What The Remote Indian Village Of Totopara Taught Me About Death

Regardless of how dear you respect your mortality, there are things you cannot easily hide from, something which managing an education project in India has hammered home for me...
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Regardless of how dear you respect your mortality, there are things you cannot easily hide from, something which managing an education project in India has hammered home for me...

Totopara, like many villages around the world, doesn’t have or need a filter for the well-meaning, sheltered and squeamish. The walls we have put up in the developed world to protect ourselves from the garish reality of life and death, often in the name of convenience, simply do not exist. There’s a reason for it, though. If a child is born with blinkers into a dangerous world, they will likely suffer. Unfortunately not all children are saved.

Life and death of animals is the most visceral. There are no concrete abattoirs, stun guns, supermarkets or cold storage, there is only life and a rusty knife; limbs, guts and organs splayed out across blood-burned benches as crows silently look on. Fresh, delicious and disturbingly beautiful to the layman. There is no spaying of domestic animals. All are born and some live; the river or wild animals take the rest. Spiders are to be eaten, not feared. There are no sacred beasts here, but all are respected. Thankfully, my favourite jungle creature of all, the firefly, lives free, meandering like cigarettes in the twilight backwaters of Glastonbury festival.

As for the humans - a woman’s means to feed her baby are not hidden behind closed doors, likewise a child’s nudity is not something to be locked away in fear of the ubiquitous predator as in the west. Children are taught to play with knives as soon as they are old enough to hold one. They are not protected from their environment, because that is the wise thing to do in the long run. Regardless of how dear you respect your mortality, there are things you cannot easily hide from - the forked and immediate lightning (so far this year she’s taken six lives), wild animals, off road car crashes, labouring and disease. There is no crematorium, closed casket, reassuring priest or smiling funeral director. If your brother dies, you find him, bury him and you make a memorial of rocks and cement. There is no afterlife or reincarnation in Totopara tradition, only acceptance and then peace.

One early morning last week my best friend, surrogate brother and confident in Totopara came to my house, visibly very upset. His brother, who turned 21 last month, was feared dead after disappearing whilst crossing a river. He was, like so many, labouring across the border in the Bhutanese jungle. My friend went to find his brother, but could not. He received a message from a fisherman and finally faced his worst fears. He described to me later what he had seen, what remained, whilst trying to remain stoic as he must be. Being outside of the village, and thus subject to state laws, the body had to be driven in the summer heat to various hospitals in west bengal until an autopsy could be performed on a cadaver in such a state.

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It was four days before the body could be brought home to his family, where he was finally put in the ground. My duty as a good friend (‘barro’) was to visit the family at their traditional home. I took tea and biscuits to help cater for guests, as is standard. I spent much of the day helping to build the grave, and the rest in a small room with my friend’s mother, drinking salted tea and distilled millet alcohol, and becoming more and more a part of my surroundings and the emotion that grew viscous in the fumes of incense, mustard oil and booze. The anxiety that I felt being among the inconsolable became so strong that I became free of feeling different; an alien, and let go entirely. It became almost transcendent and hallucinogenic, and I’m not sure how else to describe the next few hours. I hardly noticed the violence that broke out.

A Toto male who has passed is grieved for six days, and a woman five (the higher someone is regarded in India, the smaller the grieving period, because it is seen as a privilege to be at peace quickly. To this end the richest folk are only grieved for a day or two and the tribes must wait the longest), and this was day five. Towards the end of the day I was requested to write the inscription of the deceased into the wet concrete tomb with a quill of bamboo, as the family and friends looked on. It was an honour I could barely fathom and one of the hardest, most humbling things I’ve ever had to do.

This is the third time a young Toto close to home has passed. A two year old child, the brother of one of my best students, also drowned a few weeks ago. The question is, can this change? Should this change? Honestly, probably not. The dangerous aspects of living in the wild are intrinsic to survival. The benefits of living here, especially for children, are unmistakable. I’ve never seen such joyous, respectful and fearless kids, with such unerring loyal and loving parents. It’s paradise in many ways, but paradise as I’ve found, is always riddled with spiders.

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