Visiting a house to meet with a friend that still has the mortal remains of the next of kin has always been difficult to me. Anything and everything ever said to anyone in these situations has always sounded hollow. Both at the time of utterance and at the time of reminiscence. Can’t ask what happened. I knew what happened. My friend has been appraising me on a daily basis. Can’t say, “Good he didn’t suffer much”. To me, it sounds like disrespecting the departed soul and playing God at the same time. Can’t find the right words of consolation. I don’t know whether he needed any.
This confusion engulfed me as usual. What do I tell him when I meet him? I have walked into the place of bereavement more often than I would like, but I never once found an answer. My friend was not there when I entered the house. His father’s ailment has eaten the old man when he was alive. He must be weighing less than forty kgs. So fragile. Not the Sethu Mama I knew. Though I knew about it, the sight was too much, and I was not prepared for it. It hurt. It really did. I moved out.
“Not returned yet?” Someone was asking someone else.
“Ram?”, I asked the asker.
“He has gone to fetch water from Cauvery. Will come back soon”.
“Where? Chintamani?” Absurdity of the question struck me immediately. What difference does it make, whether it is Ammamandapam or Chintamani. Ram has gone to fetch water somewhere along the banks of river Cauvery in Trichy. I have nothing else to do till he returns. His son and wife were not to be seen either.
“Kambarasampettai”, he said, and he hastily added, “He will come back soon”.
Don’t worry Sir, I am not likely to go anywhere, anytime soon.
There was a bench in front of the house. Barber shop bench! I looked at it fondly. A bench that would accommodate four. Coffee powder colour bench polished with a smooth surface. Polished by people sitting all the time. Embellished by Rani magazine and the titillation provided by it. Kurangu Kusala and Anbulla Ali, Dinathanthi and Malai Murasu induced MGR-Karunanidhi-LTTE politics which we never cared about, in adolescence and in early youth… I went and sat there.
“Dei, How are you?”, said the guy who was about to sit by my side. He said that as he was crouching before sitting and his face was hardly a foot away from my face. His face is familiar. I couldn’t place him. I just smiled. He made out. There was a tinch of hurt in his eyes. Thankfully, he didn’t test my memory further.
“I am Ramesh. Your Aranganayaki classmate”. Aranganayaki is my elementary school. We were classmates before fifty years. Memory of some people never fails to amaze me. “I was the photographer in Sumithra’s wedding”. Yes. I saw him last, in my friend’s daughter’s wedding. I remember talking to him. Not bad. I still remember instances. Only names and faces fail me.
It was mean, but I checked up to see if he had a digital SLR slung on his shoulder.
He then, went on to describe how he knew Sethu Mama, how he did not know Ram because Ram migrated to Bombay, how Sethu Mama helped him in his profession… His genuine fondness was like evening breeze.
“Have you brought your wife?” I answered in the negative and I told him I would go inside and come back.
I got up as my colleague approached me. “Sir, car key…”. I gave him the car key. A couple of people had travelled with me from Chennai to Trichy the previous night. He was drinking when he heard the news. He had finished his drink and started with us. Half asleep – half awake conversation was about everything else except Sethu Mama, who of course had a fleeting reference.
Not just octogenarian Tambram deaths, even deaths that have lasting adverse ramifications meet with the same treatment quite often. The death of Reshmi. My friend’s daughter. She was whole of eighteen when heightened hormone play induced here to take away her own life. Her mother is unable to come out of it even after five years.
When the news came, I was on my evening walk around Somasundaram grounds and my body was shaking involuntarily. Less than four hours later we -six friends- were in the bus and were speculating on the circumstances. We were also talking about everything including Vadivelu comedy. We were able to laugh, and we made sure we had a sumptuous breakfast in Adikudi Club before visiting my friend.
We all seem to be enacting an invisible and surreal script. Often, I think, I go through the motion. Have bereavements failed to impact me anymore, unless it is in my very own family? The thought is not comforting.
“Coming?”, asked my colleague as he was accepting the car key. Translated in plain English, it means, ‘I’m going to have a fag. I need to pick up cigarette and lighter from the car. Do you want to have one too?’. I shook my head and he went way. I went into the house. Ram’s wife and son are nowhere to be seen. Ram’s sister was standing by the head side of the ice box wherein Sethu Mama was kept. I didn’t know her, and I had trouble introducing myself just to pass on condolences. There were about seven or eight relatives around and I knew none of them.
I had an obsessive compulsion to find some words and pass it on to someone. It has been over thirty minutes and I am yet to speak to someone from the family. Surely, Ram’s wife or son would come out and I can have a word. I leaned on the wall with my palms pressing the wall, my right foot pressed against the wall. my right leg bent in sixty degree position and I was waiting for someone I can pick up a condolence conversation with.
A man in his mid sixties walked in. Dhoti clad with a full sleeve banian on top. He must be from the neighbourhood. He went to the first family member he could set his eyes on. He had an eye contact with her and opened his palms like a spinner who just tossed the ball to catch it up before run up. Index and middle fingers pointing towards her, little and ring finger pointing towards him and elbow-to finger was parallel to the earth. The thumb in an altogether different direction, perhaps pointing to the next stakeholder. The lady repeated the gesture. He moved on to the next stakeholder. He tossed the ball again. The mourner – this time a ‘he’ – also tossed the ball. This continued five or six times as he went around the ice box. I had to bring my leg down to let him move on. He kept tossing the ball as he moved on and on that took him outside the house.
The whole scene was enacted in less than a minute. Deft efficiency of it was striking. The silent conversation is phenomenal, I guess – ‘What is in your hand, nothing’. ‘Yes, what is in my hand, nothing’. ‘What can you do?’ ‘There is nothing I can do’.
Two persons came together and they too tossed the ball in unison and the assembly line operation continued. Rams are Iyengars. Iyengars in different geographies of Tamil Nadu have different customs. Ram belongs to a close knit community that had its origin in villages between Thiruvellarai and Gunaseelam near Srirangam. Hand gesture to communicate condolence could be the custom of these villages. There was nothing alien or queer about the gesture as the griever and the consoler found it quite natural. Here is a display of sheer efficiency and here I am always wondering what to say, whenever I had to say. Another woman who came in started with hand gestures. She was moving her hand rapidly up and down as she tossed the ball three or four times as she moved around. The sight brought uncontrollable smile in my face. I fought hard to conceal my smile as walked out, lest someone see me smiling.
Barber shop bench is still empty. I went and sat there. It was not normal Cauvery. There was water. He should be coming back anytime soon. My colleague handed over the car key. “Aravind called”, he said.
My adrenaline started pumping. Aravind is the credit and risk head of a bank where we are trying to raise finance for a client. If this materialises, entire year’s overhead will be provided for. If Arvavind called it is a good sign. But, it is a big if. For all I know, my colleague would have called him first and he would not have picked up the call and returned it. Yet…
I got up and started walking along with my colleague. What was the purpose of Aravind’s call this early. Sure, it is a working day. Yet, 9 o’clock in the morning? In today’s time, getting a loan sanctioned by a bank needs a reason. Rejection does not require any reason. Bad news in our trade is always around the corner.
Credit heads don’t generally call. It is left to front enders. Definitely they won’t call to convey a bad news. Nor has he called to say the loan is sanctioned. Then what could be the reason? Banks want to reduce their bad loan percentage. One easy way is to increase the denominator with what the bankers call Low-LTV loans. So, the bankers are going to look the other way on a few missed repayments. We are good. Still… Why Aravind’s call and why call my friend instead of me. Barrage of contradicting questions and the answer is one simple phone call away,
“He tried reaching you and you didn’t pick up the call. He wants you to call him when you are free”.
Free? He didn’t care to wait for a call return and reached out to me. Perhaps he wants to talk urgently? Things are getting complicated by the minute in my mind. I needed some quiet.
I said, “I will call him later”. There was a tinge of disappointment in my colleague’s face.
Phone rang again. Aravind! I starred at the display for four or five seconds before replying with a shaky ‘Hello’.
“How are you? Guess, who is this!”, said an unknown voice. First person singular. Vernacular. I don’t know who I was talking to, but my smile returned,
As it turned out, it was my long lost CA batchmate from Trichy. He is Aravind’s brother in law (Aththimber!). What a wasted tension and deliberation!
I took my time to get back. Ram was sitting atop a plank in front of his house and was repeating what the purohit was saying. Water from Cauvery has purified Sethu mama in my absence.
It’s funny and sad at the same time. The moment vaadhiyaar comes, sombre reminiscence of the departed soul and the leisurely pace as though time stands still, are replaced by the frenzy to complete the rituals and get them over with. I walked to an area where I can catch Ram’s eyes. Sure enough, he caught my eye and gave a curt nod. I nodded too. My turn to use hand gesture. I played a table tennis topspin and communicated, ‘I will catch up with you later’. He acknowledged and I moved on leaving Ram with his rituals.
As I moved away, I saw his son talking to someone over his mobile phone, As I went near him he said, “Garland has not come”. Garland from temple and ashram are a necessity. Iyengars in Srirangam can’t do without it, be it death or marriage.
“Where is the funeral?”
He thought I won’t know if he said, “Thirumangai Mannan Padiththurai”.
Three people were carrying the ice box back to the van to be taken to house the next human who can no more differentiate hot and cold. How much of havoc technology and faster pace of life have played on the dead? Neighbouring households and the relatives literally starved till the rituals are over. Restless neighbours want the rituals to be over so that they can feed their starving stomach. Equally restless mother wanted to know if her first son will come in time to see his father off. Restless to know if he got the express telegram, restless to know if he got the bus in time, restless to… world was really huge back then. Communication, connectivity and relative affluence has shrunk the world. But stomach retained its size. It is taken care of by parcelled idlis and drummed coffee floating around the dead man.
Ram’s wife and sister came out, drenched and drap in wet cloths. Along came a coir rope from inside the house, terminating near Ram. One all knowing mama was shouting, “Nobody should cross the rope”. One day I will understand what will happen if we crossed the rope. A mama shouting “Don’t cross the rope” has not changed in my four decades of tryst with the dead.
Soon this rope is going to secure Sethu mama tightly in his bamboo bed and taken away, only to wipe him out of this earth without trace. Two men started preparing his green bamboo bed. What ever happened to that small man with his polio afflicted left hand tucked between chest and stomach. He used to be the common denominator in all Brahmin household bereavements in Srirangam in 70s and 80s. His limping walk with coir rope and a couple of mud pots slung on his shoulders used to make my stomach churn. His deft efficiency in preparing the bamboo bed used to leave us awe struck. The slur, abuse and insults heaped on him by vaadhiyaars, motor mouth mamas and everyone else, used to make our blood boil. “Theses people don’t have 10% of his efficiency (in whatever they do)”, my co-pallbearer would fume.
“Those who have fathers should not come to cremation ground”, said the same all knowing mama. Herse Van invented this rule? Another thing I will understand someday. In our youth we would have carried at least a dozen people to Thirumangai Mannan Padiththurai. Carrying and walking two kilometres required the help of neighbourhood youth. All of us had fathers then. Nobody said, we should not come. Herse Van perhaps, invented this rule. Sethu mama started his one way commute. We followed.
Thirumangai Mannan Padiththurai! Thankfully, this has not changed one bit, for the past four decades. Same traditional burning techniques with firewood and same surroundings. The road leading to Kollidam has not changed.
All over. I went and talked to Ram. He invited me to come home and have food. I politely refused. Wholesale sambar rice and curd rice prepared in somebody else’s house had a special taste on a funeral day. My mother used to be the volunteer and it used to taste wonderful. It is replaced by full course catering food. They have added payasam too. I hate it. Another thing that has changed. I politely refused.
I had a nostalgic bath in Kollidam and had a good lunch in Madappalli hotel. Slept for two hours in our room. Drive back to Chennai was quite pleasant till Singaperumal Koil. Singapermal Koil to Ashok Nagar took two and a half hours. Pumping the clutch all the time resulted in knee pain as I reached home.
I was quite tired. A cold shower, a stiff scotch and alternating prime time circus between Navika, Faye and Arnab are really inviting. I told so to my wife. “You know what, you are one hundred and eighty degrees different from the drummer in front of the funeral procession. He drinks and then takes the mortal remains to funeral pyre. You take the mortal remains to funeral pyre and then only drink”, she quipped.
I had my shower, put on the TV and I was about to fix my drink. The door was ajar. I went to close it. Next door Narayanan walked by. Without stopping he said this and went away. “I came to meet you yesterday. Your wife told me you have gone to Trichy to pay last respect to your friend’s father”.