Of the Subalternate Universe
Death smells like an excess of incense.
Some part of my mind retains the memory of the cloying aroma of incense they burn at funerals, and I felt like I could smell it in the plane, triggered perhaps, by the floral perfume of some fellow passenger, chrysanthemums probably.
Since very young, I have associated the smell of incense with funerals; I remember it lingering in my mind as I commuted to them, but I never expected it to pursue me all the way from Delhi, after just four months of living there, to my ancestral home, 3000 miles apart on an Air India 737, which was taking me to the funeral of my grandfather, the first person ever to pass away that I cared about. I guess, as you grow up, you have to get used to the people you love just dying.
It was a mostly empty flight, I was the only one in my row of seats, and I was glad it was so.
It was a surprisingly comfortable flight, too, as I could stretch my legs as much as I wanted, there were no seats in front of me, and my own seat seemed to recline farther than they usually do.
Fifteen thousand feet below me, the landscape began to change; the sandstone hue of Northern India turned into the luscious green undulations of the South. I could be flying over places I have been to before; perhaps I have climbed and stood on the cliff over there at some point of my life, I would think. The dramatic approach of the flight into the heart of familiarity, rendering it with a freshness that it lacked formerly.
As the plane got closer to Kochi, however, it did something unexpected, it veered off towards the west and started flying above the Arabian sea, taking a U-turn before landing on the runway. The view from above was breathtaking. The waves of the Indian Ocean breaking on the land along the seemingly endless coastline of Kerala. It seemed like a silvery liminal zone, a courtship between the land and the sea.
Hundreds of people had come to the funeral. My grandparents were one of the most important educators in the town that we lived in, one of the very first people who helped thousands of men and women out of illiteracy in a post-colonial nation younger than them.
It was drizzling, and people held umbrellas open as they gathered around the house, conversing in lowered voices, solemn and restrained.
The Israeli elections; that was the last thing we talked about before I went away to Delhi, the last time I spoke to grandfather. “It seems the nationalists are taking over,” he said, sighing. The year was 2018, the first time ever that right-wing powers could gain some footing in the legislative assemblies of his beloved socialist Kerala.
“Your mother is the most sensitive of my daughters.” My Grandmother used to tell me. Likewise, she could barely step out of the bedroom to be near the body of her father, where everyone was. The only time she left the room was when the rituals required her to. She stayed away from everything for most of the time, wrapping herself in blankets to stop herself from shivering, not from cold, but out of grief.
My aunts and most of the people there were praying, enunciating the ritualistic verses in undertones as the time for cremation approached. Gods, goddesses, demigods, and the five elements were invoked by the priest as was customary. Rice balls were placed around the precinct of the house to gather the crows and ravens, vital as they are to all things associated with death.
My mother would later tiptoe behind us as we walked bearing the body to the funeral pyre, but she rushed inside as soon as it started burning.
She would go to the riverbanks next year to invoke the spirits of the dead again; death is an ongoing process; the spirits needed consolation and invocations in the afterlife, at least as long as their children were alive on the face of the planet. For her, it was a chance to commune with her beloved father again, to be conversant with his spirits. “I will do this every year of my life until I die,” she would say, with indomitable devotion to grandfather’s memory.
I was sobbing as the pyre burned. I felt like I never completely understood how much I loved him until that moment. I have never appreciated the scale to which his presence had influenced our lives. The candies and toffees he used to bring us when we were younger- the Cadburies and the Britannias- the places he used to take us to see, the stories he used to tell. “He used to take care of all of his grandchildren when you were all babies,” my mother would say, revealing an image of his that I could never reconcile to his strict, distant demeanor later in life, “Even I could not put you to sleep the way he did, with all his tenderness and lullabies.” The grandfather I knew was a man who paid exceptional attention to orderliness, a pedantic perfectionist. The neatly folded clothes, his organized folders, well-ironed shirts, extremely cautious nature, a tinge of paranoia, and many other quirks of his dominated all my ideas of his person. Yet, I am sure the tenderness was as much a part of him as his sternness. I could see it in the excitement with which he would tell me tales about his childhood every time I went over to meet him, it was in his smile as he tried to interest me with all the things he read in the newspaper about all the strange happenings around the world.
The next day, we collected the mortal remains in an earthen urn and carried them to the Periyar’s banks, to be scattered in its waters, en route to the ocean. My Grandmother, who did not come with us, stood by the doorstep watching as we took the urn away.
That was the first time I saw her crying. She is Prometheus, she was born Untouchable, but she traveled across the country to get an education and brought back what she gained to her people while raising four daughters and never lost her determination to do good. I remember listening to the stories of the schools she used to teach at, on the peripheries of forests, villages often visited by tigers and panthers. She sat by me in her bed as I tried to console her; for the first time, our roles were reversed.
Then there was the sound of the urn breaking on the rocks of the Periyar. The ashes mixing in the gushing flow of water, all the way to the Arabian sea.
Later that day, we gathered around the table to eat rice, which we had to abstain from during the funeral rituals. My eldest cousin sat at my grandfather’s chair this time, with my aunts, three of my other cousins, and my grandmother seated around the dining table. We shared the rice among us, the red rice, of the red earth that would become our blood, the blood of kinship, borne from the simple act of sharing the same pot of rice, making sure the same tinge of red ran through all of our veins.
The title of the article is a variation of Emily Dickinson’s Poem 390, the first stanza of which goes:
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading - treading - till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through -
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