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The Immersion: Touching Life & Death Through Ill Bill’s “When I Die”Posted by Dharmic X on 11/29/12 | Filed under Opinion, The Immersion
This week, I have been listening to a certain song on repeat, and the song has brought with it images and stories that I’ve always wanted to tell but just haven’t found space within the framework of The Immersion to write about. Not only is it a fairly recent record, but it’s one that hasn’t been covered yet on the site, so all the more reason to write about it.
This is the second single off Ill Bill’s upcoming solo album, The Grimy Awards. “When I Die” is actually self produced, and follows the lead single “Severed Heads of State”, which is produced by and features El-P. The Grimy Awards is set for a January 29th release, and features a diverse list of collaborators, ranging from A-Trak to OC.
“When I Die” is an extremely personal record, and like any personal record, while you can appreciate the writing and sentiment from an impersonal perspective, and the emotions conjured are certainly ubiquitous, you are usually attracted even more if you can relate to the details and the nuances.
Both verses touch on people that were very important in my life.
Bill’s first verse talks about the appreciation he has for his grandmother, and the strength he draws from her to pursue his rap career, an unlikely source. This newfound sense of focus I’ve had in the last year is similarly fueled by the lessons my grandfather tried to teach me before he passed away when I was eighteen. And I too hope that one day he will be the one “holding open the gates [of heaven] when I die,” even though at this point I’ve pretty much accepted that if he were around today, he’d be pretty fucking disappointed about where I am right now, writing articles about rappers and ignoring my parents. Besides, I highly doubt I’ve deserved even a chance at passing through heaven’s gates at the end of this; I’m too much of a disrespectful scumbag.
The first verse is very important (and my grandfather, ironically enough, plays a deeper role in my appreciation for hip-hop than many other sources), but it’s Bill’s second verse, where he details his relationship with the well-documented “Uncle Howie,” that resonates with me on an even deeper level.
My uncle is still alive. But he takes a lot of drugs everyday. And when he tried to get off of them six years ago, he nearly died, collapsing in a bloody heap, his crippled body writhing on the ground.
His name is Satpal, and he lives with the rest of my extended family on my father’s side, in the town of Sonepat just one hour away from New Delhi. He is one of over 50 million people worldwide who suffers from epilepsy, a neurological disorder where abnormal activity in the neurons of the brain leads to changes in the wiring and occasionally to seizures. There is no cure; just a cocktail of prescriptions administered daily to control the symptoms and try to prevent recurrences.
For most people, the only real disability attached to epilepsy is the inability to drive, if even that. So if the list of victims includes actors (Danny Glover), politicians (the governor of Hawaii), and even football players (the Barber twins), among many many others, why would my uncle drop out of school in the fifth grade, never to return again?
I didn’t even know Satpal had epilepsy when I was growing up. The only thing odd about him was his hunchbacked gait when he walked, as he grabbed his left leg with his arm to help him walk very gingerly in labored gasps. But my mom always downplayed his polio; she said that because the vaccine was just starting to be implemented in India around the time he contracted the virus (my dad only received the vaccine after), it was pretty commonplace.
The way I saw it, it certainly couldn’t have helped.
When I was a little kid visiting the ramshackle family house (built more like a war compound than a stereotypical townhouse you would see on television), my uncle owned a small little “candy shop.” The house was two stories, with the rooms themselves located upstairs while the lower level simply had an awning where my uncle set up shop. He could do this because the awning stood directly in front of a busy Indian street, bustling with trucks, cars, motorcycles, rickshaw, and cows. All going about their business.
Satpal was the man. Visiting a small Indian town with one portable heater in the bitter cold of Delhi’s December, frequent power outages, no western-style toilets, dietary restrictions (boiled or bottled water, etc), mosquito bites, and absolutely no understanding of the language around me for six weeks, sitting downstairs with my uncle and eating toffee and Hajmola digestive tablets from his stash was probably my favorite part of the experience, next to riding on motorcycles whenever I could get an elder cousin or uncle to take me. Being around Satpal for hours made me feel cool, the way Bill felt being around Uncle Howie. Very few words were spoken, but what needed to be said to a kid when free candy was all around him?
Time changes things. I grew older, began adjusting to being in a public school, being a minority, and more importantly, being an adolescent in a system where you’re almost expected to act like an immature little brat until you turn 24. Or worse. We were a few months away from moving out of the apartment I’d grown up in when I went back to India for a visit by myself, the second such trip in two years. And a lot had changed in Sonepat.
Much like us, the family had moved out of its bustling commercial neighborhood of street shops and traffic and into a more residential neighborhood. Just like our move in Boston has been a dramatic influence on my little brother, creating a world for him of private schools and affluent living that I have never been able to fathom, let alone relate to, the move was clearly beneficial for my cousins but absolutely terrible for my uncle. In a residential neighborhood, he could no longer operate his candy shop. The store wasn’t making any profit, but it hadn’t ever been intended to do so. It was the family’s way of providing him a distraction in life, something he could direct passion and dedication into, and he did it religiously until it was no longer possible.
When the family had nothing to offer as an alternative, Satpal had nothing to do in the new house. He sat around bored. He napped. And napped some more. His brain was idle, left to wander into destructive territory. A slippery slope that proved almost fatal.
By the time I returned to Sonepat as a fourteen year-old kid just starting to get into hip-hop (my iPod catalog was atrocious), the aftermath of the seizure had kicked in. My uncle locked himself nearly 24/7 in an isolated room upstairs on the terrace level of the house, coming down only to grab a quick meal of fulka (dried Indian bread with a minimal amount of butter and oil) and lentils. The family finally tried to create a diversion for him with the help of their monk, who Satpal revered greatly, by having the monk instruct him to transcribe a prayer book word for word repeatedly. They thought he would come down to do the writing, but instead the plan backfired; he consumed himself in the mundane task upstairs, sitting at a desk in the room to copy down each stroke from the original book with an old-school fountain pen.
It hurt me to see Satpal like that, possessed by his internal demons and insecurities, restricted by a culture that expected nothing of him and by a brittle yet hard-nosed matriarch (my grandmother) who imposed her will on every detail of his life well into his forties, going as far as to once prohibit him from sitting in the front seat of a car because “direct contact to the air conditioning would trigger another seizure.” I had to spend time with him.
That summer, we created a bond that wasn’t a traditional uncle-nephew relationship. As we played hour upon hour of chess, our two differing worldviews merged together on the board and turned us into close friends with that same tacit understanding we had built at the candy store. For me, chess offered me the opportunity to wipe the board clean of my regrets of the first two years at Boston Latin School and begin to strategize for a future filled with optimism and change. For my uncle, chess was an opportunity to grapple with obstacles typically far beyond his control, but more than that, it was his chance to express himself in ways he couldn’t do normally. Satpal is the type of person who takes the obstacles in front of him and tries to cut his losses, something he found himself doing time and time again during our battles.
As silently as our bond developed, I had picked up a lot of Hindi (the result of living in India for six weeks without my parents to serve as translators) at this point, and it was in our minimal conversations that I learned a lot about the frustrations he had harbored for years. He was tired of feeling like everyone around him pitied his existence and considered him useless. He had chosen to live on the rooftop of the family’s home not only because he felt like the family’s outcast, but he wanted to prove he was independent, capable of fending for himself.
In a sense, I’ve grown up to become just like him. Stubborn and free-willed. The difference is that I have two healthy legs to run around New York City, networking and participating in the hip-hop scene, and I have a mind that is free to dream, strategize and realize the grandest of visions without a neurological setback stopping my progress, forcing limitations upon me.
My uncle eventually overcame the zealous streak after six months and went back to living downstairs in the same room as his mother. While his lifestyle is largely sedentary, he finds things to do around the house, usually involving prayer and devotion; ironically it is the culture he dedicates himself that’s held him back for all these years. Gone are the days of foolish optimism whereby I believe that generations of stereotypes and cultural limitations can be demolished instantly and that my uncle could potentially become something like a great painter, using his powerful yet delicate hands to his advantage. But I’ve never needed my uncle to be something to appreciate him more than almost any other person on this Earth.
I only talk to my uncle once every few months on the phone; he doesn’t use the Internet, and I’m not the best at keeping in touch with family. But every time I go back to visit Sonepat I make sure that I devote time with him at the chess board, because it’s those moments I cherish more than any road trip or adventure that I’ve taken in India, more than any five-star hotel or tourist attraction I’ve stayed at or visited. And it’s those moments that I’ve spent with Satpal and will hopefully continue to spend with him that allow me to appreciate “When I Die.” Because I know that if the day were to come for my uncle to potentially pass away, I’d leave him outside the gates of heaven and wave goodbye and hope that one day I too would be lucky enough to join him up there.
(DJ Dharmic X is the host of This Culture Never Dies, 11PM-1AM Saturday on wnyu.org. Fans and haters, can follow him on Twitter and check him out on Facebook.)
See Also: The Immersion: Hip-Hop Saved & Destroyed My Life