In May 2001, I was about to end the first year of a Bachelor of Engineering course in a university that I hated. In retrospect, this may have been my fault – or the fault of external circumstances – as much, or more, as the university’s. Six months earlier, my grandmother had had a massive lung failure, my father had injured his leg and was being extorted for a bribe by the Income Tax department, and my mother had developed tuberculosis or something very like it. I myself was compounding my misery into depression, barely eating, not attending classes, and doing atrociously in them as a consequence.
But there were some routines I clung to that prevented the depression from getting full blown – attending laboratories, going home on the weekend, and reading the newspapers in the hostel common area.
On the twelfth or thirteenth – by which time final exams had probably started, I read in the Indian Express that Douglas Adams had died.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt so wretched about the death of somebody I had never met, either up to that point, or since then. In a very shitty year, this was news that hurt me even more. I had spent 1999 reading and rereading the Hitchhiker’s Guide trilogy, and it was tragic that the person who had created it would never create anything more.
I went for my exams, and ended the semester with five D’s and an F.
In December 2001, things were not so bad.
My father’s leg had healed, my mother’s TB (or whatever it was) had disappeared, my hostel roommates were now friends, and I was doing better in classes. And by a happy alignment of the calendar and the timetable, I got to come home for my birthday between two exams.
When I took the train back to college, it was with my birthday present – a copy of Terry Pratchett’s The Truth. I managed to complete it on the train itself, grinning and laughing all the way from New Delhi Railway Station to Rajpura at the puns, the jokes, and the real world references.
Over the next five years, I began to work my way through the entire Discworld series.
In 2003, I read Hogfather, and its line about humanity being the place where the falling angel met the rising ape, and for at least five years, it stayed with me and kept me from getting into too much existential angst.
Right up to 2013, I read the new Discworld books, Good Omens, and Terry Pratchett’s other books, loving them. I also read his announcement of his Alzheimer’s, and his interviews and letters to the Times where he managed to be far angrier and sharper than he was in his books, and came to appreciate that side of him too.
Earlier this week, I saw on Twitter that he had died.
Although Terry Pratchett’s worlds had captured me just as much as – probably more than – Douglas Adams’, I did not feel the same shock and pain on his death as I had almost fourteen years ago.
Maybe this was because Terry Pratchett had already started planning for his death, so that when it did come, it wasn’t a shock.
Maybe it was because with Death as a character in every book of the Discworld series, it seemed like he was only meeting an old friend.
Maybe it was because in the past fourteen years, I lost my own innocence.
But perhaps it was because this past week, the pain was less noticeable than all the love that his fans have been expressing, all over the internet.
In 2001, the only news I had about the death of Douglas Adams were those two columns in The Indian Express. Later that week, I may have seen a thread on slashdot. Much later, I would see a tribute on the h2g2 website, where I believe he is still User 42. (On a side note, what an irony that Wikipedia achieved Douglas Adams’ vision of being a guide to everything faster and better than his own project could.) And much much later, I would come across other tributes and obituaries and biographies.
This past week, within an hour of first hearing of Terry Pratchett’s death (on Twitter), my Twitter and Facebook feeds began to fill up with messages of sadness, tributes to Pratchett (nonfictional, fictional, artistic), and links to obituaries. Compared to 2001, where I may have been one of ten people in the entire university to know who Douglas Adams was, I was now connected to people I knew and complete strangers who were feeling the same sadness (or more) than me.
We have been so inundated with social media and breaking news in the past few years that it’s very easy to be cynical about them and give up in disgust. I personally have deleted my Facebook profile once (though I came back), done mass Twitter unfollowing, and tried to strictly avoid daily news. It’s easy to extend that cynicism and disgust to the Internet itself.
And yet, in the past few days, I saw and realised that the Internet still holds the promise that it had back in 2001, and that Douglas Adams himself had marveled over: that it could bring together strangers who were otherwise alone in their usual milieus. Maybe that is Terry Pratchett’s last gift to me.