The bald man and his wife

(My essay in The Hindu, May 14 2017)

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Perhaps it was because she still bleeds. Or perhaps, as they said, it was because a woman could “hardly” appear in the ironic nakedness of a loincloth. Either way, mother wasn’t permitted to set fire to her father. It was all a curious unfolding—the cremation saw no logs of wood; it was coconut husks they piled up.

Grandfather was frozen after his night in the glass box. When we lifted him, his feet in my hands, I wondered if he might crack. He didn’t, and we put him on his bed of husks. He was supposed to be washed but how can you wash ice? So someone dabbed his face with a wet cloth. We were meant to dress him in new clothes. It was laid on him instead. A fine shawl was added for pretensions of dignity. Local politicians came bearing shawls of nylon. Only the corpse looked mournful.

Mother was the firstborn of his two daughters. For reasons of sex, they said she wasn’t eligible to burn her father. They looked to me instead, the eldest male of his line. I had seen Mother wash grandfather some years before. The nurse was fired and the old man needed cleaning. She parked him on a stool and began with his toes. The father chatted weakly, and the daughter hummed an old tune. In the end he emerged, still decrepit but with the happy smell of Pears soap. Nobody had called mother ineligible to wash the man who birthed her, incapacitated with age and naked in her gaze. Burning him too was her right, I sentimentalised, declining what was pronounced my duty. In the end it was the son of the secondborn who wore the loincloth. It was he who brought fire to the ice.

The workers came before with the husks. Coconut burns faster, they explained between drags of the beedi. When grandfather arrived, horizontal under ugly shawls, they heaped sugar on him, and other commodities too. Then their palms produced dung. Cow dung, they said, seals heat. It is also auspicious, they cried, protesting my bewilderment. And grandfather was sandwiched between husk and dung. It looked like a large, grey rectangular cake, six feet in length, and oddly, without smell. But really, it was an oven, fire breathing below. Don’t look back, ordered the priest, and we obeyed, dragging away the ritual flame. We defied his command afterwards to return; there were plastic bags everywhere and beedi stubs to remove. The priest was gone, and grandfather burned in silence.

When the skull cracked, the noise travelled a universe. The visitors could at last leave. And then, when we were alone, the widow sat down for tea.

***

The deceased was born into what was less a family and more a model of correctness. They lived by a river in a neat house built by an ancient grandfather—a blind tyrant of strange tastes. He liked bananas, and so bananas were hung from the roof of his bed. He liked to soak, so a tub of rock was carved for him. He set his grandchildren tasks of endurance to amuse himself. Sometimes he thundered in discontent. But nobody resented the invalid: the mother of the children was exact in her deference. The father was docile and invisible which also was a form of deference. Together, they were a pattern of undemonstrative propriety. Nobody laughed, and nobody cried. Nobody even spoke. The boys were studious and the girls were married.

Grandfather was the eldest. He pored over textbooks, and he helped in the kitchen. He put his brothers through college and paid for his sisters’ weddings. One successful brother lived in a big house with a bathtub of enamel. But he went first. When grandfather died, the less successful brother came, and all the sisters too. The man who survives is tall and straight. He has no teeth but was statuesque in sorrow. The sisters were bent. One, with an anguished face, sought food. While others paid homage to the corpse, the diabetic stole a meal from the dead man’s kitchen. Still, they had been taught well. For while there was grief, there was not a tear.

When he first met the widow as a bride, grandfather arrived into a family unlike any he knew. This was no temple of decorum and civilised restraint—it was a house of impetuous, violent souls given to tantrums and forbidding arrogance. The women brooked no husbandly intervention, and the men squandered money and pampered mistresses. When grandmother, with the authority of her line, beheld this suitor of middle class dignity, she sniffed. Not enough hair, she observed, but perhaps amenable to control. Always marry a little beneath you, she once advised, for that gives you the upper hand. Grandfather only knew household saints like his mother. Here was a woman who thought marriage politics.

Their firstborn gave them great trouble—10 days of labour and a decided headache for doctors. When at last the offspring appeared, grandmother declared her intention to never inflict again the inconvenience of pregnancy on her stately person. Grandfather shrugged. It was her decision to make, he said, and she thought him strange. Marriage was to battle but nothing provoked the man—she wanted to prevail but where was the contest?

Seven years passed before he asked for the secondborn—the firstborn would do well with company, he said. It was a gentle remark, and grandmother sat to contemplate. Soon, she agreed. Not because she savoured the production of life, but because her husband expected something of her, at last.

The birth of the secondborn was easy. Illness, however, arrived. Grandfather cared for his laid up wife; he made her mutton soup and smuggled her brandy. The elders were horrified—his, about the brandy and mutton, hers, about the mutton only. Then they built a charming house and the elders were kept at bay. Years went by, and most of it they spent apart—she, in the house she owned; he, in distant parts, working on unknown projects. They exchanged many letters. “My dear madam,” began all of his, and “Dear husband,” wrote his wife. When he retired, they carried on in formal comfort. He had diaries and books. She had maids to steer. They threw out the letters and married the daughters.

On the eve of his death, grandmother invited him to dine. I don’t feel like eating, he said, craving instead something sweet. She took to his bedside a piece of chocolate, which he swallowed whole. He wanted more, but she of vast and powerful build quibbled that an excess of chocolate is something to avoid.

They lay in bed, as they did each night, and stared at the clock. At a certain time, he died. From faraway places, the first and secondborn arrived. I went too and sat beside grandmother. Gazing at the glass box in which the bald man froze, she sniffed again after a lifetime. He rarely ever asked for anything, said the widow. I wish I’d given him more chocolate.

***

We went to a holy place with ashes that were actually bone. When the cake of dung and husk collapsed, the secondborn’s son drew them from the earth: pieces of skull, rib, and leg. They were placed in a pot, and the pot was placed in a box. The firstborn held this to her breast. A priest was found—a fat man with a quivering lip—and the rites began. He kept a golden phone in his underpants, where also he secured money. Business was good—many were those lined up with remains of their dead. Name, he demanded. R.K., said grandmother. Mother’s name, he scratched. K., she offered, remembering her own mother. Nobody cleared the confusion. The priest chanted mantras. Nearby, a goat squashed a fruit and put its tongue in the dirt.

The priest in the black underpants told the secondborn’s son to throw the bones in the sea. The pot too must be left there, he said, to dissolve and disappear. It was vaguely philosophical, but the morning was hot. The sea was blue in the distance, but where we stood, it was grey. There were rotting flowers and splashing children. Those with the dead cringed, but only a little.

The secondborn’s son went deep into the sea where at last he found a spot. Suddenly, without warning, the firstborn also waded in. Swiftly, she who bleeds and cannot wear the loincloth reached the chosen spot. And there, together, they emptied grandfather into the sea. All who saw the sight were moved. All the bones were gone.

From a distance watched the widow, tearless and firm. When I die, she said, use the garden pond.

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