Day when someone disappeared
It was around nine in the night that the news of the death of my grandmother broke as we were about to finish dinner. There is a certain period between bad news and its impacted grief. In that state one prepares themselves to respond to unexpected information. My mother cried instantly without any filter of overthinking but my father resisted getting hit by the first storm of melancholy. I waited too. I first tried to remember something about her. I couldn’t come up with any memory. I tried to understand it from a solely philosophical point of view to avoid suffering. Plato, for instance, called philosophy a preparation for death.
We had to pack the bags as early as possible and leave for the village. There were too many sweets and food inside the fridge which had been prepared for the recent festival of Holi. We called our neighbors and gave it to them. I walked inside the room where my father was packing bags. There was something about to come to him and he was waiting for it. What was it? He probably did not know. It was too subtle and abstract to name. I felt it coming towards him. Now he felt it too. The white curtains near the window, swaying with the breeze, felt it. The scent of the night flowers felt it. The house under the siege of gloom felt it.
We drove in silence. Inside the car mother complained about her lack of breath. I opened the window and switched off the AC. Outside, the air was gentle, smooth and cold. A full moon shining, shrouded partially by a cloud. A completely barren highway. I tried to recall some memories of her again. All I could remember was her face which had way too many wrinkles. A portrait of ageing and decay.
We were about to reach home. I expected everyone to cry. So many men whom I had never seen cry would cry together tonight. Grief is the way of paying respect to the people who have disappeared. Ancient Chinese Philosopher Confucius suggests a three year mourning period following the death of one’s parent. One of Confucius’s students, Zaiwo, asks him if it is possible to shorten this mourning period, which seems excessively long. Confucius responds that a person who honestly cared about his parent would simply be unable to bring himself to mourn in any less serious way. For such a person, the usual joys of life just had no attraction for three years.
Looking outside the car window, I realized that like birth, death too is a blank page. In between is writing, scribbling, letters, sketches, poems, ink spilt over pages.
How then is suicide different from natural death?
Suicide seems to be voluntary retirement whereas death is sacking. One is forcefully made to retire of all the duties. What if our whole life was a job? Even the life of a jobless person is a job itself. Eating, drinking, breathing in and out, inhaling oxygen, dealing with noise pollution, regularly walking to the washroom, brushing teeth, making tea, battling gravity, anxieties of the future, disappointment with the present, pills in the night and a walk in the morning. Even a man sitting alone at the bus station is fighting a battle, thousands of thoughts flying inside his head like fighter planes gone astray. Dealing with life somehow in the hope of something to occur. A bus. A piece of news. An alert. At least a WhatsApp notification.
In the casket of a dead person one sees himself. Every dead person is a future reflection of one’s own self. In South Korea, many people have started opting for their own funeral. The Hyowon Healing Center in Seoul runs one such program, with financial backing from a funeral service company. After an instructional lecture and video, participants are led into a dimly lit hall, where they sit, often tearfully, beside caskets and write their last testaments. Then they put on burial shrouds and lie down in the coffins.“Now, you have shed your old self. You are reborn to have a fresh start!” It takes a few minutes for them to readjust, but soon they are chatting, laughing and taking selfies with their coffins.
Next morning, grandmother was kept in a casket laden with flowers. As part of the ritual, we walked in a circle around the dead body with a coconut in hand. A peculiar silence echoed in the whole village. The only audible sounds around us were of the peacocks on the tree. Our village is famous for peacocks. There are too many of them that on a certain night one has to pull a heavy blanket on the face to avoid the relentless peacock screams. Soon ladies started singing songs for the dead. A symphony for a parting one. I wondered how it would feel like to live in this house in the night for my father and uncles. Especially for the person who would sleep on the roof. Will they be reminded of their memories from childhood to adulthood by this house and will, play in their eyes like a slow art film?
While walking around the dead body my mother held my hand as if she was about to faint. I finally saw the face of my dead grandmother. A woman lying under the heaps of beautiful yellow marigold flowers. Her hair was whiter than white. Like the hair on a plastic doll. She seemed to be at peace. Finally, free. Free from all the gravity, breathing in and out, regular walks to the washrooms, brushing, eating. From the chilling cold of the winters, the scorching heat of the summer. From the rains. From the dust storms. From whatever remains of this fickle world.
That was one day where one needn’t be ashamed of tears. There is no embarrassment in crying out publicly. Some of them wept more from habit than from sorrow. In the village one is expected to demonstrate sadness in audible terms. The one who cries the loudest is the saddest, most people believe so. Though ones most affected by it are the silent ones. As they know for a grown-up man, sorrow is a secretive act.
On one particular evening I remember, my grandmother told my mother that when she dies she wants a band to accompany her funeral march. Inside the room, some debates arose among the important family members as to what her wish meant. Was she sarcastic, was she serious or was it just a statement which she said bereft of any specific meaning, while gazing at the sunset, in the colorful trance of exaggerated romantic after- death fantasies, The debate continued for a while to understand the real intent behind the statement.
Finally the family members lit the the funeral pyre. In the background, five people seriously debated about Modi and the upcoming election. One of them said “Tv Journalist Ravish Kumar said stop watching tv because there is too much propaganda” . Another one said that “ PM Modi will not cross 150 seats”. They laughed, clapped on the jokes and cheered each other on. In the background the smoke was rising far above on the trees, shooing away the peacocks. I thought of asking those people to stay silent but then I wasn’t aware of the decorum of village life. City folks are submissive to an ever-present gaze of self-conscious etiquette whereas the village life breeds on little reflexive joys.
Noon has passed. Everyone slowly started to make peace with the universal logic of ageing. Clouds of gloom began to settle down, at least for a while. Food was cooked and we ate together. My mother told me how disturbed she became after the death of her father that before sleeping every night she used to think about him voluntarily. Her rationale for this being that she had seen videos on youtube which said that when you think of someone excessively before going to bed then you will start seeing that person in your dreams. She desperately wanted to meet him once after his death. If not in real life then at least in her dreams.
A black cow kept on trying to enter the house. Someone shooed her away but she entered again. I thought about the film by Tsai Ming Liang where a mother is waiting for the spirit of her husband to enter the house after his death. One day her son tries to kill an insect. The mother screams and stops him by saying that it might be her father who is returning to earth in this new form. Even in Hinduism, there are chances that the dead might come in another animal form.
I remarked “ Grandmother is back. She is a cow in her new life”. And then everyone laughed, finally.
The laughter felt like a dilution of sadness for a brief moment before the arrival of warm sorrow in the upcoming night. Especially within the ones who slept on the roof while gazing at the infinite night sky with their eyes wide open.