyone who is suffering from cancer. However it does make one filled with awe at the lucidity with which he wrote knowing what he must have been going through.
Some find it strange that at the end Hitchens was like the rest of us, hoping to be spared, as if this in some way makes him loose his credibility. Why? I fail to understand. Hitchens never claimed he was not afraid of death and for him to write after he realized that he was dying that he was not scared would have been nothing but an act of madness. Hitchens was an atheist and atheists do not have any hope for an afterlife, for them this life is all we have and so it is preposterous to expect an atheist not being afraid of death. And there is nothing wrong with it, what is absurd and ridiculous is seeing the believers wanting to keep on living when having similar illnesses, them praying to be cured and asking others to pray for them, why do they want to live one may ask? Why go through the pain of treatment and cling to life even when it is hard to breath? Shouldn’t they welcome the chance to leave for the land of milk and honey promised to them?
Yes, Hitchens is not afraid to show his fear and anger at dying and about the fact that there is nothing he can do about it, although to be honest he seems to be more afraid of losing his voice and ability to write than death itself.
The book was also something personal to me. My late father who like Hitchens was in his 60 when he passed away due to lymphoma was no writer or intellectual but I could see many personality traits they both shared. The bewilderment, sense of being helpless, acceptance and yet hope for a miracle cure and through it all a stoic sense of humor is clearly seen in the writings of Hitchens and my personal observance of my father while he struggled with cancer (as Hitchens suggests I would not use fought with cancer since no one fights with cancer). My father never claimed to be an atheist yet I never saw him praying to God on his knees asking to be cured, I never saw him asking others to pray for him, not even those who were going on pilgrimage to Mecca. And as Hitchens widow Carol Blue writes in the epilogue to the book the end when it came was unexpected just like my father for he was fine days before he died.
In the end I guess we need to see things in perspective for there is a good chance that unless we drop dead suddenly we will face the possibility of what Hitchens calls the period of dying. Rich or poor, famous or unknown hardly makes a difference at such a time for all share the wish to live a little longer and fear the thought of not seeing those they love anymore. Even among believers I doubt anyone except a fanatic dies anticipating the eternal life that awaits them. The best we can hope for is to be able to die with dignity. To quote Faiz:
Jis dhaj se koi maqtal mein gaya, woh shan salamat rahti hai,,,,
Yeh jan to aani jani hai, is jan ki koi baat nahi.
The grace with one faces death is what lives after us
Life itself is fleeting and cannot be relied upon