Saturday, September 05, 2009

By The Ganges Part II: Becoming A Man

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.

33 comments:

Anonymous said...

BG,

Just don't know what to say..

Sabarmati View said...

Hi BG,
This post reminded me of Camus's the outsider... i read it long back but still remember the first sentence. I don't know what experiences have contributed in making you the being that you are now, but you have envolved very beautifully. This post shows it all!!!!!!!!
love and best wishes
deepika

Anonymous said...

its a very very mature mind at work.but i dont know could'nt resist crying.
take care bishi

lalarampandey said...

Dear BG
So sorry to hear about your loss. Nothing can replace it. It will sink in slowly. Keep her good memories with you.

janani sampath said...

It is amazing how you applied that commandment...not many wud have the courage to do that...admire you even more... take care

Anonymous said...

only you can write it the way it is written....teared up reading your post..
take care....

Anonymous

vikas pandey said...

You are a great writer.

Ardra said...

But,my eyes filled with tears...they remained unshed though...got a long way to go...I guess

Anonymous said...

You held yourself but made others cry. Now thats the writer. Condolences.

Anonymous said...

She was a lucky woman. May her soul rest in peace..

AK said...

..bish , I had gone through your commandments more then once and appreciated the invisible milestone of your journey crossed by the Ganges(as you say it)towards the final destination Salvation(again taking your words).. I will call that piece of writing , as a defined marker of the soul maturity , you actually needed since this harsh reality was on way towards you...I still have vivid memories of your graceful mom...may her soul rest in peace.. You have great depth and I complement you to have accepted this with unusual courage.. you will need the same courage to live through days ahead, while missing her perpetually in back of your mind...
take care bravo!
Love and best wishes

meenakshi said...

Didn't know the sad news. What to say except hang in there. Its a moment you will relive forever.

Meenakshi

Anonymous said...

found the article very cold and emotionless. How can anyone be so detached (or act like one)? I also think it is rude to publicise such feelings...

Anonymous said...

It is o.k. to be sad and show one's emotions, nothing wrong in it. After all it is one of the biggest loss in one's life. How can somebody be so cold and distant... It is not an ordinary day so why treat it that way?

Sangee said...

Condolences. And thanks. I had been holding back a lot of emotions the past few days. Tears were eluding me but now, I cried. Thanks to your words. I don't have to say anything about your writing now, right?

Gayathri Varma said...

Just came to know of your loss. Extremely sorry to hear the same. No one and nothing can replace a mother's love....it is eternal like the river Ganga Herself. May her soul rest in peace.

Smita said...

BG, u make me laugh, make me think, make me nostalgic, but today u made me cry...my condolences (wanted to post this long back but was reluctant to come out of hiding)!

purplesilt said...

Mr Ghosh I have always had this curiosity about how men process their grief. Its a beautiful article. One wishes to more about what kind of a women was she when she was alive? Did she call you everyweek? What do you do at the time of the day she called you when she was alive?
Did the greiving start after the cremation. what did you eat when you got home? what did it taste like...tell me more!

shuchi said...

You left me in lurch u did'nt lemme cry n u did'nt let me laugh...Now, all i can say not everyone has a courage to be a writer a true writer...this writer wins over emotion...hats of to u man...:) And I am sure ur mother must b proud of this true writer in U. Her training did'nt go in vain..

Neha said...

I have no words, neither the courage that you could muster at that moment. But I do understand what you must have and are going through. But like you said....life goes on...

pat said...

HI,
Went thru your post,but i am confused.You have exposed your emotions beautifully,but could i have done the same, i am thinking will let you know once i get an answer.

patricia

tablet pc barato said...

Quite worthwhile information, thanks so much for the post.

Anonymous said...

i disagree Mr. Ghosh when you said.. '....it was the writer in me that rescued me from being devastated by my mother's death.....' wat rescued you was the assurance of love...tat it always lingers ....forever after it gone..
.......her warm hugs are still carrying within you. The eyes refuse to water when the pain is deep n u choose to let it be there ..as it is as precious ...... only when we love so much it is tat even eternal seperation doesn not evoke pangs of loss. Tat day u smiled as u knew even as death took away a body it could not steal ur mother within u... as u said .....she still lives in all ur endings and all ur beginings....with her love ,blessings and all.
P...

Anonymous said...

its good tat ..now..my comments reflect on ur blog only after u approve of it..... even if does not matter..its jus as good to know tat u read it and u know tat someone is always waiting for the pictures u paint with ur words....
P...

Anonymous said...

i really wish u bloged more ...and there would be more of u Mr Ghosh...in the paper these days rather than the mobile uploads on fb.....camera can never capture .... ...the smells of a arriving morning on the marina....tunes of illyaraja from a radio in the silence of the night... whiffs of the humble 'puja' khituri... the magic of kishore kumar....the tam in the tamrind city... and so much more.......u always do with ur magical words
P...

Anonymous said...

....and want to tell you thanks for introducing me to Pablo Neruda...have been reading him since ....
" I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where. I love you simply, without problems or pride: I love you in this way because I do not know any other way of loving but this, in which there is no I or you.." yes this is love..yahi pyar hai ...
It was just like always... you found exact words for the things inside me which i never knew how to say ... read my mind can happen but u always somehow manage to read my heart...
P...

Shamita said...

Two things come to mind when I read this post. One, I wonder about the emotions you felt as her son, mostly after her cremation, after you left Benares and came back to face the routine of your life. And two, how you dealt with her death as a writer, as in, how you distanced yourself from the unconcealed magnitude of emotions a son is likely to feel, and instead chose to share your experience through your craft.

A few years ago, I saw a painting at Musee d'Orsay in Paris, created by the French Impressionist Claude Monet.It was called "Camille on Her Deathbed". When Monet's wife passed away, he was distraught over her death. Yet, when he was at her deathbed, his visceral, instinctive reaction was to paint his sorrow.

In Monet's words:"I found myself at the deathbed of a loved one and I was surprised … by the colors that death brought to her immobile face.The changing tones of blue, yellow, and gray mesmerized me and I found myself desiring to reproduce the last image of she who would leave us forever.”

I could be dead wrong, but I think this post was an effort by the writer in you to both reveal and conserve this traumatic experience in an objective way. But I don't think the writing is detached from emotions; the undercurrent of the love and affection you feel for your mother are very palpable throughout this piece.

This is a beautifully written post and I wonder if the floodgate of emotions opened for you as you were writing this.

Anubhuti said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anubhuti said...

I read it again today, I know one thing for sure.
Mom would be very very proud of you, she did a great job of making you who you are today.
Death is never good for those who are left behind, but for her, it was a painless death, she must've worked hard for it BG.
I wish I could give you a huge hug. right now. By the way, crying is not such a bad thing after all.

Deepa Nagaraj said...

Very moving.....

Anonymous said...

hiii...

I am a man...

Deep in the bed, when i lie
I whisper to god and thank Him
for her....
Oh My Dear Mother....
You seems so far away from me...
Yet I remember the love's soft glow
And the feel of your touch and tender embrace
Today...
I look back on memories
and in my heart you are still near
you are so fresh and lively
You are a special woman
and no one can take your place..
Thank you mom, for all that
you have done.
If I was given one moment
just a singel slice of my past
MOM......
like to stroke your cheeks
and a hug...
from the MAN...
you gave birth to..

- sam

Jyothsna Bhavanishankar said...

very touching!

Amlan Roy said...

BG-da
Maybe you were in awe... you felt you grew up another notch of a ladder, I felt something similar when I lost my Dad in 2011. So much sadness yet flashes of reasonings..... its not because you are a writer that you could express this so beautifully, its because the substance was so touching, that it made you a writer.... my eyes are wet....

Amlan Roy