“No. We need to wait. Wait another half an hour. That’s all.”
“What is this sir.? Rahukaalam( inauspicious time according to the Hindu almanac) will start soon. The dead body has to be taken to the graveyard.” the priest was getting impatient, and increasing restless.
“No sir. We are waiting for an important relative. That person may come anytime soon. Please understand.”
“Who is it Kiran?”, My mom asked. “Noone. Absolutely no one”, I shot back.
“Where is she? I am waiting for her only. People are shouting at me now. Where? Vinayaka temple? Okok. That means five minutes.” I mumbled into my mobile.
“Sir. Another five minutes. Rahukalam and Yamagandam are irrelevant now. He has already passed away. A few minutes this way or that wouldn’t matter now. You take some coconut water sir.” I winked at my sister who ran in to get some coconut water for the irate priest who had resigned himself to the slight delay.
An autorickshaw stopped right in front of our house. A single lady got out of it. A tall, fair woman in her early fifties stepped out of the rickshaw, clutching only a handbag. She was exceedingly pretty even at this age. A strong jawline, aquiline nose and heavy hazel eyes, fresh with recent grief revealed a familiar face. A gentle coffee brown saree was draped carefully around her shoulders and neck, revealing only an old gold necklace (strikingly similar to one my grandmother had) and her sharp piercing gaze scanned the crowd intently looking for recognition. Those standing were familiar visages to her memory but were strangers for all practicality. None of them smiled at her or even betrayed even the slightest of emotion. She walked hesitantly towards the porch. Whispers rose in the gathering and she walked closer.
The body was in his favorite reclining chair and was seated in the porch, facing east. Dabbed with turmeric, vermillion and tulasi leaves and hair wet with holy water, my grandfather would have easily passed away for being just an elderly man in deep sleep. The two day stubble, the cheeky smile and the blue chequered lungi on the body would have fooled an innocent passerby about the lack of life in it.
She saw me. I smiled hesitantly. She gathered a little courage and walked forward. She saw the body. And immediately her composure melted and she fell on her knees in front of the gate. Her pink face was instantly blanched of its colour and she began to wail loudly and beat her chest. Her voice rose to a steady yowl as she got up and walked up to the cadaver and fell at its feet, still crying loudly.
“Dude. Who is she? Some long estranged relative?”
“No. She is Manjulavani. My grandfather’s mistress.”
“Oh fuck. So this is the lady you always speak about. Manjulavani. The famous house wrecker. You were right dude. She is pretty, even at this age. Your granddad had kickass taste man.”
“Shut up. My mother hates her with the depth of her heart. If she hears you praising her, we might need to dig another grave for you. Hold your tongue.”
“Wasn’t she informed?”
“She was. But late in the night. My dad was saner than my mom. He informed her. My mom would have never allowed her to come. But whatever has happened, she has been in my grandfather’s life for a greater part of 25 years. She does have the right to a last visit.”
Manjulavani was still crying at my grandfather’s feet. She wailed and wailed, and set entreaties to the gods and abuses to the fates, and reminded everyone of her impending misery and loneliness. A few other women who had been silent until now, started to sob loudly, obviously a reflex reaction to this outburst. She got up finally and walked up to my mother. They looked at each other.
“This was not going to be good”, I whispered to my friend. “Not at all good. Brace yourself. We may need to physically separate them if need be.”
My mom (and my grandmother during her time) had hated her for all I remember. All interactions between them had been famously acrid and acrimonious. Ofcourse, no other emotion could be expected. My mother had even blamed her for my grandmother’s untimely death 7 years ago (which was stupid since my grandmother had lifelong issues with endocarditis and ultimately died of congestive heart failure). Manjulavani had been successful in retaining my grandfather for 10 days a month, even now.
She hugged her suddenly. My mother, overwhelmed with grief and despair hugged her back. They had spent their whole lives hating each other and trying to get one up against another. The daughter who thought her rightful share in the affection and inheritance of her father was being usurped by a tramp from a small village on the banks of Godavari versus the mistress who had spent a lot of her life in the shadow of a legal spouse, living with the proverbial sword hanging over her neck about being cut off from the one man she adored, living the life she wanted in her own terms.
The women hugged and cried. Both of them had lost an important part of their lives. My grandfather was a towering personality. All his relatives had lived in his shadow. Even I. For an instant, these two women had decided to put aside long standing differences and grieve in unison for the man who meant the world for both of them.
Death is a great leveler. Death is also a great unifier. People are brought closer during deaths. A common loss is all that it takes for people to be united, albeit temporarily. A shared misfortune is often a stronger bond than a shared gift or a mutual bounty. People can identify with someone who is going through a similar rough patch as their own. Communal bonding is often centred around this concept of death and the subsequent rituals are designed to draw relatives and friends to the house of the bereaved, as a symbol of lessening the pain and sharing the grief.
In my case, it was the daughter of the deceased making peace with the mistress. It might be a short lasting peace. But its still a peace for today.
Later in the day.
As we had finished our rituals in the graveyard and walked back, I saw Manjulavani standing in the corner of the cemetery. She was holding a large hand kerchief as she continued to dab her face at regular intervals.
“You shouldn’t be here. Women of the household aren’t allowed into the burial ground during the burial, according to custom”, I spoke as I approached her.
“As your mom has reminded me several times in the past, I am not a woman of the household. For that matter, any household.” We smiled weakly. “I am going back home now Kiran. You wont hear from me again.”
*Loosely based on real life. Poetic licenses have been taken