The clouds hang low with rain as I race back to the past to dig out my first memories. I was maybe a tad over 10 years, playing by myself in the forecourt of an old tiled house populated by my mother’s parents in the deep south of Kerala. With the darkness of night fast approaching I was watching with interest yet another ant that I had captured being devoured by a kuzhiaana. (Literally: elephant in the hole, antlion in English). The kuzhiaana lies deep in a small sandpit near the walls of houses and makes a meal of any insect unlucky enough to slide into its hole. It comes out kicking up little spurts of sand before nabbing the ant and disappearing underground. It’s such a fast and covet operation that I never saw a kuzhiaana in the flesh.
A kuzhiaana's abode !
Image courtsey: Wikipedia.
The gate creaked open and the telegram man walked in. I called to my grandparents above the crackle of the state TV station. I was old enough to know that the telegram man inevitably bought with him bad news.
‘Your grandfather has died. We will have to leave tomorrow’, the living grandfather told me matter of factly.
My first encounter with death. I watched the darkness outside for a long time and maybe felt a certain sadness. When I went inside again, my grandparents were still seated in front of the television engrossed in the unfolding drama. Did that telegram really not come?
The next day we made the 2 hour journey to the small village where my father grew up. Down innumerable winding tiny lanes ending at last with a vision of silver and the breeze. Every time I go there it has been the same and every single time it gives me the goosebumps to see the endless lake and the sea just beyond. An old tiled house with broad verandas and sweeping views of the lake. My grandfather had a white cloth stuck around his face resembling a white beard. There was a lamp burning at the head of the body and incense sticks galore stuck in ripe bananas. Nothing though could mask the smell of rotting flesh in the room, the smell of death. We had to sit there for sometime as someone read the holy text and women wept silently. People were constantly filing in and out of the room.
Outside the men were pasting betel leaves with white lime and stuffing it with betel nuts and tobacco. When their cheeks were close to bursting they would spit it out colouring the earth red. Plates heaped with cigarettes were passed around. The women were either inside the house or in the smoke filled kitchen. The men stood around talking about the weather, current affairs and everything else but death.
A beautiful final resting place
Some of the branches of the enormous mango tree were being hacked and made into little pieces of wood. My uncle came out dripping wet after a ‘well bath’. The elaborate rituals and Sanskrit chants started for the departed soul. Soon the body was taken out of the house accompanied by a mass wailing I have not heard since. The pyre was soon lit on the banks of the lake, with the soft breeze and the sea just beyond. Everybody, the fishermen going about the day's work, the people on the opposite banks and those in the train that sped past must have been transfixed by the fire.The coconut tree planted there in my granddad's honour is quite tall now. But all those years back, I had a strange thought : 'This is not a bad place to die'