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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Funeral Blues

The Indignity of Death

"Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

"Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message she is dead.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves;
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves."

With the words of W H Auden buzzing in my head, I sat in the hearse that bore my mother’s dead body to the crematorium. It was the twilight hour, the most melancholic time of day. I have always hated the transition from day to night and here I was staring at my mother’s lifeless body as the hearse battled Delhi’s horrendous early evening traffic. We were on Delhi’s much maligned Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) corridor.

Incredibly, I found myself telling my brother and my cousin that the reaction against the BRT was a knee-jerk dehati response against modernity. Already, the feeling of sublime spirituality was destroyed; my sorrow was momentarily overtaken by the slings and arrows of Delhi’s outrageous traffic. In a way, it mitigated the emptiness I felt as I looked tearfully at my mother’s lifeless form. The reality of India is such that it won’t really let you grieve or wonder philosophically about life and death.

When we reached the funeral place, I was hustled into an “office,” where a priest told me he had made the arrangements for pooja and whatnot and that it would cost 6500 rupees. Distraught though I was, it was very clear to me that I wouldn’t let my mother go with the meaningless recital of slokas by a mercenary. Instead, we had friends from Delhi’s Capital City Minstrels choir sing hymns and bhajans while we waited for a slot at the electric crematorium. The music brought solemnity and beauty to the occasion.

Inevitably, the moment came for us to let her go; she was put on a conveyor belt and rolled into a furnace. There was no dignity in the process. I felt as though I had consigned my mother to a Nazi death camp. Until then I had managed to keep my composure. That moment was traumatic and I broke down. I sobbed for the loss of my mother, to be sure; I must confess, however, that some of the tears were for the undignified manner in which my mother was consigned to nothingness.

For anyone who believes that the dead go on to an afterlife of peace and bliss, the electric crematorium suggests hellfire and brimstone. There is no spirituality in the way we dispose of our dead. It is brutal. When I saw her disappear into the furnace, I felt affirmed in the feeling that in Hindu-majority India, where there is no respect for life, to expect dignity for the dead is too much to ask.

So much for the public aspect of death; the loss of a mother is numbing. I lived with her as part of a nuclear family for just nine years in the 1950s and 1960s. Beyond that I was always a visitor and as such not bonded but close. My mother was more spirited than spiritual even at the ripe old age of 85. “I’m sorry,” she said to me the day before she died, “I came here for comfort and joy and instead you had to hassle with doctors and hospitals.”

It was this stolid worldview that allowed me to make a life for myself. For all our differences, I will never forget her determined effort to push me into language and literature even while the whole world shoved me into science and engineering.

But that’s personal. Mothers are precious but they are not immortal; to lose a mother is indescribable. Even though they may play on guilt and behave like giant pains now and then, they are irreplaceable.

"The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the woods;"

And so with deep sorrow and wonderment, I watched my mother slip gently into the night. Thank whatever Gods there be, she had no experience of her cremation.

copyright rajiv desai 2008