Apr/May 2019  •   Fiction

Choices at a Funeral

by Pranav Mishra

Excerpted imagery from photography by Kris Saknussemm

Excerpted imagery from photography by Kris Saknussemm

It's not one of those heartbreaking affairs.

In fact, this demise was awaited for so long by so many people for so many reasons, the absence of grief should be thoroughly justified. Move a bit closer to the old Mrs. Pandey, the emaciated widow clad in a spotless white sari, and you will find great relief hiding in her furrowed face. Same is the case with the daughter Alka, a plump woman approaching 50, who even dispatches flirtatious smiles at her once beau, whom she fell in love with during her college days. Her husband could not make it to the funeral, and crematorium has become an arena for wild-goose-chase unattainable romance.

The son Krishan Pratap has gulped a Pacific-suggesting quantity of whiskey, of a premium quality he could barely afford until yesterday. Now that the old rascal has gone, he can see some bucks flowing his way. The deceased was a famed miser and couldn't share a penny of his wealth with anyone, a trait that'd turned even his wife into a beggar. She'd had to shamefully siphon money from her parents on regular occasions for day-to-day expenses and the education of her two children, who were always obtuse when it came to studies and promised to become suckers in the future. Mrs. Pandey saw a gloomy road winding out in front of her.

Children use the enclosure for playing rat-a-tat, but no one bothers to stop them. In fact, an old man, a friend of the deceased and a faithful liquor partner, tries to join them. He retreats, however, owing to the pain in his wasted knees. The regret in his eyes reminds one of Alexander the Great's despair when he was compelled to relinquish his world-winning campaign after the exhausting battle with Porus.

Pieces of wood are being arranged inside the fire slot by ones who never knew the departed. They are two dedicated men from a small goodwill organization specializing in matters of cremation. Death to them is a song. They see the withered body lying by their side, left utterly desolate as the visiting few chitter and chatter, occasionally chuckling at ill-begotten jokes, perhaps the very friends of the deceased, a breath away from their own departure, gaunt and bent and pale and crumpled. There's an unbelievable festivity in the air, considering the grim occasion. It's as if they have come to a feast or a fest.

"Must be a very lonely man," observes one of the two volunteers, watching the unattended, kafan-covered body.

A young man flies a kite close by, eyed critically by everyone, whether merry or morose. He is cursed by every individual for his lack of propriety, but if truth be told, his pursuit is an object of profound envy. Kids approached him a while ago, but he drove them away hollering and swearing, the kind of bad words never heard at a cremation site. Go and ask him why he has come at all, and he will say he is one of the victims of the mischievous old man. One of those who lent him money, considering him hapless and poor, impressed by his humility and touched by the sight of his sorry face and ill-dressed body. The old man was quite skillful at tricking people into his carefully crafted snare, and he could shed an ocean of fake tears whenever it was desired of him.

The two good men place the body diligently over the stacked wood and cover it neatly with more wood and twigs. It's fire time! But the priest is missing. Everyone waits for the contracted holy man restively, suffering hunger on a sultry summer afternoon. At this time, a bhel-puri vendor positions himself at the entrance of the little crematorium, and everyone hurries towards him, leaving the wood-bedecked corpse perfectly alone. The visiting snack-seller is a rogue, though, for he demands thrice the legitimate price for every cone of the snack. Rupees 60 for one unit, and it becomes the fuel for a lot of bickering and swearing. Ultimately the stocky merchant agrees on 40, and the sweating funeral-attenders are jubilant at the hard-earned bargain.

An astounding grimness sweeps the scene when the priest arrives. Everyone wants to look shattered before the Gods' agent. In a while they surround the shade beneath which the corpse waits to be burnt. The drunken son hobbles and lights the pier, as the air resonates with the chubby priest's customary mantra-chanting. The body, no more the mischievous Mr. Pandey, burns garishly in the summer afternoon, while the son embarks on the supposedly agonizing undertaking of walking seven rounds around it. Something stops his progress though, and he stands terrified in the middle of the third round. It's his senile mother who is howling madly, beseeching the gathering to douse the blaze, convinced the burning body is alive.

"He is alive!' she yells hysterically, her eyes manic. "See his hand! It is moving! Stop... stop the fire!'

It's good she's held by a few visitors. Sanity returns to her in a short while, and she takes a deep breath of relief. "It's okay, after all," she convinces her inflamed mind. She reckons the misunderstanding must be the fruit of some optical phenomenon. Her plump daughter, feeling estranged since her former beau departed an hour ago, considers her with loathing and unease, though the feelings are well-regulated since she's aware of her own worthlessness. Suddenly her 13-year-old son comes to her and barks aloud, "Mummy, now that nana ji is dead, we will become rich, right?"

She stares at him like she will eat him raw. Her eyes survey the people standing around her, and she is comfortably heartbroken to gather they had heard the boy. She smiles to them in an awkward manner and says to her son, "Go away, naughty boy!'

By the time the fire dies down, everyone has conveniently settled into the philosophies of death, barring the children who are demanding playthings and pizzas from their parents in return for attending the grim ceremony. The elder minds rehearse what they would offer to the old widow as words of condolence. The certainty of death. Everyone has to go one day. He was old enough to die, and his departure shouldn't cause much grief. None of these are necessary since from tomorrow on Mrs. Pandey shall be happier than she'd ever been in her accursed married life.

People keep leaving the grounds, rather a cemented courtyard, having thrown tiresome words in the ears of the old widow and her middle-aged progenies. The fire is completely cold now, the wood and the body turned into ash. The priest departs, having gotten his due and milked some more from the bereaved-cum-relieved widow. Some people will surely find her mannerisms odd. She almost smiles on some unguarded moments, and there's something childlike about her fragile, feathery persona. The bloodsucker of a husband gone, she's ready to welcome her second childhood.

There's a banyan tree at one corner of the courtyard. It's as big as a flame tree, surrounded at the base by a tiny cemented platform to sit. An hour after the conclusion of cremation, the mother and daughter sit on the platform, while the drunkard, unmarried son stands before them imbibing the premium whiskey he can now afford. He drinks from the mouth of the bottle, whereas his plump sister, younger than him by three years, sips a diluted version from a plastic cup. The scrawny mother is encouraged by the siblings to take a light peg or two.

"Just taste it, Mummy," says the daughter, a little tipsy. "It's not such a bad thing. It helps us celebrate better."

A tear issues from the old woman's mottled eyes and travels down her crumpled cheeks. It is finally soaked by her spotlessly white sari after tumbling from the tip of her measly chin.

"Cry? Why?" hollers the deeply intoxicated son shuffling on his legs. "He was 85 years old! Why cry?... And we will be freer now. We will have money. God knows how I have lived through all this while. I have been waiting for this for such a long time."

"Me, too," says the daughter unabashedly. "I would suggest you to take it easy and drink a bit with us. It's all right. Take a very light peg. It will ease your spirits."

The plump woman sights the ashes of a never-loved husband, over there beneath the shade. Her fading memory quickly scurries through the memorable events of her life. A visit to a sea town so many decades ago, staying in a cheap, horrid hotel against her will, and later fighting when he started drinking in front of her inside the inelegant room smelling of rat shit. Another squall of memories visit her, and now she finds herself perennially harassed by the men who'd lent the impostor money. And then years of bickering for resources, years of wrangling about children's education and future, a life crammed with potholes and endless tunnels of gloom. Girja Prasad Pandey could not be bothered by any amount of domestic trouble. He used his wife for his needs but never offered anything in return. Once, during the late 1960s, he had thrown a 100 rupee bill towards her, and later treated her as his nemesis. He humiliated her on many occasions and deprived her of his company, staying away from the house for days on end. In those days, failing to keep your husband happy was a stigma no woman could afford.

"Make a light one for me," she says to her drunken son in a frayed voice.

The three drink together now, and two hours later, the sun about to disappear behind the city's dusty horizon, they dance shabbily on the deathly courtyard to the scoundrel's departure. The old woman's spindly arms rise and swing in the air languidly; legs shuffle about carefully while her children dance to the beats of some imaginary music.

Lastly they embrace one other and weep, theatrically and mawkishly after all the drinking. The crooked old man has reunited his family. In addition to making everyone rich.