The Pandit chanted mantras that sounded gibberish to me since my mind was elsewhere. As his chants rang through the dull air, an old uncle helped me with the ceremonial rounds around the pyre. A burning torch was handed over to me and the ever helpful uncle once again guided me to her toe. I debated whether she would jump up in pain. Nevertheless, I mechanically followed all instructions momentarily ignoring the storm that was brewing within me.
As soon as the pyre was ablaze, the dull air was filled with the smell of smoke and a queer thought crossed my mind. I never knew she would smell this way when she would lifelessly burn before my eyes. As a child, I remembered hugging her belly tightly while she toiled away in the kitchen. Her sari would reek of the smell of Indian spices and her exposed tummy would be moist with drops of salty perspiration; mixed with the smell of her sandalwood soap, this combination gave rise to a signature scent that I grew up with. Over the years as I ‘grew up’ and my hugs reduced, it was the same smell that her hands would emanate when she touched my head lovingly. But somehow the smell of her body burning was different; it was a scent that was alien, a scent I didn’t relate to at all.
As the fire crackled loudly and the flames turned brighter, I tried to see if I could spot her in there. During the summer vacations, my friends and I would climb through the window to steal the yummy pickles. I remember scampering away when we heard the tinkle of her anklets and the jingle of her bangles. And when her bright sari made its way through the kitchen door, we would all hide behind the door to escape her wrath. Over the years her anklets and bangles were cues for her soothing presence in the house and the swish of her sari allowed us to relax in her care. The sound of the crackling fire and the bright flames didn’t bear even an iota of similarity to her.
While the remaining wood burnt away, I stood amongst the crowd, alone. At that precise moment, nothing mattered except my search for her. The heat from the fire was far from the warmth I felt in her lap or in her embrace. The heat was irritating me, only because I just couldn’t fathom what she would be feeling at this moment. Last year during the Diwali celebrations, she accidently burnt her fingers and it took over a week to heal while she bore the pain silently. Right now her entire body was burning and I wondered how long it would take to heal and whether she was bearing the pain silently this time too.
A final loud crackle rang through the air and someone at the back whispered, “That was the head, now it won’t take much time.” I turned around with shock, horror and anger written all over my face. It was MY loved one who they were talking about! How dare they speak as if they were talking about some doll or some gory act they were watching on television? Throughout her life, if she ever heard an erroneous statement made against her loved one or her own self, she would retort back with the utmost fury. Every morning, her loud voice would resonate in the narrow aisles of our village. She argued and bargained with the ‘expensive’ vegetable vendor and would hold on to the last penny as if it were her very life. I was fuming and turned towards the burning pyre. I tried to listen if I could hear her protesting voice coming through the flame, but the pyre continued to burn nonchalantly as if nothing mattered now.
The flamed died down and the bone collector deftly sifted through the ashes, he handed over an earthen jar covered in a red cloth. My uncle prodded me to take it with both my hands. The pot felt warm. Something struck me at that moment, like a bolt of lightning. I suddenly felt like everything was explained and solved. This was a truth that I always associated with fanatic and dogmatic religious beliefs, but today I saw the truth in it.
How could this urn of ashes be her when she was very much alive in my thoughts? How could she be a mere lifeless ‘body’ that indifferently burnt amongst the wood? She was someone who was larger than life, all I had to do is close my eyes and she would be standing before me. Maa’s presence in my life would remain – her scent, her voice and her warmth would live in my heart forever. I retreated from the funeral grounds, feeling lighter and happier.