issue eleven

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(2800 words)
Waiting at the Gate
[Updated monthly on the full moon]
 
Uma Parameswaran
Ashok, my youngest son, is leaving home today, off to a fine university far away.

I remember something that happened a long time ago as if it was yesterday. There was a death in the house opposite ours. We had moved in only a week ago, my first real home after my recent marriage, for the small flat we had until the previous week was hardly a home. I had been too busy unpacking to get to know any of our neighbours except for the bachelor who lives in the left half of our house, who on the first evening brought us milk for our early morning coffee, and a small cup of yoghurt in case we wanted to make the milk into curds overnight. We already had both, since we had only moved from one part of the city to another, but for that goodwill gesture, we were having him dine with us all week.

It was before seven in the morning when I noticed that people were coming to that house opposite ours, in twos and threes. There was no sound of weeping, but men and women came by, went in, went away. A small group stood on the front veranda; the women looked as though they had been crying and had now got over it. Possibly they were not immediate members of the family, but family and friends nevertheless, for they did not leave.

I wondered who had died. The newsboy came with the morning paper, and I asked him if he knew. He said the body was kept in a crated box of ice. A pain gripped the pit of my stomach: a young man brought home for his funeral. How long ago had be died? And how far away? He must have been alone, for why else would be brought home on ice? I had seen an old woman on the veranda of that house the day we moved in. She was old, in her sixties surely, with white hair and a big pottu the size of a paisa that covered much of her small forehead. Her son, probably. Poor old woman. Was he her only son? Why do such tragedies happen? That an old couple should be bereft of their only son? I thought of my grandfather, an imperious old man, who at seventy-four had lighted the pyre of his last surviving son, and had lived on another three years in stark solitude, spending his afternoons in his library and walking to the beach every evening. His grief was his own and could not be shared because it is not easy to share anything when you are an imperious old man of the old regime. It happened every day somewhere some place, but thankfully this grief in the opposite house could be shared because I had seen the vermilion spot, the size of a paisa, on the old woman's forehead.

Usually I saw my husband off from the veranda, but that day I went with him up to the gate, and stood on even after he left. It was nine o'clock now. The short wall around their house obscured my view. By walking a few yards down the lane I could have seen their veranda through their gate, but I thought it isn't something one should do. I waited on. Two women came out of the house and walked past my gate. I wanted to ask them, but again could not bring myself to do so.

The silence that shrouded the house pained me. Had they been of another caste, there would have been loud weeping, mourners beating their breast and lamenting aloud. There would be a cartload of flowers to deck the dead, drumbeats and lamentation, loud chanting of prayers and songs. But brahmin have no such relief. There would be no ostentatious ceremony. Only stoic silence, and sonorously intoned slokas in Sanskrit.

Who was dead? Perhaps not a young man. Pray God it wasn't a young man. Another woman came out of the house. As she passed by, I asked her. "The old man," she said, "the punyatman, blessed soul." I sighed with relief. Thank god it was not a young man in that crate of ice. I felt a lot more relaxed. It was only an old man, not a young man whose pyre an old man would have to light. Only an old man whose days were over at last. 

Now curiosity surfaced. Why the ice? Where had he died? When? Of what? Because it was only an old man whose days were over, I walked down the street and saw the box covered on the sides with a sheet, lying open on the front veranda, water oozing all around it. Because it was only an old man, I could join the group of women near my gate and ask them the details. One of the women was saying how in the great drought of five years ago, when all Bangalore was without water, she used to go to the old man's well and draw two buckets of water every morning, as did several others. She said how kindly he had allowed all of them to use his well, and how they had abused him for restricting each to just two buckets, instead of blessing him for his generosity.

Who was he? I asked, how old? What did he die of? How many children? Any living with him? I piled my questions freely, for an old man's death is common property whereas a young man's is private and not to be desecrated with gossip. Between them, the women gave me all the particulars of his life. He was a retired government official. He and his wife had lived in this house ever since his retirement twenty years ago. They had three sons, all married and away. The youngest son was in England, the second had come that morning from Madras, and they were waiting for the eldest, who worked in Bombay. The old man had taken ill four days ago, and had been admitted to Bowring Hospital. His daughter and son-in-law, who lived in the Cantonment, had taken him to the hospital, where he seemed to have recovered from the heart attack. But last evening, he had another attack and had died. The eldest son had said, when they phoned him, that he would be here by morning. So they had kept the old man on ice overnight. And now they were waiting for the eldest son.

I went back into my house. I was sorry that the old man was dead, but he was an old man after all. I went in and resumed cleaning the kitchen. My work was over in half an hour, and I came to the front veranda, newspaper in hand. Silent preparations for the funeral were continuing in the opposite house.

I wondered why he had not come yet. Surely he would have taken the night flight, which came via Nagpur; it was circuitous but it would connect him to the morning flight from Madras.  I turned to page seven of the newspaper for the air/train/bus timings. The morning flight from Madras arrived at 9:45 a.m. Soon he'd be here. I walked up to the gate so I could see him come home. I joined the group of women standing near my gate. They were a different group now, and seeing me join them, one of them told me the details over again. The old man was very sturdy and strong - Why, he'd never missed his evening walk in the last ten years! - she could bear witness to that, living as she did near the park, where the group of old men met and walked together in the park. With his gold-bordered turban and ivory-headed cane, he would walk past her house at six every evening, give or take two minutes. After their walk they would sit on the benches near the lily pond and discuss politics and philosophy.

Two of the men preparing for the funeral came out with a bier and laid it near the gate of the house. I stared at them because they looked so different from the usual brahmin pundits. I said as much to the lady next to me. Yes, she explained, these were priests who conducted only funerals; they were no different in caste or learning from the others, but they were poor, as one could see from their shaggy, unkempt appearance.

"Don't you believe they are poor," said another lady. "They have their own trade unionism. They exploit us, they do. They fleece us, knowing we are helpless when death enters the house." The conversation dwelt on funeral priests. Some sympathised with them, for they had to live with the dead day after day, and if there were no deaths, they would have to starve. Others pointed out how inhuman they could be, insisting on being paid in advance or refusing to conduct the rites for poor people. Oh yes, they would bargain with the bereaved family as to the price of a thirteen-day ritual as opposed to a three-day ritual.

"Well, no need to worry about that here," said a woman in a practical tone. "This old man will have a thirteen-day mourning. His sons will see to that. I wouldn't be surprised if they arrange to fling coins all the way to the crematorium."

"How awful," I said.

"Not at all. That is the way to honour a dharmatman, so that he continues to give alms on his last journey."

The two brahmin started tying fronds of palm leaf on the bamboo poles - the last bed. They worked quietly, quickly, weaving the rope and fronds tightly stretched across the bamboo.

"How fast they work!" I said.

"Ah, you should see them tying the corpse," said the practical woman. "They tie it tight, crisscross, anyhow, but really tight so it won't move as they carry it along."

"Do they shroud the body completely?"

"Mostly, yes. But if it is a punyatman, as this old man is, they leave the face open so that people may be blessed by a sight of him."

"The son should be here by now," I said, looking at my watch. We stood waiting. Conversation dwindled. The bier was ready, the priests had finished chanting the necessary slokas, the earthen pot with the fire that would be used to light the pyre was brought out. Everything was ready. They waited for the man who would carry that earthen pot.

Time passed. The tension increased. At the sound of every car, we strained our necks. We were at the foot of a small slope, near an intersection, so that the sound of an approaching car would reach us before it came into sight. We could hear the cars changing gears to climb the slope, and then speed as they came down. There was a small black car that irritated us. It had a "Learner" plate on the back, and the learner drove it cautiously around the block. He had done so for almost an hour. Every time it wheezed up the slope, all of us would crane our necks, and then slowly it would go down our road or turn at the intersection. The people at the gate of the opposite house were not in such great suspense because they knew at sight whether their car had come. But to us, every car that came down the slope carried the eldest son until it went past the house or turned at the cross road.

The sun rose higher. It was getting hotter and hotter. We stood on, waiting, as did the people inside the house and at their gate. The ice was melting fast now. They could not take the body inside and away from the sun because custom forbade that a corpse re-enter the house once it was placed outside.

Word went around that the plane from Madras had arrived but had not brought the expected passenger. What then? Would they start without him? Word went around that they intended waiting for the direct plane from Bombay. It was scheduled for 11:00. Many of us left our place by the gate. We were back before 11:00 even though it would take at least half an hour from the airport.

The day grew hotter. The group on the veranda of the house grew thinner. Now no one seemed to care for the dead. No one was crying. No one even spoke. They waited for the whole thing to be over and done with. Impatience took over from grief. Restlessness ousted the deathly silence of the morning. The men's expressions seemed to say as they shifted from one foot to the other and fanned themselves with the upper cloth on their shoulders, "Goddam, I wish we could be done with this once and for all."

What if he didn't turn up in this flight either? Did they intend to wait for the 4:30 flight from Madras? The question went around. The group on the veranda looked at us apologetically, guiltily, as though they were bad hosts responsible for making us stand there in the sun. Word came around that the younger son had phoned the airline office in Bombay and they confirmed that he had indeed boarded the direct flight. That satisfied everyone. It was almost eleven o'clock now, and there was not long to wait.

Conversation started again. Sympathy broke out afresh. The plane passed over us, as it did every day. We looked up and sighed. Some of the women started weeping for the son who was in it. Poor man, they said, what a heavy homecoming. The women started talking animatedly again. Details about the eldest son were handed around, about his job, about his wife, whose daughter she was and whose niece, their children. Poor man, poor man, he'd have to light the pyre and stand by while the old man's skull cracked in the flames.

Cracked?

Yes, yes, it cracks quite loudly you know.

Oh how horrible!

Death is always horrible, my dear.

Thank god, I've never been to the burning ghat.

Women don't go there, my dear.

Oh really? How awful! Can't one be with one's loved one to the end? Why not?

It just isn't done.

Some women do, you know.

Yes, my aunt was sixty years old and two hundred pounds, but she jumped like a rubber ball insisting she would be with her husband to the end.

Really!

Yes, we tried to hold her back, butÂ…

This old woman wants to go too.

Oh no!

It just isn't done.

Well, I heard her when I was there a few minutes ago.

Are they going to let her?

The son said he wouldn't.

Oh, poor woman. What a beast he must be.

Not at all. They are a very affectionate family, very united. The poor man cried all morning because he wasn't here when his father died. He came for half a day just four days ago when the old man was admitted, but he had to go back. Work, you know, what can poor men do?

He used to live here, didn't he?

Yes, but he took another job, in Madras.

Did he leave because of any fight?

Oh no, no, they are a wonderfully united family.

The car came at last. We knew at once it was THE car because the house sprang into activity. I stood on my toes to see the son. But the car did not go by us. It turned left at the intersection and disappeared. The practical woman explained that the son should not enter by the front door, but make a circle of the house, enter by the back door, wash his feet, enter the house, have a bath and then lead the cortege, bearing the earthen pot with glowing embers on his left shoulder.

The relatives came out. The bier had been taken to the veranda and now was ready to be borne out. The pall bearers were distinguished citizens. How fortunate the dead man was, to have so many family members at his funeral and so many well known people, the women said. I surged with the group as it surged towards their gate.

The widow came out. Her white hair hung loosely coiled. Her sari was an old one, and it was all wet at the pallav. She stood by the bier and looked at the face of the old man, which had been washed and dressed afresh with vermilion powder and sacred ash.

So you too are leaving me now, she said. You too.

Did anyone else see the wince of guilt on her sons' faces, I thought, as I surged back with the group of women.




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M  C  R

This work is copyrighted by the author, Uma Parameswaran. All rights reserved.