Yesterday, December 4, was my parents' wedding anniversary. Fortieth anniversary. Had destiny been not cruel, I would have squeezed Kanpur into my travel itinerary because they were planning a small party. They were inspired by a similar party thrown by one of our neighbours to celebrate their 30 years of marriage. In fact, when I last spoke to them over phone while they were in Kanpur, they were deciding on the menu.
A couple of days later, they embarked on the fateful trip to Banaras. The idea was to pay a visit to my brother who lived in Banaras. Who knew that that was to be my mother's last train journey, and that soon she would be setting out on her final journey, being carried on the strong shoulders of her two sons all the way to Manikarnika Ghat where devout Hindus dream of landing up as dead bodies.
While carrying her body through the extremely narrow streets of Banaras, which was a challenge by itself, I stepped on a spot on the cobbled street where the brick was missing and in the process sprained by foot. I instinctively cried out in pain. The only person in this world who would have let out a scream seeing me in pain was now on my shoulder, lifeless. I quickly gathered my senses and moved on. But the foot hurt like hell.
I can go on and on about the cremation story. It is an interesting story, especially because it is set in Banaras, where hundreds of people actually come to live during the final stages of there life. Only a fortunate few die there though: most aged people, tired of the interminable wait for death, return home for a brief vacation or a family function and end up dying there. But I am saving everything for a book, because it will easily take a few thousand words to describe the scene at Manikarnika Ghat alone, where I spent four hours in the company of the living and the dead. The living also included cows and goats and dogs. The dogs were drawn by the smell of burning flesh, whereas the cows and the goats came to chew on the flowers that bedecked the biers. It was surprising to see how the goats there are resistant to the furnace-like heat generated by the pyres.
The moment we brought mother's body to the banks of the Ganga, it began to drizzle. And everybody who had been a part of the funeral procession ran for cover. Only my father, my brother and I stood in the rain, wondering how to protect mother from getting drenched: she was lifeless no doubt, but she deserved dignity even in death. Fortunately, the drizzle died down before it could do any damange. In fact, mother looked fresh after the brief shower. These were her last moments in the human form. She seemed to be smiling. The date was August 29 -- just two days before her birthday. She would have turned 59. On the evening of September 29, Chai, Chai reached the bookshops.
A small confession. There is a Balaji temple, the replica of the one in Tirupati, on Venkatanarayana Road in Chennai which I pass everyday on my way to work. Long before my mother died, long before Chai, Chai hit the stands, I made a silent plea to Balaji: "If the book sells 10,000 copies, I will come to Tirupati and get my head shaved." My logic was this: the book selling so many copies is a remote possibility, rather an impossiblity, so there is no question of me parting with my hair. But in case God listens to my prayer and makes the book sell 10,000 copies, going bald is a very, very small price to pay.
Destiny intervened, and I had to shave my head even before the book reached the shops. My faith in God was shaken. For the last two years, I had only one prayer, a desperate one, that my mother should live to see the book. Her heart was packing up, and I knew she would be gone anyday. But why did she have to go precisely eight days before the book came out of the press? Had she lived for two more months, she would have not only seen the book but also attended the various launch functions. She would have died a happy woman. The regret has become a gaping hole in my heart which shall never heal.
As I sat on the banks of the Ganga in Kanpur on a pleasant September morning, with a barber running his razor on my scalp, I told God: "Look, you are making me shave my head even before the book is out in the shops. Now it is your responsibility to sell 10,000 copies."
So far, God has been a good marketing executive.