SURESH MENON

Ques­tions about mor­tal­ity leave our colum­nist queasy.

Friday - - Contents -

Like ev­ery­one else, I use my credit card for shop­ping on­line and have long got­ten over the sur­prise that it ac­tu­ally works. But why do th­ese won­der­ful es­tab­lish­ments that sell books, lawn­mow­ers, hats, mu­sic sys­tems, mobile phones, air­line tick­ets, hol­i­days and more al­ways ask that one unan­swer­able ques­tion when you use your card on­line?

The num­ber is fine, I can han­dle that. My name is fine too, no prob­lem there. And then comes the star­tling ques­tion: ex­piry date?

I am rel­a­tively young, rel­a­tively healthy, sleep well, haven’t been to a hospi­tal in years, eat care­fully, avoid fatty foods and have fairly de­cent genes likely to keep me tick­ing for an­other quar­ter cen­tury at least. Yet that ques­tion. Why do strangers want to know? In any case, none of us can make al­lowances for be­ing run over by a taxi.

My in­stinc­tive re­ac­tion, there­fore, is to say ‘I don’t know’, but there isn’t enough room. It’s all very busi­nesslike. You can fit in a few dig­its, but not a philo­soph­i­cal dis­cus­sion that the ques­tion calls for. Per­haps the dig­its can be made to rep­re­sent some­thing else, like a code for a trea­tise on death.

For ex­am­ple, the tenth day of Au­gust 2016, or 10082016 might sug­gest the tenth chap­ter of the eighth book from pages two to 16. But which one, writ­ten by whom? Shake­speare or Agatha Christie, the two best­selling fic­tion writ­ers ever? Both deal in the sub­ject of death in their dif­fer­ent ways, and if you searched hard enough you would find the ap­pro­pri­ate quote or es­say or warn­ing.

Death keeps no cal­en­dar, and even if it did and shared it with us, it is like a pri­vate tele­phone num­ber. Why an­nounce it in such a pub­lic way? The Earl of Chester­field, for in­stance, is quoted in Boswell’s Life of John­son as say­ing, ‘Tyraw­ley and I have been dead th­ese two years, but we don’t choose to have it known.’ That seems like com­mon sense.

There is a sim­ple so­lu­tion to the prob­lem – syn­tax, from the Greek word for ar­range­ment. In­stead of ask­ing the ex­piry ques­tion im­me­di­ately af­ter your name, why not ask it af­ter the one about the card num­ber? I al­ways feel a bit queasy as I tap in 11/16 into the slot. I feel it gives me just over a year to com­plete all those things I set out to do: es­tab­lish world peace, win the No­bel three times, have an­other hun­dred chil­dren, travel to the moon...

As Mar­quez said, a per­son does not die when he should, but when he can.

I feel QUEASY tap­ping in 11/16 into the slot. It gives me just over a YEAR to com­plete the things I set out to do: es­tab­lish WORLD PEACE, win the No­bel THREE times, have a hun­dred chil­dren, travel to the MOON...

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