The Last Rite

By Radha Bharadwaj

 

Kasi was sinking.

They had left him undisturbed, cocooned in worn shawls in a corner of the hut. His eyes are becoming glazed, noted the daughter-in-law.

Life went on around Kasi. His wife Ganga stirred an iron pot over the fire. The mangy dog watched her out of listless eyes for the scraps it knew would never come. The daughter-in-law leaned the weight of her stomach, swollen with her eighth child, against the wall.

“Ma,” she addressed Ganga, with the nervousness that the latter usually evoked in people.  “Ma—maybe he’d like some—water . . .”

Ganga stopped stirring.  She strode to Kasi’s side and looked at her dying mate. Kasi’s lips were parched, and yes, he seemed to be asking for something to drink. Without a word, Ganga walked out of the hut and looked into their well. At first she couldn’t even see it. Squinting against the white glare of Belur’s morning sun, she looked again. There it was: water! Wetting the bed of the well—barely. If she went down, she would be able to collect two pails of slush, which she could pass through her only muslin sari and come up with not even half-a-pail of water. Searching the white skies in vain for a rain cloud, she walked back into the hut. She briskly poured the contents of the water pot into a brass tumbler.

“This is our last glass. The rest is—in the well.” Ganga handed the brass tumbler to the daughter-in-law. 

The girl walked up to Kasi, looking at the tumbler in her hands with longing. The dying man seemed to sense her presence—he stirred awake with a sharp jolt and looked up at the girl. With a sudden burst of vigour, he reached out, clutching at her as if trying to clutch at life. The girl, filled with a terror she didn’t understand, dropped the tumbler and ran away screaming. The water spread over the mud floor rapidly, drying almost instantly in the heat.

                                                                 *          *          *

They came on the noon bus to Belur: Kasi’s two younger brothers, their wives and children. The wives had brought along a small steel jug each, full of water flavoured with rosewater and cardamom. There were four adults and ten children in all.

The bus had jolted them, and their gait was unsteady. They trudged across the reddish sand dunes. They spat into the fissures that cracked the face of the ancient earth. The women drew their saris around their faces as the wind began to whip grit into their eyes. The youngest child in the group whimpered that he wanted to go home.

“Shush,” comforted his mother.  “We’ll have to see your dead uncle first.”

“Dying,” corrected her husband, Haran.

And by the time they reached their destination, they had consumed the water they had brought with them.

                                                                 *          *          *

Ganga stood like a sentinel at the doorway to her hut. The advancing group was no mirage created by the heat and dust. In the distance, the women dutifully set up a wail.

Ganga turned to her daughter-in-law. The younger woman dropped her eyes so that her mother-in-law wouldn’t see the excitement that flickered in them.

“Won’t they let him die in peace?” Ganga said. Her voice wafted out into the still noon air, into the ears of the approaching kin.

“Sister,” the younger wife called out, piety written with smug fingers all over her face. “If you don’t want us here, say so. We only came to help.”

                                                                 *          *          *

The cool darkness of the hut came as a relief to the travellers. The daughter-in-law managed to find enough wheat to make them rotis. And the two wives stroked her hair and whispered tales about her fearsome mother-in-law in her ears.

Haran walked to the solitary figure that still stood guard at the hut’s entrance.

“Where’s your son?” he asked Ganga.

“In the city.”

“Does he know his father’s . . .”

Ganga silenced him with a look. “Why should he know?” she countered. “He’s in the city, trying to find work to feed his family. Why should he be told? He’ll rush back. And can he stop death?”

Haran saw the reason in her reasoning. He had grown to understand that her capacity for pure logic was a survival mechanism. He still remembered her as a quiet bride, when she’d wed his brother. She had been soft then—soft and tender, even, in speech, thought, and sentiment.

These lands do something to you, Haran thought, thinking of the day he’d left Belur as he threw his beedi on the ground and crushed it with his heel. The desert had crushed all the softness out of Ganga, giving her its proud, menacing air. That she was called Ganga was supreme irony: Ganga, holiest of all rivers, river of plenty, daughter of the ever-fresh virgin Himalayan snows.

“Ma.” The daughter-in-law’s voice was tinged with exhaustion. Ganga turned to her: the girl’s lips were stretched tight with pain. Anytime now, thought Ganga.

“Ma.  He’s sinking fast. Maybe you should get the Brahmin for the last rite.”

As if seconding the daughter-in-law’s suggestion, the dying man, driven by sheer need, uttered his first coherent word that day: “Water . . .”

                                                                 *          *          *

Parched corn fields bared their burnt cobs like decaying teeth in the face of a skull. Ganga rushed past them, her thin legs crossing the cracks on the dry earth. She thought of a time—years ago—when she had brought the strength of her plough and will to bear green dividends on this very patch. But there had been plentiful rains then. Now the rain-god had put away his bucket.

                                                                 *          *          *

The Brahmin lifted his shaven head from his book and looked at Ganga. Seated on the porch of his small stone house, he looked like a ghost on the verge of merging with the air. Gone was the golden glow from his limbs. Now pallor washed his face, and all spare fat and necessary muscle had wasted away, contorting his body into a brittle hook. 

“I cannot pay you, Maharaj,” said Ganga, running her dry tongue over drier lips. 

The Brahmin rose from the porch and wrapped a thin towel around his shoulders. “No payment necessary,” he said, and tried to smile—but his lips were too dry to manage this feat. “Let’s go.”

Eyes that were as dry as the land welled up with a long-forgotten emotion: gratitude. Ganga touched the Brahmin’s feet as he walked past her and then followed him as he led the way to her hut.

                                                                 *          *          *

“Om Shanti.” Rest in peace. With that, the Brahmin completed the Sanskrit hymns of his forbears, blessing the departing soul and sanctifying its path. But Kasi’s spirit clung tenaciously to its flesh, and the tussle between the two emerged in the form of rending moans. The plea was incessant. “Water . . .”

The Brahmin looked at Ganga, peering at her above the heads of her nieces and nephews, who were watching their uncle die with ghoulish fascination.

The Brahmin asked Ganga: “Do you have any water for this poor man?”

Her sisters-in-law nudged each other and exchanged loaded looks with their kohl-lined eyes. And Ganga replied, without batting a lid, “We’ll give him some, Maharaj. There’s some in the well.”

The Brahmin pinned her with his gaze—which she met firmly, even defiantly. Then he rose, stopping at the doorway to give her a small brass pot covered with ochre cloth. “Holy water from the Ganges,” the Brahmin said. “You must pour it down Kasi’s mouth at the actual moment of death. That’s the last rite, to help his soul merge with the Infinite.”

Holding the pot close to her face, Ganga watched the Brahmin leave. She liked the sound of the water gurgling and splashing against the cool sides of the metal. She hardly heard Kasi groan: “Water . . .”

                                                                 *          *          *

 

The daughter-in-law was looking down the well, watching the sun dry up remnant traces of moisture. A sudden shaft—like a sword of fire pierced through to her womb.  Pain followed in its wake—monstrous, threatening to almost rend her in two. She weaved back unsteadily towards the hut. At the threshold, her water broke with a whoosh, running in rivulets down her legs, dripping down the folds of her sari to form a puddle at her feet.

“Ma,” she whispered, sinking to the wet ground, teeth clenched to bear the agony holding her in its vice-like grip.

The women quickly erected a makeshift curtain around the girl. Her strong, throaty cries—for water—drowned out Kasi’s thready pleas. And energized by the drama of impending birth at the scene of imminent death, the women and children rushed around on errands they gave themselves. They stroked the daughter-in-law’s brow, soothing her with lies. Water is being drawn from the well, they told her; it’s being boiled now, this very minute; it’s being flavoured with vetiver and cardamom; it’s being poured into tall brass tumblers; we’re bringing it to you, in just a minute; hold on for one more minute, one more minute . . .

The two suffering souls created their own fevered fantasies: of ponds filled with clean, sweet water from which one could drink long and deep; of temple wells brimming with lotuses, with fresh water clinging to the pink-veined petals in such abundance that all that one would have to do would be to kiss the flowers, to be fully quenched.

Clutching the brass pot of holy water, Ganga watched her dying husband. His cries for water were weak but constant. They failed to move her. Her mate of thirty years—once formidable, now frail—was looking her in the eye, beseeching like a beggar: “Water . . .” She turned away from him and turned her gaze inwards and saw her heart harden and lose all semblance of humanity. When, God, did my destruction begin? Not in one moment, like a fist to a face. But stealthily, sinuously, like the desert creeping in to stifle verdant fields, cutting off life at the root.

The daughter-in-law shrieked again. “Water!” And now Ganga knew what she had to do. She hurried to the girl’s side. She undid the ochre cloth that covered the brass pot. As the relatives watched, too aghast to protest, Ganga poured into the girl’s mouth water—water from the holy Ganga, divine mother and protector.