Death in Amsterdam

Posted on August 22, 2012.

“Whether people be of high or low birth, rich or poor, old or young, enlightened or confused, they are all alike in that they will one day die. It is not that we don’t know that we are going to die, but we grasp at straws. While knowing that we will die someday, we think that all the others will die before us and that we will be the last to go. Death seems a long way off.

Is this not shallow thinking? It is worthless and is only a joke within a dream. It will not do to think in such a way, and be negligent. Insofar as death is always at one’s door, one should make sufficient effort and act quickly.”

– Hagakure

As the temperatures in Amsterdam soared above thirty degrees and locals looked to get as much sun as possible by hanging out in parks and beaches, I walked into the Tropenmuseum to check out a special exhibit called “Death Matters”.

Earlier on this walking tour I took, the guide remarked that the two defining things about Amsterdam were sex and drugs. It was hence ironic that the thing that most impacted me there was an exhibition on death. There was a time when (overdosed on Robert Fisk’s writings) I wanted to be a war zone journalist because I thought that being so close to death would make me live life instead of wasting it. My most inspiring moments in life have come when I realised, even if it was for a brief moment that I am going to die, like really.

There is an art to travelling, when you finally decide to throw away your guidebook and tourist brochures and let a certain intuition guide you. But the great thing is that you open yourself up to serendipity. It was not just rediscovering the importance of death in Amsterdam. It was crying after reading a prophetic quote from German-Jewish author Heinrich Heine on the floor of Opernplatz in Berlin, the site of the first Nazi book burning – “That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people also”. It was overhearing a fascinating conversation on a night bus between a Russian-Polish girl who knew 8 languages and had been everywhere from Bogota to Istanbul, and an Argentinian busker couchsurfing through Europe. It was finishing a full glass of beer for the first time (Belgian kriek lambic). It was having the best french fries ever in a hole-in-the-wall in Brussels. It was drinking champagne with a guy from Haryana whose dad forcibly sent him to Russia years ago, where he married a Moldovan woman, got into trouble with the mafia and moved to Belgium to operate a night shop. It was talking about everything from love and fatalism in Urdu poetry to the finest Hindi songs of the 90s with Karthik.

Ideally, one’s whole life would be a succession of moment after moment where we pile up experiences due to serendipity. And then we die.