( This appeared in the Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 2, Dated Jan 19 , 2008 )
Its the October of 1998 changed my perspective on death; it bonded us cousins, all 22 of us, forever in one memory that is revived in a solemn moment every year. Till then cousins were just fun or not fun, the family bond was not conscious to most of us…we didn’t remember we shared the same blood. We weren’t all very close, and all incredibly different, ranging in age from the wrong side of forty to the pre-teen. Muthachan (Grandfather) was then 98 and we were impatiently waiting for him to hit the century mark. He was still very active and extremely proud of his brood of grandchildren. Muthachan was well-planned for death as he had been in life. He had a notebook that recorded every number to be called when he died, an envelope holding the amount needed for the funeral, and his clothes for the last journey. He wanted all formalities connected with death to be over with the cremation. His only regret was: “So many important people will come here — I won’t be able to see any of them!”
In late July he fell, broke his thigh bone and lapsed into a coma. I visited him at the hospital on October 4th, and found him unresponsive. My 93-year-old grandmother was by his side, quite unaware of what has happening to her husband of 73 years. Sudhammavan (Uncle Sudhan) his favourite son was doing the nursing. Sudhammavan joked about Muthachan’s illness, as was his way; he found an element of satire in everything and proclaimed it to the world. That acid tongue is a gift we all possess. Jokes apart, we knew Muthachan would soon leave us.
I went back to my city and my life. My new landline connection had come through on October 6 and I rushed to receive my first call. It was Sudhammavan, who managed to keep in touch with almost all his family regularly. “So I have another number to call now!” he said. I said I’d call him back but somehow didn’t. There is always tomorrow for that call. That night we had a long power cut. When the telephone rang out at 2 am, I was wide awake, fanning the kids. I sensed it was bad news arriving at this odd hour and braced myself to hear about Muthachan. My husband looked solemn and he said, a little hesitantly “It’s Sudhammavan, he has had an accident!”It didn’t sink in.
What they say is true: bad news numbs you. I still remember that night: it was hot and stuffy in the room, we couldn’t open the windows due to the mosquitoes and it was eerily still. At my cousin’s house I found the whole family in a collapsed state. Sudhammavan’s six sisters were speechless with grief and Uncle’s wife, whom he had left at Muthachan’s bedside, refused to believe the news. We, the second generation, were between grief and concern. Grandmother had to be told the bad news, Muthachan had to be looked after (the first generation was proving useless) and Sudhammavan’s death was only a formality that awaited a hospital declaration.
On October 8, Sudhammavan was declared dead. He was cremated according to Hindu tradition; 14 boys of the family bore his body on their shoulders for the last rites and we girls struggled with our tears. It was the first time that we were present together in many years. None of us had eaten for 24 hours, and someone made some kanji, (rice porridge). The cousins sat down to eat but there wasn’t any side dish to go with the kanji. My husband bought a bottle of garlic pickle; nothing extraordinary, but it would force the food down our throats. In a few minutes, the bottle was half empty; the pickle was proving very tasty and, surprisingly, lifting our mood.
Someone made a feeble joke. Slowly, without realizing it, we were all smiling at someone’s anecdote. “Who told you this, it’s really ridiculous!” I said. And he replied, “Who else but Sudhammavan!” A moment of silence and we were jolted back into the present. This would have been Sudhammavan’s favourite moment, sitting among his nephews and nieces, teasing one of them. We felt he was among us for that one second. The October rains started in earnest. The days were wet and black in mood. It was almost like we were waiting for something to happen.
Muthachan had now been moved from the hospital to my aunt’s house in Kochi. We waited around extending our leave, now in a close web spun by tragedy; and missing Sudhammavan’s anchor every minute. Muthachan followed his son on October 18, and his last journey was every bit as grand as he wished. His son had gone on in advance to prepare his bed over there. His notebook of phone numbers was used a second time in two weeks. And the boys of the family performed the funeral rites once again. The funeral pyre was on the family grounds, and we watched the flames slowly burning Muthachan’s frail body into ash. We cousins are now spread over the globe, but we remember to get in touch on October 8 every year. It has built a rare bond in us, that would have passed us by if death had not visited twice that October.