Book Review By Bhuvan Lal
And A Man In Love With Death…
On a sunny afternoon a few weeks ago, walking with Satish Modi the Indian Billionaire, Philanthropist and Author in the Central Park of Manhattan – that for many is the center of the universe – we ventured into the heart of the question that has confounded humankind since the beginning of time – the meaning of life and death.
Normally for most matters of life and death I refer to an illustrious citizen of New York City and the modern day philosopher Woody Allen – sample this – “Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering – and it’s all over much too soon…. I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying and… I am not afraid of death… I just don’t want to be there when it happens”.
But that day away from the hustle and bustle of the Big Apple in the midst of idyllic water bodies, quaint cafes and the large expanse of green that serves as a backyard for the metropolis I was engaged in an extended exchange with the soft-spoken, self-effacing and striking individual – Satish Modi.
Born to immense wealth Satish Modi had the benefit of a privileged upbringing in a town named after his family name on the outskirts of India’s capital city New Delhi. His father Rai Bahadur Gujarmal Modi as one of the founders of modern Industrial India established the Modi Group of Industries and the industrial township of Modinagar. As a member of one of the wealthiest families in India, Satish Modi directly entered business after completing his engineering studies. Soon he was managing major enterprises from the factories across India to the boardrooms on Wall Street. In 1993 he started India’s first private airline (Modiluft, in collaboration with Lufthansa now known as Spice Jet). He also founded and sits on the board of India’s first offshore mutual fund, the J.F. India Fund, which is part of J.P. Morgan Chase.
Through the course of his illustrious career Satish Modi recognized that happiness did not lie in the material world. This knowledge led him into the humble pursuit for greater value in life.
Then an extraordinary incident a decade ago in 2005 became a turning point in his life.
His Excellency Junichiro Koizumi, the Prime Minister of Japan was visiting India with thirty business tycoons in April 2005 to further deepen the Japan-India global partnership. The high-powered delegation included a spiritual leader from Japan Her Holiness Setsuko Nakanishi. For some reason the visiting group was unable to find a suitable conference hall for meetings and meals. A gracious Satish Modi stepped in and requested the General Manager at Hotel Oberoi to convert the very exclusive Belvedere Club into a space for lunch and dinner sittings for the Japanese guests. When the head of the delegation sought to settle the bill he was told that Satish Modi had already taken care of the expenses.
The spiritual leader Her Holiness Setsuko Nakanishi was extremely pleased by the graceful gesture by Satish Modi and wanted to thank him personally. As the six foot one inch tall Indian billionaire entered the Belvedere Club to meet with the elderly petite woman from Japan on making eye contact she started profusely crying. With tears flowing Her Holiness held his hands and declared that, “I know this man from a previous life.” The room had suddenly elevated to a higher plane. Absolutely overcome by emotion she then sang a short prayer for him and invited him to Japan.
Shortly thereafter business took Satish Modi to Kyoto and on alighting from the Jet he received a red carpet treatment. He met Her Holiness at her home and again on seeing him she as if under a kind of spell started, crying. Later over a vegetarian meal they discussed matters of faith and the significance of life. Before parting Satish Modi asked her through an interpreter, “How will I communicate with Her Holiness in the future?”
“Through dreams” was Her Holiness’s short response.
On his return Satish Modi started having profound dreams, so he decided to capture them in a book that took five years to write. His first and only book “In Love With Death” is a direct result of that spiritual journey and it examines the vital question about life right at the beginning – do we know when will it end?
This moving, powerful and thought-provoking work asks the reader to first write down the date one thinks one will die on.
It quite a difficult task for nobody wants to die.
Death is also not the favorite subject for most of us. Many are obsessed with prolonging life – eating healthier, training harder, meditating more, doing things to diminish stress – anything to put off the inevitability of death. For quite a few, the topic of death is simply taboo. It is either too morbid, or too soon. It’s hardly the go-to topic at family meals, friends’ reunion, business meeting or at a social outing.
Ironically, death is thrust in our faces almost every day – we hear about it on the news, we see it regularly in the movies or read about it in crime thrillers. People we knew have passed on but when it comes to the ‘everydayness’ of death, most of us would rather run a mile than tackle the topic.
At the same time, we will all die at some stage. Everyone who is born dies. Nobody is exempt. Death is as much a fact of life as breathing air is to survive.
Yet death is awkward to talk about.
Satish Modi rationalizes why people are still so reluctant to talk about the unfortunate fact of death, says, “Death is not unfortunate. It is essential. If there was no death, just think about what would happen”. He further elaborates, “In the Victorian era in England, death was openly debated. We’ve had two world wars between then and the present day; so many people have died. People were and still are very disturbed by these wars. People don’t want to talk about death.” He adds, “Death is a very demanding area that we don’t want happening to us. It’s tough to come to terms with it.”
Describing the rational behind the fascinating book Satish Modi tells me, “I wrote my book, to encourage people to begin a dialogue with death so that they can live full and meaningful lives. It is my humble belief that people should not be afraid of death. We have to instead plan our death in the world in the same way we’d plan a holiday, for example. It is through the awareness of death’s inevitability that we are jolted into lives full of compassion and love. We are only given a short time on this earth. It is my hope that engaging with our own mortality will help us to appreciate the world in which we live and encourage us to make the most of our lives.”
Satish Modi writes with the wisdom of experience and of a life well lived, “Death is a great equalizer. Whether you’re born a prince or a pauper, we all have to die. As the shadow of time falls on your body and your body becomes more and more frail, death allows us an exit”.
In a calm manner, with a tenor that invites a careful consideration of life and its entire spectacle, Satish Modi explains, that the chase for materialistic wealth is ultimately empty, “Life is on a lease. We have to accept that. And that means we must make life more consequential.”
“A meaningful life”, Satish Modi argues, “is one of compassion, philanthropy, generosity – of being “at peace” with yourself. It is not one of greed, always chasing after money or bigger things, but listening to your inner voice and morals, and acting upon them. For example put education and career in front of a deprived person and see a person’s life transform.”
Now Satish Modi’s philanthropic activity is changing lives everyday – through the training of arts, fashion and cinema many underprivileged youngsters in India are reinventing their lives.
No wonder, in 2010, Satish Modi was nominated for the Prince of Wales Medal for Arts and Philanthropy and was presented with the World Peace Tartan in Edinburgh.
Satish Modi states, “His Holiness the Dalai Lama also said ‘the rich have the money and the poor have the blessings’, so there you are!”
The sun was shining brightly over the Manhattan skyline and the Central park. Behind us in the more than 840 acres families were enjoying a day out, children playing in the grass, college kids lying on a blanket with a book in hand, elderly couples watching the world go by, joggers going for a run, patients being wheeled along the ponds, homeless seeking shelter on a bench, pets being walked on a tether, cyclists circling around the fountains, horse-drawn carriages ferrying tourists, musicians lending rhythm to the atmosphere, expensive automobiles loudly measuring their acceleration, ambulance sirens exclaiming emergencies, cell phone cameras capturing the serene beauty of the sunny afternoon and the sculptures of world’s explorers, artists and heroes, both real and imaginary standing silently in the timeless urban mass of Manhattan encircled by astronomically priced apartments, lavish stores, luxury hotels and world-class museums showcasing humanity at its best.
As our walk in the park came to an end at the soaring wrought iron Vanderbilt Gate, Satish Modi bid adieu and concluded by saying, “I can’t take anything from here, not even my body. What is important is your own soul… your own journey”.
Standing at the edge of the park I saw Satish Modi briskly cross the Fifth Avenue and merge with the multitudes of New Yorkers.
And as this exceptional and enlightened human being slowly disappeared from my view I realized that for the world Satish Modi may be one of it’s ultra rich citizens but he had moved far beyond just accumulating wealth and made his life richer than others by discovering one of the most important secrets in the pursuit of happiness on Earth that, “to make full use of the days of life one must be – in love with death”.