Following is the first of a four-part series on voices from four villages in the central Himalayas. The pieces will appear every fortnight.

Of course, death occurs anywhere, even in a village. What defines the difference are perceptions, attitudes, rituals, cohesive community engagement and much more.
I got news that Rameshji had died a few hours earlier. After absorbing the news, I slipped into regret of an irretrievable circumstance. A few months before, while I passed by his old teashop, his son had told me Rameshji was quite unwell. At that point, I said, I will visit. Days passed. Death came and I visited his home—not him.
In villages, specific customs are marked for mourning visits, including which day to go. The nearest day, Tuesday, was a couple of days ahead. It is a steep curving hill path on an untarred road. A booked car with a skilled driver, who could go up to the doorstep, was in order. For me. For others in the community, they were walking it without any thought.
Rameshji had continued living in the same house he had built years ago. A typical low-roofed, dingy village home with hardly any light coming in. That is the only seeming low side of the picture. Everything else is a functional human dynamic.
As I stepped into the doorway, I saw the familiar priest seated right in the midst of the section of the room that had maximum light. He greeted and welcomed me with warmth…and continued with the preparation of the ritual for the day.
I handed over the customary packet of tea leaves and sugar one is supposed to carry at this time. Made sure I do not involuntarily do a “namaste”, which is a no-go in this period. Then looked around and noticed an elderly woman crouched in a corner with her head covered.
I whispered and asked if she was the widow and on hearing so, went and sat down beside her. As I looked into her eyes, they were red with a film of tears and lots of sorrow. In a flash, the thought came to me: So what if I lost my husband over a year ago? How different is that from the pain this lady is going through now?
Both of us held each other’s hands tightly…that was basically the only communication with her for the time I sat beside her. Conversations started. Two sons with white turbans, the daughter, the son-in-law, the young man who had brought me and a speech-challenged boy, Yashu, who is the family, and village favourite.
I asked the priest about what he was doing. Rameshji was being prepared to leave the home. Clearly, a concept to be understood. So, the body has already been cremated. The spirit/soul too must move on. Today, that journey was being ritualistically enabled. A hole in the base of the round mud pot, sticks, white cloth, the holy grass, durva, were all being structured. Later, the family will carry everything to a sacred water body point that is said to have a subterranean connection with the Ganga in Haridwar, miles away.
Yashu, with his speechless smiling face and twinkling eyes, is very busy helping the priest. He knows exactly what to hand over when. If not, he follows instructions carefully. The priest is indulgent and patient and lets him participate fully.
Meanwhile, the conversations continue. It is life as usual. Jokes, laughter, exchange of information about work and earning, leg-pulling of the younger son, as he makes mistakes in his attire for the day.
There is a doorway on my left leading to a rather dark room. Women are seated there, including my female escort. They are chatting away. I get up and go in to join them. My sitting on the floor itself is an issue that I have to brush aside. They are all seated on the floor.
My eyes flit to the very small meshed window at the other end. This is obviously the kitchen and dining area. I wonder how a proper meal can be cooked here. Well, obviously meals upon meals have been cooked here since Rameshji built the house. His wife cooked here, now the daughter-in-law cooks here. Everyone gets their meals, always have.
As my eyes wander, the elder daughter-in-law shares her thoughts…unwittingly. Rameshji had said he would never move out of here. So, he had asked his younger son to build a more modern home a little ahead. As for Rameshji, till his last breath, he slept in the main room on his favourite bed. It was a given that the elder son and his family would live with him.
We talk but I remember little. My thoughts were all over the place. Circumstance, choice, will, life…What does it mean to each of us…how different are the levels of existentialist questions between an urbanite like me and a rural family like the one I am sitting with…
It is time to leave. I say my goodbyes to the women around me and step out. I go to the bereaving wife to take leave. She says, “Already?” I do not know how to respond and awkwardly say I should be going.
Everyone, including the priest, wish me well and keep saying I must come for the thirteenth day lunch. I mumble. I never went.
When I reached home, my domestic backbone, Panna, wanted all details. I told her about my visit. While talking, it started raining. The annual fortnight of Ancestor Worship, Shraadhh, was coming to an end. Panna said, “Well, the souls have had their bath before going on their way to their world.” Well put, I said to myself and pondered for a long while.
My thoughts went back to a year or so ago, a few months after my husband had taken his last journey. Kishen was seated on the steps leading to my house. We were chatting about life and death. He said, “Well, if old leaves don’t fall, how will there be place for the new leaves?” I nodded in agreement…and pondered.

Neelima Mathur is an India-based Executive Producer, Researcher, Writer, Mentor and Trainer for documentary and NGO films. She is also Festival Director of the Lakeside Doc Festival.