‘No, I saw the van with my own eyes. I swear!’ Shibu insisted.
‘Van?’ Kallu stirred; took a long, last drag and tapped the clay pipe on the ground. Out tipped a piece of glowing charcoal and some ash from the burnt ganja, which he proceeded to address. ‘Your cremation is done, my friend. The ashes deserve to be floated in the river. Great joy you have spread during your short life.’ Grinning at himself, he tucked the pipe into his waistband and stood up.
‘Come then, let’s see which great soul has reached our shores.’
Shibu wasn’t fibbing. There was indeed a vehicle parked on the road outside the ghat. Next to it, a hapless man tried to fend off the swarm of vendors who tugged at him from all directions.
‘Sir, sir, the best sandalwood, you will get the fragrance from a mile away, this way please.’
‘Here, you will need ghee for the service…pure cow ghee, not that fake tinned stuff.’
‘What kind of flowers, marigold garlands, tuberose, how many sticks?’
Someone else stuck a bunch of incense sticks into the man’s face, almost blinding him.
Kallu walked up and roared, ‘Step back, you fucking vultures! Is this any way to accost a man who has lost a member of his family?’
The vendors stepped away. Kallu was kingpin of the doms at the ghat, a big fellow to boot; there was no messing with him.
‘Namaste, saab. Please accept my condolences. You wish to cremate your…’
‘Father,’ the man said, looking warily into Kallu’s bloodshot eyes.
‘Oho, a father’s demise, the most unbearable tragedy. That too, at a time like this. How difficult it must have been to arrange for the body to be brought here, no?’
This seemed to strike a chord with the man. Kallu made a quick assessment, as he always did with any prospective customer. Brahmin, middle-aged, reasonably prosperous. If Kallu had to guess, he would say mid-level official in some government office, with money in the family – a good prospect, for his purposes.
‘Don’t ask. I had to beg and plead, even pay an astronomical sum to the van owner as deposit, in case it got seized by the police on the way.’
‘This is the problem with us, sir. One’s misfortune is another’s opportunity. No sense of solidarity. Don’t know when we will ever learn. Why, look at all these guys converging on you to sell their wares.’
The vendors glowered at Kallu and there were faint murmurs of protest.
‘Let me help you with this. Shibu!’ he bellowed.
Shibu came running, palms folded.
‘This is Shibu, a most capable dom. He will oversee the service. Shibu, call Saraswati and ask her to organize the holy fire.’
Then, turning to the vendors, Kallu picked them out, pointing with his finger, ‘Modna, you get the sandalwood. Sir, sandalwood, right? A bit expensive, but for one’s father… Lakhi, you do the flowers. Shibu, just buy the ghee and incense for sir, else they will pounce on him again.’
The man looked relieved.
‘Thank you, bhai. Anything I can…’
‘Oh, no no. That’s between you and Shibu. We are like brothers. Your work is done, that is my satisfaction. Once it is all over, you, Shibu and I can take a short ride on my boat, immerse the ashes in the holy Ganges. Alright? Shibu,
ensure everything is done properly.’
Kallu turned, winked at Shibu and marched off.
It was the first cremation in nearly three days at the Harishchandra ghat and there was none of the usual pandemonium. Everything happened as Kallu had ordained, and as the departed Mishraji’s – that was his name – pyre was lit, sending flames leaping up into the gathering dusk sky, suffusing the ghats with an aroma of ghee, sandalwood and incense that subdued – sufficiently at least – the stench of charring flesh, the vendors stood around the fire looking suitably forlorn, chanting Ram naam satya hai, like a crowd of makeshift mourners. The dead man’s son had come alone for the funeral and seemed glad for the company.
Once the fire had subsided, Shibu and Saraswati poked around the cinders and
gathered the ashes into an earthen pot. Shibu cleared his throat and at his signal, Kallu lifted the urn and, with the most solemn of expressions on his face, brought it to young Mishraji.
‘The mortal remains of your heavenly father, sir. Now, we must ensure they reach the gates of heaven. Please come with me.’
Kallu lowered the boat into the water, and the three of them took their places; Shibu and Kallu on either end with Mishraji in the middle, holding on to the urn. The sky had turned orange and they were the only ones on the river. They rowed on for a bit and at Kallu’s signal, the man scattered his father’s ashes into the river. As if on cue, the orange on the horizon faded to grey, lending an even greater poignancy to the setting. Mishraji wiped his eyes with his sleeve. Kallu let the boat drift in the river for a moment.
‘Only a very lucky man gets a send-off like this, sir. All of us die, but not everyone is shown the way to the heavenly abodes. You have done your duty as a son, Mishraji. Your father’s soul rests in peace.’
Mishraji regarded Kallu with tears in his eyes. Had it not been for the matter of awkward balance on the boat, he may even have forgotten his caste and hugged him. Behind his back, Shibu made a circle with his forefinger and
thumb – good work.
Mishraji said, ‘My sincere thanks to both of you. Honestly, I had expected it to be far more chaotic than this; that’s what everyone had told me. But, it’s so empty…’
Kallu smiled, sadly. ‘You had heard right, sir. It can be a harrowing experience, but things are different now. In all my years at this ghat, and I have been here since I was a child, I have never seen a time like this. One cremation in three days! Usually, it’s at least a dozen every day.’
‘It’s almost as if people have stopped dying in this country…’ Shibu piped in.
Kallu gave him a stern look, as Mishraji tried to turn and look at Shibu, not managing it too well.
‘Yes, I can imagine. Who would want the hassle of transporting a body at a time of lockdown? I was warned that the cops may stop the van and ask me to prove it wasn’t a Muslim corpse; thankfully it didn’t come to that. Sneaked through, somehow. But for all of you, this must be your source of income, right? How are you managing?’ Mishraji asked.
Before Kallu could respond, Shibu – still on his own trip – blabbered, ‘No, sir, it’s not just the transport. Fewer people are dying too. So many of the bodies we get here are road and rail accident victims, all that has become zero. Even murders…’
Kallu tried to salvage the situation. ‘You are right, of course, saab. Business is bad, but death brings such grief all around that I was telling Shibu just this morning, how does it matter if we earn less for a few days? At least there is less sorrow in the world. Isn’t that something to be wished for?’
Mishraji seemed struck by Kallu’s words.
‘Such a nice thing to say. I’ll never forget it. Maybe it’s being on this river all day, with the spectre of death all around you…’
They had reached the banks.
Mishraji got out unsteadily, almost toppling over. Once he had recovered, he took out his wallet and asked Shibu, ‘We didn’t talk about the costs, how much should I…’
Shibu was about to quote a fee but Kallu intervened. ‘Sir, don’t embarrass us. This is not a marketplace, where we negotiate the price of things. There is only one father, one funeral for him… Whatever you think that is worth is fine with us.’ Mishraji seemed speechless.
He mumbled, ‘You know what, I’ll just keep enough for the drive back and you take all of this.’
He had a thick wad of notes in his wallet, out of which he removed only a slim note to put in his breast pocket, handing the rest over to Kallu.
Kallu received it with folded hands and said, ‘God be with you, sir. In our line, we never say, “hope to meet again”; but such is the cycle of life and death that maybe we will again someday. Tonight, Shibu and I will pray for your father’s
Mishraji wiped his eyes again and walked away.
Excerpted with permission from Essential Items and Other Tales From a Land in Lockdown by Udayan Mukherjee, Bloomsbury.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost India and has been updated.
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