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THE BODY



Time needs filling. The dead waits. But we are all in a hurry to send him
off. Get rid of the post-mortem ritual. Get it over with quickly. Or
perhaps it is that even with the ice, in this heat, we know he is going to
start a stink soon.

Now he sleeps. His mother tries to shoo away the ants that can't know him.
She does it carefully not to wake him up. They are insistent. There are
flowers strewn all over him.

Now she caresses his legs as if they are hurting. We speak in low voices.
We don't want him disturbed. We wish to maintain this until we dump him in
fire.

Beside his mother sits his aunt. Both have eyes that have seen a dream die
slowly. The eyes now have a separate life from the rest of their faces.
They close against the suffering of the lips. Without thought. Without
will. They no longer have anything to do with pain. But pain is there.
Sleep is also there. There together.

The old man arrives. He looks like he will go next. He has come to read
the Bhagvad Gita. His body has trouble with sitting. I help him. Now he
starts reading in a slow monotone. There are tears around him. Whispers.
It does not matter. He does not look at the dead twice.

The uncle arrives. There is silence after uncovering the face. Then he is
inconsolable.

Tentative. Hesitant. Testing. The silence is broken. The sound of new
voices encourage the old. They all cry again. Around him. Then upon him.
But one who starts has to stop. The old man reads through the sound and
then through the silence.

The dead is not very sensitive. He has no ears. After sometime you can
talk in front of him. We talk of other dead at first. It makes us
comfortable. We feel he will feel comfortable too. Then we talk of living,
of daily life, of marriages.

"I come from the Magistrate's office.” He comes and sits down. “Oh, no!
Nothing official," he insists. "Any help, in the office, with the police,"
he offers. He is not interested in the dead. He puts his knees together
and starts moving his right foot in a rhythm. He is used to long waits.
His shirt is dirty. He wears grey pants. His fly is open.

"Make haste, don't delay. Shed your attachment." His father looks up
guiltily at the words. His lips tremble. Now he cannot look at his son.
"He is not with us anymore. He has to go." The voice is softer. The hand
on his shoulder warm.

The dead folds as they try to pick him. The body is still soft. Like a
baby. His leg breaks out of the white sheet suddenly. He is still healthy
around the shin. But the skin under his feet is going green. The body
starts dying from the feet.

The bamboos have been knotted to make a ritual charpoy. A few bundles of
hay. A rag. Now they cover him and tie him up. It is difficult to tie a
man. Difficult to believe that the rope will not cut him across his chest
or neck. "It has to be tight," they say. "He might slip off on the way."
The rope bites into the rib again which pushes back like spring. Not a
sound. The dead is never fussy.

Now there is relief in eveyone's face. Time and silence do not trouble us
any more. Everyone looks officious, eager to do something. Time is busy
again among us moving according to our watches. Afternoon will lead to
night. And we all know exactly how the time is going to be filled. It may
be different for his mother. There will now be a lot of space in his room.
She will wait for us to come back. A wait she may not be able to fill up
after it is over.

Death needs planning like marriage. And it is unexpected. There is a lot
of confusion. Where are the incense sticks, ghee, sandal wood, cow-dung,
earth? Who is coming, who is not? Many stay back while we leave. I use my
feet. The dead four shoulders.

The dead is like a bride. There is a lot of crying when he leaves.

He is not among us now. But he was there. That is enough for the
beginning of a touch. That there is not enough time. That in each of us
there is something that wants to be touched. The dead touches us all.

We carry him to the samasan ghat. Pick him up from the charpoy. I hold
his left leg tenderly. It is like holding my own leg. Young. Healthy.
With a sparse growth of fine black hair. I press the skin. It is soft,
like mine. A little cold. I feel a part of him.

The dead also has to haggle. The amount of wood to be burned. The cost of
burning. The men at the ghat are practical. It is like sealing a leaking
pipe. They look at the money.

The body will not yield. It is in rigor. As we try to fit him to the pyre
he resists. "We have to break the legs," the men at the ghat tell. His
brother puts a possessive hand around one leg and looks at us with something
in his eyes. We let the legs go. It looks as if he does not want to burn.

Once the fire starts we have some relief. He is buried in wood and fire.
We cannot see him. It is like cooking food at a picnic. There are even a
few jokes. We have to wait. But there is no guilt. For we do not really
joke. Do not really smile. It is only a way of warding off for a moment a
moment which is threatening to become timeless.

Now time makes itself comfortable among us. We talk of our needs. There
is no hunger. A little water. A little rest. Small needs. We are worried
about one another. The summer midday heat. The fire. The dead. We
suffer. Slowly a bond is among us.

The legs are the problem. Somewhat out of the fire, they do not cook.
Someone takes his father and brother away from the pyre. They have to break
the legs now. One of the men at the pyre uses a bamboo. The legs snap at
the knees neatly one after the other. The man grins with satisfaction.

It takes three hours from skin to bone. After an hour, when the upper wood
has burned down, we see something black sleeping there. He loses water, the
muscles shrink. He almost sits up. There is a pop. The skull goes first.
Another pop. The chest cavity. Pop. The hip bones. The body confesses
itself. The dead does not burn easy.

Near this river, after each burning, they build a small mound. Earth and
ashes. Tomorrow there will be new mounds upon this. Here nothing lasts.
Nothing stays the same. Only earth retains itself.

We pick up dry twigs. Break them into five small pieces. "Turn away from
the ashes, the river. Throw the twigs over your shoulder. Don't look
back."

What does it mean, I ask. "It means you have broken all ties with him.
The five elements go back where they came from." I throw the twigs over my
shoulder. I do not look back.

But the dead does not let you forget him easily. At night, when you do not
know what to do with time, he comes back.

(April 30 - May 21, 1997) 

Priyadarshi Patnaik

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