Funerals are memorable.
My mom and granny discussed funeral rituals over a cup of chai. The funeral chai has a special connotation. The brownish liquid keeps boiling at high flame, inside a giant saucepan. The tea leaves, cardamom, ginger and black peppercorns are strained off. They are reused for the next batch of chai. The first batch was for priests and the bald-headed males. The memories of water rituals make me taste the gingery sweetness. The priests chanted the mantra and my father repeated after him, standing, floating, drowning inside a sacred pool with marigold and twigs on his palms, cupped firmly. The chai’s recipe is uncomplicated by my mom and then Latha keeps stirring the chai for every succeeding batch. The first batch had milk, freshly ground ginger and black peppers, tea leaves crushed within palms and my granny’s hawk eyes. Latha arranged the cups on a tray whose stickers were scrapped off, the cups were brand new. Mom and granny would collide at times in the haste of serving hot simmering chai quickly. My granny pulled back her hair into a bun, my mom’s uncombed hair drenched in sweat appeared like an entangled mass. When Latha gossiped and yawned I dipped a steel katori inside the fumy vessel with a lot of exuberance. Latha counted the number of boils and smeared vicks on her forehead simultaneously. That batch of chai tasted so good that I used to stretch my legs, hold the katori within my hands and sip the beverage. The men wearing orange, red, brown dhotis sat cross-legged and chanted the mantras. But I was busy blowing air on the surface of the chai and this time the women mixed water with the remaining milk and the leftovers in the saucepan. The verandah is just behind the kitchen, I heard about the funeral rituals and their significance and I saw it getting performed just beside the conversation. But I didn’t see my grandfather’s soul anywhere around it. When the katori was half- empty, I could smell the next batch, strong but not that fragrant like the previous batch. My granny walked to the verandah to greet aunties, neighbors and perched to pull down my frock and push the buttons into the button holes. She filled my palm with some nankhatai and her lids became watery. Grandad loved nankhatais with almonds on them. The chai was strained and served to all the aunties, females with overcasting pallu and my granny walked to the kitchen and investigated whether my mom filled the chai up to the brim of coffee mugs. They added a dash of color to the funeral. They sat all around the priests and my granddad’s portrait with a mala and tika, reminiscing his habits, his benevolence, the father figure, his illness and talking about after-life consoling my granny, babbling about rebirth, gulping the chai like sherbet. My mom had hawk eyes this time. The next batch danced and fluttered inside the saucepan with airiness. Nothing from the dabbas went into it. Latha took tap water from the backyards inside a tumbler after taking a headcount of the barbers, milkman, her children, the caterers, the washerman…. I dipped the nankhatai in the cold, sugary milk. The next batch smelt like incense sticks, like my grandad’s ayurvedic medications, his catheter, his urine pads lying sullenly inside the pit, like the diya, the incarnation of his soul. They sat in the backyards, closer to the asthi kalash. They never sympathized my granny’s widowhood and her missing vermillion mark, her bangles getting bitten. The tea went down my throat, I licked the mushy nankhatai sticking to the sides of the katori and bit into the almond, the priests held the earthen diya, filled with ghee and placed it closer to the asthi pot. Latha and the workers suddenly waved off, scattering to the sides and my mom threw the cardamom peels, the non-fragrant tea leaves and ginger. The saucepan was cleaned by Latha.
At night when they headed for the prayers again, an earthen lamp was placed within a bricked square space inside granddad’s bedroom. Mom placed the saucepan for another round of tea. I was the only person who could mourn and others were busy planning everything in advance. The chai’s recipe is so simple that amidst mourning I got it by-heart. Granny’s vigil persuaded her not to sob. She kissed my cheeks and told me to have a look at the plate full of yellow rice and mustard fish kept on the steps of the verandah. It is believed that granddad’s soul revisited in the form of an animal to have his favorite food for thirteen days along with his lungi, toothbrush kept on the steps of the verandah.
A stray dog
A sparrow from the window sill
A hefty dog
Ants, but moved rapidly towards their holes with the payassum
A bird, I googled about their name
A mouse, from his bedroom. Maybe from the unused accessories of granny sulked in the cupboard for the past twelve days.
The next day I forgot to keep the count. I would frantically yell and pronounce the animal’s arrival. Granny would briskly step down and watch the animal eating and relishing the sorse-er jhal, payassum and khichdi. The mourning food constituted raw, over-cooked, mushy, tough vegetables, which my grandad would have spitted at the spot where the delight was sprawled on a banana leaf. The stray dogs however didn’t sniff or loiter around the soiled nappies, catheter, granddad’s urine bag. Everyone believed that it was his soul. Mom would crush the ginger and peppercorns and place a cup of tea near the meal in his steel cup. It was cooked in a separate saucepan. Since the funeral tea tasted better, I did check if the soul revisited from anywhere to take a sip. But Latha cleaned the messy verandah and poured the tea inside the pit where wastes were getting soiled.
The last batch of the last funeral tea was wobbling along with the crushed tea leaves and the leftover cream from previous batches. My granny served it and I looked at her face, serene, without any colors, without the steep vermilion mark. She looked more pristine. Latha served the tea and sat near the pit. The tea cup and fish curry were lying in the open space and I was nonchalant about it.
The next day when the final rituals, the pind daan was carried out, I was having the nankhatai without the funeral tea. Granny was worried, she wasn’t mourning. My father’s eyes were closed and Latha recounted that a pigeon from the outhouse drank tea from her tea cup, the no-aromatic tea, the tea prepared out of left-overs. The priests submerged the diya inside the sacred water and it symbolized that my granddad’s soul had departed all of us and went on his journey to heaven. The wastes in the pit had become blackish, the saucepan was lying in the huge pile of unwashed vessels, the milkman and caterers were touchable now and I find the recipe of the funeral tea quite complicated that my granddad loved.
Garima Mishra is an aspiring writer and is currently pursuing her bachelors from University of Delhi. Her works have appeared or are forthcoming in Aayaskala Mag, Vagabond City Lit, Cathartic Youth Lit, Inertia Teens, Borderless Journal, and elsewhere. She wishes to publish her short story collection very soon.