Issue 230, Fall 2019
It was a little past four in the afternoon, the light softer now and more diffuse, the intensity of the day’s heat beginning to wane, and standing by himself in a corner of the garden Krishan was observing the people gathered in Rani’s house for the funeral, somewhat unnerved, after his long and meditative journey, by how quickly he’d found himself in this place so different from his point of origin, this setting that, despite conforming to all his abstract expectations, had nevertheless managed to catch him off guard. The sense of calm, peaceful self-containment he’d felt on the train had remained with him on the bus during the quiet, two-hour ride from the Kilinochchi station, and it had persisted too on his walk from the bus stop, as he made his way slowly and leisurely along the network of paths that ran through the noticeably deserted village. The properties on either side of the lanes were marked off by low fences of dried palm fronds thatched together with wire and rope, most of them fronted by small, well-cultivated gardens, each with its own little vegetable plot and an assortment of trees—drumstick, banana, coconut, curry leaf, as well as others he couldn’t identify. The houses themselves were simple and unadorned, the larger concrete ones containing two or three rooms, the smaller ones consisting of mud walls and thatched roofs and no more than a single all-purpose hall. He’d taken his time noting and regarding everything he passed, as if he’d come for no other reason than to discover what effect the surroundings had on the trajectory of his thoughts, and it was only as he turned into the lane where Rani’s house was located, as he heard the low, irregular beat of funeral drums rising up from the end of the lane, that he began to realize his journey was over, that he’d finally arrived at his destination. He wondered suddenly how he should comport himself, what he should say to Rani’s daughter when they met, how he could give her his grandmother’s money without drawing attention to himself, questions he’d had the whole day to consider but had avoided thinking about till then. Approaching the house he saw first the band of drummers standing just behind the palm-leaf fence, four men aloof from everyone else in the garden, looking at one another intently as they rapped the small, flat, beautifully constructed drums that hung from their necks—members, he knew, even if nobody talked about it, of one of the most oppressed castes in the northeast. In the garden behind them a large crowd had already assembled, two or three hundred people at least, almost all of them people from the village it seemed, which explained perhaps why the village had felt so quiet on his walk. Some of the attendees looked desolate or forlorn, some merely bored, but most of them were talking in low voices, as if using the gathering as an opportunity to discuss whatever matters were on their minds, the women wearing black, gray, or white saris, some of them in pale, unobtrusive colors, the men wearing mainly shirts and formal white sarongs. The band began to drum louder and at a faster tempo as he made his way toward the gate, giving, Krishan realized with discomfort, what was in effect a kind of announcement of his arrival. Walking through the garden he did his best to ignore the curious faces of the people as they turned and looked at him, all of them aware no doubt that he was not from the village, most of them probably able to tell from the way he was dressed, from his trousers and dark blue collarless shirt, that he wasn’t from any of the neighboring villages either. The house was on the larger side of the houses he’d passed on his brief walk through the village, with white concrete walls, an untiled asbestos roof, and smooth red cement floors, and climbing up the two short steps to the veranda, where the crowd of people was more concentrated and nobody seemed to notice him, he took off his sandals, left them by the collection of footwear near the entrance, and went up to the threshold of the front door, where he stopped and looked inside.
In the center of the front room, elevated on a kind of low table or cot, was an open wooden casket overlaid with plastic lamination on its surfaces, and standing around the casket were a number of people, mainly women, some of them looking into the casket and whimpering or crying, a few quietly reciting hymns from small booklets they held in their hands, verses most likely from the Sivapuranam. Seated a little away on the floor in front of one of the walls was a priest, an array of fruit, coconuts, lamps, and other items spread out on banana leaves in front of him, and sitting cross-legged opposite him was a broad, muscular man of about thirty, wearing a white sarong and a white thread tied diagonally across his otherwise naked torso. He was conducting the rites for the deceased, which meant, Krishan guessed, that he was Rani’s son-in-law, the husband of Rani’s daughter, the responsibility of performing the rites generally falling on a son-in-law if the deceased didn’t have any sons. Krishan scanned the room for Rani’s daughter, and his gaze soon came to rest on a woman whom several other people in the room were watching too, a woman in her mid- to late twenties standing by the head of the casket, her arms supported by a couple of older women as if they were worried she might faint. She had Rani’s dark complexion but didn’t quite resemble Rani on first glance, her build much less substantial, her face rounder and softer. She wasn’t crying so much as out of breath, it seemed, her eyes not quite focused, as if she wasn’t able to see clearly, and it was only when he noticed the two young girls holding on to her dress and looking somewhat lost, the only children present in the room, that Krishan realized the two girls must be Rani’s granddaughters, that the woman they were holding must be Rani’s daughter. Not knowing how to approach her Krishan remained at the threshold, wondering what to say, studying Rani’s daughter till the older woman beside her noticed him standing there and gestured him toward them. He went up and introduced himself, looking first at the older woman and then at Rani’s daughter, trying to diminish his stature and summon a look of grief on his face. This was the moment he’d feared most since learning about the death two days before, the moment Rani’s relatives finally came face to face with him, looks of silent accusation on their faces, but registering who he was Rani’s daughter only smiled sadly and welcomed him, her voice soft and plaintive, very different from how it had been on the phone. So you managed to make it, she said looking straight at him, you managed to find the house. I’m glad you were able to come. Turning to the two women she was standing next to she explained who he was, that it was at his house that her mother had been staying in Colombo, that it was his grandmother her mother had been looking after. Krishan looked at the women with an uncertain smile, searching their faces for any sign of resentment, for any sign that they, if not Rani’s daughter, might hold him responsible for what had happened, but they too simply looked at him knowingly and warmly, as if to them he was simply one more mourner at the funeral, not the object of any ill will.