Tuesday 10 August 2021

Saranyan BV, ShortStory 2021 Longlist

Certain Rituals Have to Wait

Nathan asked with wide eyes mixed with inquisitiveness and wonder “Grandpa, tell me what death is.” I looked into Nathan’s face, particularly the eyes. They seemed earnest, to convey a lot which I could not decipher immediately. Nathan is so far away from death, he can’t see visualize it properly even if I were at pains to explain. As far as myself I was very close, right at the brink.

I didn’t want to answer, I didn’t know it except I am rather too close. Nathan tugged my sleeves, then he put the hand on my lap as we sat.

Whatever explanation I give, how much so ever sugar-coated, it would eventually reach the ears of his mom, Sunita wouldn’t take it kindly if she knows I talk about death to Nathan. My son, Jishnu would also come to know ultimately, a certain rebuke would be on the cards.

I told Nathan that I intend buying for him a pair of football studs once the lockdown is lifted. He slaps my chin softly in affection and distrust. He has one already, his dad had bought him an expensive Puma ball for his birthday. Nathan never went to the football field because he didn’t have boots to match. All children who come to play wear studs and jerseys. Most of the jerseys the children of his age wear, were marked either Messi or Ronaldo. Grown-ups also played in the same field, everyone has timings earmarked. The adults had their names printed on the back whatever colours they sported; their jerseys were tailor-fitted. You knew all of them because their names were written on the back in bold letters. Some used surnames, many had their first names imprinted, shortened names if their first name was too long to fit the 12 inch at the waist. I must buy Nathan a T shirt too, but I’d rather not mention it to him now. I needed to keep these petty surprises up my sleeves. He was only eight years and naturally he was full of expectations about life. Only so much a retired man like me could do.

Nathan’s silence brought relief, as if his quest for knowledge had been doused by the touch. Rashid and his girlfriend Sanya were walking their dog, Nathan’s attention was momentarily diverted to the trio. I heaved a sigh of relief. But the subject of death never left me pinioned in my thoughts like a squally aftertaste. Nathan wanted to play with Miranda, Rashid’s Chihuahua. Miranda, named after the heroine in the Tempest. Nathan adored dogs, his

mom would never allow to have a pet in the house. She was a matter of fact Daughter in law who was a bit of hard-edged cube to roll smoothly.

Rashid and Sanya were living together in the fourteenth floor, they intended marrying later after the pandemic subsides. They chatted with me when we met. It was rare for yougsters finding time for an old man like me, but this couple was unlike the rest. I got friendly with them when they bought Miranda and appeared in the campus. They were struggling to understand the ways of the Apso pup. I had maintained different breeds at home in my time, my guidance proved a great help to the couple who not yet come to terms with how to handle a pup. They were following the Vet’s instructions to the last word, which perhaps helped the Vet rather than the dog. Love and spontaneity are the most important feed for a pup, according to me, the old school.

The ways dogs were reared in Condos such as ours was way different from the days we maintained dogs. Now they feed the dog with canine food brought from the stores. Pedigree, Royal Canine and such readymade pellets. They don’t serve milk or mutton bone soup or even bread. No amount of coaxing resulted in Rashid deviating from the diet Miranda’s thoughtless Vet had prescribed.

One day, Rashid appeared near the condo’s club house, I was coming out of the billiards room, I never played Billiards with one except myself, though there is no competitiveness in that habit, it improved the skills, one day I might really play with people and form fresh friendships as the older ones were dying or being taken to native places. Rashid carried a small zip-lock bag containing Royal canine, the greenish-grey seeds were there to see, he said he has been called to office suddenly although he was on work from home portal and that Sanya had gone to her friend’s place, six hours drive from where we live and it would take that many hours if she were to start back for home immediately. He requested my help in keeping her till Sanya arrives. He handed over the feed and rushed after profusiely thaking and informing me of the timing in which she is to be fed.

I was devasted not with responsibility that fell on my hands, but upon seeing the dry, unappetizing pellets inside the glinting PVC. I took her home on the reprieve Jishnu and Sunita were not home, they do take breaks from the lock-down monotony by visiting Sunita’s up-end uncle. Miranda moved freely checking every corner of my apartment. Nathan was on play station inside his room and was delighting in availing every minute of the rare freedom. Hence I didn’t inform him of Miranda’s august presence.

Once in way Miranda came to look at my face, that was because she wanted to know when Rashid would come to retrieve her. Well, I didn’t feed Miranda the things Rashid had given. I poured her a glass of chilled milk into a bowl when it was time for the feed, Miranda lapped it covering the tiny bowls’ brim with her delicate body, my heart leapt in happiness and satisfaction and felt good for Miranda’s soul.

Miranda looked at me asking for more indicating her desire by wagging it tail. I didn’t want to disappoint, so I poured 250 ml. If there were to be unpleasant questions from Sunita

about milk disappearing, I would attribute it to spillage while making coffee, I had such back-ups running in my mid all the time and the excuse came reflexively. Mirinda drank it and didn’t ask for more. I touched her stomach, it was bulging. Pedigree would never give to the dog that sense of wholeness. I took out handful of Royal Canine from the packet and put it away. I could feed the hungry and eager stray dogs on the way to the Pharmacy outside the gate, they would make a meal of it, I didn’t want Rashid or Sanya to know I had given Miranda milk instead what of they had advised. I discovered later in the evening the stray dogs never fancied artificial food, they came smelled it and left with disappointing if not sad countenance. A dog with sad face always made me sad, so I bought Marie biscuits and fed them, they fought with one another completed the packets with full justice.

Miranda broke from Rashid and scampered towards us on seeing us approach. Nathan tried to restrain her by pinning Miranda on the ground and kneeling over her. She growled pumping her legs to the sky. The strollers censured me for letting the dog prowl freely, it frightened them they complained. Rashid and Sanya walked towards casually in the satisfaction Miranda was safe with us, they continued the conversation what they were discoursing before Miranda tore off. I blushed at the reproach. Nathan was trying to rub his nose against Miranda’s snout, which better avoided, on account of fear of Covid.

I chatted with the couple for a while. Rashid said they were planning to drive down to Delhi, it would involve four stop-overs on the way and they had done hotel reservations where Miranda’s stay was permissible. He said they had to drive down since they could take Miranda along.

Later in the evening I sat with Shakespeaere’s The tempest at my table, thinking about the question Nathan had asked earlier and which I avoided answering. The question about death. It is more applicable in this tenure of my life.

Later that night, after dinner and desert, I retired to my room and instead of switching on the small television set kept by Jishnu for watching news, I lay down on the bed and tried to stretch my legs as far as I could, even the feet needed stretching. The body found relief, as if all the weariness and boredom vaporized. I turned to my left, my face away from the door, now I could travel to any part of the universe. Mind that has no tether, waits for no fair weather.

What is death? The question tossed in my mind once again, like divers in corporation swimming pool from the spring-board. In my assessment, people by and large do not like to ponder over the subject of death. I never feared death anytime, death is your twin brother, it would travel with you until your time has come.

Before my son goes to sleep, he would push the door ajar and peep through one eye to see if I am alright. It wouldn’t have troubled me, if he were to step in for a small chat, even if

two or three sentences at the most before he withdrew into his bedroom with Sunita. Nathan sleeps alone in the third bedroom with teddy who he pretends is a Walrus. Nathan is too young for it, I thought. We are south Indians and have a way of being protective about children in our custody. When Jishnu was young it was never imagined he could sleep alone, I remember he enjoyed sleeping amidst a crowd when guests visited and stayed home.

My first encounter with death was when I was Nathan’s age. We had gone to my mom’s village during summer holidays. As most of my cousins, all ages mostly around mine, arrived in a cluster, the rooms in Granny’s house were small and could not accommodate all, we learnt to sleep outside open to the sky. We spoke in hush under the blankets till midnight till we felt the urge to empty our bladders for the last time. That was the period when Comet Ikeya–Seki paid the solar system a visit, the guest’s apparent magnitude lit up the sky in the wee hours. It was said that during noon time in Japan the head of the comet could be could be sighted by the side of Sun. During late October I 1965 it was told in the AIR news that that Ikeya- Seki could be seen late in the night with naked eyes by 3 am. It was spoken the view on a clear night sky was beautiful, the luminosity of the tail spread and gave a mystifying experience. We were thrilled, it was like waiting for something excitable.

Some of us feared that the comet may fall on our heads, like what Vitalstatistix in the Asterix comics feared. True to what was mentioned in the myth, the tail indeed was mystifying in the photos which came in Newspapers, the beauty of the elliptical tail was inscrutable. There were also rumours that the advent of comet meant evil to befall on the occupants of earth. Some elders were already awaiting Pralaya or the apocalypse, the end of the world as mentioned in mythologies.

My grandmother made a paste of turmeric and neem leaves in the grindstone and applied it on our head and neck, lest the comet wreck damage on our psyche. Well, the comet did come like an angel from heaven but went away without causing a downpour. Not accustomed to waking in the middle of night, I hardly came to consciousness when woken up, the much hyped beauty of the moon-like body with bespattering tail was lost to me. Ever after that I waited in vain for another comet to show up, in that scale of light and beauty.

The comet did bring destruction eventually, at least to my family, in different way. One morning , it was dusk, we were rolling in the bed at 6 o clock. There was a sudden wail, it was my aunt, mom’s cousin. The much-repeated story was that my great grandmother was sitting on the coir cot, having woken up for passing urine. It seemed that my aunt wanted to know if she should bring her the morning tea and whether she wanted it sugared with palm jaggery, which is said to have medicinal value. Since the Great mother did not respond, aunt put her hand on Great Grandma’s shoulder and great grandmother fell sidewards to the touch. The shriek brought the men from the household in a huff, the local doctor was summoned, there were no other organized medical establishment in the village then. Dr.Daniel rushed shortly with his stethoscope and hut shaped brown bag all doctors carried.

That was my first brush with death. Dr. Daniel. RMP (Registered Medical practitioner) probed with his stethoscope around great grandmom’s chest, and on her back. She had slid sideways, it was easy disturbing her posture. Then he opened her eye-lids and peered into the iris. Later, he stood erect with sobriety and pouted his lips. He nodded his head sideways sadly which brought out cries, women screamed in penury. Folks from the neighbourhood started assembling. My granddad whose mother she was, busied about sending men to his three brothers living in nearby hamlets and could be reached by bicycle.

We were told to keep away, the children, as death was a serious matter. I was not close to great grandma, she used to ask cursory questions whenever we met and dispensed me quickly, she inquired mostly about my dad who seldom visited mom’s ancestral home, dad was a regular doctor in the town serving the Government General hospital, and so her curiosity bordered on issues relating to her health if he visited.

We kept away as instructed, we sat by the stone near the well in the centre of quadrangle and kept observing the goings on, the boys of our age. We spoke about the comet and the evil it had wrecked on our family. My cousin sisters, of the same age as us, came from behind with tears and tried to join the discussion. We told them this is a serious matter and did not want to discuss the subject with them. Death, I thought, was man’s subject, women didn’t have a role in it. Although the deceased person was a woman.

In sixties, it was the duty of the village ladies to be present in the deceased’s house and sing songs praising the deceased, recollecting the events where the deceased figured and about the love the deceased showed to them, and the things they could have done if the person not died. The lyrics were extempore and fluent, the content, was elegiac, the rhythm spontaneous. The entire song was non-stop and kind of wail, sung aloud to touch the sky, sound came from the bottom of their chest, it evoked forlorn. Women-folks quickly formed a ring in one corner of the house, hands on each other’s shoulders like the footballers before the game starts after half-time. They moved sideways in dancing steps as they sang, half-way down, the direction reversed halfway down, no one completed a circle. The faces could not be seen, the elderly women were recognized the voice, as we knew them all, the ones who composed new lines were louder so others could repeat in chorus, the composers kept changing often, compelled by the level of weariness than sorrowing.

More and more women joined as time passed and the diameter grew wider and wider, while some kept slipping out to return home to complete the chore only to re-enter later. The mourning expressed this way went on incessantly while the men were making arrangements for the final rites and cremation. The stretcher for carrying Great grandma constructed out of palm leaves and bamboo was getting prepared near the entrance, someone was extolling the guy to secure the coir rope tighter, that the corpse does not slip under.

As children, we were not able to understand death as we understood now, although death could never fully and comprehensively be understood at any given point of time in one’s life. Perhaps it could be, after experiencing in real, I told my girl cousin who came to hand us a few blocks of palm jaggery.

I broke from the group and slipped into the storeroom where grains were stored. The room had always been my secret hid-out, that’s where I would sit amidst the pots and allow imagination pressed with logic to unleash. The room also functioned as pooja room, the alter was there, the windowless chamber transmitted mingled fragrance of Gods like Sandal wood smoke, jasmine or camphor and extinguished wicks from lamps.

I sat on the sacks in which groundnuts, harvested from great grandmother’s land were laid out. The deck comprised of four sacks, so my head touched the bamboo-lined ceiling. My grandma had warned us that little red-scorpions occupied the crevices underlying the bamboos. I was careful to keep my head bent sufficiently to prevent touching the ceiling. I had seen baby scorpion falling off and trying to clambering back, stings from baby scorpions were far from lethal. I used to feel sorry for those babies, they made me wonder who would feed them.

I sat nevertheless, the composition of bawling women was getting into my veins after sometime. In the absence of attention from my mom in the exploding out-break of disorder, she herself was too grief-struck, I thought I should cry too, it was also obligatory I concluded. The dead was after all my great grandmother, mother of my grandfather who is the father of my mom. My mom meant everything to me, so would be the great grandma to grandpa, sobs erupted like chaff from choked engine, tears flowed over cheeks in rivulets. I tried to analyse death in so many ways, the private moments offered time and space. All that death meant was not responding to anyone anymore. End of anxieties, a simple uncomplicated and unarticulated feature of destiny. Till date, I hold that interpretation, that death is cessation of all consciousness, beginning of the transformation of body that would follow, into other forms of matter.

I don’t believe in the existence of soul or of fallacies such as re-births. Heaven or hell are certainly out of the question, those are figments of unbridled imagination by the collective absurdity of bundled-up society to tether in the tottering indiscipline of mankind where discipline and indiscipline are determined according to the convenience and inconvenience of larger majority.

Later after everyone in whose life great grandma mattered, assembled to pay last respects, time-slot for commencing the last rites was finalised. The rituals seemed silly, my cousins made it appear worse with vitriolic comments. They were actually worried, death had frightened them as well, as much it had, me. I wanted to talk to my cousin sisters who could be of solace, women are like morning dews. They reflect the penuries of life with stale mildewed outlook.

My dad came and I ran to hold his hands. His hands smelled of disinfectants that characterize hospitals, he must have left the OT and dashed upon hearing the news. A woman upon seeing him, took a new turn in the elegy, he wailed that the great grandma wanted him by her side, that he could have saved her and the next line drawn into an abuse

sort of, that he didn’t pay her visit while she was alive. Someone else took the cue from there and asked what was the purpose of studying to be a doctor if he could not be by the side at the time of death. My grandfather grew alert, he didn’t want his son-in-law to be harangued by interpretations such as this, he held my father in great regard, my dad enjoyed the reputation for his service-mindedness and medical expertise. Grandpa summoned grandma and instructed her to pull out the two ladies and send her packing. Grandma at once joined the ring, the lines maligning my dad changed to other wails. When she slipped out, she brought the ladies along and ushered them to the door. The ladies touched my great grandma’s feet in perfunctory reverence before leaving.

My dad didn’t say anything until we left Grandpa’s village after the cremation was completed. He simply said doctors cannot prevent death as we drove home. After that death meant loss of consciousness which doctors cannot prevent. As great grandson, I was invited to perform the ritual where grandsons were required to hold torch powered by ghee. I did it without crying and looked around to see if people were taking cognizance of my role. All cousins joined including the girls and I discovered girls too had roles in death ceremony. The fire from the torch-stick burned in a jagged manner and occasionally fire globules fell from the torch-head. One girl the cotton where fire had not caught on, she rubbed the ghee on her lock so as not to waste.

All this I cannot tell Nathan, not many of the rituals are in vogue nowadays, not in the city where we live. Electric crematoriums have replaced the burning ghats. My great grandmother was not even cremated in a burning ghat, she was set on fire in her own land and ever after that young cousins avoided visiting our land.

There is no need to explain all this to Nathan, when my end comes, he will learn it the same way I learnt about death. The pandemic has brought death closer. If one dies of Covid all the rituals are given the go by, the body is sent from the hospital or wherever to the crematoriums in packed PPE suit. Without unpacking, the body is set on the bogie and released into the furnace.

I read in papers and watch TV news, queuing up is taking place outside crematoriums, death is feared even more on account of the present scenaio.

The next day morning Rashid came home with Miranda, he was in tears. He said his father living in Delhi has been taken in to ICU, the situation in NCR was worse. People struggle for oxygen for their close ones, for hospital beds, and for slots in crematoriums everywhere.

He wanted me to keep Miranda until they return as he was taking Sanya too. He explained his father wanted Rashid married before he died. It was his last wish, Rashid said and their flight was three hours away and they have to rush. He had brought all Miranda’s things. Miranda looked at me engrossedly from his arms, not aware that her foster-parents are going away.

I need to take Jishnu’s permission to keep Miranda with us. And Sunita’s. Seeking their permission looked like a mere ritual now, circumstances decide things. I accepted Mirandainto my hands and all her lifetime properties such as large bag of Pedigree, dog bowls, the leash and even the poop gatherer. Rashid had been thoughtful. I wondered what rituals would be followed during their wedding, a Muslim boy marrying a Hindu girl. All rituals will have to wait, that is the order of the day.

1 comment:

  1. Great story!
    Rashid and Sanya are both muslim names, I was surprised that she turned out to be Hindu at the end of the story.