This short story was first published by Ireland-based online journal Headstuff here on April 22, 2020.
A handful of lentils boil in water with a generous dash of turmeric to forget the taste of death coating the tongue. On good days, you add some chillies and garlic. Not today. As you drink it, you succumb to a raking cough. It’s a while before it recedes leaving the throat raw and itchy. The doctor said it’s decades of smoke, dust and human skin cells that have settled in your old chest. It’s a common ailment among your kind, he had said, washing his hands in the sink. Promising better days (or maybe better health, you can’t recall his exact words) he wrote a prescription while you looked at him with watery eyes.
Medicines are for the higher castes, not for those who live off the samshan ghats.
The dal bhaat does its job and the acidic hunger clawing at your stomach walls recedes for the night. You roll out the mat that’s been patched so many times that no one remembers its original hue. You lie down and look at the only photo on the wall, the colours in it fading with the limestone paint. Your husband was the first dead you saw burn. It was just a few months after the birth of your son– a wailing midget with a head full of soft curls. The day your husband died, your milk dried up, impotent breasts mocking the woman you used to be.
Three decades ago, women didn’t have the privilege of performing the last rites; only a male relative had that honour. So you had watched from the sidelines as the funeral flames engulfed your world.
What would your husband say if he saw you burning the dead nowadays? You try to imagine, but you are tired and you have forgotten his voice.
Sleep evades you and that’s for the best. There’s work to be done and no respite from the grieving, even at night. Chotu, the neighbour’s young son, knocks on the door, letting you know that there’s a late night arrival. Father is too drunk, the boy says. You gather your faded green saree, have a sip of water and after a few minutes, step out of your home, heading towards the crematorium ground. Chotu follows you without being asked. A woman’s pained cry rents the night air.
Is the boy’s father beating his wife again?
But you can’t worry about that, a woman’s fate is her own. There’s a dead body waiting.
It’s a short walk. The shanties are dilapidated, seemingly held together by desperate prayers. There’s a deep desolation, even in the eyes of the many dogs lying in the middle of the road. The ghat is right beside the slums. On reaching the gates, you find a group of relatives waiting, men of all ages dressed in white, their eyes red and swollen. This group is small, barely a dozen, which is a blessing because you are too tired to handle a large procession. First order of business – you start haggling for a higher charge. You point out that there are only few Doms who would work at night, procurement of materials would be difficult and that you’re just an old woman trying to feed her son.
They look at Chotu clinging to your leg, clad only in dirty shorts, and agree to your price. You are pleased at this tiny deception but the mask of grief remains intact as you order the boy around.
Chotu runs to the tailor’s house to buy a white cloth to cover the dead. You crouch beside the body and take stock. The corpse has been washed and put into new clothes. There are garlands of fresh white flowers at the feet and around the neck. The cotton balls inside the nose are missing. Probably fell off in the glass hearse. A pair of spectacles has been neatly wrapped and kept beside the head. There’s a shiny wedding ring stuck around a stubby finger. You begin the final preparations of the body as the dead man’s relatives avert their eyes, murmuring among themselves.
You have to coax people to perform their duties with your voice. It’s an art you have mastered – modulating calm, reassurance and authority with gentle pleading. Many don’t understand your dialect of Hindi but they instinctively know your tone. The dead man’s son is distracted enough to follow your instructions by automation. His eyes are red and puffy, urging you to hurry, telling you without words how much he is hurting. As the cheap, flinty wood for the pyre finally arrives, he breaks down. You walk away to give him some privacy. You do not offer the consolation of human contact. Because you touch the dead, you are untouchable to the living.
Would your own son be moved enough to cry if he were here, you wonder.
After your husband’s death thirty years back, you had sent your new-born to your sister’s house, away from the community. No infant should grow up among the ashes of old men.
“Bring him up as your own, don’t ever mention me. Don’t ever mention him to me,” you had begged your sister.
“How much will you send every month?” your sister’s husband had asked you in return. When you were younger, he would visit to personally collect the cash. Sometimes, if it got too late, he would stay overnight. In the darkness, his grubby and eager fingers would leave bluish marks on your skin, around those breasts that kept betraying you. In the morning, you would try to wash away those imprints, scrubbing furiously, under the holy waters of the Ganges.
A while back, he stopped coming; your sister wrote in her letter about an accident at the factory where he lost his right leg. She told you to send the monthly payments by mail, also something extra to cover the hospital bills. You didn’t ask for details but borrowed money to send back a bundle. Your sister had kept her promise and not a word about your son had ever been written. You believe it’s for the best because you’re now free to imagine him as:
- In uniform during the army parade
- A teacher in the local primary school
- Helping the village doctor at dispensary
- Stamping papers at municipality office
- On a train to the city for a big job
Would your son know, you wonder.
Chotu comes to you with the shroud. Walking over to the body, you cover it. There’s a circle of mourners. Sandalwood and camphor are vying to overpower the stench of decaying flesh. This particular concoction of scents can remain in hairs, clothes, lungs and liver. The body is heavy to manoeuvre. Nobody helps you because you are the lowest of low, a woman most impure because of her dealings with death.
Faith is a funny thing. Hindu rituals require the body to be burnt on holy grounds at Varanasi and ashes dispersed in holy waters of the Ganges for moksha, freedom from the cycle of rebirth. Yet, those who make a person’s eternal salvation possible are treated as maggots / vultures / hyenas / a scavenging animal making a living off the dead, an entire caste ignored.
The body is ready, logs have been laid to form a rectangular bed, final prayers cast. You ask everyone to stand back as you pick up a wooden stick and test its strength. When you are satisfied that it’s sturdy enough to do the job, you walk towards the body, raise it and whack the head, cracking it open with the surety of practised routine. A horrifying gasp cuts through the grief, everyone cringes, involuntarily stepping further back, unable to bear the sight of a mutilated face. The son lets out a heartbreaking howl like that of an injured animal.
You tell them it’s necessary to prevent the head bursting open from heat. There’s no protest but you can feel their stunned looks; this ghoulish act transformed you from a pitiable frail woman into a sinister exoskeleton of malevolence. Many will remember the sound of skull splitting open for a very long time.
It starts as a low hum, Ram naam satya hai, gaining momentum and strength as the deceased’s son holds the flaming torch. Even after so many years in the profession, the chant still brings a sense of finality. You don’t think you will ever get used to it. It dies down once the woods start crackling, almost with a macabre cheeriness, and the smoke carries towards the pitch black sky. They all watch the flames for a long time, but the corpse takes longer to burn.
You’ve walked a few paces away from the heat and sat on your haunches, watching Chotu gently nod off. You let him.
During the second hour, some light a cigarette, hoping that nicotine can chase the taste of singeing flesh. You smile. By now, Chotu’s head is cradled in your lap as you wait – patiently.
The flames remind you how the city itself is usually covered in a yellow tinge, either of dusty sunlight or halogen bulbs. There’s something monochromatic about Varanasi. You’ve seen the old, infirm, sickly living in various homes and shelters, waiting out their final days, mostly in squalor, hoping that death here will save them from the cycle of rebirth. You’ve often smirked at gawking tourists photographing wrinkled skin around cataract eyes, buying fake rudraksha beads and orange kurtas, sitting cross-legged with one of the many gurus that dot the skyline. Then there are local ventures – shops selling sweets, flower garlands, incense sticks, cloth towels, boiling milk. Religion and finance make for the strangest of bedfellows, and the most enduring, you chuckle to yourself.
Varanasi is also the land of infestations, only those like you understand it. The narrow lanes are often blocked by holy cows moving at a glacial pace, vehicles backed up in chaos. Dogs and monkeys make lives a nuisance, grabbing at leftovers, stealing from distracted shopkeepers. Crows are in abundance, pecking at the garbage dumped on every street corner. At night, you can hear a multitude of rodents, scurrying across the drains creating a constant symphony of scavengers. You hope you’ve covered the leftover daal bhaat dinner with a heavy lid. The rats here can get at everything.
You yearn for some warm watery lentil soup as the desperate claws of sleep dig into your soul. Even your bone-deep exhaustion is infused with the smell of burning bodies, bringing dreams of oblivion.
hunger gnaws at you | body wilting, words flow
waking up with a silent scream | dreaming of belligerent rats
burrowing into your skin
sharp teeth drawing blood | mostly, it’s the stench –
loneliness smells of urine | madness | gangrene
The crowd of relatives has halved by the third hour. You don’t think of heaven. Or of hell. You think about how you don’t exist in this world. Varanasi shelters every living creature – the pure, old and holy as well as the discarded, chastised and abhorred. You think about how Varanasi found a place for you.
Lost in thoughts, you didn’t realise when the grieving son, also tired, is standing beside you, hunched over. You start talking to him to keep your hunger and sleep at bay.
What do you do baba? you ask.
Uh. Me? I am an engineer, he mumbles in a hoarse whisper, inching closer.
Do you have a wife? Children?
Yes, I’ve been married for a couple of years now. My wife is at home with our daughter.
Oh poor girl. Grandparents are all love, no discipline.
Yes they are … (he chokes) Do you have grandkids?
I have a son. He’s a few years younger than you. It’s his birthday today. He’s a very busy young man. A journalist with Jansatta… you know the Hindi newspaper… he writes so well. I can’t read or write but my boy went to college. I still remember combing his curly hair when he was just a newborn… you always remember them from when they were little. My son gets a monthly salary. A writer! Who would have thought?
Your cough forces you to stop talking as Chotu stirs. You cup his small face as he nestles deeper into your lap.
In the fourth hour, the flames die down at the same time as the stars. After a while, you walk towards the pyre, letting the heat from dying embers roll off your callused feet. Collecting the ashes, you put them in an earthen pot for the son to disperse in the holy waters. That will be his final farewell. The initial crowd has dwindled to three. You can hear the hurried whispers, a sparse yawn, a frantic relief that the night is over and a nervous desperation to be away from the ghat. You hand over the pot to the son; he is already looking away towards the river. Someone else quietly pays you what you are owed. Only the living speak. You have disappeared with the dead.
You count the money on your way back home. Soot-darkened fingernails leave a trail as you unconsciously palm an object hidden within the folds of your saree. The heat would have melted the gold, so you had removed the ring before the body was placed on the pyre.
For Chotu’s mother, you say to yourself.