Dear Ma: I am writing this letter to you sitting on the banks of the Ganga in Benares. I have just finished performing your last rites, and I am now sitting on a slab of stone at the Manikarnika Ghat, a little away from the heat of the burning pyres.
It’s a furnace up there. I had to walk past a dozen burning bodies to light your pyre. The smoke from the pyres made my eyes water, and I feared that people around me might think I was crying. So I kept rubbing my eyes in mock-irritation, just to clarify that the tears were caused by the smoke and not grief.
I could have also taken advantage of the smoke and shed some real tears, but I did not feel the need to cry. When you see some twenty bodies burning around you, you know you are not alone. Death happens to everybody. The mourner becomes a spectator.
Even now I can see flames leaping out from seventeen pyres. I just counted. Sitting at a distance, I now realise that the fire is the only beautiful thing in the abode of death. Under the grey clouds, the flames are at their colourful best: yellow, orange and red figures leaping out of the womb of death to touch the sky of liberation. The fire never dies at Manikarnika.
They say one must be really lucky to be cremated at Manikarnika because if you are cremated here, you go straight to heaven, freed from the circle of life and death. Is that why you chose to die here, in Benares, and not in Kanpur, which was your home—our home?
I can feel the smell of burning flesh still sticking to my nostrils as I write to you. But the cool breeze from the Ganga is slowly washing the smell away. The river is bloated and its water muddy because it is the rainy season.
Under the cloudy sky, the Ganga looks gloomy as it flows slowly, silently. As if the river wants to pause for a while and take some rest and may be say a few words in consolation to me. But it knows it has to keep moving. Who am I in any case—just a tiny drop in the ocean of mourners it has been brushing past since the time of the Gods. My sorrow does not mean anything to anyone.
Look at these small boys who are jumping into the water from a platform and making a splash. One of them is splashing so hard that he almost drenched my notebook. It is pointless to scold him. What should I tell him? Not to disturb me because I am writing? As if he cares. I can very well imagine the conversation that would ensue between him and me if I interrupted his frolicking in the water:
‘Hey! You! Stop splashing! You are drenching my notebook.’
‘Who asked you to open your notebook here? Go home and write.’
‘But I am writing a letter to my mother. In case you don’t know, I cremated her just two hours ago.’
‘Big deal! We see bodies burning all the time. But I have not seen anyone sitting down to write. They usually immerse the ashes and go home. Why don’t you go home too?’
‘Who are you to tell me what to do?’
‘Who are you to tell me what to do?’
Now what do I reply to that, ma? I am nobody. It was only you who thought I was a king—or a prince. You never let me lift a finger all my life. But the rest of the world is not obliged to give me a special treatment. I better get used to that.
Ma, do you realise that this is my first ever letter to you?
I know it is shameful that I never wrote to you while you were alive, but where was the chance? We all lived together till the time I was twenty-one, when I left home for Delhi to pursue my dreams of becoming a newspaper editor. By then there was a telephone in almost every home, including ours.
I know I could have still written to you, because the phone calls would barely last for more than three minutes: I had to keep my eye on the meter at the PCO booth while talking to you: the bill would be shooting up by the second. Even if I had the money, there would be a long queue waiting outside the glass door. The restless faces of those people always made me uncomfortable, so I liked to hang up as quickly as possible and get out of the place. I always hated PCO booths. They seemed to me like casualty wards of hospitals: an air of emergency always hung over them.
There was another reason why I never got around to writing to you. I feared that if I wrote to you, you would go over my letters again and again every time you missed me. And my letters would make you miss me even more and make you sad. And I didn’t want you to be sad. Though I know I have done many things to make you sad. But it is one thing to be sad when you know your son has taken a liking for alcohol or is sleeping with women, and quite another to be sad thinking how your son is missing home. The first kind of sadness is tinged with anger. Anger is fine. But the second variety of sadness usually ferments in silent tears. I certainly didn’t want to make you cry.
I am writing to you today not to make up for lost time: it is pointless now because you are gone. I am writing to you only to narrate to you an event in your life you did not live to see. I know you would love to know because you were always the curious sort.
Every time I went for a wedding or a function, you would ask me things like, ‘Who all came?’, ‘What was on the menu?’, ‘Did you eat well?’ Father never asked these things. You know how he is. He considers such questions an invasion of personal space, even though he loves to narrate his own experiences like a master storyteller.
But you did not believe in any such thing as personal space. You were blunt. Even now I can hear you telling me: ‘Stop telling me in bits and pieces. Tell me the whole story. How did my funeral go? Tell me from the start, right from the time you heard about my death.’
Before I begin, I have explanations to seek. Why did you choose to die precisely three days before you turned fifty-nine? You did not even live to be a senior citizen. What shall I do with the saree I had bought as your birthday gift?
And why did you choose to die just two weeks before the release of my first book? In ten days from now, had you not died, we would have all been in Chennai, looking forward to an event that would have made you proud.
I wanted to make you proud because I never made you proud before. Though I know you felt very proud when, watching the evening news, you would spot me on TV: I would be one of the many journalists gathered around a politician or a minister to take notes while he spoke to the media. The television cameras, even though focused on the politician, could not avoid having us in the frame. We journalists were like extras in a film. For you, however, I was the hero.
And now when the time has come for you to be really proud of me, you are gone. I do not know how many people are going to buy my book, I do not even know whether I am going to be modest or elated about seeing my name on the spine of a book, but I do know how you would have felt holding a book written by your son.
If father taught me how to think, how to ponder over seeming insignificant things about life, it was you who taught me how to write. Remember that rainy night, some thirty years ago, when you had patiently explained to me that a story should have a beginning, middle and an ending. I was barely eight or nine at the time, but I understood what you meant.
The book was my way of telling you that what you taught me that rainy night remains with me. How heartless of you to leave me with a lifelong regret? But I know you were no longer in control of your heart, which had begun to malfunction way beyond your control, even the doctors’ control.
Your weak heart had been my greatest source of anxiety from the time you underwent bypass surgery nearly ten years ago. Worse, within a year after your surgery I left Delhi and moved 2,000 km down south, to Chennai. Every additional kilometre added to my anxiety.
Each time you visited a hospital or were hospitalised after that surgery, I prepared myself for the worst. But each time, you pulled through and were home soon enough to resume your chores, such as watering the neglected plants or scolding the neglectful maid. How assuring it was to hear you scolding the maid.
Even that morning when I called, when father said the two of you were leaving for Benares that night, I could hear you berating the maid in the background. You gave no indication that you were going to Benares to die.
Considering that the fear of losing you had tormented me for so many years, I was surprisingly calm when I received the news. I had just finished lunch and was about to get ready for work when father called.
‘Your mother is no more,’ he told me. He himself was very calm. He then gave me the details: how you, him and brother were having lunch, sitting in a circle on the floor, like many Bengali families still do, when you suddenly arched back and became lifeless in a matter of seconds, in the arms of brother.
After he hung up, I called up wife and also my office. Then I got up and wore my jeans and put on some aftershave lotion. I smiled at myself in the mirror. I wanted to see if a man whose mother had just died was capable of smiling. I was.
Tell me, ma, was there anything abnormal about smiling at that hour? For years you were caught in the battle between life and death, and now the battle had finally ended and there was peace. Doesn’t matter if death won; death had to win someday. Life is sand, death is concrete. Life is uncertain, but death certain. Why not make peace with the victor than hopelessly siding with the soon-to-be-vanquished?
I even smiled at colleagues who started coming in after they got the news. But they did not return my smile. For a fraction of a second I found that odd, then I realised that they are not supposed to be smiling at the moment. I quickly wiped the smile off my own face.
They all asked me how you died. I repeated what father told me. Calls started coming. I repeated the story each time. In less than an hour, I had repeated the Last Lunch story so many times that it felt as if I was reporting your death first-hand. It was as if I had been present in Benares, all of us sitting in a small circle on the floor and having lunch, when you suddenly decided to say goodbye.
The news of the death of a parent comes with its perks. Everybody is nice to you. Egos suddenly melt and even your enemy is lending a helping hand. Someone is offering you cash, someone is offering to drive you to the airport, someone is offering to carry your bags. You sit back and do nothing.
The only challenging task that lay ahead of me now was getting to Benares as quickly as possible. Every hour counted, because you were now a ‘body’, and a body can’t be kept waiting for interminably long. Moreover, each passing hour was to add to the agony of father and brother, who had seen you die and who, till I reached Benares, would have to painfully pretend that you were fast asleep. So, how to reach Benares?
The quickest way to reach was to fly to Calcutta and then take a train or a cab from there.
‘But which train will you take?’ father had asked, ‘Will you get reservation? And won’t a road trip be too tedious? Won’t it make more sense to get to Delhi and take a flight from there?’
That was not my father, but your husband who had spoken to me. He has always been a great fan of train travel and knows the railway time-table almost by heart: he could have asked me to hop in to one of the trains headed to Benares from Calcutta. But he knew that you would have strongly disapproved of me undertaking any hardship, even if it meant travelling for your funeral. He has become another you.
Ideally, I should have still flown to Calcutta and taken the first train to Benares, even if it meant standing in the train for a few hours. In times like these, people are numb to physical discomfort.
Some years ago, I used to know an IAS officer who hailed from a poor village in Assam. As a child, he went to a school that was nothing but a thatched hut. It was the duty of the boys to fetch cow dung, and the duty of the girls in the school to apply the dung on the floor. That’s how poor people’s dwellings and schools are floored. Imagine having to fetch cow dung before the classes could begin. I now realise how fortunate I have been, even though as a child I often sulked when you had my hair cut too short or did not buy me an extra set of uniform.
So the IAS officer once told me about his father. The father, when he was a young man, was away in a distant town when he got the news that his mother—the IAS officer’s grandmother—had died. From that town, there were only two trains that went in the direction of his village: one in the morning and another in the evening. The morning train was long gone, but the evening train was yet to leave. But there was a problem: the train, even though it passed his village, did not make a halt there. So the father stood at the door all along, and as soon as he was able to recognise his village in the fading light, he jumped out of the running train. He could have died but he did not care. He was home well in time to light the pyre.
But the selfish and coward son that I am, I instantly dropped the idea of flying to Calcutta once father advised me against it. I decided to fly to Delhi and then to Benares, no matter how long it took.