The discussion was in full swing. Should they hand over the body to the police and let them trace the family or should they get together and perform the last rites.
The neighbours faced a dilemma. According to Hindu tradition, the eldest son is the kartaa (meaning, ‘the principal performer’) of the last rites, In the absence of a son, the grandson or any other close male relative of the deceased performs it.
The neighbour who had heard Mr Patel’s scream from inside his house that sounded like a cry of wild abandonment had knocked on the house door and kitchen window, and when Mr Patel did not answer, thinking the worst had ventured around the back to find out if any door or window was open. Finding one window open, he had climbed in and seen Mr Patel lying flat on the cold stone floor, near his favourite armchair, he had then ran out to summon other neighbours.
Mr Patel had no one to perform his last rites. Not that there was no one, but because there were no contact details with the neighbours of either of his two sons. Even his daughter had not left any address behind, before eloping with her boyfriend.
A neighbour grieved out teary-eyed-
“Cruel death sits tight
No one can see her in darkness or light
In one short flight, she comes and strikes
Steers away her catch to unknown heights
While rest below discuss the last rites”.
Few ladies wailed out in despair after hearing him sing. Others grouped around to hear the story of his life. One of the neighbours, who had just stepped in, questioned the one’s around whether a doctor had been called to pronounce him dead. Another replied, that it had happened all too suddenly and there had been no time to call a doctor, but a punditji (priest, the holy man) has been called.
Now punditji, happy to be mentioned in all the chaos, raised both his hands as if blessing all around him present and as more eyes turned towards him he smiled and signalled them to be seated again. Once all the voices had subsided he reminded them that tradition dictates no one eats or bathes till the corpse remains in their neighbourhood. Only when all arrangements for the cremation have been made and the corpse has been taken away can people start going about their daily business.
The neighbour who had just a few minutes earlier sung a song on the occasion, reminded all present in his sing-song voice how the old saying goes, “The fire in their neighbourhood would not be lit till the fire in the cremation pyre has gone out.’ and a sudden deep silence followed”.
It was already 4.30 pm and soon dusk would set in. Everyone knew that as per Hindu traditions, the last rites would not be possible after sunset.
Amma who had been sitting there quietly for some time had been mulling over the ways of the world. She suggested that the neighbours cremate Mr Patel. She thought this to be the most prudent decision, considering the present scenario in Mr Patel’s family. His daughter nowhere to be located, his sons away, his wife dead and no known kith or kin, the neighbours would be his only family.
Who could refuse Amma the spiritual guru, matchmaker, and relationship expert in our neighbourhood? Although old and frail she had years and years of experience.
Punditji took her advice and asked four neighbours to come forward and start the preparation as laid out in scriptures, which he would direct.
Mr Patel was to be lifted from the ground and was to be placed in a particular direction, for the prayers to begin. Everyone around him moved back as these four stepped close. As they huddled closer, one neighbour saw Mr Patel’s eyelid flutter slightly. Taken aback, he pointed that to all and took a step back. The next closest to him touched Mr Patel’s forehead and remarked that the body didn’t seem cold. The third held up his wrist and felt a weak pulse. The Punditji got into action and quickly spluttered some Ganga Jal ( holy water) on Patel’s face from his “kamandal” (an oblong water pot that spiritual men often use to store holy water). The fourth grabbed the “kamandal” from the Punditji’s hand and splashed all the Ganga Jal in it onto Patel’s face, and shook his body a little.
The Ganga water proved immensely beneficial because Mr Patel who till now lay still as if dead –stirred. One woman gripped by fear became a little anxious, wondered aloud -” Is he alive?” to which one approached him and tried lifting him to a sitting position. Rest including Amma, gathered around him and stood staring at him.
A doctor was summoned, who came running on being informed of the emergency. Nearing Mr Patel he inspected him closely. Before he could put his stethoscope to his chest, Mr Patel seemed to have regained his consciousness fully. Looking up he asked in a very piteous, feeble voice- “Am I home”?
He then looked around and rested his eyes on Amma, and gestured to be placed on the nearby armchair. Few lifted him onto his chair while someone pulled a chair for Amma to sit down next to him. He took her frail hand in his and oblivious of the situation started narrating what had happened to him.
The last time when I was in my house I saw the storm had subsided, the air was clean and the sky was white. The formations that I had seen seconds before, the creek, the ditch, the big black hole, all seemed to have disappeared as fast as they had appeared.
“My body was trembling with weakness, and yet I got up, dragging my weight I moved towards the door. The door opened and closed, and I found myself standing outside on a narrow lane under a blazing sun. All houses in the lane had a deserted old look and there was not a soul. As I walked past them I felt I wasn’t dragging myself any longer but gliding through the narrow turns. Once past the narrow lane, the road ahead just terminated into a forest meadow. The forest was clothed in green trees laden with Mango, papaya, banana, orange, chikoo plum pears and some exotic fruits too that I couldn’t recognise. Even the sky above was a heady mix of green and blue. And there was this trail through this green forest which I followed for a time. It opened out into a vast garden, I knew the grass below my feet was soft but I could not feel it, it was as if I was not touching it as I said earlier it felt I was gliding above it and here and there over the grass stood beautiful flowers like stars. and as I looked around my gaze caught a small cottage in the distance. Instinctively I knew that I’ll find my daughter there. I had been hard on her and it was time to go ask her forgiveness. An unknown force drew me to the cottage and, I knew love and trust would follow. The thought brought renewed energy in me and I felt that I could fly towards her house which looked so beautiful against the big white patch of sky. I felt my pulse quicken and then before I could take a step forward, water from the sprinklers in the garden struck me on my chest. I felt myself being pushed backwards albeit extremely slowly by the force of the water and I could not find my balance. Then an unseen force seemed to pull me back. My limbs tightened and my eyes closed shut and I couldn’t see where I was going. And when I opened my eyes I was here.
Amma described it to him as a near-death experience. The fate of man is predestined, she said. And standing up from her chair, she walked into the puja room of the house to do her customary meditation of the day.