Rahul, brother to both me and my younger brother, son to our mother, passed away in the early hours of the 2nd of May, Sabbath Sunday with dawn yet to break…as I hear what I write, a strange feeling takes over. Parents are supposed to meet their maker before their children, even if the children are quite middle-aged.
That, the right order, and brothers-sisters walk side-by-side, despite the bickering, and even inspite the routinely dizzying displays of sibling rivalry, which once the dust is settled, you overlook as a product of a flippant character defect. However, this is ‘just’, I would think, part of having a brother or sister. I see in this pocket-sized thesis of sibling equations, I’ve poked more holes in it than Swiss cheese.
What about brothers and sisters being as thick as thieves, ready, come rain or shine, to lend you both ears when the other needs a shoulder to cry on. It’s the inextricable bond of sharing the same parents, of being tied in a karmic cycle…Almost seven years ago—before my or rather, ‘our’ father breathed his last—I was in Simla not knowing that, that would be the final time, I`d be in my parents’ home with him not to be there ever again. Not in his study, where he could pen poetry lying on his divan, with the left arm propping him up tent-like, to glide his pen over paper or find him in the kitchen making his own brand of ‘karhi’ for lunch, with breakfast nowhere in sight! My cousin was visiting with me and since she happens to have a fraternal twin sister, out of nowhere, I quipped that if someone—at the dinner parties they frequently attend—asked when they first met, she should say, ‘In the womb’.
Non-identical, not only in appearance, but in every way of the word. The cousin sharing this holiday with me had hair as long as Rapunzel, her sister a crop-cut, the former loved and could recite by rote Urdu poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the other a Banker who waxed lyrical crunching numbers.
Both so fundamentally different, like chalk and cheese, to use a wooden expression, yet both were ever ready despite their skirmishes—to bring in another yawnsome phrase—to give an arm or leg for the other if the need be.
The point I am trying to make is that siblings, for the most, are an intrinsic part of each other’s lives and the sudden death of one extinguishes something within, leaving one to feel not so whole again. With one’s mother and father, one may know, as in even constantly reminding oneself, that they, one fine day, may leave this world without a day’s notice or in case of an illness one is better prepared, but no amount of ‘preparedness’ softens the blow of watching a mother-father being reduced to ashes with the funeral pyre aflame. However, only after all the rites and rituals are done with, does the reality of death, the great equalizer, hit one. There is a sense of emptiness, of barrenness…If this is so, how would a mother or father cope with the death of a son, a daughter?
Read somewhere, long ago, that nothing could be more unnatural, more cruel, than for a parent to have to bury one’s child. On that Sunday morning, when I was assisting my husband with the last rites of my mother’s son, Rahul, I heard a breathless still cry struck in her throat…this requiem procession, if that is what it can be called, consisted of the three of us.
My other dear brother living seven seas away. Who ventures out in Covid times, and last of all to a Service for the Dead?! A hearse brought Rahul, accompanied in his last ride by his best and most beloved friend, my husband. There was no stretcher to carry him out, a dust-ridden carpet hauled hurriedly onto a heap of wood while me pouring ‘Ganga Jal’ and placing ‘Tulsi’ leaves over his mouth, I wondered why his beautiful eyes had not been shut; why the glassy-eyed stare?
Nauseous waves took over, while I softly tried to close those eyes that had read a library of books and still needed no spectacles. Rahul’s eyes wouldn’t shut—when one passes on, if they are not naturally closed, the nurse or the attendant, with a hand that might not be gentle, automatically does so. This, I learnt later…Placing his precious book, ‘Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee’ over his knees, Rahul’s pyre was set ablaze. This column was headed somewhere else but took a different turn, landing up, so far, elsewhere. Must harness this pen, channelize the iron in my heart and let what may already be known, further known.
The second year into the pandemic and with offices, shops, shuttered down and firmly padlocked, it is a marvel that we still, somehow—by begging or borrowing—are able to run our kitchens, keep the stove burning…my heart aches thinking of the poor migrants who yet again, in less than a year, had to scamper and scuttle back to their villages. However, hear this: For a few, shockingly so, Covid-19 comes with an upside—a high-ended upside. Heard of milking a corpse?! During the cremation, the Pandit, with evident stinginess, poured ‘desi ghee’ from a ‘Milkfood’ pack already partially consumed, by fueling yesterday’s pyres over the logs—this visible through eyes blinded with tears. The crematorium wanted things to be done in a flash, in a stampeding hurry.
While stoking the wooden logs that were yet to catch fire, he demanded 12,000 rupees for the performance, magically producing a receipt already bearing the deceased’s name…appallingly the voucher stated an amount of 4,000 rupees.
Making money out of misery?! No moral fibre?! Corruption of the vilest kind?! One quietly deposits the money, grateful that one had the funds, and relieved for carrying that amount. The next morning sunlight rested on the canopy of my brother’s ashes…we had to defer going to ‘Garh Ganga’ since our mother was burning up with fever. The same Pandit offered a Locker to keep his ‘remains’, informing us with his bone-dry eyes that the ‘tariff’ would be Rs 3,500.
Not having the money, he was told that on ‘check-out’ the bill would be settled. And when finally the immersion took place, what would you think of being gheraoed by Pandits, shoving their calling cards in your face, urging you to lose no time, courtesy them, you’d be put in a fast-track clearance to, with immediate effect, wing the departed person’s soul to Heaven?! With No-Waiting-in-Transit! Money, opens quick the Gates to Heaven…
But must lay these foul experiences to rest. The rain has been rolling in since Rahul left this world, lending a helping hand to the Ganga to sail seawards, with a gentle gale lifting him Heavenwards.