One day, I’ll know the names of all the flowers in her front garden. I don’t know if she herself knew them. Her young neighbour copied her in choosing the flowering plants for her own garden, and she seemed to have encouraged the replication, telling the woman on the other side of the barbed-wire fence all about the tenderness flowers respond to and flourish in. Despite the rains favouring her region, she knew better than to depend on it for the health of her ‘children’.
‘I’ll give away all the flowerpots to the gurdwara in Duliajan,’ says my father-in-law, trying to not look me in the eye.
For now, the gurdwara has come home. The living room is bare. Its furniture had to be temporarily moved elsewhere in the house to make room for the manji on which the Granth Sahib is to be placed and read from for nine days. Only, the woman who would have been delighted to spend those days listening to gurbani is absent. Her photograph, culled from her daughter’s mobile phone, was hurriedly framed just a day ago and now sits on the hem of the rumalla, which has unrolled like a flat, frozen waterfall from the holy book to the floor cushioned with mattresses. The ones within the boxbed, which has been pushed to the dining room behind, didn’t look fluffy enough. Brought home as part of her trousseau, they have been pressed thin by the weight that time exerts over the years as they coagulate into decades. That’s why six mattresses have been loaned from the Kali temple in Naholia, a townlike pocket in the Jutlibari Tea Estate in Dibrugarh.
Two days ago, another thing had to be loaned from a trust run by Marwaris in Tinsukia: a glass-top body freezer. The hospital in Duliajan had refused to store the body in the mortuary because her family didn’t allow them to do an autopsy. Nothing mattered now except preserving what remained, even if lifeless, so the daughter could see it one last time next day—see her mother lying on the bier placed on the cemented footway between the veranda entrance and the iron gate opening to the road. Balloons had been tied to the bier because they believed that she, having seen her three maternal grandsons, had led a full life. The eldest of the three was kept by the final exams from paying his last respects to his nani. His twin brothers, too small to know what was going on, just stood at a distance and watched. It was clear they had recognised her, because one said to the other, ‘Nani ghummi karne ja rahi hai’ (Nani is going for an outing).
A forehead rubbing itself on the shrouded feet of a dead kin is the last thing anyone would want to see. Just a day ago, my wife, Harsimran, had called her in the morning, only to be told by her sister-in-law that Mummy would call later. On the phone, she heard her mother’s voice in the background saying that. The call never came. But I received one while Harsimran was downstairs to drop the twins to their school van.
‘Please step out of the house for a bit.’ It was my father-in-law. I couldn’t remember him calling me ever in the morning, and when he asked me to move out, I felt a sense of dread.
‘Your mother’s gone,’ he said. It was the first time I heard him cry, leaving me to think of the gentlest way in which to make my wife cry as soon as she came upstairs.
As the morning unspooled the misery it had in store for the day, for the week—for the whole month, in fact—I tried hard not to listen to a voice inside me reading these lines:
the way we go about our lives
trying out each empty room
like houses we might own
eavesdropping for clues in corridors until
standing at a gate or attic window
seeing beauty in a flag of sky
we’re gone, leaving the doors open
all the lights burning
But her passing was so sudden that she couldn’t glimpse her ‘flag of sky’ one last time. When eyes close without warning, who can tell what moment of beauty they freeze on?
In Naholia, if nothing else, a shout brings the neighbours together. The Bengali woman whose house is behind my in-laws’, and with whom my mother-in-law had fallen out many months ago, turned up to give her the last sip of water. This is how sometimes in the scheme of things, people happen to come together, staring at the doors left open by those they thought were enemies. Perhaps all that the two women needed to make things between them work was to wave to each other ‘standing at a gate’ or just passing by, but a gesture like that wouldn’t have been possible without first having made a long visit to the mind’s attic, and without first wiping the window looking out from there.
What happens when you have the dying adversary’s head in your lap? Do you consider befriending her because now there’s no risk? Do you send out a quick prayer asking that she be spared? What reversals do you yearn for? Only one moment is enough. It’s only one moment that solidifies into a fulcrum on which the mind turns, but in that fraction of time all directions are meaningless. There is no urn to collect the ashes of what you’ve burned, but the smoke still smarts the eyes. Perhaps all that the comforting neighbour wanted was an eye contact with the departing woman, but she had already gone too far. Once closed, her eyes didn’t open again.
A week ago, she had begun giving hints to her daughter-in-law that amounted to opening the almirahs and pointing to things that might be difficult to trace later. To ‘Mummy, why are you doing this?’ the answer was, ‘It’s you who’d need to look after the house. All by yourself.’ Did she know? When I was a child, I had heard of something similar from my mother. Thirty years later, I put it in a poem called ‘The Door’:
The end might not be as easy as what
the old carpenter of Nasik met with.
One day, without preamble, halting
his midmorning activity as if it were
part of a ritual, something as quotidian
as securing his tools in the toolbox,
he said to his daughter-in-law,
They’ve come for me. I must go.
Asking for a glass of water,
he sat cross-legged on the floor
as if to brace himself with
yet another recitation of the Sukhmani,
only to call it a life, and then collapse.
He might have found the passing
as effortless as walking into a cinema,
the ushers welcoming him,
while his kin waited outside
wondering about the movie
they too would see one day,
but not just yet, constantly praying
that when their turn came,
they be spared the shock
innocent birds get when trying to fly
through a pristine glass door.
Then, as now, the first person to receive the cue was the daughter-in-law.
Besides the body clock, is there another clock inside us that we become aware of only when we’ve almost run out of time?
I was seven when I first came to know what death is. It was on a morning brimming with the ecstasy of holiday. Waking me, my mother said, ‘Babaji poorey ho gaye’ (Babaji has become complete). She was referring to the scholarly landlord of the sprawling riverside building we lived in. It was constructed on a slope that became level only near the river. I followed Mother to his house. Nostrils stuffed with cotton balls, he lay on the floor. His long beard was as snowy as ever, and the folds in his pale, milky ochre turban couldn’t have been more perfect. A hundred and three years old, he was the only Santa I knew. I couldn’t believe he could go away just like that.
To respect his last wishes, he was cremated the same evening on a low, square platform he had had built in his garden facing the river, and I saw a funeral pyre for the first time. Next day, at school, I asked a classmate, ‘Does a dead person feel the heat when burning in a pyre?’ With full confidence in his voice, he said, ‘A little.’ And I believed him.
The years between the two pyres haven’t in the least changed the way hot tears pull my heart out. I think of all the times I had said things that hurt my mother-in-law, and the tears become hotter.
In my mind, a year and a quarter later, I am still in Assam. For the past nine days, her house in the midst of tea plantations has been coming alive to the verses from the Guru Granth Sahib. Tomorrow will see the culmination of the ten-day sahaj paath. If I could, I’d celebrate the existence of each book I love the way true Sikhs do, wrapping it in a vividly embroidered rumalla every evening before putting it to rest, and ‘waking’ it during the small hours each morning, bowing before it at the least pretext, opening it on a random page.
Today, I want to believe in this verse by Guru Arjan from the Granth as easily as I believed in my classmate’s pyre wisdom:
Wind is woven into wind. Light
mingles with light. Dust
and dust become one. Where
should the lamenter take shelter?
Who died? O who died? Knowers
of Brahma, put your heads together.
This has been going on. No one
has news of the beyond.
Even the mourner will go. You’ve
rigged up fastenings of fantasy
and fondness. When the dream’s been
dreamt, the blind dreamer babbles.
It’s the doer’s doing. The coming
and going happens in line
with the command of the Infinite.
No one dies, nor can one ever
die. It doesn’t perish, the spirit.
It’s not what you know it
to be. I will sacrifice myself
to the one who knows.
Nanak says, the guru has
lifted me from lapse.
No one dies. No one
comes or goes.
I still don’t know the names of all the flowers in her garden, but I know that touching them, I’m touching her feet.
- Katharine Towers, The Floating Man (London: Picador, 2010), p. 38.
- Sarabjeet Garcha, A Clock in the Far Past (Bhubaneswar: Dhauli Books, 2018), p. 44
- Guru Granth Sahib, p. 885. Cited verse translated by Sarabjeet Garcha.
Sarabjeet Garcha is a widely published bilingual poet and an editor, translator, and publisher. He is the author of A Clock in the Far Past, among other books of poems, a volume of translated poetry, and a volume of translated prose. He received a fellowship in Hindi literature (2013-14) from the Ministry of Culture of India. He has translated many American poets into Hindi, including W.S. Merwin and John Haines, and many Indian poets into English, including Mangalesh Dabral and Leeladhar Jagoori. Sarabjeet also founded and directs Copper Coin, a multilingual publishing enterprise, and lives with his family in Delhi NCR.