Monday, 5 February 2007

Death

They happened in rapid sequence. Not one, not two, but three deaths. Well, four if you count the dog. All in the same house! Neighbours could be heard clicking their tongues in pity (or was it superstition that said clicking at someone else’s misery protects you from experiencing a similar one yourself?) The neighbourhood was a typical middle-class one with a few small houses with tiny gardens, a couple of hutments where the maidservant families lived, and a bunch of garishly red nouveau rich ones that seemed to be bursting concrete on to the tar road. Nothing spectacular about it, really. If you sat and thought about it, last year, just last year, everyone was participating joyously in festivals and celebrations, and no care in the world they had, no pall of gloom or anything.

That is what shook us all up so much. The suddenness of it. Imagine, one minute in silk veshtis and saris and singing slokams and vilakkus lit all over the house. Laughter, gaiety, scores of visitors and relatives. Ruddy-cheeked children running around smiling, prosperous looking (and therefore pot bellied/big hipped) adults. The next minute - all gone, poof! Just like that! As a close observer, and if only in my own mind, a superior thinking sentient being, I could not have foreseen what befell our household.

The house itself belonged to no particular category of houses of the neighbourhood. I would say it sat plumb in the middle. Not too shabby or run down. Not too new or expensive or garish looking. To my eye, possibly because of having lived there for so many decades now (we could never agree upon a new colour so always stuck to the beige and brick red; through all the repaintings), the appearance of the house was soothing. It looked well-lived in, cozy, comfortable. Of course possibly people commented that I had become ‘part of the woodwork’ of the house myself, no surprise I thought it cozy. Not that there was that much wood work to speak of really. Mostly reinforced cement concrete, a lot of metal grills and meshes on windows and doors (mosquitoes found our house a comfortable abode too), even the massive door of the olden days was now hidden by giant iron bars criss-crossing (for additional protection from thieves and marauders and the like).

To get back to the deaths, first it was the boy, I can never remember his name. It was a bit gory, to say the least. A big truck trundling down the road, the boy on his bicycle. They say he was on his way back from school. I find that a bit fishy. I mean it was nearly dark by that time, which was why, the lorry with no lights on, was not very visible to the poor boy, I guess. In my recollection school must have finished at least a few hours before. I cannot of course say anything much about this, people would look askance if I said my own grandson was a loiterer, I mean it may have been okay before but now that everyone believes Vishnu took him to away to make him a god, my opinions about his various activities are best kept out of their hearing.

Anyway, I am not saying I don’t miss him. He was good to me, frank and honest as I like people to be. When he needed money for cigarettes, he asked me and told me about his experiences too. The first time I coughed like crazy, now I’m fine he said. One day a pesky neighbour spied on the boy and reported back. The women went crazy. There was much crying and wailing and yelling and screaming. Is this what I sacrificed my whole life for type of dialogue. The poor boy had no idea what hit him. I was promptly assigned the task of ‘putting the boy back on track.’ I took him away from the noise, sat him down near the river, in the shade and said ‘Well boy, it’s a bad habit. Hurts your health and some such. Don’t let anyone force you into it. It smells too, I can tell when you come in, and I am sure so can the women. You cannot really hide it. Try reading a book instead, worked for me when I was your age.’ He was quiet. I was not really sure if he really quit smoking them or found some other source for cigarette money (I admit, unashamedly, that that would hurt me a little), and a secret remedy for the smell that used to linger on his clothes.

This line of thought is ‘worthless’, as my family would be quick to point out to me. The boy is gone, I am sure he is in a better place than the rest of us. Look at me, I am as old as the jasmine tree in the garden that sprouts wildly out every summer. I am as old as the hills you can see from the window upstairs (from the cave like little room that no one dares enter any more). The boy, well he was just a little baby, one of those little coriander saplings the daughter-in-law planted last week. I miss him incredibly just like everyone in the house. Only my memories of him are more realistic than theirs.

The next to go was his mother. She was heart-broken of course after the event. She blamed herself totally for the boy’s death. I must say I definitely did blame her, at least a little bit. On the one hand she was intent on spoiling the boy with sweetmeats and so on at every possible moment. On the other hand she would never listen to him when he talked about his friends or school or anything. She would also insist on his doing the Sandhyavandanam and saying the Gayathri Manthram every day. He definitely saw no compelling reason to believe in these things, and when he questioned them, instead of explaining it in a way that would appeal to him, she would throw a fit and hit her head against the kitchen wall and wail and scream and go on about asking god (aloud of course) what crime she had committed in her previous life to get such a son. What choice did the boy have but to misbehave and stay out late and so on?

Of course her husband, that good for nothing son of mine, was absolutely no use in such matters. He was too involved in himself. It was his job the whole day and when he came back it was his friends at the sports club. He could care less to be involved in settling any disputes between his son and wife. In fact I don’t think he ever even talked to his son. No wonder then that the boy roamed about at all times of day and night on the streets. No wonder then the mother started getting crazier by the day with her prayers and so on.

After the boy’s passing, our house was never the same. There was a gloomy atmosphere. People would forget to switch on the verandah light when the sun went down. The mother would be praying almost non-stop in the puja room. The house would reverberate with the sound of the bells being rung and the scent of incense would pervade all the rooms. Initially I thought the incense smell a welcome change from the slightly musty smell of the house. But after a few days, it started getting oppressive. I tried talking to the woman, but every time I entered the Puja room it was as if she was in a trance or something. Constantly muttering slokams with her eyes closed. When I did question her about it once when she was serving me my dinner, she mumbled something about how a man could never understand the ties between mother and son.

It was all very depressing. I tried to stay away more and more, visiting the one or two friends of mine that still remained. I got constantly yelled at for walking around by myself at ‘my age.’ I started my vow of silence around that time because I was afraid of what I may say to them if I spoke. It would not have been pleasant. And there was enough happening in our household without my stirring things up by speaking up about what was on my mind.

She died as she would have wished, in the puja room, eyes closed in prayer. The quack doctor that visited after said she died from grief, as if that is a real medical condition. He had that air about him, as if he was omniscient. I bet he discussed his patients over whisky with his quack pals. I bet he philosophised about it. It must have been cardiac arrest. Of course I said nothing. What does it matter if I was a qualified medical doctor, my days of ministering were over, and besides, I was not speaking at that time.

I have been reading these modern novels of late. The stuff that comes out of New York and San Francisco and so on. The language is not good in a classical sense but it seems to be very free, not so constrained by rules like the English that we were taught in high school. In a way it seems straight from the heart. I really like it. I think I have picked up some of it as well. In case you were wondering, I thought the time was right to clarify why a ninety-year old man would speak in such casual tones. It’s a whim, a fancy, a fad, possibly the very last one I can indulge in.

We were talking of deaths were we not? The next one was the dog. He was old, he was frail, he was coughing and had lost his appetite. He passed on and was not even grieved much. The house was still reeking of wood-smoke – that inevitable part of death ceremonies. In my youth I used to, foolishly, romantically, think of this smell as the smell of death itself. I would resent the happenings on these days but was obligated, ordered, to participate. The food would be excellent but the pervasive smell and the round bellies of the priests usually made me lose my appetite. I would manage to lose my mother in the crowd. It was usually distinctly unpleasant around the ladies, with the loud bawling, the inevitable breaking of the bangles (if the husband dies first, the bangles of the surviving wife are rudely broken, presumably to lift her out of the shock to the reality of a life alone), and repeated recriminations flung at god. I cannot recall whose death we were lamenting that day (first there is the initial fourteen day period of mourning through ceremonies. And after that, once a month, for a year, there are ceremonies performed on a smaller scale, after the first year, they are done once a year), the boy or the mother. The dog died that day. Needless to say, he received little attention even in his last days. The poor soul had found the worst day ever to breathe his last.

Evenings were the most awful times in the house. The lights, when someone remembered to switch them on, were dim and dusty. Cobwebs hung menacingly in every corner, casting gloomy shadows all around. The television was played only occasionally and that too only at very low volume and that too only for news. It was considered improper to watch a movie or Chitrahaar or even the funny serials. FOR HOW LONG I would wonder but not ask. The food had also become terrible. It was as if the women were rebelling. Bland, watery rasams and semi-cooked beans curry most days. They routinely forgot to make the curd the previous day and had to water down what was left over and make thin buttermilk. Ah if only I had the strength to go down the road to the café and eat my fill. I don’t dare do that any more of course, thanks to the bout of dysentery I suffered the last time (nothing against the café, I am just not young enough for such excesses any more).

I’ll end of vow of silence today. I will call my son, that strapping young lad of fifty years (and no teeth) and ask him to take me to the hospital as I have decided to die today. The wood-smoke that you will smell tomorrow in this house will be in my honour.

2 comments:

csm said...

new layout is elegant.
easy on eyes.

i tell you, my experience with paatis is same. much more open to change. somehow the middle generation seems to have lost the flexi and adaptability.

kbpm said...

csm - yeah, paatis are usually awesome. mine is an incredibly voracious reader, in addition to all other attributes. thathas i have seen are cute but less smart than corresponding paatis :-)