Essay: Remains of the body

For the family and community of the person who dies, the body takes on a different life immediately after death. It becomes a soul craving last rites. An examination of grief in a season of great loss
The flower of happiness and of grief. (Shutterstock)
The flower of happiness and of grief. (Shutterstock)
Published on Jun 02, 2021 05:50 PM IST
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By Saikat Majumdar

Can I tell you the most disturbing dream I’ve had in my life?

It did not feel like a nightmare, it did not have the spiked, jagged quality of one. It was long and slow and misty, real, almost ordinary.

My father was dying. It was the bedroom of the house of my childhood, and he was almost dead, in a coma, dazed by some fatal illness. It was around midnight. My stepmother sat with him, and a few other people I don’t remember, or couldn’t recognize. There was still a little life left in him, but it didn’t look like he would survive the night.

“The boys are waiting.” They kept saying.

The boys were the young men of the neighbourhood who had gathered outside the house to carry the corpse to the crematorium, a fifteen-minute walk from the house, by the riverside.

They had to wait. He was still alive.

“They won’t wait forever.” I don’t know who was saying these things, or if anyone was speaking at all, or if it was just something we knew. I was there in the room, a child who knew his father was gone. Just not quite. He was still gasping a little, and his eyelids struggled to open.

The boys were getting restless. They wanted to go home, sleep. If father died after they left, the body would have to lie in the room all night as there would be no one to carry him to the crematorium.

A sacred fragrance. (Shutterstock)
A sacred fragrance. (Shutterstock)

They waited breathlessly. He was still alive. It was an impossible situation.

They called the boys. They arranged for him to be taken away. It would be terrible if the boys went home, and his corpse lay here through the night.

He would be cremated. He was not dead yet, but almost. It was better this way, a clean, pure end.

The last thing I remember from the dream is them sticking incense sticks to his chest. Pinned to his flesh, they were lit. A sacred fragrance filled the room.

I had this dream a few years after my father died in his fifties. I was just out of college in India, at graduate school in the US. In the dream, I was a boy, back to the few years of my life I had sporadically spent with my father and stepmother.

***

For the family and community of the person who dies, the body takes on a different life immediately after death. It becomes a soul craving last rites. At the end of Thebes’ civil war, the victorious king Creon decrees that the body of the rebel Polynices will be denied the respect of last rites and will be left to rot and vultures. Antigone’s struggle, in the eponymous play, is to dare the royal decree and give her brother the last rites he deserves.

The remains of the body shape classics no less than the life that comes before. While alive, the Brahmin Naranappa was never excommunicated by his fellow villagers in spite of his “blasphemous” ways – eating meat, spending time with Muslim and lower caste people. But the blasphemous man’s death called for a rejection of his body in UR Ananthamurthy’s novel Samskara. Turning into carrion, the deviant Brahmin’s body mocked the rot in Brahminical Hinduism.

Author Saikat Majumdar (Courtesy the author)
Author Saikat Majumdar (Courtesy the author)

My dream, too, made precious that which I didn’t have when my father passed away. A look at his body, a window to his last rites. I was nearly 13,000 kilometers away. His death was an email.

My parents separated when I was a child. Once close, my father had moved far away from me, occupied with his new family. I didn’t grieve his death the way a son should. But soon, that evening, I had a fever. My body missed something.

Antigone performed by members of the Art project French Spring in Ukraine at the Dnipro Opera and Ballet Theatre in April 2017. (Shutterstock)
Antigone performed by members of the Art project French Spring in Ukraine at the Dnipro Opera and Ballet Theatre in April 2017. (Shutterstock)

Our body behaves mysteriously when we lose someone with whom our bodies have been linked, sometimes even before our mind has decided how to respond. It happens even when death is disembodied, happening far away. I remember the telephone call from India that woke me up at 2:30 AM on a Sunday to tell me that my mother was gone at 55. Following the sudden cerebral stoke on Friday afternoon, she had spent two days in a coma. The woman who had once played Antigone in Hansgünther Heyme’s theatre production in Calcutta, carrying a brother’s corpse across the open grounds of St Paul’s Cathedral.

When the phone call came, I was having trouble breathing. Seasonal allergies, choking me up. Strangely, right after I put the phone down, my nasal passages cleared. Something in my body reacted. I could breathe again, even as I felt like I was being hurled down an endless height. She was the last member of my immediate family, my mother.

This summer, I’m closer to many loved ones. A city an hour’s flight away; a neighbourhood in the same city. The news of death reaches me, again and again. I can’t reach out, be by their side. Proximity is dead from infection. My mind mourns but my body speaks no more. Death is now truly disembodied. It remains hard to touch and caress, till it washes up on our shores and mocks our nation.

***

Saikat Majumdar’s novels include The Firebird, The Scent of God, and the forthcoming The Middle Finger.

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Saturday, October 16, 2021