It was beginning to rain. The Brahmin priest saw the first round drops break the river’s surface calm. He closed his eyes and tried to hear the watery percussion. He continued mumbling the ritualistic Sanskrit, while wondering if his wife had packed an umbrella along with the kindling, sesame seeds, ghee, rice, vermilion, and Gita that were necessary for the rituals. Of late, the barren husband and wife had not spoken with each other except to pine for a male child who could take care of them in their dotage. The ceremony was only half-over. The Brahmin opened his eyes and followed the smoke from the funeral pyre as it disappeared into the foreboding sky. The dark clouds always made his joints ache more than the rain itself.
Suddenly the reclining body in the funeral pyre sat up. The priest ignored the commotion coming from the dead man’s family. He believed the brothers to be selfish and the son and nephews to be wastrels and thus wasted no energy of his own in placating their fears. The family rushed to the fire, and the Brahmin proceeded to handle the matter as an ordinary occurrence. While the funeral ground worker was whispering something to a small boy at his side, the priest called out to the man to beat the body back with a club. As the untouchable worker approached the fire, the Brahmin, like a dainty woman sidestepping cow dung on her footpath, covered his nose with the edge of his dhoti and looked away. The untouchable began whacking at the body. With each thump of the club, the family members shuddered closer to each other, transfixed by the sight of the beaten body.
The worker’s son saw his chance, picked up a stranded umbrella floating upside down in a mud puddle, and slipped away unnoticed by everyone but the priest, who made a mental note to hold back five rupees from the untouchable’s payment.
Earlier in the morning, Vishnu had told the rich family and their priest that it was going to rain. The family had ignored his advice and refused to pay for the extra wood to make their patriarch’s body burn faster; the priest had indifferently suggested that the funeral arrangements were the family’s business, not his. Vishnu’s ears were still burning from the verbal boxing that the eldest brother had given him: “You people don’t have any emotion. You are just leeches sucking away at good people who are most vulnerable. How dare you ask for more money when my brother—this great man—is dead, and I’m standing here grieving my loss.”
Now, as the rain began to fall, steady and unyielding, Vishnu took cover under the makeshift tarp roof that kept the wood dry. He watched his son skip stones with friends at the river’s bank and called out to him to come out of the rain and sit next to him. The small boy pretended not to hear his father; he certainly could not hear the parental concern, for the boy had long ago forgotten the pneumonia that had almost taken him in the previous year’s monsoon.
Just as Vishnu called out to his son one last time in his “This time I mean business” voice, the corpse bent up at the waist and pushed off the burning wood that was holding it down. Vishnu let out a small groan and picked up the long, gnarled, and heavy pipal tree branch that he used to keep a safe distance from the fire when pushing noncompliant bodies back into the burning platform. He knew that he would not be paid for this extra effort or for the extra wood that was now required. He also knew that he would not be home in time to eat lunch with his family.
With much shouting coming from the dead man’s family, Vishnu bent over to tell his son to borrow an umbrella, go home, and bring his meal in a tiffin. The boy, confused and frightened by the shouts and the fingers pointed toward his father, stood on the tips of his toes and tilted his ear upward to hear his Papa through the falling rain. Vishnu leaned closer to his child. With one hand leaning on his son’s shoulder and the other bracing his back, he repeated the lunch instructions and prepared himself for the rain, heat, and heavy lifting.
The colorless stench in the putrefying heat was unbearable. As he moved alongside the cart carrying his father’s rotting body on its way to cremation, Mahesh concentrated on breathing through his mouth. On the two-kilometer walk from the house to the bank of the river, pebbles poked his shoeless feet, the sun scorched his burnt neck, strangers stared without compassion, and his uncle constantly prodded him to repeat the mindless “Aum namo Sivaiya.” He had thought that the funeral would be an antiseptic affair—freshly pressed suits, sober-colored ties, shoes that pinched at his wide feet, and perhaps a brief carrying of the dead body in a polished cherry coffin like the pall-bearers did on American television shows. His slender, pre-college shoulders were ready for that weight. But this was India, and nothing had prepared Mahesh for his father’s death in a strange, hot, and wet country.
To be sure, he missed his Pop. There were tears of grief mixed in with the polluted river’s holy water that the priest had insisted he drink. But a day ago, when his Mom had taken a moment away from the incessant wailing to quietly tell him that there were pre-determined rituals that had to be followed before they returned to America, Mahesh had shouted, “Damn the rituals. Damn the priest. And damn you. After all, wasn’t it you who dragged us all here for the summer? Pop didn’t want to come. And he sure didn’t want to bring us kids.”
Now, when he desperately needed her reassuring presence, his Mom had stayed back to mourn at his uncle’s house with his grandmother, aunt, two sisters, and an unending parade of visitors. And Mahesh was here at the rain-drenched funeral ground with a bunch of men and boys, all holier than the Pope in their white clothes. Trying to keep dry under a big, black umbrella, he scowled away a private smile when the rain splashed mud on his relatives’ clothes.
The rain cooled Mahesh’s hot tears of sadness and shame. His Pop was dead, and the only thing Mahesh wanted was a flight back to Sunnyvale, the California suburb that he called home. He avoided watching the fire turn his father’s body to ashes, daydreamed about his insouciantly named hometown, and gazed away at some local kids skipping stones on the river.
Mahesh fondly recalled the last time he and Pop had gone to Yosemite. The snow was melting on that trip, and the water was really flowing. He remembered Pop asking him if he wanted to skip stones. The two of them began a competition to see who would get the most skips. Pop said a stone dancing on water was like Siva dancing the cosmic dance. Mahesh had kept count by saying, “Hey, that was a great throw. You got six Sivas. Bet I can top that. And what’s a cosmic dance, anyway?” Now, all he could remember from Pop’s long explanation was something about creation and destruction being the same thing in the world’s unending cycle of life and death.
“Holy shit! What are you people doing?” Mahesh pointed at the pyre with the pointed end of his umbrella. Pop was sitting up, a blaze behind him as if he were a cartoon figure on fire. Pop’s right arm was extended to the side; he seemed to be calling out to his son to sit next to him. Mahesh kept screaming at his uncles, his cousins, the priest, and anyone else within earshot. He threw the umbrella into a puddle and ran toward his father. While his uncles and cousins restrained him, he kept shouting, “He’s calling me. Let me go. Pop’s calling me.”
After a long run in the corporate world, Rajesh C. Oza ([email protected]) now balances his life between family and friends, organization alignment research and consulting, reading and writing, India and America. He plans to complete his doctoral dissertation on globalization, diaspora, and the transformation of work as a gift for Father’s Day.