I have been thinking a lot about death since Raj passed away last year. I have been hesitant to write about him because sharing such personal details feels like distributing emotional pornography. And what sort of meaningful closure would involve sharing its most intimate parts on a content distribution platform?
I feel sick, but I want don’t want the world to forget him.
Raj died by suicide on May 23, 2015. He was 25 years old, a brilliant filmmaker, and a close friend whom I had treated like a younger brother.
He was also a very selfless human being. We first met when his brother had asked to talk some sense into him regarding his reluctance to release a documentary about homelessness. He had already won a national award for his animated short film by then. So, few digital distributors were ready to market his documentary. But Raj was stubborn about shelving it because he felt that he was exploiting the subject. Much to my chagrin. he gently shut down my attempts to convince him with a smiling face and instead – asked me to watch it.
An hour later, I wiped the tears from my eyes and told him, “I get it.”
Two weeks later, we decided to write a film script, along with his brother. We were sure that it would have been the first of our many creative collaborations. Eventually, he wanted to travel the world and document people’s lives. And I wanted to move to a hill station and spend more time with birds than I do with people.
But things didn’t work out. Within a few months, we had completed the script – but we had other problems that indefinitely stalled the movie production. And Raj and I decided to go our separate ways, professionally, for the time being. It was such a rude awakening that we barely had any time to stay in touch. He had to find a new career, and I had to return – kicking and screaming – to my old one.
Two days before the incident, Raj had called me out of the blue. We had not been in touch for two months. He said he wanted to meet me, sounding like he always did – polite, affectionate, and excited. But I had to go to the office early the next morning. I told him that we could meet during the weekend. He insisted that we should catch up just for a few minutes, given how long it was since we had met. I kept telling him that we could, in a few days, at the Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary.
He laughed and said that he looked forward to it.
The next evening his brother texted me, saying that Raj was no more. My immediate reaction was to pick up the phone and call a few mutual friends. I told them about what happened in a calm tone, even adding, “Yeah, he was so young,” as though his friends did not know how old he was.
Then, I visited my parent’s house for an unplanned dinner. I told them about what had happened too, even though they had no idea who he was. Nevertheless, they empathized with my loss, and I told them what a wonderful and talented person he was.
As I was driving back home, I started profusely sweating. A dull ache swept through my lower back. A bit startled, I reached the front door. I pulled out the house keys from my pocket with some difficulty. As I was trying to unlock the door, it kept slipping out of my sweaty palms. It was incredibly frustrating. I just wanted to lie down, with a pillow over my head.
But I just couldn’t fit the key in. I tried a few more times in vain.
Then suddenly, it hit me.
I was never going to see Raj again. I could have – just 48 hours before. All I had to do was take a 15-minute drive. Perhaps I would have sensed something was wrong with him. And I would have said the right thing. At the very least, he could have said goodbye.
Unable to gather these thoughts, I sat down in front of the door. I broke down in a way that I had never before. I spent the rest of the night, trembling and listening to songs that used to make me cry in college.
I took off from work the next day and went birding early in the morning. Apart from the regulars – Black Drongos, Red-Whiskered Bulbuls, a few Pelicans, and Openbill Storks – there were hardly any birds in Vedanthangal.
Maybe they were lamenting his loss too.
Raj Kumar (1992-2015)