Sometime ago, I wrote a post about how, someday, I would like to be a new-age spiritual guru whose commandment no. 1 would be:
Accept that death is inevitable: anybody who has been born has to die one day. The only question is when. Once you make peace with the 'when' factor, you have beaten death as well as the gloom that comes with it. Treat death like a girlfriend who just happened to knock at your door an hour before she was expected. Would you turn her away? No. You are most likely to say: "Oh, that's early! Am still in my pajamas. Anyway, now that you have come, please come in."
I am proud to report that I am very close to becoming a full-fledged guru because I tried the commandment, the most difficult one, on myself and came out with flying colours. Nine days ago, my mother died. Not a drop of tear. Not an ounce of sadness. But two regrets: that she died precisely three days before her 60th birthday, and precisely eight days before I held in my hand the first copy of Chai, Chai, my first book. I was deperately hoping that she got to see the book before anything happened to her.
I wish to ask her why she couldn't postpone her departure by just 10 days. Maybe she had a plan in mind whose import I will get to understand in the coming years. Or maybe she had no time to plead with Death to postpone her departure by a couple of weeks: she died in a matter of seconds, while having lunch with my father and brother at my brother's home in Banaras.
While my father taught me how to think, it was my mother who had taught me how to write. One rainy evening, some 30 years ago, she patiently explained to me how a story should have an intro, a middle and an ending. Since then, I have always worked hard on the beginning and the ending. The middle usually took care of itself. This, when I did not even know that I would someday write for a living. Eventually, it was the writer in me that rescued me from being devastated by my mother's death.
For years, ever since she underwent a bypass surgery in the year 2000 and was found to have a very weak heart, the thought of losing her had tormented me. Every now and then, I would torture myself imagining what my reaction would be when I got the bad news. But the bad news never came. When it finally did, I was calm. Very calm. I was getting ready for work that afternoon when my father called. After he hung up, I put on my jeans and walked up to the mirror and dabbed some aftershave lotion. I then smiled at myself in the mirror. I wanted to see if a man who has just lost his mother could still smile. I could. I had won.
I could afford to smile because I was no longer myself. I was now a writer who was out to cover the most important event of his life with an invisible notebook in hand, and if he were to be honest to his job, he could not afford to get emotional. I remember admiring the breasts of the Punjabi air hostesses on the flight to Delhi. I am not really a breast person, but the way they were portruding out of their airline uniform, I could not help noticing. I told myself: "Is it proper to be admiring breasts when you know your mother has just died?" But the writer in me quickly patted my head: "Your mother is not going to come alive if you turn your eyes away. So admire them if you want to, go ahead."
So I admired the breasts, had a few drinks upon reaching Delhi, and had a good night's sleep before taking the flight to Banaras in the morning. The only thing I did not do -- and could not do -- was eat. It was not out of sadness for losing my mother, but out of consideration for my father and brother. They had not eaten too: they were up all night, keeping a watch on my mother who was now lying on a bed of ice.
When I reached Banaras the next morning, I came -- finally -- face to face with the moment I had dreaded the most: watching my mother dead. There she was, sleeping calmly, as if she had had a long day. She showed no reaction when I walked in. That was when I knew she was really gone, otherwise she would have jumped up from the bed of ice and hugged me.
I stroked her cheeks out of affection, something I wish I had done while she was alive, and touched her feet out of respect, something I had never done before either. It had always been a hug, always initiated by her, that had defined the mother-son love all these years. I had never stroked her cheeks or touched her feet or hugged her on my own all these years simply out of the fear that she would miss me even more and feel miserable due to my absence. I wanted to be a man. But right now there was no harm stroking her cheeks or touching her feet: she was too fast asleep to realise my touch. And thus began my mother's final journey, snaking its way through the narrow streets of Banaras and ending at the Manikarnika Ghat, where every devout Hindu desires to be cremated. If you are cremated there, as they say, you go straight to heaven, freed at once from the cycle of birth and death. And not everybody is fortunate to be cremated at Manikarnika: there are plenty of people who, when they realise their end is near, come to live in Banaras. But when death takes its own sweet time in coming, their impatience takes them back to their respective hometowns. But the moment they set foot on their hometown, death decides to catch up. Their dream of dying in Banaras remains unfulfilled.
That way, my mother was lucky. The religious and god-fearing woman that she was, she must be extremely glad that she was cremated at Banaras. It was as if she had planned her death, without letting any of us know. I will spare you the details of the cremation: I will present them to you some other day, on some other platform. Suffice to say that the moment I touched the fire on her lips -- Hindus call it mukhaagni -- I was instantly transformed from a Momma's Boy into a Man. In Banaras, there is no room for tokenism: mukhaagni means mukhaagni, you really have to touch the fire on the lips of the person you are cremating.
Within three hours, my mother was reduced to ashes. Everything was gone, except her navel. Now that was a revelation: when you burn a body the traditional way, in wood, the navel is one part which refuses to be turned into ashes. In an electric crematorium, however, the whole body turns into ashes within a matter of minutes. But when you cremate a body on a wooden pyre, the navel remains intact, even though it is charred. I was handed my mother's navel in an earthen pot. It looked like a burnt piece of tandoori chicken. As instructed by the priest, I flung the piece into the Ganga. My act had delivered my mother from the cycle of life and death.