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
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 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
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
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
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
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,
“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
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
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.
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.
Rakesh Rampertab, April 2003.