I have read many a sad page, seen many a weepy motion picture, but I have never known what grief was really like until the day my father died at twelve-fifteen one particular July noon when I was sitting under the shade of a coconut tree, looking after our cattle grazing in the fields belonging to our separate plot of land. My sister had come crying barefoot, unsettling the Greater Adjutant storks frolicking in the fields of grass and puddles of rainwater. She panted out between sobs that father had passed away only a while ago.
I sprang up from the grass, breathless, shocked, disoriented, but death was expected. Father had been seriously ill for two years and took voluntary retirement from the village school where he taught English. Throat cancer, the doctors at the nearby town hospital had said. He would go away any day, so warned the doctors. Only it was inconceivable death would come visiting today, this very July at twelve-fifteen. Only a week ago mother and sister claimed to have seen a shadow moving in the kitchen. And when they turned back to see who it was, there was nobody. This strange phenomenon had been going on for one week. At that time I dismissed it as a case of hallucination or bodily weakness. But actually an invisible being, some angel or spirit, had come to take away father, we were to discuss and realize this later.
I forgot the cattle, I forgot everything, just put on my rubber slippers and sprinted down the wide gray road wearing only my old vest and pants where bits of grass still clung. I passed a grove of bamboo plantations swaying in the wind, took the turning facing our village prayer hall and entered the narrow lane leading to our ordinary three-room house with rusted tin roofs that always leaked during the rains. I heard my mother’s unearthly wailing. Some twenty neighbors, men and women and kids, had gathered in our house yard. They made way for me. I got up on the worn-out verandah with its pillars of wood and cracked plaster, flung aside the door curtain in a daze and entered the small dark room where father used to sleep.
Father lay spread out on the high bed, his head turned sideways toward the wall with its peeling paint. His eyes were closed for eternity. How ugly, how unsightly his body had transformed into since the last few months. The skin had withered and bore dark spots. The eyes had sunken into their sockets. His rib cage showed beneath the skin. He was a proper skeleton.
I touched the body. It was ice cold, motionless, no sign of life at all. Strangely his face had attained a young look as if death had rejuvenated his youth. Mother would say to the people days later while dressed in her widow’s white garb: “When he died, my husband looked just like that framed black-and-white photo hung on the wall after our marriage.”
What was this peculiarity about death, why did people look better and younger on their last day on earth?
When father passed away on Thursday at twelve-fifteen, he must have touched 51 years. Of course I didn’t know his actual age; perhaps not even my father did. Village people don’t usually maintain birth records. People just come and go and get forgotten. Only the land remains. Even the fish pond may disappear or shrink in size. They would just remember a son or a daughter being born on a particular season or lunar day of the month. Or they would compare his birth with another person in the village and say: “He was born three days later than him.” In this way a rough estimate of the age was made.
Mother blubbered over the lifeless body of my father, her head pressed on his flat chest.
Neighbors crowded around, some of the women shedding tears, standing by the door or sitting on a chair. The single window with its crude wooden bars opened out into the backyard, showing papaya trees and a low bamboo fence separating the next house. The simple pink curtains fluttered in the breeze outside.
Someone gently tapped me on the shoulder from behind. It was Prasad, the moneyed village man living some lanes away in a magnificent house of marble and red roof tiles like the ones you see in the city. It was not normal for Prasad to have come. There was much bad blood between him and my father who loathed him because he ran a wine shop. Father had forbidden us to speak to him. Prasad was no good, he used to say.
“Keep an eye on your mother,” said Prasad with some concern in his baritone voice.
He went out the door and I heard the sound of a motorbike starting. Prasad had left. At least despite all the bad blood, he had come to pay his last respects to my deceased father. I never expected that Prasad would return some twenty-five minutes later with a bunch of marigold flower garlands, packets of incense sticks, a loincloth and a cotton towel in a transparent polythene bag. He said he had gone to the bazaar at the edge of our village.
“Here, take it.” He handed me the stuff and looked around at the people present there. All of them were native villagers. “Your relatives must be informed. Where do they live? Do you have their numbers?”
“They’re scattered in different districts,” I replied, “and some live in the city of Guwahati.”
My sister rushed to the adjoining room to pull open the dressing table drawer and take out a small leather-bound diary. She gave it to me.
“I’ll have to go to the headmaster’s house,” I said. “He has a telephone connection and he’s my father’s good friend. You know my father was a teacher in his school.”
“I know, I know,” said Prasad. “But—” he tilted his head quizzically— “you really think the headmaster will be able to help you today?”
“The headmaster will even lend money if I ask,” I said with aplomb. “He’s a family friend.”
“Okay, if you think so. Then come with me. We’ll ride to his home.”
Taking the telephone diary and putting on a shirt, I followed Prasad and sat on his motorbike. Prasad, who was in his forties, was a big heavy man with a thick mustache and a slight corpulence. He kick-started his bike in one go and we rode away, the plangent crying of my mother still reaching us. We rode two kilometers past rice fields and ponds and a club house and presently stopped before a pretty house with bright paint and a television antenna on the corrugated iron roof. Alighting from the motorbike, I found a huge lock hanging down from the rusty gate hook. The gate was locked. I raised my head over the high gate to see the house yard. The main house door was locked and all the windows shuttered and tightly curtained.
“What has happened…” I stared in confusion.
Prasad parked his bike on the wayside grass and came up to me to stand on the concrete slab outside the locked gate below which a drain of water flowed.
“I suppose you don’t know the latest, son.” Prasad curled his lips sideways mockingly, folding his arms and towering over me. “You don’t know the headmaster wasn’t home for over a month. He took his family to visit Tirumala temple in Andhra Pradesh.”
Now I understood why Prasad appeared to doubt if the headmaster would really be able to help me out today. Prasad already knew the headmaster was not at home.
“I suppose your so-called family friend didn’t even bother to leave word to your father that he was going away,” said Prasad. “The people whom you think you can count on are usually not there to help you when you need them most. Remember this for all time, my boy.”
I stared at him helplessly. “Now what do I do?”
“There will always be other people,” winked Prasad, getting up on his bike again and restarting the engine. “When your friends are not there, turn to the enemy. I’ve a telephone connection, too. Oh, how would you know? You never come.”
So much contempt I felt for the headmaster on that day as I rode away with Prasad to his home. Minutes later, reaching his place, he led me inside past the iron gate with its intricate designs and granite pillars with gold lettering.
I threw my eyes around at the neat sprawling compound and the grand house with a balcony and fancy curtains and an impressive garden in front. I had never visited his home and felt kind of embarrassed after all these years. Prasad’s good-looking wife was sitting on a cane chair in the tiled verandah and reading a magazine under a rotating ceiling fan. She rose and looked at me with kindly eyes. She ordered the maid to bring me a glass of iced orange juice.
Prasad took me inside the sunlit drawing room and showed me the telephone on a small glass table next to the expensive couch. I opened the diary and rang up our blood relations one by one, everyone who had a telephone connection and asking them to pass the word around to the others whose numbers I didn’t have. The untimely death came as a bolt from the blue. They gasped.
“Come,” said Prasad, “we’ve no time to squander.”
He restarted his bike and we rode away to find more people had converged in our house yard in the meantime. I saw village lads I had little to do with earlier, lads whom my father thought to be loafers and gamblers and freaks. I even saw the bespectacled elder son of the Brahmin family who lived only three houses away. He used to pass by our house with eyes downcast to evade us because my father, as everyone knew, scorned Brahmins. After so many years the Brahmin boy had finally crossed our yard gate to pay his respect to the bereaved family. Although there was no sign of the other family members, at least the elder son had shown up and now sat on the rocking bench in our verandah.
“We’ll need bamboos to carry the corpse,” said Prasad.
I said our farmland had no bamboos. We mostly grew areca nuts and coconuts.
The son of the Brahmin rose from the bench. “In that case,” he said, “I’ll provide the bamboos from our land. I think four bamboo trees will do the job.” He asked three youths to bring machetes and follow him to their plot of farmland. The bamboos were cut down and hauled in to our house yard. And there the youths and the Brahmin son sat down under the blazing sun, hacking the bamboos in proportionate size and tying them to form the shape of a stretcher to carry the corpse.
“We’ve to bring a priest who performs funeral rituals,” said Prasad. He gave the keys to a youth he knew could ride his motorbike. “Run off to town and bring the priest.”
The youth leaped on the motorbike and started it when Prasad stopped him, all of a sudden remembering something.
“Oh, I forgot,” said Prasad, turning to me. “We’ve to clothe the dead man with a new shirt and pants.”
“I didn’t know that,” I admitted. “I’ve never been to funerals.”
“Ah, too bad,” said Prasad, shaking his head in disapproval. “I know you’re very young, not even fifteen perhaps. But you should always visit a deceased person’s family. Don’t go to weddings if you like, but never ignore a funeral. You do not know the amount of consolation a grieving family gets when somebody visits them on their bad days.”
It was on this day that I understood the meaning of grief. My father never understood it. He lived in a world of his own, choosing to visit homes and weddings and funerals only if he was in the mood. Otherwise, he mostly kept to himself. He had immense respect only for the headmaster. Father could have never imagined the kind of people who would show up to console us.
“Um, how much money do I have to pay for the new clothes?” I muttered hesitantly. “I wonder if I have the money—”
“You don’t worry about the money!” Prasad cut me short. “I’ll pay. What are neighbors for, eh?”
Prasad took out his wallet and handed some high-denomination banknotes to the youth who was ready to ride to town. “Select the clothes well,” said Prasad. “Don’t worry about the price. The deceased must wear good clothes before leaving the world.”
After the youth sped away and disappeared in the turning, Prasad sighed: “This is the problem in our village. All the priests have migrated to the city because they earn more there. They know village people are tightfisted. Now we’ve to bring a priest from the town.”
We waited till early evening when the sky was turning purple and the birds flying to their nests. An uncle, my mother’s gangling elder brother working in All India Radio in the city of Guwahati, arrived in a scooter with his son who was widely said to be a loafer, a mischief-maker and a good-for-nothing by our aunts and cousins. Uncle had not visited our home in years. He had spent time in jail over a property dispute with a nephew who had lodged a complaint against him to the police. Uncle was released after two weeks. He had obviously paid his way out. Since then he nurtured a grudge against all his kinsmen for not visiting him during his time in jail, not doing anything to set him free. He hated my mother, he hated my father, he hated everyone. True, uncle was short-tempered, but he was actually honest, quick to reprimand if somebody did something deemed inappropriate by society. After so many years he had again re-appeared only on the death of my father. The doors of our house had once again come open for him.
“It’s my duty to come on a day like today,” said uncle in his broken voice, looking at the corpse which was in the meantime brought out of the house and laid down on the front yard over the bamboo stretcher. A couple of village lads had nicely wrapped the corpse with a clean white cloth and garlanded it with the marigolds. Only the face and the feet showed. Incense sticks were lit and an earthen lamp was placed near it.
A motorbike stopped outside our yard gate. The youth had brought the priest, a mustached man in his early fifties. The priest entered our yard, carrying a jute bag loaded with items for the funeral rituals. He looked at the corpse and at my weeping mother and instantly took me to be the son.
“Where is the cemetery?” asked the priest.
“Our village has no cemetery,” I replied. “All the people cremate the dead in their part of the woods.”
“When do you plan to cremate it?”
“As soon as all our relatives arrive. We’re waiting for them.”
The night was nigh. The low-powered incandescent bulb in our verandah was switched on. Some villagers brought extra hurricane lamps from their homes to light up the entire yard. Even the distant hand-pump became visible.
I had no idea of the hour of the evening, but I waited patiently. My married cousin living in the city— she would show up any time in her car, I believed. She was always fond of me. There was another older cousin living in a village not more than forty-five kilometers away. We were great pals, going fishing together and he would part with bawdy jokes. He still hadn’t come, neither did his parents. I wondered what was keeping them. Another cousin of the more sober sort and studying medicine was bound to come, too. There was absolutely no sign of my father’s relatives or any of my mother’s sisters and cousins.
“It’s already seven-twenty,” announced uncle, looking at his old wristwatch and frowning. “Why is nobody here as yet?”
I couldn’t answer. I couldn’t understand.
“We must hurry up things,” said the priest. “My home is almost seventy kilometers away. “I might not find a bus.”
My uncle’s son, who maintained almost shoulder-length hair in fashion and wore an earring, asked me when exactly I had sent out the word of my father’s death to our relatives.
“At about the same time when I telephoned you,” I replied.
“It was not even one o’clock, I think,” affirmed Prasad.
Uncle flew into a rage as was his nature. “You informed them so long ago and they are still not here?!” He scowled, jerking his hands, turning the eyes of others. “Do they live even a hundred kilometers away that they can’t make it here? Have all buses gone off the roads? What mockery! We can’t wait till midnight. I’ll be stopped on the way by the police. And how much I hate the police!”
“What should we do?” I could only turn to Prasad for whom I had new respect.
“Your uncle is right,” said Prasad. “We can’t wait forever. Your uncle and the priest have a long way to go home. It’s a different matter with us local people.”
“Mark my words— Those selfish morons will not come,” said uncle in his typical rapid manner of speaking. “If they had any intention of coming, they would have shown up at about the same time I arrived. I rode sixty kilometers to reach here. Your so-called well-wishers, your favorite people, are obsessed only with themselves. They assume they’ve nothing to lose by not coming. They’ve no respect for a dead man. They think me to be a villain, but the villain has come anyhow, forgetting old wounds. And those fine men and women, where are they?”
We took a spot decision. The rituals would have to start without them. I half cried and swore at my relatives. How could they do this to us?
Uncle as the senior family member took the lead. He directed that a tumbler of water be placed near the feet of the deceased. Mother was the first to wash my father’s feet and pray before him reverently amid the scent of the incense sticks, seeking his pardon for whatever wrong she had done him when he had been alive. Sister followed and then I. Prasad stood where he was. The elder son of the Brahmin also knelt down to pray before the dead body of my father. The other assembled people stood watching.
Prasad took me aside and said in a low voice: “The priest won’t be coming here after the rituals. We’ve to pay his fees there itself and bid him farewell.”
“How much do I have to pay him?” I asked. “I’ve no idea at all.”
“A few thousand rupees,” said Prasad. “The priest has brought all the items— ghee, honey, incense sticks, sesame, white mustard, lamp, pot, Ganga water, knife, some kilos of sandalwood and other things. He purchased it with his own money. You only have to pay for the items and for his service. Luckily, the wood for the pyre is free. Our lads have already brought it from their part of the woods.”
Sister dived inside the house to open the iron trunk kept under the termite-eaten bed. She brought back some money, some seven-hundred and fifty rupees.
“That won’t do,” said Prasad, shaking his head. “Ok, I’ll cover the priest’s expenses myself. Somebody has to do it.”
We didn’t want to fritter away the precious minutes and seconds. The priest was in a hurry to leave. Uncle didn’t want to get in trouble with the police. There was no probability of any family member coming. A couple of village lads had already brought logs of timber on a pushcart. We were more or less ready to go.
I took off my vest and pants and in its place, I wore the new loin cloth purchased by Prasad. And on my bare body I wrapped around the cotton towel. Uncle and I and four other sturdy village lads lifted the garlanded corpse by the ends of the bamboo stretcher and placed it on our shoulders. We hauled the corpse out of the yard, leaving behind my mother who, overcome with distress, had fallen to the ground. The night had become beastly dark. It was perhaps one of the darkest nights of my life. I felt as if I was walking in a dream and nothing was real. Villagers lit the way for us with hurricane lamps and battery torches while chanting the name of God.
Once we reached the desolate and usually ignored part of our farmland and found a suitable spot for the cremation, making sure there was no road nearby, the corpse was gently laid down on the ground. The priest told me to wash my hands and legs. My cousin had come prepared with a pail of water brought from our hand pump. The lads got busy piling the wood into a heap to make the pyre and planting bamboo poles on the ground to keep it in place.
The priest said: “The dead man’s clothes have to be removed.”
How utterly meaningless, I thought, having to clothe the corpse with new clothes only to discard it in the end. But it was custom. I removed the marigold garlands and the white covering and unbuttoned the shirt and pants. As I tried to lift the corpse, I found it extraordinarily heavy. My cousin and another villager helped me lift the corpse and place it on the pyre. I looked at my father for the last time, holding back my tears. More logs were heaped upon the corpse with the head facing north. The priest had readied the ritual items amid the yellow glow of several hurricane lamps. Handing me a flaming torch and telling me to circle around the pyre, the priest started chanting holy verses in Sanskrit while simultaneously sprinkling Holy Basil water and throwing ghee and other ritualistic things on the pyre. He had lit an earthen pot with a handle containing pieces of coconut peels and ground perfumed stones with medicinal properties. The thick holy smoke swirled around. After I had made a complete round of the pyre, the priest told me to touch the head of my father with the flaming torch.
I stopped in horror. I saw the head and the hair, but not the face. I couldn’t muster the courage. It looked inhuman, barbaric, outlandish.
Uncle clearly saw my discomfort.
“Don’t be afraid,” he said. “It’s a normal thing. You’ve to go through this part of life.”
As the only resort, I looked away as I brought the fire near the head of the corpse. The priest told me to circle around the unlit pyre again and touch the corpse’s head once more with the torch. I was asked to repeat the procedure for the third time. And finally, I bent down to light the pyre from the bottom. The wood started burning, emitting short bursting sounds. The blaze soon rose higher and higher, devouring the corpse. The ground around heated up till it was unbearable to stand. I backed away from the flames. My bare feet burnt from an ember on the ground.
We must have been there for an hour. The fire would probably continue to burn for some more hours. A villager stoked the fire with more wood so that no part of the corpse remained.
“You can go home, son,” said the priest. “Your work is done. Don’t look back at the corpse. Just walk away. Your father will find release only if you let him go. Otherwise, his soul will follow you.” He gave me a new hurricane lamp that was lit with the very pyre fire. “Keep the lamp burning for ten days. Take care the fire doesn’t get extinguished till that time.”
As I held the hurricane lamp and stared at the fire of the pyre, the timber crackling and exploding and falling down, I said to myself: Father, I want to ask you what good was all your anger, your fiery words, your hatred and disdain for others? Tonight it has all got mixed with the dust and ashes just like your bones.