When I started this blog four years ago, I called it Bytheganges as an expression of my identity. As a Bengali who was born and bred in Kanpur, who went on to work in Delhi and then shifted base to Madras, I still can’t say with certainty who am I. The only certainty in my life is the river: I belong to the culture that has flourished on its banks for thousands of years, the culture which considers the Ganga, or the Ganges, not just a river but also a mother. But never had I imagined that someday I would be part of the multitude that observes elaborate rituals on the ghats of Ganga. For me, these were people meant to be observed, to be written about. They were my subjects. Now I have joined them.
This morning, I got my head tonsured and my moustache removed at the Massacre Ghat in Kanpur. The ghat is named so because some 300 British men, women and children were slaughtered here by Indian mutineers on June 27, 1857. It is one of the cleaner ghats of Kanpur because the polluting tanneries are located further downstream.
What a beautiful morning: an overcast sky, a powerful yet pleasant breeze sweeping down from across the river, and the river itself swollen and flowing so fast as if it is in a hurry to get to the next city. On a normal day, this would have been a good place to spend the morning, under the shade of the Shiva temple and in the company of monkeys and a handful of bathers. But right now I was required to offer food to my mother’s soul and then surrender myself to the barber.
I first lost my mother. Then I lost my looks. Mother won’t return, though looks will as the hair begins to grow; but it is not at all funny when you look into the mirror and find a complete stranger looking back at you. This is certainly not the time for a new look: it would have been far more comforting to see my old self in the mirror –the self who stood by me and helped me accept my mother’s death.
I am not a great fan of rituals unless they evoke nostalgia, and I could have resisted the tonsuring. But I did for my mother. She was a fastidious woman when it came to rituals, and I did not wish to let her down. It gives me immense satisfaction that I am doing this for her, because after this, I will never get another chance to do anything for her.
But I am sure my mother will forgive me for not strictly observing the do’s and dont’s prescribed for a man who has just lost his parent. Tradition demands that for 12 days after her death, I should cook my own meal, on firewood, in an earthen pot and eat in seclusion. The meal should not be anything more than boiled rice and raw banana or potato. For dinner, it should only be fruits and sweets. Anything that tickles the taste-buds is strictly prohibited. Alcohol is out of the question. Amid the gloom of death, such austerities can only fan the fire of emotions even when you are trying to take everything in your stride and move on.
While my lunch has been bland, I have been shamelessly indulging in samosas and jalebis. When you are in Kanpur, it is a bigger sin to resist samosas and jalebis. And since I have been writing most evenings, one can find bottles of whisky in my secluded room upstairs. That much liberty I can take with my mother. She was my mother, after all.