The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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No one can be in love with death. There are people who may be disillusioned with life, in unbearable pain, betrayed by their kin or those they love, or striken by huge financial losses, who decide to call it a day by taking their own lives. That is not being in love with death but a means of escape from a world they can no longer face. I do not regard suicide as a crime: everyone has the right to put an end to his or her life.

Death is the theme of Mary Wesley’s novel, Jumping the queue, first published in 1988. It minimizes the gravity of killing people you don’t like and lauds the decision to take one’s own life while still in good physical and mental health, rather than suffer the pangs and indignities that came with old age. Her story is contrived — as many good stories are. It abounds in black humour, which adds to its readability. Wesley does not attempt to explain the phenomenon of death or why some people are better able to cope with it than others.

Matilda Poliport, recently widowed and mother of four grown-up children, lives alone in a cottage some distance from a seaside village. She was very much in love with her husband. One evening, she slapped a girl who had an affair with her husband so hard that she fell on a frozen lake and was drowned. Matilda put the girl out of her mind.

She also discovered that her husband had been unfaithful to her many times and had had an incestuous relationship with their daughter, who was Matilda’s favourite child. She took the discovery in her stride, as she did the death of her husband on a Paris street while on a secret mission. She had no illusions about people. She was still attractive and uninhibited, but preferred to live alone by herself.

Her only love was a gander named Gus. He was her watchdog and her lover. When anyone came to the cottage, he honked loudly and if it was someone he did not recognize, attacked him as geese do with their necks stretched like a lance. He made love to Matilda the same way the swan made love to Leda in Greek mythology. He sat on her lap and excreted when he was happy. Matilda did not mind his soiling her clothes and making a mess all over the cottage. It was true love.

One day Matilda decided she would end her life. She gave away Gus to a farmer who lived ten miles away and had six geese. She thought, having a harem of his own Gus would not miss her. She had a hearty meal of cheese and French wine, sitting on a rock overlooking the sea. She meant to drug herself, jump into the water and let the current take her away.

Just then a young man came along and sat beside her. He introduced himself as Hugh Warner. She recognized him because his pictures were in all the papers and on TV. He was on the run from the police for having murdered his mother. Actually, he had tried to kill a mouse which had frightened his mother and while trying to smash the rodent with a tea-tray, smashed his mother’s skull instead. He was dubbed a matricide, and everyone was asked to look out for him for he had an unusually long nose. He too had decided to drown himself in the sea when he ran into Matilda, who took him home and hid him.

One day, Matilda found a stray puppy and brought it home. She named it Folly. Meanwhile Gus, instead of enjoying his harem, killed one of the geese and found his way back to his cottage and his sweetheart.

So the days passed. The only visitor allowed in the cottage was the stocky middle-aged, bearded and paunchy Jones who was in love with Matilda, and though rejected, came to call on her every day. He befriended Hugh and they played chess with each other. He also helped Hugh to exchange the pounds he had into Francs and Deutschmarks, so that he could get out of Britain and live abroad. The day before Hugh was to take the night train to the London airport, he took Matilda to bed. He was young enough to be her son and full of sexual vigour. For the first time in her life, Matilda found fulfilment in her life. Then tragedy struck.

Gus was killed by a fox. His body was claimed by a young constable who took it home, had his wife cook him roasted goose. Folly, who had taken to Hugh in a big way, followed him to the railway station and was run over by a car. Matilda was left with the ever-loving Jones who helped her bury Folly in the garden.

Matilda was left alone. This time she took no chances. She went to the same rock over-looking the sea, ate her fill of cheese and emptied a bottle of French wine. She swallowed some pills to numb her senses and dropped into the water. Her body was picked up by fishermen.

Jumping The Queue makes good light reading. It mocks convention, laughs death in the face and mercifully preaches no sermons.

Back to the mountains

I reach my destination, Raj Villa, Kasauli, at 1.30 pm. It is still the closest and the nearest hill resort from Delhi. Though the hillsides are hid with wild flowers, I have only a few Dahlias in my garden. And strangely few birds. They don’t need my bird bath to wash themselves or slake their thirst. There is plenty of water everywhere.

And there are mosquitoes as fat as house-files. I have to smear myself with Odomos before I sit in the garden to watch floating clouds lit fiery orange and gold by the setting sun. It’s lovely. I ask myself, how long will this paradise-on-earth be mine to see' Then breathe a heavy sign and turn indoors.

I was apprehensive about Billoo not recognizing me. I had left him over two months ago. He did. As I stepped out of the car, he gave my hand two licks of recognition. He joined me at tea time. “Where were you all these weeks'”, he asked turning his head from side to side. I explained I had to be in Delhi to earn my living. He understood and accepted a biscuit as a token of goodwill. Then he scampered off to tell his friends of my return. Soon there were four dogs chasing each other round the lawn and indulging in mock battles. I noticed all of them were dogs; not a bitch among them. I fear my Billoo is gay.

A frisky young langoor baby escaped its mother’s embrace and clambered up a telegraph pole. It thought it would swing on the wires to show off its skill to its mother. No sooner it touched them, that it screamed loudly and fell on the road with a thud. Its mother picked it up and clasped it against her warm bosom. She knew her child was dead but would not let go of it. Her entire troop of langoors gathered round her, sat in a circle to condole her loss, which was their’s as well. A more heart-rending sight of animal grief I have never seen before. Monkey mothers carry their dead babes in their arms for several weeks, perhaps till they are pregnant again. Can’t monkeys tell the living from the dead'

On my journey, two members of the Lok Sabha were sitting behind me — a sardarji and a Punjabi Hindu. As soon as the train pulled out of New Delhi railway station, the sardarji began talking. He talked non-stop all the way to Ambala while the other answered with a grunt or two. I turned to my daughter, Mala, and said, “This fellow has been talking non-stop for one and a half hours. I admire his stamina and the other fellow’s patience. I never saw either open his mouth in Parliament.” Apparently they heard my voice. At Ambala, they left their seats. And resumed their one-sided dialogue. Doesn’t it ever occur to people that talking too much is bad manners, which disturbs those sitting near them'

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