U had a dream two nights ago. He died. At 25 he sensed an ebbing of every drop of energy. And then there was nothing.
In silence, he was gone.
The next day, his grandmother passed away at 4:55 in the morning.
Like paper. Thin and frail. They had tied her body tightly and firmly, one loop at the hands that were swollen with the pressure, one loop that bound the big toes, and one around her neck. Almost as if they expected an 83 year old woman’s cadaver to protest the escaping of life.
Hospitals are strange, dispassionate places; like flipbooks of all that might happen to you – from the delivery room to the mortuary. Frames in constant motion. And so, they tie up bodies of frail old women like frisky goats to the slaughter.
Three women, from three families, we open the knots on Dadi’s naked body with trembling hands that half recoiled at the touch of her cold skin; half desperate to rub life back into her limbs. It’s just a body. It’s just skin and bones and frozen flesh. There is nothing of Dadi in it.
Her daughter: “Ma loves it when I comb her hair down with scented oil and tie it.” she says this as she runs frantic finger through Dadi’s dishevelled hair. Her fingers can’t open the knots. “What have they done to ma?” She’s half rambling incoherently, as her tears fall on cold skin. “Mamma, don’t worry. I’ll make you look beautiful once more ma”. She kisses dadi’s forehead. The imprint of her lips settles on Dadi’s skin like a stamp.
Her daughter-in-law: As Dadi lay helplessly on the bed a few days ago, C held her hand and assured her that the two big pots of rice and fish that were waiting to be cooked, taunting her at her bedside, would be taken care of. “Ma, the fish has been cleaned and the mustard paste has been added, don’t worry I won’t let it go bad”.
Her granddaughter: She isn’t really my grandmother. She’s U’s grandmother. Six months ago she asked me about G. The next day, G & I broke up over the telephone. These last three nights, I’ve had recurrent dreams. Last night he walked back into the car park, standing by my stolen car, looking like he’d been waiting for me for very long. For the first time I saw him smiling.
Sponging cold skin with towels
Snot and tears
And soapy wet cloth
This is just a thing that must be cleaned
Off white sari, six yards long, with a pretty red border
A streak of vermilion through her parted hair
A final red dot on her forehead.
U, his father, his uncle and Dada [his grandfather] are all dressed in white. White looks so attractive on Indian skin. It is not necessary for the women to dress in white. Men must perform all rituals. The women may prepare the body, but the men will see it off.
Dada wanders around the house without a thought. Without purpose. He has to get somewhere. Somehow he doesn’t seem to know where.
People are pouring in. He had anticipated the decorum of this solemn occasion. He had run it through his head several times. In the army they teach you to be a gentleman. Calm. Composed. The picture of equanimity. And yet now, while he’s in the middle of it, he isn’t feeling solemn. He isn’t feeling anything actually. Vaguely, he’s aware, that there’s some place he has to be.
Her eldest son looks busy. Calls. People. Arrangements. But every once in a while he sneaks away to her room, to crumble a bit. That’s U’s father. He wanted me to buy her one of those special walking sticks from HK, the kind that serious hikers use. That was after she was bedridden. It's still in its packing. Hasn’t been touched.
He is dazed when he lights the pyre. At some point, the priest makes him take a long wooden pole and jab hard at a particular part of the fire. He does it. Then he is told that what he just did was crack her skull to allow her soul to escape her body.
His expression does not change.
No one cries in this family. They just shrink. Look smaller. More vulnerable. Like paper dolls.