So many people in the room, and such silence. Could she hear them breathing? No she cropped-oleanders-e1525883936887couldn’t. She was willing herself to hear their breath, because she knew it had stopped in him. Mama wasn’t breathing anymore. He hadn’t breathed for hours now. Even through her grief Raji mused about the way people changed around a dead person. They feigned grief they did not feel; wept unreal tears and uttered untruths. And they whispered, even those who were otherwise loud and vocal. Small hearts expanded and very transient warmth emanated from them. She had done it too, at other funerals. Death and hypocrisy – did one bring on the other? It was all on display here. Mama lay dead before her, looking peaceful, as if he had gone willingly. Did anyone go willingly? Then what was this peaceful look that death had infused into his face?

He had been so alive, so happy and now this. It began a week ago when he came from his walk complaining of headache. She brought him hot coffee and felt his forehead. It was hot. She sent for the doctor who said it was the ‘flu which was doing the rounds. “Give him fluids, keep him warm and let him rest.” Raji sat by him for four days watching him getting more ill and weaker every day. The fever never left him. When she sponged him with a wet cloth, she felt the heat of his body coming into the cloth. He was delirious very often. The best doctors had seen him. All of them said the same thing. “Unless the fever leaves him, we don’t have much hope.” Finally on the fifth night, even with the doctor sitting by him helplessly trying to save him with the few options he had with him, he took his last breath. All their riches had been unable to save him.

After the doctor left, the men took over. There was so much to do. Radha and Mythili were wailing. Chechamma was already discussing rituals with Pankajam. Raji left the room and went to the cottage. Harihara, a young man now, was back home. Distraught that his Appa was dead, he followed her. She sent him back. She wanted to be alone. Strange thoughts assailed her mind and she visualized Mama in all forms except the one in which he lay now. Memories flowed unchecked through her. She heard him laughing when she had been just married, just eleven, and had extracted from him, a promise to tell her a story every night at bedtime. She thought of the afternoon of festivities, when she and he had become man and wife while the household was busy with the pregnancy rituals for Radha. Why did she think of that now? Was it proper to think all these thoughts now?

The wailing of a mourner reached her ears. “Why is she weeping? What did she feel for my husband?  I should be weeping and not her.” A wry smile came to her face as she remembered the contempt her husband had held for the hypocrisy he saw at funerals.  “See it doesn’t happen at my funeral Raji,” he had often said to her, “I want a quiet funeral among my very own, and above all, I want silence.” She had been choking on the painful lump that sat in her throat and this woman was defying his wish. She walked into the house and asked the woman to leave, even as everyone gaped.

A few hours later, Mama had been cremated. The mourners had returned to bathe in the backyard from the huge cauldrons of water that had been readied for them.  The house had been washed out the instant the body had moved out as if to erase even the memories that were left of a person who had been full of breath till yesterday. After years of incessant activity, the kitchen was idle, and not even coffee had been made in it today. Rajammal was still wearing the same clothes she had worn when her husband drew his last breath. She had refused to bathe or even shed those clothes. She had nursed him in these clothes, some of his life must still be on them. She and Harihara had been speaking in her room and he had dropped asleep even as he was speaking, too tired to go to his room.

But she lay awake. An oil lamp burned in the niche on the wall. She walked to it and scooped it up in her palms. Walking through the still, dark house she went to her mother’s room. Placing the lamp in a corner, where it wouldn’t go off, Raji went and lay beside her mother and put her arm around her. Pankajam sat up startled. Rajammal reached out to her and Pankajam pulled back for a very brief moment, before drawing her close. For what seemed like forever, mother and daughter clung to each other, weeping over lost time and their bereavement. Pankajam cradled Rajammal in her arms and rocked her gently to sleep. When Harihara woke up in the morning, he ran around the house looking for his mother. He didn’t even venture into Pankajam’s room sure she wouldn’t be there. Pankajam heard him and called him into her room where Raji was asleep. His eyes widened in surprise. They left the room quietly allowing her to sleep. She hadn’t slept for a week when Subramanya had been ill.

Bharathi Ghanashyam

To be continued…

 

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