May 13, 2009 / Creative Writing
I watched Rebel Without a Cause on TV late one college night when I learned …
September 16, 2019
He comes like Gulliver from among his little people.—“The Old and New Schoolmaster,” Charles Lamb
I arrived at the row house in Nigdi—its walls giving way to pre-monsoon rains, to the heat of the sun and the penetrating rays that serrated the clouds and made tatters of the paint and plaster. The bricks were blackened, deformed, and protruding. The iron gate creaked against its hinges and welded joints. My aunt lives there, in the tattered house, the house gnarled by time, weather, and economy. My aunt lived there.
Afzal raised his red eyes from the casket as I passed our relatives—Rozan Chacha, Riyaaz Bhai, Mushtaq Abba, Akbar—and placed my clammy hand on his shoulder, giving it a tug. My cousin’s fat cheeks were marked by dripping tears and sweat, a moist layer of body salts shimmering on his dark cheeks. The quivering of his shoulder drew my attention back to my hand, the veins stretching up through the skin, the tiny hairs matted there, and I released my grip as he continued to sob.
I was consciously aware then of my thoughts receding to the rear of the head, resting asymmetrically somewhere at the upper tip of my spine. I felt an expansion outside my body—an expansion in the wind over the top of the trees, in the shuddering of the television antenna atop the fissured terrace parapet, even in the shape of Nasima Aapa, who stood behind the iron gate, her baby bump visible from the raised frills of her stained yellow kameez. There was a sudden ingress of sound, of cars wheeling across the road, scooters honking at ghosts, pressure cookers whistling through windows.
A gust of wind flapped at the green cloth that covered the casket, revealing, only briefly, a tight shroud and the supine figure that lay within—the lidded balls of her eyes, the bridge and tip of her nose, the pursed lips. With another gust, I followed the fabric down the old, dead breasts, the bulge of stomach, the female pelvis, the thighs and calves, the tips of her feet. Every crest and trough of her body seemed white and hairless beneath the shroud, a polythene layer clinging to the ridges of cold-storage vegetables. My aunt, the anthropomorphic lump of ginger, the cold yam.
The casket, with its cold steel frame, seemed heavy enough to require at least five or six people to lift it. I began to imagine the wrinkles of my palm tightening around the iron bars of the casket, weighing it in my mind, when Akbar tapped on my palm, signaling that it was time to go to the burial ground. A kilometer’s walk from the house. I looked at Akbar. The dead look on my face, the fruit of dead contemplation, was reflected back at me there and in the gloomy faces of strangers and relatives, as if our faces were becoming congruent with the fate of the deceased, as if we were imitating the dead in reverence and in fear. I welcomed our movement, our departure.
Akbar now held onto one of the two padded bars that extended from the rear of the casket, and Tayyaib Bhai held on to the other rear bar. Two other men, who may or may not have been my relatives, showed their backs to me as they carried the front bars. I reached out and clutched the end of the bar that rested on Tayyaib Bhai’s left shoulder. I was now the fifth bearer.
We moved forward, onto the concrete lane, and then departed the houses, a white harmony of kurtas. Nasima Aapa and Afreen wailed in high-pitched shrieks. There was muffled talk and muzzled chanting of verses for the dead, the clicking of my boots on the asphalt, the metallic bellowing of the casket frame. Entropy and order.
There were onlookers on the side of the road. Men in skull caps andbrown boots.Children who stopped their game of hide-and-seek, the seeker peeking through the gaps of fingers that he had placed over his eyes—eighteen, nineteen, twenty.Housewives gaping in gowns, their hair buns streaked with red vermillion. Perhaps the casket seemed unnatural—the procession of men live and walking was the natural over which now lay the dead, she who was no longer a part of this world. Death and life, natural and unnatural.
As we marched, I began to see the individuality of the mourners and onlookers collapse into a communal gaze that hung over me. I shared an unshared weight. I had to let go. I abandoned my role as the fifth bearer, and the singularity of the watchfulness shuddered and crumbled.
We moved forward toward the graveyard amid the probe of the passersby. We passed raised enclosure of houses—low income, middle income, high income, property inheritance—and cars parked in order of class—hatchbacks, sedans, SUVs; old, new; one, two, three, none. We passed kempt trees and acrylic plaques speaking of names and occupations; a shopkeeper weighing rice in one polythene bag, taking away what was extra; a cobbler driving a nail into a shoe’s broken heal by means of a mallet; bistro servers bringing out their awnings and cleaning the tables of their stains of ketchup, chutney, puff, teacup. We smelled the warming of ovens to heat a stale batch of sandwiches and fried food. We were the uncommon today.
And I was the uncommon among the uncommon—I had fallen behind the procession, mesmerized by the vehicles that rushed past, the mechanical gales that rushed my calves. Then something more substantial than wind, the shard of an earthen pot, struck my shin. I stopped to clean the fabric of my jeans, dusting the pant leg with my hand and then dusting my hand with the fabric of the jeans. Beneath a balcony that I presumed to be the source of my shard, I saw a dead earthen pot and the dying form of a chrysanthemum. A conical heap of soil had forced itself upon the budding plant, and broken trapezoids, rhombuses, and hexagons sat upon the neck of its tuft. Above, no door creaked, no window flapped, no curtain was pulled aside. The white distempered outer wall was stained brown with comets of wet soil.
The procession was now at the end of the street. No eyes had turned back to watch the lonely death of the chrysanthemum under its soil. A call from Akbar, loud, full, and wholesome, pulled me back to the procession. I quickened my pace and joined my uncle Rozan.
From the long street with residences and businesses on either side, we turned onto a newly constructed four-lane road, broad and level, the smell of fresh asphalt rising and mixing with the torrid June smell. The yellow paint of the dividers shone in the yellow light of the sun. I squinted at the doubling of colors, a superlative disturbance of the dead black road. There was also the synchronous movement of five workers, daily wagers perhaps, supporting a bundle of long, metal pipes, about thirty feet in length. We merged with the scene, and the last pipe bearer looked at me, running his marijuana-drenched eyes over my brittle face.
Troubled by the fixity of his eyes, I jutted forward to break the parallel and began watching my male relatives as they shouldered in turns the casket, slowly memorizing the process, observing them share its load, passing it from person to person. Like an assembly line of four codependent belts running in infinite loops, the entire corpus moving from supply to dispatch, they were circling the casket. After ten minutes of watching the slapping of rubber slippers, the exchange of hands and gazes, the plush padding being compressed and expanded, I became a part of the casket circle, ready to bear its weight. I felt the weight resting fully on my left shoulder, the padded iron bar stretching the skin from my shoulder to my neck and from my neck to my jaw.
I walked with that stretching for some distance until I was replaced by Riyaaz Bhai. Servile memory served its drudgery as I orbited in the circle around the rear right bar. Weighed, weightless, weighed, weightless. This jump from state to state was incessant, as if sight and motion, separated long ago from a common center, had become one. I moved like an ant in a closed circle of formic acid. My eyes had lost their function and my brain had absorbed the acid.
Mushtaq Abba tapped my shoulder to break me out of my trance and signaled me to remove my shoes as we passed through the graveyard gate and the casket was taken to the raised plinth for funeral prayers. I sat on the stairs rising up to the plinth, three in number, to remove my shoes. Before me was a line of trees standing guard. Humps of earth were dissected by the trunks of the trees, chalk dust spread over some, glittering nets over others. Gravestones identified their occupants. All of this was enclosed by a concrete path, continuous and looping around the burial ground with its small thorny shrubs, municipal arbors and trellises.
I undid the laces, forcefully pulling out a bad eyelet along with the thread of the lace from my right shoe and tearing the tongue from its joint as I undid the other. Kicking them away from the stairs, I stepped onto the plinth to join the bevy. Riyaaz Bhai, from a distance, gave me an eerie look, signaling toward my feet, mouthing that I was to take off my socks. I looked away even as he continued to point. The maulvi, who had arrived by now, also fixed his eyes on my feet, calling silently on everyone to join in the silent stare. As the black-green granite floor of the plinth reflected the common gaze and the whitish hue of my socks, I walked back to the edge of the plinth to remove my socks, balanced on one foot, removed first one sock and then the other, and threw them over my shoes from a distance.
Turning back toward the plinth, I joined the front row of mourners. The casket lay before us, the loose end of the green cloth still dangling beside an iron bar. As the prayers began, my assay to conjure up the idea of a universal, out-worldly god failed. I moved to more personal ideas and contemplations, calling to a magnificent being balled up behind my solar plexuses. I suppressed my breaths to awaken it, as if pushing down my heart through the length of my chest while cutting off its oxygen supply, as if looking in a cave for a torchbearer.
The chants and the maneuvers discomforted me. The crinkling sound of white fabrics brushing against the skin and the fabrics of the other pushed me off balance, like the mid-June wind that rattled the loose end of the green casket cloth, wrapping and unwrapping it around the neighboring iron bar of the casket. Under the punch of the wind, I observed my aunt’s dead body, wrapped in the shroud and then caged behind the iron bars, feeling the absence of air therein, the absence of movement, the lack of hearing and speech, all five, six, seven senses put to rest just outside the thin layer of air covering the casket. We both comforted each other from the distance of a row.
The prayers ended after two calls, and now the maulvi asked the attendees to hasten toward the burial ground. He held some papers in his hand, creased unequally by oblique lines that ran at random. Riyaaz Bhai, Tayyib Bhai, Afzal, and Mushtaq Abba picked up the casket from the four ends and proceeded toward the burial ground. Leaving my shoes where they were, I proceeded barefoot to the burial ground, as did my aunt. The concrete path that broke the ground into grids, square patterns and designated places, was hot, burning, and sharp. I could feel the heat from the white concrete surface seep upward through the stone aggregate into my cracked heels. I was the only one without slippers. I clenched the sole of my feet to lessen the contact and walked in an unnatural limp, alternating between the two straight lines that walked behind the casket and finally falling out.
The incongruous overcast sky had by now receded behind the sun that was shining over the graves, the casket, the shroud, the boundary walls of the graveyard—the rusted, old fences and barbed wires—shining over the government quarters that surrounded the graveyard and the roads that surrounded the quarters. But even during its absence, it had been quietly heating the landscape, carrying out its ordained task oblivious to these happenings.
We stopped before the grave that had been dug out for my aunt, heaps of soil diverging all around it and covering the neighboring humps, one marbled, one covered with dried flowers. The casket was placed on the path and everyone surrounded the grave, just one circle, enough to abut the grave. The maulvi, in his crisp chicken kurta and freckled facial expressions, yelled at Akbar to undo the ties of the casket cover and to lift its upper casing. Akbar, taken aback by the sudden and loud call of the maulvi, complied and, with the help of one more person, unknown to me, undid the cover and the lid and placed it upside down on the ground, where it oscillated like a seesaw. The cloth was placed within the concave depression of the lid. Afzal and Riyaaz Bhai then stepped down into the grave to level and clear it of unwanted items—a torn plastic bag, a lump of concrete, a few boulders of clastic sand. They hurled the debris upward and out of the grave, only for the items to land on some other grave.
The maulvi then asked Akbar and Tayyaib Bhai to hold the dead body of my aunt by her shoulders and ankles and to lower her into the grave, passing the body to Afzal and Riyaaz Bhai. I watched intently as the maulvi hurled abuses at their slowness. He was sweating, his kurta clinging to his arms and his beard beaded with moisture. I could see Akbar shaking under the authority of the maulvi and the touch of the corpse of his deceased mother, but the maulvi seemed oblivious. He was standing inside the circle, removed from its periphery, frowning and shifting his head from the grave to the body and from the body to the grave. I peeked into the grave, now standing on the cool soil with feet unclenched, to ascertain its dimensions, rectangular with irregular sides and tapering at the end where the feet may be rested. The man behind me pulled me back.
The body was lowered into the grave. Afzal and Riyaaz Bhai slumped under the weight of the body. I looked back at the maulvi, who wiped his red face with the back of his hand and fanned himself with the papers that he held in the other hand; he seemed to grit his teeth at the amateur handling of the body by the relatives of the dead. He shouted at Afzal and Riyaaz Bhai to turn the body onto its side so that it faced the long wall of the grave.
Thinking that the rites were over and done with, I picked up a handful of soil and dropped it into the grave. The loose and dry soil particles dropped onto the shroud, somewhere near my dead aunt’s ear and jumped onto Afzal’s pants. The maulvi shrieked at the sight. In an angry profane tone, he called me names and staggered toward me in haughty steps. He held me by my collar to remind me of my limited reach in this world, this world that is closing in by the day, to remind me of the unchaste action that will cause some otherworldly wrath to descend upon me and push me into the same ground that I was standing over. I could feel his stench and his strong garlic breath over my skin, and I tried to hold my breath to avoid the smell.
I was not scared. I was not tense. I was not shaken. I stood there, with my collar in his hand and his lips moving and making shapes as I found composure in this humiliation. Our separation was our belief and disbelief, but this haughty tryst was proof enough that we both, I, the atheist, and the maulvi, were, in fact, one.
He pushed me back into the circle and occupied his erstwhile place, still yelling and sweating and wiping away sweat. Riyaaz Bhai climbed out of the grave while Afzal stayed inside. Riyaaz Bhai and Mushtaq Abba passed wooden planks to Afzal to place over the corpse of his dead mother. The planks were inclined and fixed between the wall and the opposite edge of the grave. One, two, three, four—seventeen planks were placed in the grave, and then Afzal climbed out and placed two jute mats over the planks. The maulvi handed an extra plank over to one of the attendees.
The maulvi poignantly fixed his gaze on me and signalled everyone to shovel the soil back into the grave with their hands. I remained still, standing, looking at the maulvi’s face as he looked at mine, looking at a face that mirrored and contrasted my own. We were the same in our unflinching stare, even at the hiss of the soil flowing down the planks into the grave. We were both aware of the sobs and the choked voices of the mourners as they shoveled in the soil, but our hands were clean, our clothes warm and crisp. We were same but for our mind, appearance, and response to the sun. Sweat bathed him from his head down to his paunch, but I too was now sweating. My green shirt blossoming into black at the underarms, the ridge of my back, the area near my navel. My eyes welled with tears in response to the ingress of the salts. I blinked, blinked, and blinked again, and the tears came down my face to the corner of my lips. The maulvi and I were now separated in two dimensions, having converged in all other planes.
The shoveling was completed, as the soil now lay over the grave in a convex hump of frangible lumps that the wind could blow away. The maulvi asked one of the caretakers of the graveyard to pour water over the grave to consolidate the soil. The caretaker, a boy of sixteen or seventeen with a sunbaked complexion and oily, slick hair, combed the soil in a square pattern and then poured two bucketfuls of water over the grave. The maulvi watched for a while and turned around to leave. My intuition that he’d turn around to look at me proved wrong as he walked slowly over the concrete path only to vanish behind the treeline that stood guard before the graveyard.
Everyone gathered before the grave on the concrete path while I still remained staid over the soil. Mushtaq Abba asked me to step out from the soil of the burial ground and stand on the path. I complied. I clenched my feet again as I made contact with the burning ground. I watched the people standing in a herd on the path. Their kurtas had attained an afternoon haze. The warm wind hushed in the branches of the trees. The shrubs cracked in the heat. The expressions of the crowd relaxed, eyebrows resting over the bulges of the skull bones. Everyone turned around to leave save five—two unknowns, Riyaaz Bhai, and Tayyaib Bhai stood on the right side of the concrete path and talked. They smiled about some familial matter, saying words like farm, land, produce, sell, and court.
With a final glance at me, they, too, turned and walked side-by-side away. I stayed behind clenching and unclenching my feet, trying to get the salt out of my eyes, my face covered in sweat, redness, and tears.
Sada Mukhtasar lives, works, and writes in Bombay, India (he rues the usage of the word Mumbai). He is currently pursuing an MA in philosophy. He likes to read phenomenology and deconstruction. In his free time, he likes to drown in the urban lanes of the city and pick philosophy out of the city mendacity.