Tip: This post contains graphic text. Please do not read further if you’re expecting it to be anything but morbid.
Life is full of uncertainty, but nothing beats that like the eternal leveler: death. As soon as a baby comes out of it’s mother’s womb, the ageing, and dying, process begins. It doesn’t get apparent when the mother cuddles her newborn child, when she lets it feed from her, when she dreams about its future. It doesn’t become apparent when one passes out of college with a promising job in hand, when one falls in love and casts dreams about yet another future. And then it does. Tragedy, illness, an advancing age: whatever be the reason, the final destination of each one of us is exactly the same. Death.
It dawns on you when you see someone you were close to on the deathbed. Someone who walked, talked, ate, and lived in front of your eyes lying lifeless, cold and thin, like a withered tree. He never showered his love on you, but at that moment, in that hospital room, the tears come on their own. You weep, but then your senses tell you: no, you must stay calm. For you’re his eldest grandson, the first-born, the one who must carry the family name, the baton, the flame. For you’re now a man, and your strength forms a pillar for your own father, whose sorrow you can’t even imagine. And then, when you see them take the body to the mortuary, your eyes don’t bleed.
The next morning, you see the women crying as the body bag is brought home. But you’re unmoved now. Once is enough. Then the white cloth is removed a bit to show the face, which looks like skin on a skull. A tumult forms inside you, but you still stay calm. Once is enough. Then your father puts his father’s head on his lap, and he cries. Cries like a son would cry if his father left forever. You’ve never seen him cry. Never. Now you do, and you break. Break like a glass ceiling whose walls had been blown to shreds. When it’s time to take the now-decorated body to the cremation ground, your mother tells you to lend a shoulder; you were going to anyway. And as soon as your mother tells you this, your aunt tells her son to do the same, almost as if there’s something like a competition between her son and me. A competition to lend a shoulder to your dead grandfather. The tears weren’t real, didn’t you know?
At the cremation, you watch the body being laid on the pyre, the dry rice being poured onto the lips of the deceased, the head being washed with honey. He is ready for the final journey. The final journey of every Hindu who is lucky enough to be cremated by one from the bloodline. You don’t bid him goodbye, you fold your hands and treat him like a forefather should be treated: like a God. Your father lights the pyre, and your lips form a prayer. As the flame grows, you can’t help but marvel at the sight. At the sight of a life lived out being given a fitting, fiery conclusion. There you see another side of death: glory.
But that feeling fades away a few hours into the cremation, when the skull and spine are clearly visible from outside the now-depleting wood. The chandal uses a bamboo rod to shift the remains into the heart of the pyre, into the flames, so that they burn properly. And then, when all the wood is all but charred, the intestines are all that’s left, full of moisture, with the cells deep within probably alive. More wood is brought, the pyre is remade, and now the chandal used the bamboo like a fork to place the guts on the replenished flame. Then you realize, your own guts are wringing, partly by seeing that sight, and partly due to the fasting. Nevertheless, you watch the guts burn, till only the smallest of portion remains: the navel, the remnant of the same placenta that forms the bond between mother and child. The sign that links this morbid event to the very formation of the life that was. And you realize your guts hurt no more.
The remains are immersed in the river, and you know that’s the end. The end that everyone alive will meet: your parents, your love, and you. And, at that time, while the remains sink, you start praying. You pray that may your own children give you the final fire, that may destiny not give you such a tragic end that you miss this chance. A chance to burn, a last shot at glory. ওঊম্ শান্তি, ওঊম্ শান্তি, ওঊম্ শান্তি।