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He had to take mother’s body home for the last rites. It was a good networking opportunity – elections were round the corner, and it would elicit sympathy.
Everything looked strange because the place chosen was strange. It was the side exit of a hospital. There was dust everywhere. The parked vans and ambulances seemed to be snoozing lazily. The two sleepy orderlies, waiting by a black van, had the desire to run home writ large on their faces, since the night shift was over.
The sun was beginning to make its presence felt, forcing the darkness to abdicate. They were all standing there. They had got divided into three groups. Last ninety minutes of parleys, fierce arguments, shouting, gesticulating, threatening had borne no result. The first group consisted of Rohan, sixtyish, his wife’s brother Ramesh and Rohan’s two sons Shanker and Pulkit – ranging between twenty five to thirty five years of age. Rohan was the spokesperson of this group.
The second group consisted of Rohan’s elder sister Sindhu, younger sister Bindu, Bindu’s husband Anil and Sindhu’s son Atul. Sindhu looked tired, depleted, bewildered, and unable to believe what was happening. Bindu was up in arms opposing Rohan. Anil was in his usual role – that of a silent onlooker. Atul was giving his aunt her due and watching silently, ready to spring to action if the need arose.
At the moment Bindu had the floor. In her self-righteous mode she was not ready to heed the third group. The third group consisted of two couples, Guptas and Suris, they were family friends, trying to intervene and bring the estranged brother and sisters together.
Sukhram, one of the two orderlies standing silently beside the hospital van, heaved a sigh. He leaned against its closed door and gestured to Baadu to go and have his tea because he knew from past experience this would go on. It was nowhere near abating. Disgusted he thought, “Families!”
Inside the van lay Karuna Devi, wrapped in a white sheet, because she could no more interfere. Otherwise she would have joined her younger daughter to hustle her son while leaning on her elder daughter – exactly what she had done for the last two decades. But her face was expressionless, the thrill of being important no more touched her.
Earlier Atul had carried her into emergency at five o’clock, where the doctors had declared her dead. Maybe she would have liked to go back to her room in Sindhu’s home, still full of last week’s welcome back cards and flowers, and sit in her shiny new wheel chair and order the nurse, who had been especially engaged for her. It had only been a week – she had been just managing to forget the strict routine of ICU where she had spent almost a month.
Surrounded by the comfort and care of Sidhu’s home, Karuna Devi always began sentimentally to long for her son Rohan, whose house she had left in desperate anger because of the neglect, disrespect meted out to her by her daughter-in-law Ankita. She would remember Rohan’s goodness and Ankita’s evilness – real or imagined – it would have been difficult to judge for an objective onlooker.
You see, Karuna Devi too was made of sterner stuff. She did not want Rohan’s platitudinous lip-service as the only tangible reward for having brought him up. She knew he did not ‘need’ her. She realized she had lost to Ankita in the dynamics of ownership rights over him. Though she did not know what she was doing, she went into the ‘Mother-Strikes-Back’ mode. In the enraged, wronged matriarch’s tragic role she had often told Sindhu and Bindu that her dead body should not be taken to her son’s home, that Rohan and Ankita should not be allowed to touch her or her ashes, but she wanted to meet her grandsons, their wives.
Rohan, on getting the news of her death had presented himself in the hospital. He wanted to take her to his house, cremate her, and perform all the rites and rituals as was his due, “I am her son and this is the day people want sons for.” This sounded feeble even to himself. He would have to be more forceful, get over his habitual laid back attitude in domestic affairs. But he too was surprised when he blurted, “Had she lived with me she would have lived for ten more years. You have killed my mother.” He cleared his throat, yes, this was a good track to pursue.
“Oh, have you remembered you are her son? Congratulations on losing your amnesia! She was your mother when your wife made her life miserable, when she left home – but you didn’t bother. So why bother now? Mummy was very categorical – she didn’t want to go back to your place. The question does not arise – we will not allow it. She is going back to Sindhu’s home.” In the heat of the moment Bindu had almost forgotten her loss, her sorrow.
Sindhu tried to placate both her younger siblings. She wanted them to come to a decision on their own. For the last one year she had been in and out of the hospitals. She was tired – so very tired; the vigils outside the ICUs , all the time the sword of emergency hanging on her head, making mental notes for all the ‘what-ifs’, she had even memorized the phone numbers for ambulance services by heart.
She just wanted to put her head down and weep. Guilt gnawed at her. May be managing the ever-changing long list of medicines, doses, doctors, consultations, waiting in the lounges, she had not sat down beside Mummy and shared some good memories. Poor Sindhu did not know that she was suffering from survivor’s guilt. She had done whatever was humanly possible. She couldn’t even understand why her siblings were quarrelling. What does it matter! Mummy was gone! Not being much religious, the rites of death had little importance for her. She had been there when Mummy needed her!
One of the primary reasons that Hindus wish for a son is that the belief is that only sons can carry out funeral rites. Another relative can be substituted for the son but this is generally regarded as much less effective. It is believed that a person gets moksha only if son lights the fire. The Vedas state that by performing their funeral rites, the son saves the parents from the hell of Punnama where people without sons are believed to go.
Rohan was furious. Keeping the delicacy of the moment in his mind, he was holding his tongue with difficulty. Mummy had always been a bother, a pain in the neck. Poor Papa! He could never handle her. He still remembered how she had turned Grandma out of the house! Never could she do anything right.
She had treated Ankita as enemy number one from the day she came. She wasn’t ready to accept the changes. She wanted everybody to dance to her tune, to follow her orders; she wanted center-stage. And now why the hell his sisters have to go against the traditions? Bindu was always the one to break traditions – getting married to a non-Hindu! But why cannot Sindhu didi understand his position? She should, he expected her to.
He had a certain social position. What will people say if he won’t perform the funeral? He wasn’t bothered about the relatives – they are two a penny. If you have money they will overlook all your peccadillos. But it would reflect badly on him in his business circle. They had not known his mother had left his house, but now they would know if he did not take her home. He was the president of Loin’s club. In his mind he was formulating the obituary he would send in the newspapers. He was also making the list of people he would send the card for the kriya lunch on the fourth day. God sent chance to do networking – elections were round the corner. He had short listed the caterer also.
Ankita had categorically told Rohan to bring the dead body home. “On no condition you will let your sisters take the body. We have to perform the antyesthti properly. You better call some of your factory workers – even if you have to tussle to bring the body back.” It was only a ‘body’ now! Suddenly she realized her crassness and corrected herself, “This is Mummyji’s real home…”, though she did not share her inner worries with her husband.
Last month her brother Shanker’s wife had given birth to her first child – it had been a still born baby boy. Ankita just knew in her heart that it was Mummyji’s doing. She must have been cursing them because they had sent only a formal invitation card to her to fulfill propriety.
Of course, she had not attended the wedding. Seeking attention had always been Mummyji’s favorite pastime! In fact Ankita didn’t want her to come for the wedding. If once allowed to put her foot in, she might refuse to leave. She did not want her interfering ways again.
Pushing her out had taken a great effort. Later on while refurnishing the house, she had turned Mummyji’s room into the family TV lounge. But the dead must be given a proper send off – Ankita wanted prosperity, grandsons, and happiness in her house. That meant no-step-omitted-anteyshti. Otherwise, Mummyji would not find her way to her proper place in after life and come back to haunt them. Moreover she had to improve her own image in the eyes of her son’s wife. The youngsters have to be coached, shown the right way to do things.
Ankita started planning, “White shroud since she was a widow, a few leaves of tulsi, sacred water. No one can eat or drink – must give away the food from the fridge, shift the sofas and spread sheets and carpets on the floor. Few chairs should be put outside – people have knee problems and cannot sit on the floor.”
Sindhu stood silently near the van. Bindu was listening to the Suris. Mr. Suri was earnestly speaking, “Let Rohan take her. Stop this slanging match. It’s an insult to the departed. Sons always perform the antyeshti. Rohan has to think of his social reputation.” Mrs. Gupta also pacified, “Perhaps this is what being a son means to Rohan. You two were there when she needed you. Now she is gone. Let her go.”
Finally the friends brought the brother and sisters together, “Mourn her together. Shed tears together – maybe your tears will wash away some of your bitterness.” Sindhu was the first to hold Rohan’s hand and Bindu reluctantly followed. Being the eldest this had been Sindhu’s role throughout her life.
So Karuna Devi went to her son’s home – the home which she had left five years ago in anger and bitterness. Later in the day, she was carried on a bamboo bier to the cremation ghat. Carrying a fire kindled in his home, Rohan was in the lead amid the chanting of “Ram naam satya hai…”
His Pitradebt was finally paid. This moment was the summum bonum , the acme of being a son to his limited mind set. There was an almost gloating mission-accomplished look on his face.
On the fourth day a big haven was performed, pandits were fed, oblation, alms were given. More than a thousand people came to pay their respect. Rohan and Ankita stood in white designer dresses, with folded hands – a complete picture of respectability. Silent planning was afoot- “No need to pick up relations with sisters. They had made them a laughing stock in the society. If they had not supported Mummy in all her frivolous demands, she would have quietly lived in the house! They didn’t want them back in their life.”
Image source: old Indian woman by Shutterstock.
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