All through the night Dada (our father) lay on the hospital bed, as his life was sapped out of his body. My brothers, sisters-in-law and myself lay vigil at his bedside.
As I watched Dada wilting away, I nurtured a wish but was not able to say it out loud. Just before dawn, Dada left us, leaving a huge void in our lives. He joined our mother who had passed away just a year earlier.
Dada was a reformist, broad-minded and always open to new ideas and innovation. Despite that, it was hard for him to entirely shrug off the notion of letting a daughter spending money on him. “Don’t burden me this way,” he would say. “How much will you keep on doing?”
I used to shrug at his not too enthusiastic complaint, saying: “Sons and daughters are equal these days, Dada. And I do it also because I can afford to do this much.” Dada would shake his head in complacent disbelief.
I did not get to spend much time with my family after being married off right after school more than four decades ago. When we began losing Deviji (our mother) to Alzheimers I started spending more time with Dada. I began spending even more time with him in the past four months when he became ill and was in and out of hospitals. I got more time to care for him, which gave him more opportunities to tell me: “How much will you keep on doing?”
As Dada’s hold on life began to wane, the memory of my mother’s cremation flashed before my eyes: how a year ago my brothers had performed Deviji’s last rites, paying the ultimate tribute a child can for a parent by lighting the funeral pyre.
It would be Dada’s turn soon. If only I could join my brothers for the final cremation rites, I thought, it would be the most definitive way of expressing my love and respect for our father. But I was not able to voice the wish despite my seemingly educated broadmindedness. It must have been the unspoken social norms and the boundaries drawn around what a girl can and can’t do that held me back.
Hours later at the electric crematorium, as the priest was instructing my brothers about various rituals, I was just a sad bystander. Once everyone present had paid their last respects, the priest called on my brothers to wash Dada’s face and apply the sandalwood paste on his forehead.
When they were going around Dada, Kanak called out to me and asked me to join them. The priest did not object, and I soon was part of the rituals along with my brothers. A sense of fulfilment welled up deep inside me.
When it was time for the final rites in front of the crematorium kiln, the priest once again called my brothers to light the funeral pyre. Emboldened by being included in the rituals earlier, I mustered a weak, “What about me? Can’t I join too?” The priest shook his head. Another priest nearby said, “No you can’t.” A third voice nearby said sternly: “Of course you can’t”.
My heart sagged. My brothers had already started to encircle Dada with the flame. It was then that my maternal uncle urged me to join them. My sister in law said: “If you want to, then go.” Then Kanak pulled me up behind him. The priest did not complain.
We three siblings then encircled Dada two more times, before laying the flaming piece of wood on his chest. Bowing at his feet we bid a final goodbye to our father before he was interred into the kiln.
When the cremation was over in an hour, I followed my brothers to the narrow window on the ground floor to collect the ash in a small urn. “You take it,” Kunda told me. The clay vessel was hot as I cradled it in my palms. Tears welled up, bittersweet tears of sorrow laced with a deep sense of contentment. We three siblings then dispersed the ashes in the nearby Bagmati.
In my line of work, I often spout theories about gender equality and equity, and how women in Nepal should be provided equal opportunities. That day I realised it was not enough just to provide opportunities or to wish for change.
You need someone to push you, and you need someone to pull you. On 29 December, it was my uncle and sister-in-law who gave me the push, and my brothers who pulled me.
With everyone’s support I was able to answer my father’s perpetual question “How much will you keep on doing?” by saying, “This much.”
Rupa Joshi’s father, noted Nepali literary figure Kamal Dixit, passed away on 29 December. See himalkhabar.com for Nepali original of this tribute.