When Stalwarts leave this Earth…
By Deepa Majumdar
Two stalwarts passed away within ten days of each other – Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Shillong’s musical maestro, Neil Nongkynrih. Having met neither, I can only surmise their greatness from their words and deeds, as reported by others. In these dismal times, when the world seems so bereft of hope, both touched me by their deeds. Like faith, hope nourishes the souls of man and the world.
They say we die when our work is done and our karma fruitions. Desmond Tutu passed away on Dec 26, 2021 at the ripe age of 90 and Neil Nongkynrih, on Jan 5, 2022 at the untimely age of 51. Although of different temperaments and talents, and from different continents, cultural backgrounds, denominations, and generations, these stalwarts shared three things. Both were devout Christians, both had uncommon wisdom, and both inspired the young.
Archbishop Tutu had many virtues. Besides his impish sense of humor, he had the courage to always speak truth to power. He also had a keen sense of social justice. It was as if separation of church and state never applied to him. This old adage makes sense most of the time, for church and state have different goals and purposes. Mixing the two leads to explosive violence in both aspects of politics: statecraft and protest-politics. Applied to statecraft, this mixture produces explosive theocracies, unless the theocrat at the helm is an extraordinary saint, like His Holiness the fourteenth Dalai Lama. Applied to protest-politics, which can be violent, even when secular, this mixture brings greater violence. But at higher levels, religion inspires and purifies protest-politics, as exemplified by the lives of the great princes of peace – HH the Dalai Lama, M. K. Gandhi, and Dr. M. L. King.
To this list of august personages we might add Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who ennobled protest-politics and humanitarian work, inspiring us by his ideal of forgiveness and his impish humor on colonialism. On forgiveness, he said: “… when I talk of forgiveness I mean the belief that you can come out the other side a better person. A better person than the one being consumed by anger and hatred. Remaining in that state locks you in a state of victimhood, making you almost dependent on the perpetrator.” On colonial Christianity, he quipped: “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.” Described as the Conscience of South Africa, and as one of the slayers of Apartheid, Desmond Tutu chaired South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which heard the testimony of around 21000 victims.
Described as a “miracle of the modern age,” TRC is unique in the history of the world. As a measure of restorative justice, healing, and redemption, it surpasses the punitive post-WW II Nuremberg trials. Under TRC rules, perpetrators of Apartheid crimes were asked to confess their horrendous crimes fully, truthfully, and publicly. They were given the option of asking for forgiveness and amnesty from prosecution. Equally, victims of these political crimes received the opportunity to tell their stories, hear confessions, and (as Tutu said), “unburden themselves from the pain and suffering they had experienced.” To some, this must have been a travesty of justice, because it meant that not all perpetrators faced penalties. But justice has myriad faces, of which, one is repentance and redemption. Unlike punitive-retributive justice, restorative justice, is, as Archbishop Tutu said, “concerned not so much with punishment as with correcting imbalances, restoring broken relationships – with healing, harmony and reconciliation.” When a perpetrator confesses and a former victim forgives, a miracle takes place: the miracle of true justice that happens through the redemptive power of forgiveness. This is restorative justice at its best. In a world of vengeful protest politics, Archbishop Tutu enabled this miracle, not just by chairing TRC, or by writing in its 7-volume report, but by insisting on the power of forgiveness, weeping publicly with a victim, and resolving, thereafter, to never again weep in public, as this diverted media attention away from the victim. It is therefore hardly surprising that Archbishop Tutu was like an older brother to HH the Dalai Lama. To see these two august personages and Nobel peace laureates, tease each other and banter like two mischievous boys, is to relish the holiness of true friendship, which always presupposes holiness. By their lives and deeds, these majestic men vindicated the Nobel Peace Prize Committee for past lapses in judgment in awarding this prize to unworthy recipients (Obama, Suu Kyi).
I have always associated with Shillong, the quality of longing, which comes in myriad shades. Longing for earthly riches, or power, represents cruder levels of this quality. In my childhood, I saw in Shillong, another crude expression: a futile longing for the nether side of western lifestyles, vocations, professions, possessions, cultural expressions, and mindsets that proved the fullest success of Europe’s colonial intent, which was to reproduce in the brown and black man, an inferior clone of the white man, robbing the former of being and soul. But unlike these cruder levels which are insatiable, the keenest, most nameless, and highest, most satiable of all forms of longing is the existential yearning that dogs our heels from the day we are born. A yearning that makes us long for the great Unknown, even as it enables us to tap into our innate holiness, this longing makes us religious in the deepest sense possible, erasing the sting of the death instinct, and enabling us to approach death with repose and God consciousness. It was as if the wind rustling through the stalwart pines of Shillong whispered this highest longing, which was to rise from the depths of time to break though the thin fabric of the phenomenal world and touch the bright stars of eternity and the numberless numinous verities. Thus, although an agony, this highest longing trembles with ecstasy.
Without ever having met him, I felt intuitively that, like many great artists, Neil Nongkynrih suffered this exquisite existential longing, which could not be assuaged even by music, the greatest of the arts. Although solitary, death is to be distinguished from mystical ascent, which, in the word of Plotinus, is the rise of the alone to the Alone. Neil captured both solitudes, in his haunting song on the afterlife, a song brimming with longing: “I want to go to another world where I’ll have to go alone… This world, this world it calls me.” Like a true artist, he lived essentially and unconventionally, breaking conventions with the ease of the truthful, who neither rage, nor weep, but glide from truth to higher truth. To admire Neil, because he returned to his roots in Meghalaya after years in the west is inadequate. People leave India for different reasons and return for different reasons. One size does not fit all. Neil’s return home was in answer to a higher calling, which not everyone experiences. To admire Neil for his exemplary work with the youth and his praiseworthy charitable works is also inadequate. Even admiring Neil for his exceptional musical talent is inadequate, because, for every talented person, there is someone more talented. Moreover, talent and character are distinct. There are two greater reasons to admire Neil. First, because he seemed to understand that all talents are gifts from God, who lends us these gifts for the greater good of mankind. In these times, when modern man prostitutes the arts for name, fame, and money, Neil understood that the purpose of music is to do good for mankind, unlike Hitler, who used music for evil. He also understood that great works happen by the grace of God who enables them, that all success is mandated from above, and that in the end, we are mere instruments of something higher. But second, because Neil successfully resisted the temptation of narcissism and false love in modern fandom, which, like all of social media, is cult-prone. Upholding the virtue of humility, he was able to digest the phantasm of fame.
The collective consciousness, which alters like a chameleon, is yet, always in a state of moral balance, harmonizing its myriad shades, which range from the highest good to the darkest evil. If, despite possessing nuclear arsenal, we have not yet destroyed ourselves or this planet, this is because the greatest among us uplift the collective consciousness, redeeming the evil intents of others, thus restoring balance. But what happens when august personages like Archbishop Tutu and Neil Nongkynrih leave this earth? What happens to the gaping hole they leave behind? To the believer, the answer is simple. The grace of God replenishes this earth by bringing other great souls to continue the work of redeeming the collective consciousness.
May Desmond Tutu and Neil Nongkynrih rest in peace. May our mourning never hold them back as they journey through the afterlife.