The first thing that comes to your mind is that you shouldn’t write about death. But you begin to see that you must write about it for your own reasons, to make sense of what life is.
The husband of Q’ul’s nanny passed away a few weeks past. It wasn’t entirely unexpected — he’d had a stroke just six months ago — but the timing was particularly difficult. There had been another death in their family last month and no one had recovered yet. People mentioned this as if there was such a thing as worse bad luck.
I took off from work to attend the cremation. Kolkata’s crematorium is located near the Kalighat Temple, and there are two crematoriums on the premises. One is the traditional area where cremation is done on a wooden pyre. Next to it and more recently built is the electric crematorium. I arrived at 10am, but a phone call from the family told me that they wouldn’t be arriving until 11. So Mushtaque and I walked across the street for a small cup of coffee from a street side vendor. The coffee served by these merchants really is the perfect size and perfect taste. Lightly sugary and sweet, you feel like you’re nearly sipping hot chocolate.
The late monsoon rains came suddenly as we enjoyed our coffee, and we all crowded under the corrugated tin roof and stared at the people who ran, soaked, along the street. I looked behind me at an aged man sitting on a raised platform inside his stall where he sold cigarettes. You could buy as few as one or as many as a carton. Most cigarettes came packaged in cardboard boxes, with no plastic wrapping. There were cone-shaped packs of beedis too. The old vendor, contorted from a lifetime of sitting crunched in his stall, occasionally shifted items and packets here and there. Snaking down one edge of the stall hung a length of rope lit and burning at one end. Customers lingered near it, absently gathering the rope between fingers and lighting their cigarettes. The rope gave off only the faintest smoke. It would burn forever.
After the rains stopped, I walked back towards the crematorium. Soon I heard shouting, and a group of fifteen or so young man came jogging through the gates. On their shoulders they carried a bed. The litter of a dead man. He was too poor to be driven in, so some men had been paid to do the transport. They put down the bed inside and left, still shouting.
Twenty minutes later, I heard more chanting. This time a large truck with an open bed with perhaps thirty people piled in it passed into the crematorium gardens. In a car following I saw a Buddhist monk, wrapped in a robe of dark magenta with a scarf of yellow-gold around his shoulders, and I knew that Mr. Tamang had arrived.
He was, like the man before him, on a wooden bed, with a sheet drapped over his body up to his neck. I didn’t recognize the man who had met us at the train station after our trip to Sikkim and who had carried his wife’s bag on his shoulder. Cotton had been stuffed into his ears, and coins placed upon his eyes. His head lay angled to one side and his lips were slightly parted as if he were about to speak. He looked waxy, and ashen, and it occurred to me that all of what we call life is really perhaps only just color.
After his body was placed on the ground, for some reason it suddenly became important that I had come, which was not what I intended. Mr. Tamang’s relative who knew me cleared people out of the way, saying “Sahib is here, Sahib is here, please move,” so that I could place the wreath I had bought upon Mr. Tamang’s feet. I left it there, and noticed that all the other flowers too were white. Someone pointed out Mr. Tamang’s elder and youngest son to me and I felt self-conscious of my intrusion upon their grief.
The body was taken inside and placed near the door to the electric oven, which was covered with a door that gave the feeling of being inside an ancient locomotive. Some people brought in handfuls of incense sticks, clutching them in bundles like fresh cut flowers. They lit the incense in a burst of flame and blew out the blaze and placed the sticks around Mr. Tamang’s body, propping them into the corners of the bed frame. His sons broke down and clutched at their dear father’s face, their heads on his chest. That’s the way it stayed for a long time. There were no women around. I asked a relative about our nanny and he said she was at home…it was too difficult for her to come. I wondered if she had thought, as Mr. Tamang’s body was taken away, that she would no longer see him again, or if that thought would wake her in the middle of the night days, weeks, or even years later.
There would be good and bad memories, I suspected. And hopefully only a few regrets. I drifted away as I watched people sit down and chat, some laughing a little at private jokes, while Mr. Tamang lay on the bed, his head still angled, ready for the next journey. The rain had stopped. Soon the oven would come to life, and the fire would not be extinguished.