“Listen to me carefully. You cannot go with us. It is against our custom. Stay here.” Her brother’s words reverberated in her mind.
“Please don’t be adamant Kalai. The priest will get mad if he sees you there. Look after your mother. We will be back soon.” Her uncle’s words just made her angrier.
She looked at her mother who was crouched in one tiny corner of their massive living room, sobbing relentlessly with her face buried in her lap. Kalai went and sat next to her. She pulled her mother up gently. Memories were flowing down her cheeks as tears. And so was her pain. Kalai hugged her mother and they sat together in embrace for an hour. All of a sudden, she got up in a daze. “The ceremony should be over now right?” She looked at her mother who looked shocked and confused to equal measure. “Take care mother. I will be back soon. Cry as much and as long as your heart feels like.” She sprinted outside in a mad dash.
It took her half an hour to get to the graveyard. The last rites had just been completed for her father as she saw her brother walking towards her. “I told you to be at home.” He was livid.
“I was. Now I am here.” Her face had no emotion.
“I know you are devastated. We all are. Let’s go home. Give it a few days. Time will help heal.” His brother tried to console her.
She pushed him aside. “I guess the priest went home happy. Now leave me alone. I want to be with my father.”
He looked at her with concern. “This is a graveyard. You can’t be alone here.”
She was staring at the burning pyre. “I am not alone. Dad will give me company. Just leave.”
He had no choice. “Come back soon. Mom will be very worried.”
She sat on the ground a few feet away from her father. She could feel his warmth. She looked around. There was another fire burning. She wondered who that was. The undertaker was getting ready to leave. It was then she saw another man at a distance. He was sitting there quietly. She realized that he had been there all the while. His face showed no emotion but he seemed to be at peace with himself.
The heat from the pyre brought her back to her father as she went back to replaying her infinite memories of the man she grew up with. She sat there for three hours reminiscing the little joys, hearty laughs, endless conversations, petty squabbles, teary moments that she had shared with the man who rested quietly in front of her. She wondered if he died a content man! The vacuum inside her was starting to engulf her. She couldn’t take it any longer. She felt she would choke herself to death. She got up and began running away from the graveyard. But then for no reason, she stopped near the lonely man who was still sitting there without any change in his demeanor.
“Was that someone dear?” She pointed towards the other pyre that was burning alongside her father.
“Well, not yet.” He said with straight eyes.
His baffling response incited anger in her. “What the hell do you mean? Are you insane?”
“No. I would like to think I am not. To me, all life is precious. And after today, these two souls would be dear to me as well.”
She couldn’t understand one word he said. Nor did she want to. “Who are you?”
“I was you, a few days ago.” His cryptic words only frustrated her more. She wanted to leave but somehow was stopped by his mystique. And by his words.
“You remind me of my mother.” Now in addition to being vague and cryptic, he was making her feel old as well.
“What do you mean?” She wasn’t offended, but her words suggested an angry tone.
“When my father passed away, my mother wanted to be part of the ritual. For thirty years, the man had not left the house once without kissing her good bye. How would she let him go alone in his last journey? She fought with everyone, the priest, her siblings, our neighbors to get on that van for his last journey. She couldn’t. I was a little too young to understand all that transpired, but at the end of the day, we were standing next to the pyre in silence and watched our man transcend this world.”
His words echoed inside her ears long after they were uttered. Lots of emotions ran inside her. The day rolled back and forth in front of her eyes. “I would love to meet her.” She said with tears running through her eyes.
“She is right here. A couple of meters to the right of your father. She must have left by now, I believe. But I am sure she can hear us.” He pointed to a pyre which had burned its course and all that remained was dust and some ash.
“I lit her up two days ago. I haven’t been able to let her go yet. The beautiful irony is that she got to rest right next to dad. When I sit here and look, I see both of them burning in tandem, rising from the ashes and having a normal conversation. I want to be a part of it, but somehow am not able to break the smoke curtain that separates us. On second thoughts, I don’t want to. I am perfectly happy watching them. It has been a long time I saw them together.
There was another man who burned right next to my mother the other day. A 5 year old boy was doing his last rites. I wonder what was going through his head. I bet a lot. He didn’t have tears in his eyes, but they conveyed a deep pain that was beyond his age. I guess death does that to you. They say it relieves you of all emotion. But what about the countless emotions that it stirs inside you? We see death over and over again until we experience it for one last time. Or do we really?”
She looked at him speechless. She finally mustered her voice. “I am sorry.”
He was unflustered. “You have a lot of grief to soak in. I won’t burden you anymore.”
She decided it was time to go home to her mother. “Yes, I can’t take it anymore. I will be back tomorrow. I guess I will see you?”
He smiled mysteriously. “I guess you will!”
- A SHORT STORY BY RAJ