Picture of elderly Indian woman, with a garland around the photo and flowers and lit candles in front of itWhen it became clear that my mother-in-law was going to die last month, family gathered from around the world to say their last goodbyes. Mummy died just weeks short of her 100th birthday. It was a peaceful, happy death, surrounded as she was by her children, grandchildren and even two of her great-grands. And it was at home.

That alone made it different. That meant it was in her hands and in ours. It meant that we made the decisions we knew she would want. So no heroic, last-minute efforts to “save” her. No tubes, no ventilators, no crazy final-hour interventions or operations. Her end was calm and quiet and when she slipped away, she was holding her daughter’s hand, intent on her final journey.

Her final journey.

I lost track of the number of times she told me how she wanted to depart. “I want to go like Krishan,” she would say, referring to her younger brother KrishanKant, the Vice-President of India. He had died in his sleep, completely unexpectedly. No time, no chance to intervene. He tricked everyone, disappearing without permission. He just left.

And in the end, that’s what we all will do. In the end, we leave, and we leave alone.

Walk it

But when Mummy died, though we knew she was gone, that her spirit had left her body – we still wanted to be with her as long as we possibly could.

In India, if you are a woman, that’s asking a lot. Women are allowed (expected) to wash the dead body of another woman, but after that is done, it’s the men, traditionally, who take over. They fabricate the bier from bamboo and rope and they are the ones who lift the body and carry it outside. One of them presides over the final prayers. It is men, traditionally, who hoist the stretcher on to their shoulders and carry it away from the house to the hearse and while women are allowed up until then, after that, in traditional families, it is a strictly male event. Until recently, women did not even go to the cremation grounds, let alone participate in the final rites. No matter how close they were to the person who had died, they did not accompany them on that final, final part of the journey.

I’m not a Hindu and I have always avoided stands of principle in Hindu rituals (I have enough problems with my own Catholic faith). But this was about Mummy, whom I had loved and cared for for over 18 years. It felt absolutely natural to me to be one of those who picked up her body and carried her out of the house to the garden.

A group of men and one woman carry a dead body out of a house

Once we were out there, I knew I had to do more. “I want to help carry her to the hearse,” I told Ravi. He looked startled at first; then he said: “I have no problem with that, but it’s not generally done.”

“I know.” I said. “I still want to do it. And I think Nutan wants to too.”

“I’m not so sure,” he said. “Ask her.”

Nutan is my fiery, independent nanad (sister-in-law). No way would she not want to carry her mother to her final resting place. But Ravi was right.  When I told her I was going to help to carry the body, she responded from tradition and indoctrination: “Women can’t do that,” she said. “It’s not allowed.”

“Nutan?” I said. “Not allowed? Who makes these rules? Why should we follow them?”

And just like that, in a flash of insight and revelation, she changed her mind. We then went to the other women in the family. They all had the same first instant response (“I can’t. It’s not allowed”) and then the same sudden awareness: “Of course I can.”

It happened in no time and with no fuss. The men were busy with all the last minute adjustments to the bier and the summons and orders of the pandit as to who should do what and who should stand where. We women positioned ourselves in the right spots. No statements, no grandstanding, no feminist assertions. We were just right there and when the moment came to lift her, our hands reached down for the stretcher too and our strength was part of the force that raised her up and carried her out the gate and down the road to the most final of final destinations.

Family members, including the women, carry the dead body to the cremation grounds

There was surprise and some concern from the neighbors at this departure from convention, but it barely registered with us because what we were doing felt so completely right.  And the brass band leading the way was more exciting anyway.

Brass band leading the way for a funeral procession

At the cremation grounds, the sense of conviction and purpose continued. Both sons and daughters, granddaughters and grandsons walked around the pyre; all of us held the fire which kindled the blaze.

Family - women and men - light a funeral pyre

And all of us felt the terrible, scorching power of that blaze as we kept adding the ghee to keep the fire going.

Family members adding ghee to funeral pyre, feeling the dreadful heatSlowly, the many mourners who had come with us drifted off and at the end, only the family remained.

Bearded man bows in greeting to the guests

We were bone tired and soul weary and each in our own way, we bid a last farewell to the valiant and inspiring woman we had known and loved for so many years. We had brought her this far, each in our own way, and now we had to leave her to complete the journey alone, as we all must.
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When we got home, the flowers from her sendoff were still scattered over the gravel driveway.

I like to think of her that way: a bright, strong presence – colorful, beautiful, fleeting – who taught us so much about integrity, discipline and the crucial importance of having a purpose in life.

And the equal importance of courage in the face of “Log kya kahenge?” (What will people say?) In the end, the women in her life stayed the course. We got that from her.

Her memory is a blessing and her life will continue to light our days for the days and years that remain.

 

Showing 4 comments
  • Judith Skartvedt
    Reply

    You have me in tears Jo! You are a part of such a magnificent family! Thank you for this beautiful piece.

    Love,

    Judy

  • Vanita. Puri
    Reply

    Heart touching description of her last journey. I don’t have words to tell how much I am impressed by the way all family members bid her good bye , especially the women of the family. It’s left me speechless. A big salute to you Jo Bhabhiji.

  • Sangeeta Singh
    Reply

    Thanks.Profound thanks.I lost my mother on 2nd of this February and to say the least your blog has been extremely soothing and cathartic.Mothers are common for all of us.The supreme life force.I have been trying out ways to vent this soul wrenching emptiness.My father passed away a month back and for a month his loss was overshadowed by our frantic and unsuccessful effort to keep Amma with us. Now suddenly the awareness of my double loss is searing through and I’m going mad.Your blog has been like a balm for my pain.God bless you.

  • Naomi Dewan
    Reply

    Very well written Aunty Jo. I am very sad to hear about Aunty Karuna, I remember her many a times, she was and forever will be the best teacher I had. It was fun reliving the events of history through her eyes, her eyes used to shine, there was a beautiful wide grin on her face remembering a distant past. I felt as if I was living in that past lost in history when she told me those various instances and stories. Every evening it was a pleasure for me to come and meet a woman with such great knowledge and never ending aspirations. I am happy that I met such an amazing woman in my life. Aunty Karuna will forever remain in my heart as a pillar of strength and awe.
    Love Naomi

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