Mani managed a humble shop for forty years of my life. After learning of his death I came to notice how much he had been taken for granted. Everyone loved this man. It seemed as if he’d always be here behind the biscuit and bun jars and dangling bananas. One of those huge male posters was up on the Manukuvinyaka corner that I must have walked past several times but I never look at that kind of – (mostly male dominated) poster, not unless they have been recycled as rainproofing for roofs, trucks or merchandise. I didnt pass his shop those days so didn’t notice that – for once, it was shut.
The day following the funeral when I learned of his death it was a shock, an indelible sign of changed times.
Soon I went in to see Rani in their humble home beside the shop; a woman in rumpled skewed sari with bloated face woke from where she lay, disturbed by my shadow in the doorway. She started up, regarding.me expressionlessly with drooping red eyes; Rani’s mother. She beckoned me inside, pointing to this sad little shrine space on one wall:
This was the only photo I took that day. Mani’s elder sister came and sat with me while we waited for Rani to return from bath out in the back by the old well. After some time their twelve year old daughter Padma came in and we waited on. Too sad. When Rani appeared she was distraught, she asked me to come to the ceremony the following evening at seven – the ceremony for stripping of the widow of all her jewellery, her kum kum and refinements – one I have always avoided.
As I walked home my mind wandered over their home; it was Mani’s parents home before them – three rooms with corrugated iron walls on one side, small mud-brick rooms with iron roof and small windows only on the roadside, the road a few feet from the wall. To me it seemed nothing had been repaired, maintained or altered since i first visited them maybe forty years ago. To my eyes there seemed a total absence of comfort and aesthetics, with old, tattered, broken-down, rusted and discarded things of all variety lying underneath around and top of the few – mostly metal, pieces of furniture and battered old TV. Old festival decorations drooped from the odd nail in the wall, and a creaky, lopsided fan whirred overhead. No sign indicated any conceivable trace of bedding whatsoever. There were a couple of other rooms occupied by the wife and family of Dakshina, Mani’s younger brother. Mani and Rani had adopted Padma after maybe twenty years without a child, but Dakshina and his wife had fortunately produced three sons who would presumably take the ceremonial roles required by Mani’s death ceremony to be held in two days. Their names always conjured up a grim fairy story: Suresh. Seenu and Sentil.
Although I didn’t have the heart to attend the final deflowerment ceremony for Rani, nevertheless since she had asked me to come the following evening, I requested Sivagami and Mo – my hosts for ten years, if we could go together for comfort and support; I anticipated this ceremony would be harrowing even for them.
The following evening when I went downstairs to join them in the Auto-rickshaw I was surprised to see both women rather dressed up – I wouldn’t have been surprised if we had all gone unadorned in rags for this occasion, but then this culture never fails to surprise me. I took my rainbow umbrella not to bring cheer to a miserable event but because it looked very much like a corker storm would hit us any moment to further forlorn the fateful despondency of this night. Little Keerthana – Mo’s fetching youngest daughter, was excited to join us wherever we were heading – her mood bubbled on and her tinselled dress quivered as she skipped little skips towards the gate oblivious to the gravity of our adult perspective.
Blue plastic chairs waited ominously in a higgledy line on the damp bare earth leading to the humble doorway beyond which – I noticed as Sivagami flew In to Rani’s side – a limp, wane widow sat staring at the sad little shrine and pop-eyed portrait of Mani, A couple of other women stood to the side with arms folded and helpless expressions as Sivagami and Rani enveloped each other in swirls of saris and tears; sobs rose and fell as Mo and I with little Keerthana shuffled our entrance to place a garland on the shrine. All we could do was stand to the side as witnesses although frisky Keerthana was all geared up for fun. A metal disc of sprouted seeds among the objects below the portrait represented life and hope, i supposed encouragingly. Almost pulsating at my side, Mo – I suddenly noticed felt quite animated; her eyes travelled around expectantly as more women entered. After all she is young, I thought. Her sari was a sensational golden saffron silk. More women came in silently, a young man spoke with Rani, a vibrant conversation ensued. We slipped out to the plastic chairs.
It wasn’t much more sparky outside for poor old Keerthana. I remembered Mo telling me that the Tamil women only get to see their friends at Functions, and Mummy was now being boring.
Since I had noticed Suresh carrying a couple of kids around the corner towards the left of the gate, I persuaded Keerthana to come investigate the scene there, thinking like a foreigner that the kids would find their own space to play, but the little lady wouldn’t and I acknowledge it didn’t look too inviting there – it looked very much like Men’s Room:
She took up her mother’s cellphone and squeezed the most she could out of that.
My mind was re-cognising the faces of Devi’s childhood transformed by time. Almost every woman there was from our small world of the few streets nearby, almost all Mudhalya-caste women, all now matrons – their hands roughened by the demanding work-that’s-never-done, their smiles brave and true. I learned that most were now living just a few streets further away – closer in space than we were in time it seems, although a couple had returned from way out of station to attend the ceremonies.
Mothers came from long ago – like me to them, I guess, some also widows now, their bearing of time’s traces more resigned, surrendered.
It had all happened so fast. It was tiring.
Word circulated that it had been decided to postpone the ceremony until four am; that was deflating – who’d want to wait until then?
The other ceremony would be tomorrow morning – the public one in Palliya Thirtum, and since by now Keerthana was grumpy! like many other mothers we decided to go home – we had been there two hours, it was time to leave. Mo said at this ceremony we don’t say goodnight, we just go.
As we flashed out the gate we felt the storm building up fury; a small mob of boys hanging about there didn’t say goodnight either, and up the road it was all chaos and confusion in the fast-approaching storm.
Bright and fresh the next morning I walked in to reach Palliya Thirtum right on scheduled time, only to find the first of three ceremonies in progress ahead of us in the queue. I’ve seen such ceremonies enacted here for forty years but this is the first I’ve intended to attend.
To me this Peepal tree is irresistibly loveable . . . .
. . . . so it was fine to linger around for ages with my camera. The ceremonies are all more or less the same, as ceremonies are.
Each mob brought their own plastic chairs that seemed to be for the men. They sat there looking toward the tree while each pujari conducted the rituals, questioning each family representative, performing the required actions, shouting the appropriate commands for all to witness although always the spectators standing near to him chose to cluster around obstructing the view for the men in plastic chairs who nevertheless remained where they were sitting, some chatting. I guess the point of attending is sufficiently satisfied by presence alone.
A good woman cranked herself up and swept the debris between each puja and a dog followed her to the final dust pile to make sure nothing edible was wasted.
As you can see the deities around the tree are earthy Snake protectors and Lord Ganapati – ruler over beginnings and endings. Goodness knows for how long this tree, this spot by the ancient tank has been the focus of letting go, relinquishing attachment to the beloved now passed on or away, the uninhabitable body now returned to the elements.
Tagore wrote: Thou hast made me endless . . . . This frail vessel Thou hast broken . . Over and over . . .and fillest it ever with fresh life. Something like this. The meaning lies in the ceremony; we who live on continue without lingering on the meaning, we are passers by . . .
Today is full moon; the hill-round roadway is gusting up for the Hindu side of the sacred coin: business. The circuit around the embodiment of Lord Siva becomes a market-garland – it’s all happening again. And Mani’s ceremony is picking up steam. . .
The pujari is getting organised, the nephews are being shaved, near relatives are present watching to see who else arrives.
The beautiful old water tank behind us was freshly filled after extensive deepening recently. Most sadhus have bathed and left by now but a few remain, one sewing something in the shade.
When the good rains come the spot where this man now sits will be under water.
Rani is confined to the house for four days after the final deflowering but it is the duty of all other family members to attend. Rani and Mani’s lovely young daughter stands a little apart, somewhat pensive . . .
. . . . Padma was orphaned originally, adopted by Rani and Mani after more than ten childless married years; I remember their delight when Padma baby began growing up. Now Mani will be missed all her life.
She is interested in school so we should make sure she gets a good education.