With soggy eyes, I watched the old Brahmin, squatting on the banks of the Ganges as he mercilessly emptied the contents of the old pitcher, looking up for the coins set inside the pyre, during one of the last rites, and that had found their way, into the little earthen pot serving as the final carriage for my grandmother, whom everyone in the family fondly referred to as ‘Mamma’, a name given to her by one of her first granddaughters and my first cousin.
With impatient fingers that seemed mechanical to the whole act after years of adapted ease and serving many a deceased with their final rites, his mannerism would have seen many a loved ones of the passing member, eye the professional noble soul like a hungry canine gnawing a half eaten bone. My grandma’s ashes flew around and her grey bones jangled sighs as the incognizant Brahmin carried on with his profession.
Nothing perhaps could have better explained the teachings of Geeta, the scripture whose wisdom was once the sole right of the honored members of the upper caste and which now find its way to almost every Hindu household through calendars generously sponsored by fruit sellers and sweet merchants. The family fathomed the ongoing ceremonial exhibit as the prime credo of the Geeta , detachment with the deceased, as the lanky professional hungrily fiddled through the ashes carried by the family and pocketed what ever little coins that he could gather.
Soon after he was convinced that the booty has been safeguarded into the under-folds of the cotton strip that clung to his legs, he stood, half clad, halfway into the water, and we saw the last of ashes being engulfed by the holy stream.
The river itself was impartial, no doubt it is the most sacred of places, that softens the hardest of souls and sees everyone big or small, rich or poor with a single eye; it is, however, the dwellers of the divine bank that made one conscious of his financial and social stand in the society. Whether or not the little, inaudible and incomprehensive prayers served any purpose or embalmed any soul in pain, is hard to tell and beyond the capacities of proof. Any attempt, however, that would lead an onlooker to believe, even for a fraction, in a realm beyond the pundit’s divination could ensure the wrath of seven skies on your being and especially the departed soul.
It was not easy following the track of the floating flowers that accompanied Mamma, for the water that took her also carried the burden of many a parting souls and over time was transformed into a shade that little children learning to draw could never associate to with a water body. It provided just the camouflage to the ashes that the mightiest of armies yearned for, during an aggression.
It was as late as then when it finally dawned upon me that she was no longer there. The old figure with shriveled legs and paper skin that had become almost characteristic of her frail ailing frame was finally no where to be seen.
It was a difficult moment and a hard lump to swallow. For years I had seen her struggling through several complicated versions of maybe same, maybe different ailments that various physicians had comprehended in terms, that were not only hard for me to catch up and recite but even added to the smiles of the people who watched me practice learning to pronounce them accurately. But it was something beside her in her grey eyes that had always led me to believe that she would pull through the toughest of times and hardest of tribulations. For years each passing winter would rattle her old bones but did not set any chill down my spine, for years summers melted her bones but were never hot enough for me to leave perspiring fearing that she won’t be able to battle it out. Springs and autumns were hardly any ordeal.
Hardly it was known that a mild morning of a cheerful spring would sting and ring a siren so coarse that would yield the old warrior without a clue and clench her unaware, without as much a weapon or a shield. The day dawned bright but took ages to end. By the time I hit bed, it seemed like years.
I was still in a daze, as I closed my eyes for a final prayer, a hundred pictures and a thousand incidents reeled before me in a couple of seconds. At the same instant I could see myself accompanying her on way to the market to buy groceries and holding her hand on way to the temple that she would walk me to, during my early childhood days till the time her legs carried her. I could faintly recall her as wanting me to be a doctor, only that I had no interest what so ever in sitting behind a desk examining people not bothering to cover their mouth as they coughed down the physician’s collar. She actually had wanted either of her sons to be a doctor, a feat that neither my father nor my uncle could perform, as my dad chose to be an engineer and my uncle showed more interest in going abroad and minting some silver coins doing, God knows what.
Between all these flashes of the days gone by, the only clear vision that sublimed second after second and that which I still carry till date, is her looking at me, with eyes filled with an expression that I had never seen on her countenance before, something that I have never encountered in any other fellow being and something that I shall never forget. The look that she gave me as she breathed her last in the hands of my dad, as my mom stood beside her with myself holding her feet and in the process of resting her on Earth, with our family doctor by our side for whom she always carried a smile mixed with scorn for some inexplicable reason.
Our family priest had suggested that we take her off her bed and prepare a bed on the ground, the reason given that according to some ancient Hindu scriptures, it is easier for the soul to pass through the mortal cage when on Earth than on an elevated surface. My folks saw reason to this even as I tried in vain, explaining that this was a futile exercise for I was sure that she would recuperate through it again. She had done it in the past and in much adverse conditions. She had a will power that would have made king Bruce look up for a cover, had he met her before the spider. I remember calling up all our relatives expecting the inevitable on an earlier occasion and when she had made a mockery of the entire scenario, by getting upright the very next morning. This occasion seemed no different, but little did I know.
Even before we could lay her on the bed she took a heavy breath, looked at me with that unfathomable, profound glance and lost hope. It did not occur to me what had happened at that instant even as our family doctor examined her, tried to stroke her heart and eventually closed her eyes and looked up with a solemn, melancholic grave look, for I after informing others in the neighborhood came back again to the room to check if she had got up again. I did that again the next morning and each time, I felt betrayed; cheated and resentful. It felt like she had finally beaten me on the little games that I played with her during my early childhood and which I, as if by law of nature, always won.
Her final rites took place the next day outside the main gate of her house, the home she cherished and lived in after being ousted from Pakistan at the time of partition. Strange did it seem that the house she was so possessive about, for which she scolded children time and again for playing cricket in and defacing walls with their crayons, for which she time and again raised her pride to the level of being offensive to my mother and others in her vicinity, the house that nurtured the last memories of her husband, my grandfather whom I never saw, that her rites were held outside the walls of the very house because of the simple folly of a Samaritan neighbor, who had brought the plank on which she was to be rested and taken to the cremation ground, a size too big to enter through the doors of the house. It was painfully amusing for me to reflect this fact and see that the house stood its ground where as she lost her footing, before the eyes of the very same structure she was so passionate about and ruled like it were a fort and she her last defending combatant and guard.
We so often ignore the strength of unspoken strands of human fraternity that even in mist of falling human relations and descending human character, accounts of which we keep on reading in our daily newspapers, gulping murders, rapes and robberies with our morning tea, stands incomparable when lending someone a shoulder. Hardly can I explain the reason as why the local phone booth owner felt glad to help and arrange for sending and receiving messages to my place when I woke him up an hour after midnight to make long distance calls to out stationed relatives. I am also short of words to account for a reason that the shop owners in the local market around my house decided to lower their shutters. Mamma hardly was a political figure, in fact she herself had lost count of the days or should I say years since her world was confined to her room, which was stacked with medicines and prescriptions and whose furniture included a bed pan in addition to a bed, a wheel chair, a couple of chairs for the people making a courtesy call and a table on which a jug of water was kept.
And as I shared the load with a number of relatives, minus my uncle who was far away in his dollar land, I realized how light she had become since last when I tried to lift her when I was five year old. Mamma’s demise taught me many a new things about life. It was not the first time that I was witnessing a funeral or accompanying a procession, yet everything about the proceedings seemed strange and actually unnecessary to me because even as I saw my dad light her pyre, I did not for once could come to terms that she was not there and that I would not see her lying on her bed and raising her voice, inquiring who was on the door, if I knocked on reaching home. I could not agree to the fact that she had finally left for her heavenly abode and we had lost her. Entranced in the activities of managing relatives, their seating and staying arrangements and other chores I was lost somewhere. This might perhaps elucidate my not shedding a single tear all the while from her death to her funeral procession, to the time that we got her ashes from the crematorium after three days, to the time that we took the ashes to be a part of the river Ganges.
And there I stood transfixed to the ground, speechless looking at that Brahmin narrating us the price list for the duties that he would be performing to bring solace to the departed soul. He was in a much better position than a salesman in a multistoried posh showroom standing behind a gleaming desk and his illustrated array of goods, as this son of a priest who stood there barefooted on muddy ground between patches of grass that cows would choose not to sit on, for he knew, that to his deal there would be no bargains, no hassles. He would get the sum the moment his mind assessed a reasonable undeniable portion of the sum that bulged our pockets. Soon after the transaction, we turned our backs and got into the cab that we had hired to drive us back home. Once back the first step that I took was towards Mamma’s room still with an uncanny hope that I might find her there.
Her bed lay there empty without its occupant over the years, and the unordered strands of medicines missing from their usual positions in the room.
It was then that I finally burst into tears.