Nepali Times
The last journey


Death lends razor sharpness to this moment. Life is reduced to the aching undeniable reality of a waning day and half-charred bodies on dying fires.
I have fought to be here, to stand dry-eyed beside my father on the silty banks of the Bagmati that runs by the cremation grounds of Pashupatinath.
We are here to say our final goodbyes to the body that housed one loved so much.

This woman is dead, she who was my mother and, in the final weeks of her debilitating illness, my child. Her body shrunk by death and disease lies in its shroud. Flowers from her garden surround her face, her hair loose, eyes closed.
It is business as usual for several priests scurrying around, energised by the smell of lucre that surrounds these ceremonies. Grief-stricken families are manipulated into believing that it their dharma, duty, to send off the dead in an elaborate funeral involving sandalwood logs, masses of flowers, incense, enormous quantities of ghiu and wood.

Before the ceremony begins there is a heated debate over whether father need shave his hair off or not. It is a mandatory sign of respect to do so at the funerals of brothers, uncles and fathers but is not entirely necessary, apparently, for a dead wife.

It seems ironic that a scant century ago it was thought entirely appropriate for a wife to immolate herself alive on her husband's funeral pyre as an honourable sign of grief.

The priests start intoning Sanskrit hymns that serve neither to comfort nor offer solace to us. People from our community have re-embraced Buddhism and they ask us why we are here, at a Hindu temple. It seems beside the point to explain we never converted back to Buddhism. We are here because we are here. Had there been a choice we would have cremated her in our garden and floated her ashes in the lily pond she had made. She belongs there, in the place she lived and loved.

It is time to begin.
Her astrological birth charts that plotted her life are torn and flung far out into the waters. The priests ask us to place a gold nugget in her mouth. We do as we are told without asking.

My cousin accidentally bumps my mother's head while placing her on the pyre. Irrationally, I worry that it hurt her. Thoughts skitter around, none daring to stand in the spotlight of clarity.

Someone whispers to me that she is blessed among women for she died in the arms of her husband and he is here to see her off on her final journey. It is difficult, so difficult, to watch father touch the flames of the dagbati to her mouth. I need to move away as the fire feeds greedily.

A corpse lies abandoned nearby. Its small, twisted form is covered with a saffron sheet tattooed with gods' names, sprinkled with vermilion and a few grains of rice. I am told it was probably a pauper or a destitute from the old people's shelter. We offer to pay for its funeral rites, to scrape up some dignity for the dead never accorded to the living.

A fine mist drizzles the air.
Care is taken to see the pyres are not put out.

A bus disgorges a load of tourists on the other shore. Their guide gives them the salient points of Nepali religious customs in a three-minute lecture and then points them our way. They cross the bridge that separates the temple complex from the viewing gallery. Cameras are out and poised to capture the drama of burning fires against the bleeding colours of dusk. Flashes go off as they mill around clicking rapidly. These photos will make their way to Occidental suburbia where they will become souvenirs of their holiday in the "exotic East".

This is a funeral, not a photo opportunity. Harsh words are exchanged and they move towards an unattended pyre.

The priests inform us that we may leave. They will take care of what remains.
We decline politely. We wish to be here till the very end. We owe it her, a last few hours to conclude a lifetime of love, companionship and courage. I whisper my love and thanks to her.

Tears are for later, away from this circus. I hold my grief within and contemplate a physical symbol of my loss-scarring myself, shaving my hair off, wearing black or perhaps even killing myself. I never want to forget this pain, this intensity of mind-numbing sorrow. It is my way of remaining faithful to her.

It is unfortunate the human mind cannot choose what shall be remembered and what shall be relegated to the subterranean regions of our cluttered unconscious.
Three hours and twenty minutes later it is finished. Forty-seven years of living reduced to a handful of grey ash. Water is poured over the stones. Steam rises in a hiss. The blackened water splashes into the already murky river water.

A funeral priest gropes in the ashes for something. He finds the small nugget of gold that has been purified by the fire as it burned through flesh and wood. He tucks it into his ash-streaked clothes, fringe benefits for services rendered.
The impulse to shove him into the river is almost overwhelming.

We are told half-burned logs of funeral pyres are fished out downstream and sold to vendors who roast meat and corn on them. It is macabre and repulsive. I am glad nothing is left.

It is cold and dark when we get home. Unknown branches of the family have spawned a host of relatives. Funerals become family reunions.

We are ritually impure and cannot enter the house. At the gates we are made to step over a small fire. Ganga water is sprinkled over us with tulsi branches.
Father has to bathe with cold water and change his clothes outdoors.
The luxury of my own bathroom and hot water is allowed to me.

I see myself alive and healthy under the cleansing stream of almost scalding water. I rinse my mother's ashes out of my hair and my body, ashes that cling to me in dark flakes and surround me in the smell of wood smoke as if in a final embrace.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)