“You’re killing yourself”, my father told me.
It wasn’t the first time he’d said it; it certainly wouldn’t be the last. It had just become one of those constant conversations at some point, though I couldn’t even begin to remember when. It’s the kind of memory so ingrained it feels eternal, as though there was no world before it, though there clearly was. There must’ve been. I just barely remember such a world.
“I know,” I’d respond, as I’d done countless times before. “It’s fine,” I’d add, trying to move on, except that never seemed to happen. “No, it’s not fine” he’d say, and on and on we would go.
It was a frustrating state of affairs, because neither of us could be what the other wanted. Neither of us could give what the other needed to feel content. It was what it was. After all, so what if I died? I’d just be another drop in the ocean of the dead that only grew ever larger with time. Nothing to mourn, nothing to complain about. I lived. And then I wouldn’t. It happens everyday. It’s how the world works.
I’d come to acutely understand that the idea of death just wasn’t something I was scared of in my teens; it would just be what it was. There was, however, a moment of profound clarity, wherein I realized what it was that did scare me most:
Ah. It’s life. Life is what terrifies me.
After all, death is the end point of life, isn’t it? The moment where life and all its countless burdens and expectations cease to be. What was there to be afraid of? If anything, it felt oddly good that there would be an end – that this wouldn’t be forever. That it couldn’t last.
And so years later, when I picked up a book about Death itself having to live on earth, I was amused, but I understood. I saw her horror and anxiety at the very prospect of life in the mortal realm, and it made sense. I understood Laila Starr. I understood Death. But even more crucially, I understood the boy Death dealt with in life– the young child who would obsess over Death, and who encounters her in her many, varied forms.
I understood Darius Shah.
The Fate Of Death
Death is fired. That’s how The Many Deaths Of Laila Starr begins: the God of Death is summoned to the offices of her superiors in the pantheon, and told she isn’t needed anymore. Soon, death itself will be eradicated as a newborn child named Darius Shah will eventually discover the secret to eternal life, changing the fate of all humanity, and freeing it from Death, which will no longer have any place.
What follows is Death’s “new life” after descending down to earth and assuming the body of recently-deceased mortal Laila Starr, and her interactions with Darius across his entire lifetime. Spread out across 5-issues, the book – by the creative team of Ram V, Filipe Andrade, Inês Amaro, and Deron Bennett – covers the various stages of life. It’s a piece of work that operates as a symbolic dance with death across all our lifetimes: Who are we with death? How does it manifest in various forms throughout our lives? And how does death shape us across a lifetime? These are questions the book is taken with, and does its utmost to explore through the one lifetime of Darius Shah.
It’s very much a Post-Vertigo/Gaiman work: a take on Death in comics that draws upon and builds forward from Gaiman’s iconic take in The Sandman. It’s also a Post-Gaiman work that draws on both the Hindu myths and tradition of The Avatar’s Descent and Yama’s Descent to create a fresh and culturally specific tale of contemporary Indian life (and death). But to quote James Joyce, “In the particular is contained the universal,” it’s also a deeply universal story about human experience.
So I understood Laila Starr, both as the girl who fell from a building and died like it was nothing, and the Death God that awoke in her body to be horrified by the idea of living. I knew the girl who wasn’t afraid of death and fell into its arms without fuss in the same way that I knew the universal abstract, the very concept of Death itself, that was now stuck in her human body, having to live.
And I understood Darius Shah, the boy who dealt with Death. The man who would keep confronting Death, and contending with the various truths she illuminated by life itself, via her presence.
The way the book binds those two characters structurally and explores Darius Shah’s life (and how Death figures into it) is something I deeply appreciated. It’s a bold framework; utilizing a sprawling spine that feels evocative of something like Mani Ratnam’s classic 1987 gangster epic Nayakan (starring the incredible Kamal Hassan in his prime). Ratnam’s film was the tale of a boy across a life-time, capturing his many encounters with death at various key stages in life, right up until his own death. The book felt drawn from the spirit of that classic of Tamil Cinema. You very much followed a single lifetime from the beginning to the end, across the decades, charting in their particulars the universal.
Each issue is about death, obviously, but in the process each approaches the conceit of death differently. The “many deaths” alluded to in the book’s title wouldn’t just be literal ones that Laila goes through as an undying immortal in situations of peril, but greater symbolic ones, too.
The Birth Of Death (Infancy)
Darius: Age 1 hour. Death/Laila: Age Unknown.
Death is, seemingly, the end of things. Death is loss and absence. You cannot have an ending without a beginning. There cannot be a loss or absence without a presence first. And so, that brings us to birth.
Birth is emergence, it is arrival. We are at our most confused, uncertain, born crying out for the universe. Darius emerges into the world, like all of us, just like you and me. But this also holds true for Death, who is born howling and screaming in the night.
After all, she has no experience of mortal life in all its frailty and limitations – from the confining human body to the senses that accompany it on the earth, it’s just not something she’s used to. It’s disorienting and confusing, even for a God; for a universal abstract.
It’s telling that Filipe Andrade and Ram V utilize a perspective here that you will never again find anywhere else in the book where the reader is put into the perspective of Death/Laila Starr, and we see reality from her eyes. It never repeats again, as it’s confined to this sequence, after which the issue ends. We are seemingly “trapped” in her perspective, and constantly see her moving forward, with hands outstretched, reaching out for escape; a babe coming into the world during birth with chaos, confusion, and a hectic sense of existence.
And that feels right. Birth and infancy are very much that. We’re barely a person; instead a loose idea of a potential person. A figure in motion, reaching out, crying for tomorrow. It’s by far the most abstract in all of life. It’s a blur, a haze of assumptions; a cacophony of noise and sounds and flashing lights and images that are hard to place. Was it real, or was it from a dream? Who can say? But from it all, we emerge unto the world. It is through this that we are made.
Darius has been born, and thus so has Death. Now they are alive. They are something, and they have something to lose.
The Death Of Permanence (Childhood)
Darius: Age 8 years. Death/Laila: Age Unknown.
We are born, we grow, and we become children – carrying the assumptions and ideas of the universe while remaining untainted by the weight of experience. We see the world in wild, wondrous ways; bigger, colorful, and more mythic– somehow understanding the least while being the most curious.
When we first encounter death, not as an abstract idea but as an intimate thing, it’s something shocking, confusing, and disorienting. It’s exactly that for Darius Shah as well, as he finds that the man he once played with in his summers, a hired worker of the family and a caretaker named Bardhan has passed away. Until this point, most children have been told people that die; that they go away, and that they never come back. But who’s to say it’s not just like taking some trip to a far off-country? Childhood is when the lines of reality are most malleable and pliable, where any and every idea, no matter how strange or absurd, is open to the mind. Bardhan is dead now. Darius will never see him again; he is lost forever – the idea of which is devastating for young Darius, as it is for any child.
I remember when I attended funerals as a kid. It was almost always of relatives, away in far-off villages and people that my parents or grandparents knew or loved or grew up with or spoke about – distant figures of dreams and chatter –and then they were gone. I would see people I cared about sad, somber, crying even. I’d see legions more I barely knew in a similar state. I’d see other kids there, like me, some less confused than me, some more so…but we were, all of us, nonetheless confused.
Death was strange, then. How could someone just… go away like that? Just seemingly vanish? And how and why were all these adults who were otherwise so incredibly strong broken down like this? It was an unusual sight, it was a strange experience, and it would shake me. I knew this wasn’t something normal. Death might be an everyday occurance, as people obviously die everyday, but it wasn’t that to the people left behind. To them it was akin to an earthquake devastating an entire lifetime.
I thought everything around me would always be around. That this would all last. But when death strikes like that in youth, and one begins to try and process it, one comes to understand the inherent fragility of your situation and life. That it’s not all so permanent. That it won’t all last forever.
You realize, looking at those sobbing, holding their dear ones, that one day, some day, this could happen to you. You could be that son or daughter holding their father, who no longer moves.
It’s the first real death we all experience in our lifetimes, this Death Of Permanence; our youthful idea and assumption that it will all somehow last and be forever, suddenly proven wrong. That understanding alters us, whether we realize it or not, much the same way it alters Darius Shah over the course of the first issue, wherein he comes to terms with the death of Bardhan, a man he once knew, gone as if magically vanished.
The Death Of Dreams (Youth)
Darius: Age 20 years. Death/Laila: Age Unknown.
The transition from one’s teens into their twenties is a strange thing. It is at once an end and a beginning in and of itself: the end of the teenager you used to be and the beginning of the full adult you’re expected to be; a point of no return wherein you emerge from your proverbial cocoon and are expected to take flight like a butterfly with its wings spread. It’s a special time, but it’s a time wherein you’re in between things; a period of fragile understanding built from childhood before the dawn of greater realization. The precise moment in time wherein your dreams come crashing against harsh reality.
I remember once thinking I knew exactly how my life would go. I’d go to this specific place, I’d study this exact thing, and I’d do it with these specific people, and I’d do this and that, and it would all just work out. I thought I knew exactly how it would all go, and who the people in that life would be.
I was woefully wrong. Life doesn’t work like that. Life isn’t a dream. Reality isn’t always so kind. You’re forced to realize that. That’s what happens to Darius, as book two explores two universal experiences of loss.
Bardhan was less an actual person to Darius, and more so the idea of a person; he was a mythologized larger-than-life character in Darius’ little eyes, and his demise hit hard, but not quite as in the same way the loss of a real person and peer. What happens when it’s not a mythologized figure of an individual, but someone just like you, right next to you? Something you grew up alongside?
Darius, his (ex) partner Danika, and his friend Zaffar were a tight friend groupl they hung around the abandoned factory of The Dream Company, wherein pillows were made, with their proud motto declaring they make dreams, not just pillows. One day, the whole place goes up in flames due to a dreadful Communal Riot, and Zaffar’s trapped right in there. He burns and burns, gone in the flames. The Dream Company turns to fire, ash, and soot.
The whole thing devastates Darius and Danika; Danika finds she must move on, while Darius is left half a person as a result. The three of them had once sat around and argued, fought, and dreamt, speaking of their lives, the futures they’d lead, the hopes they held. Now all of that had gone. This is Darius’ first truly personal experience with death: to lose your friend and your love, and all the dreams you ever held with them, is the loss of an entire future. It is a whole potential life and endless pathways closed off.
Looking back upon my own youth, all those moments spent with all the people who ever listened to me speak, who shared their own dreams with me, and I smile. How many ever really had their lives play out the way they’d figured then? How many really got exactly what they planned for? I’d wager not many. I certainly didn’t. But that harsh outcome is also exactly what helped make me… well, me. Darius’ tattered dreams are what help forge his path, too; he could not have been who he ends up becoming without this.
The Death of Dreams is an important moment and step. Your dreams burning away leaves a devastating void in you, but that same void that makes space for new dreams. With this, we once again arrive at the conclusion that the end isn’t always the end. You can live on, no matter what. That’s what such a death really teaches you.
The Death Of Places (Adulthood)
Darius: Age 36 years. Death/Laila: Age Unknown.
One of the most affecting things as an adult is watching a familiar place change massively, particularly when that place holds great meaning and personal value. Even if that change is positive, it is still a strangeness that takes getting used to. The idea that whatever you loved or put all that value in? It no longer exists, even if the husk of it still remains.
I remember visiting the home my father grew up in, where I had been born. It was a return after years away, with the place feeling nigh mythic in our heads, but it didn’t feel like the place I’d remembered or seen at all; it had become a decaying, dilapidated ruin, a place that once felt like life seemed to no longer have any. It had died.
Darius experiences the death of a place in the most personal way. His dear wife Menaka has just passed away after a hard fight with cancer, and Darius remains a heartbroken widower, now solely responsible for caring for their young son Neel; the home that once felt radiant and warm –a place of eternal comfort and joy – was suddenly a cold, broken mess, a symbol of his ultimate tragedy and loss.
He’d built a life, he’d built a family, and now it was in ruins. He’d had his time with his reality made manifest from his adult dreams, but it didn’t last; it was a cruel reminder time is always running out, that you only get so long, even when you get it right. The transformation is striking and heartbreaking, but here the story also broaches the subject of places and their death in a wholly different way.
We come to see the last standing Chinese Temple in Mumbai, run by the last remaining Chinese-Indian man running it, even as most of his peers have moved on and no longer reside there. Once this place was the thriving hub of a Chinese-Indian community and the legions of immigrant families that visited it and lived around it; now a tattered shell of itself, barely kept aloft.
A place isn’t just the physical space; it’s the people that inhabit it and that specific moment in time. It’s not something easily recreated or rebuilt. It’s why places change constantly, and why they mean different things to different people. Without the right people to care for them, places decay and become hollow husks of themselves.
The Death of Places is the inevitable experience of all adult life that hits hard every single time, and you just learn to deal with it, every single time. I suppose that’s what makes us human. We’re still struck by it all; we can’t help it.
The Death Of Illusions (Old Age)
Darius: Age 64 years. Death/Laila: Age Unknown.
At the end, when all is said and done, there comes a desire to reflect. Everybody wants to look back on the life they’ve lived, the things they’ve done; they want to contrast the final realities with all their prior youthful expectations and dreams. What panned out? What didn’t? Is this what they really wanted in the end? Are they happy with this? Is this what they did all they did for? You take stock, or at least you try to.
I certainly saw it happen with my grandfather, and I see it again with my father, as he now speaks of his many regrets, and the things he wishes he’d done differently. I understand them, the two of them, in my own limited way; I can only imagine how a whole lifetime’s worth of burdens and regrets add up as it feels like the end is closer than the beginning ever was.
When I see old man Darius Shah, dying, in his 60’s, I see my father and grandfather, and I understand. But at the same time, I envy him.
Darius too has many regrets, a whole lifetime of them – including how he handled and broached being a father, mired in his own self-destructive spiral – but he also has something neither my grandfather or father do: true contentment with his life. It’s not that he doesn’t have regrets or mistakes; he’s just accepted all of them, and has found true happiness in just… living. Day by day, step by step, without being crushed by the weight and burdens of expectations held onto across a lifetime.
He’s also no longer at odds with Laila Starr, this girl he’d almost put out of business by inventing immortality years earlier. He’d rejected immortality, ultimately, realizing such a thing would defeat the point of living, which is defined so because it is limited.
The Death Of Illusions is the powerful final epiphany of life, the one after which Death comes to finally take us away. Darius dies, content, sharing one final exchange with his son Neel to let him know he does wish he could’ve been a better father to him.
Darius got to live his final days the way I wish my grandfather had gotten to. He passed away without any such clarity or peace; he passed away unhappy, discontent, and no longer the man I’d once known. There were no great, meaningful final words or grand moment of epiphany. It just happened. It was sudden; one moment he’d been there, another he was gone. I understand why I envy Neel and Darius, who got to have that final moment. Darius may die, but Neel will forever carry on, with that memory. He will remember his father. And eventually when Neel himself passes, those after him will remember him.
Death may be the end of life, but it is not the absence of life. Life is passed on from people to people, in the time spent, in the stories told, in the words exchanged. Life is defined by our experiences with various forms of death, until its ultimate form visits us in the end. And when it finally does? When it’s all over? That is the moment people come together to remember a life lived, to cherish the memories and remnants that still persist from it.
Death’s sadness does not ever erase the beauty of life, it only helps illuminate it.
It’s why Neel and Darius’ farewell is touching. I can only hope when the time comes, I get to have that with my father; I don’t want to say goodbye without holding his hand and speaking to him one last time. It’s the one thing I hope life grants me. It’s not death that scares me; it’s not getting that chance or moment. It’s life without him there, even if just to yell at me sometimes, to argue.
That’s the truth of death isn’t it? We just have to live with it, every step of the way. We have to experience its various forms, across various stages in life, and live on. We don’t get to choose when it comes or how, all we get to do is hold onto little moments: moments of grace, of solace, of beauty, that ennoble our soul. Moments that give us comfort and strength, and help us go on.
It’s why I want that one last moment when Death inevitably arrives for my father at the end.
I want to be able to hear those final words in defiance of Death. I want to be able to say goodbye, and listen, one last time, like a foolish child again. It’s why I hope to hold onto one last thing. One last thing to remember, when it is time.