by Rakesh Rampertab



As it approached, they tried to escape it. Windows remained closed for weeks. No one left the house between sunset and sunrise. This is how they lived after he last visited the pandit—out of desperation; the doctors at the public hospital advised him to get medical assistance overseas for his daughter, something beyond his means. “Check every corner,” the priest insisted. “We have all sorts of things out there and every now and then, somebody suffers. I’m not saying that that is happening, but we need to keep our eyes open.” He returned with a few things from the pandit, including garlic mixed with camphor, which he sprinkled around every window. Despite his disbelief, he took white chalk on his own accord and drew lines on the outside before each of his doors—something which the old peasants did whenever they thought an evil spirit lurked about.

That was one week ago. Today, he was returning from the market before sunset. The wind whistled through the arching branches of coconut trees scattered beside the road. Cane-grass, almost as lengthy as sugar-cane leaves, swayed along in a kind of eternal dance. As he turned off the asphalt street that passed before his house, heading instead for lot nearby that was empty, except for a cluster of cashew and mango trees, Avinash felt uneasy.

His house was small, about twenty-five feet by twenty feet. An unpainted wooden shack, it sat a few feet off the ground on concrete stilts made of square blocks. On each wall were a number of two-paned windows, with hooks to keep them open. The land upon which the shack stood belonged to the state. The local authority had not objected to his and others squatting for one particular reason—it was a strip of land situated alongside the river, at the back of the village and away from the general public. During extreme high tides, the river crawled upwards. The villagers discovered that the land was propitious for farming due to the silt that spewed from the river over generations. He, like his neighbors, cultivated small cash crops, selling his produce at the market. Before the squatters came, it was a hybrid wasteland, landscaped by empty car shells, swaths of bamboo trees, discarded old furniture, and grazing cattle. Then one by one, families cleared selected areas, erecting little tenement houses and surrounding palings.

He plucked a grass from the ground and began to chew it, passing it randomly between the spaces of his teeth as he scrutinized his yard. His Raleigh bicycle leaned against a stilt where he always left it, and the wooden latrine propped by two six-foot planks was unoccupied. Its zinc-sheet door rocked slowly on its hinges with the wind, screeeeak screeeeak. A stray dog appeared in the yard; it looked around lazily, and then found its way through the fence, disappearing into the thicket behind. He decided that he had seen enough and walked across the lot and into his yard. He was heading for the front door when it came—unseen; a large, blue butterfly suddenly bubbled before him. Shuffling backwards, his right forearm rose as he turned aside to dodge the creature. But the insect only elevated itself and took off directly for the door! It landed and sat there momentarily, until his hand crashed down upon it. “Aaaah! Got you now! Fly! Fly now you fool!” he screamed.

Lifting the butterfly by its broken wings, he laughed and slowly opened his fingers, allowing the insect to sail downwards, landing on its side. He poked the insect with his fingers as if trying to make it fly again, and then realized how ridiculous he was behaving. He withdrew, thinking that maybe he had been fooled. “What have I done?” He closed his eyes—“But why should I care? Accidents happen,” he said, becoming silent again. The sun, he noticed, was almost over the horizon, leaving long shadows in the yard. The butterfly had stopped moving altogether. He didn’t want to leave it as it was, so he decided to bury the butterfly. Yes, burial is always accommodating. His hands swiped away vigorously at the very spot, and as the dry topsoil crumbled from his fingers, he rambled on, “We’re not masters of our fate, no matter who we are little friend.” When he was satisfied with the makeshift grave, he placed the butterfly into the hole and quickly covered it, still talking; “What if I did not exist? Who will watch over my family? My family!” He jumped up and hustled immediately towards the door.

The congested house smelled like an overcrowded clinic. Months of tending to the sick child using local herbs and medicines and not opening the windows, had left a lingering septic odor. It had soaked itself into their clothes, mattresses, and window curtains. But this was no concern of the child. Stretched out on a mattress on the floor, she recently started complaining of ticks. Two nights ago, they woke to the sound of fingernails scraping against dry skin, leaving red bruises that were especially pronounced around her genitalia. Whatever was disturbing her inside was extending itself, colonizing the entire body. Sometimes she stared upwards as if in search of something, but mostly her eyes had become withdrawn, transforming her cheekbones into miniature humps. These pass few days, she seemed very isolated to him, the distance between parents and daughter becoming increasingly unmeasured by medicine. He was convinced that she understood nothing said to her, and merely reacted to sounds because she responded in garbles. Yesterday, all she did was whisper, and he spent much of his time with her trying to decipher contorted lips. Still, he did not think it was near.

Not until this morning when she awoke screaming. He was the first to reach her. He stood there, petrified at her nakedness, clothes ripped off and blood stains on the inside of scrawny legs. Anuradha, his wife, pushed him away and he left the room, settling in the kitchen. Leaning over the sink, he could still see the child’s arching hipbones and rib cage rising upwards. His feet shuffled randomly, and his hands reached across his ears—until they began to grab at things; spoons and cups went flying from the top of the cupboard. He ripped a curtain from its windowsill before finding himself pressed against a wall, his chest heaving. Those hands began to strike out again, slowly at first, then uncontrollably as the child continued to scream. His knuckles burned on contact with wood, exposing raw flesh—but that was not enough and he launched—once, twice, and again until somehow he connected head-on with the wall. After that, all was black.

That afternoon, as the child slept, he lay beside her. The truth could not be resisted—he felt that the fault was with him; he had fathered a child for whom he could not adequately provide. Had his parents kept him in school, perhaps he would have been better off. His teachers considered him “bright,” and they expressed this on his report cards in apt phrases; “excellent student,” “great potentials for higher education.” He regretted not migrating to the United States illegally as Anuradha once suggested where affordable hospitals exist for everyone. Here, poor people had to become crippled in some way to get a decent chance at a good life. Stories of educated children from the villages employed in banks and stealing continue to surface in local newspapers. And like this, wrestling with himself, he passed the hours of the afternoon.

Darkness came enveloping the landscape; frogs croaked alarmingly and bats flittered outside his windows. The nights had been a brute to his family, bringing no relief. Tonight seemed no different, as he gazed indifferently at outlines around him, settling on an earthen Hindu figurine. It was Nataraj, lord of the dance holding in one hand, the damru or drum of creation. There is no music here, he thought. God left this house a long time ago. Where there is no God, there is no music. He yawned and his eyes closed momentarily. He tried to stay awake but instead dozed off, unaware that his child had awoke. Her eyelids blinked to the flickers of a candle that stood on a cabinet. For a few minutes, she blinked and inhaled deeply until her breathing slowed into short gasps. Her lips opened wider and her facial muscles twitched. And then very quietly, there was a struggle at her throat and the candlelight did not matter anymore.

A shrill punctured the morning’s solitude, rattling him awake. “Oh God! Get up Amrita! Get up for mommy!” Anuradha tugged at her child, frantically. He jumped up and leaned over the child—her eyes were motionless, offering neither hope nor confirmation. He left and returned with a small mirror used for shaving, anxiously passing it over her mouth and nose. When this seemed useless, he ripped her shirt and pressed an ear against her chest. The mother was now hysterical—she grabbed her daughter’s face and kept shaking it until he pushed her away. Reaching from behind, he passed his hands under the child’s shoulders and grabbed at her armpit. Half lifting half dragging, he moved backwards; until his fingers started to become numb under the deadweight. Still, he held her, until his knees buckled and the child slipped through his arms.


The corpse remained on a mattress shrouded in a white sheet. Anuradha sat beside it, silently. Nothing remained to be said. He was about to get his bicycle when he stopped and looked at his wife just as he had observed her these past months carrying on, wearily sometimes but never complaining. Being a mother gave her a kind of hope that had eluded him. She had always assured him, never expressing her fears, for ever energetic until it came yesterday. It not only flattened her expectations, but uprooted her spirit. Now, the effects of this maternal hope showed; the tiny black mole above her upper lip now matched the darkish blotches under her eyes. Her fingernails were neglected and scarred, and the weight she had lost seemed obvious in hallows of her cheeks. She was a woman, absorbed and withdrawn. He thought it was best to leave her to grieve in her way—as only a mother could. He, meanwhile, had to make preparations. He carried the bicycle upon his shoulder until he was out of the yard, before mounting and pedaling away slowly towards the police station.

The police officer came and identified the body without touching it. He took biographical information about the deceased, and wanted no part of any sort of examination, merely noting that the child died a natural death. It was not an issue of fear, but of laziness. Avinash carried him back to the police station on his bicycle and then hurried off to Jimmy’s restaurant and grocery store in search of ice to preserve the corpse. Approaching the store, he squeezed on the brakes, allowing the bicycle to roll until it stopped exactly where he wanted it. He dismounted outside the premise and called out laboriously, “Jimmy.”

“What you want? Jimmy’s not home,” a woman’s voice said.
He could not see her but responded nevertheless. “I want some ice. Block ice”
“How much?” asked the voice, still a bit disgruntled.
“About four blocks.”
“Four! What, do you have a party?”
“No sister. My daughter died. We want to ice her until the funeral tomorrow.”

“Oh my god, I didn’t mean to…so sorry to hear. Please, come inside,” finally the voice is accompanied by a face that appeared, seemingly, almost expressionless out of embarrassment. He had never seen her before. He went into the yard and left the bicycle against a wall. The woman came out, hastily wrapping her disarrayed hair in circles and clipping it with a hairpin which she slipped from between her lips. “I’m Jimmy’s cousin. Jimmy’s out of the country. Follow me to the back for the ice.”

Each of the frozen ice blocks was about three feet in length and weighted more than one hundred pounds. “How do you intend to take them?” This time her tone was subdued, friendlier.
“On my bicycle.”
“That’s not good. It would take all year. Besides, these are too heavy for one person. I will get someone to help you. He’s an old man but he works for Jimmy. Just give him a small something when he’s done.”
“Sure. And how much do I owe you?”
“Normally, this is $180.00 but I’ll take $150.00. Just don’t let Jimmy know,” and as she spoke, she offered a small smile, the corner of her mouth lifting. He paid her and when she walked off, her manner of departure was sympathetic and dignified.

The woman was correct—the man was old. He wore a large T-shirt that swallowed half of his slim body, and khaki pants that ended prematurely at his ankle, with strands dangling below. He was short and almost completely bald, but his face was eager, as if supporting the impression created by his sinewy but firm hands—that hard labor was not new. As the old man used his wooden cart—a kind of rickshaw with two protruding handles, to transport the ice blocks, which were arranged around the corpse and then covered with large bags made from intricately woven rice strands, Avinash went in search of the pandit. Meanwhile, his neighbors started to erect a tarpaulin tent, under which they arranged benches and tables for the wake. Upon his return home, he convinced the old man to accompany him to the lumbar yard, where they purchased logs for the pyre and a bag of wooden chips to help lighting it. It was almost sundown when they were done building the pyre by the river, when he paid the old man more than he anticipated initially, and when he finally entered the house again.

Later that night, the men played dominoes and cards, while the women spent most of the time inside with the bereaved mother. Sita, her only sister, who lived two villages away, arrived and decided to stay on for another two weeks, until the Hindu thirteenth-day dead work is completely. He busied himself with making coffee—as is customary at wakes, on their earthen stove outside and serving those gathered there. When it was all over, and the neighbors had gone home, he retreated immediately on the floor and left his wife with her sister on the bed.


The morning after, they prepared for the cremation. He pushed the blocks aside with a wood and then, altogether, they carried the corpse on to a table. He stood by and watched the women strip it entirely, shaking their fingers to avoid numbness. Using a sponge with soap-water, they washed the corpse thoroughly before drying it and slipping on a white dress. All this time, Anuradha spoke to her child. “I want you to look good when you leave—my little princess—my life.” She marked a black tika on the child’s forehead; “Now no one will trouble you. God will watch over you as you go on your way.” He brought her a small canister from the house and using a cloth, she daubed some powder on the face of the corpse. From a transparent plastic bag, Sita took a few colored plastic bangles and fitted them easily on the slim, hard wrists. He, meanwhile, was memorizing every little detail of the child as she lay on the table, quite detached from him. As a father, he was without meaning now, and he wondered if life had to be pitied for being so unforgiving. The months of pain had transformed his child into someone ghoulish looking. Yet, this was his ghost.

Time passed and neighbors began to arrive. Two carried homemade wreaths constructed of thin copper wires, around which vines and ferns are wrapped. Into these, numerous flowers are inserted. The neighbors were mostly dressed in white, the women especially identified by their silk ornis that were draped over their heads, or worn across the shoulders, with the ends hanging. They settled under the tarpaulin tent, viewing the corpse in turns as they waiting for the pandit.

The pandit arrived by foot, making long strides in his brown rubber slippers fit for the hot climate. He was a well-known Brahmin man who was dressed in the common white dhoti and kurta. Over his shoulder was draped a fading, yellow scarf with Hindi texts, and around his neck wrapped a few times was a necklace of beads made from sandalwood. His oddity was that he carried his prayer books and his bell and conch in a haversack. He settled under the tent and initiated his job by reciting a mantra. The corpse is then carried on a stretcher made of bamboo poles and sugar bags to the riverside, and the small crowd followed, with Anuradha at the front huddling forward. After it is hoisted on top of the pyre, the women decorated it in an elaborate display of flowers—pink bougainvillea, carnations, pink and white hibiscus, and an array of small jump-and-kisses. An old woman reached into her bosom and pulled out a folded handkerchief, in which she had a small bottle of perfume.

Reciting once again, the pandit passed his hands over various parts of the corpse; “Om ahnaye swahaa. Antarikshaya swahaa. Vayare swahaa…” Anuradha sobbed, meddling with the corpse; she fixed its hair, smoothed the pleats of the dress, and repositioned flowers. The pandit swayed in rhythm with the mantras and slipped into a bhajan, equating god as everything—both parents and siblings; “Tumhi ho maata, pita tumhi ho, tumhi ho bandhu sakhaa tumhi ho…” The squatters joined him and at the end of the hymn, he gave a short speech and then said, “Bhai, it is time to light the fire,” instructing Avinash and moving the ceremony along—his sense of grief censored by his duties. “Come this way, light it where there is more ghee,” he encouraged, guiding the father to the front of the pyre. Avinash scratched a match; it lighted faintly but is extinguished by the wind. He tried another—scraaaatch—and a wooden chip flared. The flame flickered, almost timidly, and found its way among other chips, multiplying. Hissing repeatedly, they raced along the outer layers of the logs.

The pandit continued, “Aum sarvam vai purnajn swaha,” and onlookers threw flowers into the fire, repeating swaha ceremoniously. “Let everything be offered,” he sanctioned, motioning for a boy to throw the last of the clarified butter from a jar into the fire. The orange flames were now becoming blackish, as flesh began to burn. The heat intensified, yet Anuradha remained dangerously close to the pyre, watched by her sister cautiously. The flames rose and gave off cracking sounds, spitting out bits of debris angrily that made it increasingly difficult to see the corpse. He anticipated a final glimpse of his daughter when Anuradha started to scream; Amrita! Am…rita! Mommy can’t see you…” He saw her collapse and quickly looked back at the fire, but it was too late.

They carried Anuradha back to the house on the very stretcher that transported her daughter. The old woman with the perfume bottle had followed, and now she removed her orni and addressed him, “Son, bring some smelling salts or rum quickly.”
He returned. “I don’t have any smelling salts. Only this,” and he handed a bottle to her.
“This will do. Now leave us. The sun was too much for her. Go,” said the old woman assuredly. Sita nodded and he hustled back to the riverside.
As he proceeded, he met the pandit coming up. “Bhai, I will leave now. You don’t need me anymore. Remember what we talked about the ash. I will return in the morning.” Avinash thanked the pandit and hurried on.

Flames battled with the wind, consuming wood voraciously. The weakened logs crumbled easily, altering the shape of the pyre. Having witnessed the departure of the pandit, squatters also started to leave. That was when he noticed the schoolchildren among them—most likely classmates of his daughter. Still, lingering however, were two boys who, from their antics and raggedy clothing, were vagabonds that frequented the riverside. They picked up little pieces of plastic and dried sugarcane peelings and flung them into the fire as if they engaged in some kind of contest. As the afternoon settled in, a cool breeze blew across from the river. The vagabonds finally drifted off, leaving him sitting alone at the river’s bank as if in penance.

Terrifying thoughts can come to one’s mind when one is before the dead, for a corpse may evoke the most primal of human feelings, disturbing any sense of security. Yes, he mused, If a man looked closely at a corpse, he will see himself. But fear did not trouble him, only his shortcomings as a father. He tried to remember, even momentarily, better times—the first day he held Amrita, he felt reborn. He became animated before the medical staff, until Anuradha began elaborating on her plans for the child. This calmed him down but once he stepped out the hospital, he wept and clapped giddily on his way to the bus terminal. And after mother and child were discharged, he got drunk for three consecutive days, making himself a fool one night by sleeping in a gutter. All this belonged to a time that was now irrelevant. When he eventually stood up to leave, there was only a bed of coals that glowed red in the dark.

The next morning, he stooped at the very spot and gazed at the white-grayish after-remains of life on the ground, a life reduced to mere dust and powder, and sanctified by the remnant scent of burnt wood in the air. To stare at it was to observe his demise—to exist between two worlds. His fingers reached out—she was soft, fragile. And for the first time since they found her dead, he wept at his wretchedness and felt utterly incomplete. All he ever was or ever will be was before him—for how should a man regard himself after he is reduced to nothing? Some believe in a higher authority to relinquish oneself themselves to some greater mystery, and in doing so obtain a substitution for what they cannot explain. But this was unsatisfactory for him, a man whose conviction was his betrayal by life. Because life could not provide happiness, it offered him death instead as a reason to embrace its hopelessness. He wiped his eyes and nose, careful not to touch the ash with his wet hands. Not until today with him having neither fear nor hope, has death appeared for what it was truly—mercy is all death ever was. Indeed, he lamented, to rise over death one had to die.

He saw a figure approaching and quickly pushed the last of the ash into the cartoon box. The pandit announced himself by apologizing. “Namaskaar bhai. I’m a bit late. Sorry.” Despite being dressed in a white shirt and brown polyester pants, he carried the same haversack and wore the same slippers as yesterday.

“Don’t mention pandit. I took my time. After all, this is the last moment we’ll be together.”
“Well,” replied the pandit, ensuring that he had all the items needed, “that isn’t exactly so. As you know, our Gita teaches that the soul is immortal. Your daughter still exists in spirit.” He saw the pandit looked him in his eyes and heard his voice deepened, “I know you’re in great pain but you must let the child go.”

This last sentence was too strong, and it touched the anger he had subdued since Amrita died. “Yes. Yes. I suppose you are correct,” he lied, far from being interested in a discussion of religious beliefs at the expense of his daughter. Neither the philosophy nor the customs could appease for his loss, and suddenly, he only wanted the revered man to be gone.  

The pandit only turned towards the brown river and invoked the gods again, “Om twameva maataa cha pitaa twameva, twamerva bandhushcha twameva, twameva vidyaa dravinam twameva, twameva sarvam mama deva deva,” uniting the remains with everything and all into one sense of godhead; Oh my God of gods, Thou art my mother and father; Thou art my family; Thou art my knowledge and wealth; Thou art my everything, my Lord. He then handed Avinash a glass of water; “Pour this slowly into the river.” The pandit followed by throwing flowers into the river. “Now the ash.” Avinash upturned the box, watching the ash slither away, some of it whisked off by the wind but most disappearing upon contact with the water. The flowers remained trapped momentarily, as the water lapped back and forth against the bank. He shredded the cartoon box and tossed it into water, and stood there. A hand touched his shoulder and is then withdrawn, but he did not move when the pandit stepped away.

He must have stood there for a few minutes and when he raised his head, he looked around and saw a mangrove stump at the river’s edge. He sat down on it to gather himself, slowly untying the lace of his boots and slipping his warm feet into the river. The water made him feel connected to the earth, and looking skywards, he calculated from the position of the sun that noon was approaching. Focusing on a particular spot in the water until he felt as if the river reached out in intimacy, he withdrew his legs and stood at the very edge of the river. Yes, to overcome death, one had to die. He plunged, diving downwards until the air in his chest was no more, until he was too deep to resurface.

The End

Bhai: Brother.
Bhajan: A Hindu religious hymn.
Damru: A small drum associated with deity Nataraj, or Shiva.
Dhoti and Kurta: Indian clothing worn by males.
Namaskaar: Hindi, hello or goodbye.
Orni: A scarf worn by Indian women, often over the head.
Nataraj: An incarnation of Hindu God, Shiva. Nataraj is the “Lord of the dance.”
Pandit: A Hindu priest.
Tika: Ornamental dot or circle (usually black) placed on child’s forehead by Indian parents.

Copyright © Rakesh Rampertab, April 2003.

© 2001