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How my father helped me make sense of his death

Reading the memoirs of his father, the leading neurologist Ashok Panagariya, who died of covid earlier this year, helped his son understand his life

Representational image.
Representational image. (Unsplash)

When I first got to know my father had contracted covid-19, I assumed the worst. I remember telling my wife, ‘This is it. He is not coming home and we will never see him again’. During his prolonged hospitalization, each day felt like a year and the feeling of guilt and helplessness enveloped us as we were not able to travel to India to comfort our grieving mother.

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I did eventually get to India and spent time by his side during my father’s last few days. My father, Ashok Panagariya, was one of India’s most sought-after neurologists and had treated more than five million patients in his lifetime. To that extent, I felt cheated and angry that he couldn’t get another shot at life just as many of his patients had. Watching him take his last breath, I felt as if a bullet had pierced my heart, and left a wound that would neither kill nor heal.

The first few days immediately after his death were different. I was much calmer and actually ended up consoling others in the family, telling them to not discuss his time in hospital. I had a few regrets but on most days, I felt nothing but gratitude. My prescription to deal with his death was to remember him for the way he lived. It was strange because I had always imagined that I would be completely broken. And yet, I was almost stoic in my demeanor.

Initially, I struggled to bridge the gap between the two: the anxiety around saving his life and the mostly pragmatic reaction to his death. In a way, I might have heaved a sigh of relief that his suffering was over. But as I later realized, there were two reasons for this dichotomy. One of the last conversations I’d had with him had left a profound effect. There was no else that I wanted to talk to about his death but him and he had been characteristically selfless. Even in death, he had wanted to comfort us rather than the other way around. The other was the memoirs he’d left behind.

Monk in a Merc: Moksha in a Material World with All Its Perks by Ashok Panagariya, Bloomsbury India, 312 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>599.
Monk in a Merc: Moksha in a Material World with All Its Perks by Ashok Panagariya, Bloomsbury India, 312 pages, 599.

His greatest act of generosity came in the form of a book he had been writing for the past few years. It ended up being published around the time he passed away. The book isn’t a one-sided monologue. It feels like a heart-to-heart conversation with him. Unknowingly, he has left us with a treasure trove of wisdom and memories.

The book itself is reflective of the extraordinarily blissful life he had lived. He loved serving his patients and he loved what he did. He would often joke that he wanted to be reborn as the same individual. As his child, I often wished I could be as passionate about my work as he was about his. It seemed he had already attained moksha (liberation) through his karma (actions) and it’s a way of living we could all learn from: one can attain nirvana (happiness and mental peace) through the work that one does while continuing to aspire for wealth and success (rather than withdrawing from society or renouncing all material needs as most presume). In a way, he personified a virtuous feedback loop: he wanted to become a better doctor so he could treat the most difficult of cases and the more challenging patients he witnessed, the better he became at his profession. Materially, this gave him all that he dreamt of but he bought his mental peace by excelling at what he loved.

Dr Ashok Panagariya.
Dr Ashok Panagariya.

For the 45 days he was in hospital, his body kept breaking down but his spirits remained high. He was adamant that we accept his death as part of a larger narrative, destiny as he called it. He wrote about the role of luck and chance in much greater detail in the book, describing the many medical cases he witnessed during his long professional career. He saw remarkable recovery in patients when he least expected it, and significant deterioration (and ultimately death) in those who seemed largely out of danger.

His death shook us all. It also led to our re-birth in many ways. I had always aspired to live by his ideals and values but never had the courage to do so. His book changed that for me – it gave me strength to deal with his death and also taught me a life-lesson when I needed it the most: the purpose of life is to lead a life of purpose. Most importantly, my father made a strong case for doing the best that you can while accepting the final outcome as your bhagya (destiny).

Monk in a Merc, written by Dr Ashok Panagariya & published by Bloomsbury, is now available in physical and on online stores.

Arihant Panagariya is an equity investor based out of London.

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