I Set Fire to My Father

4th April dawned a beautiful day. My birthday was fun the day before, and I was taking chocolates to the folks at work. Towards the afternoon, my mom called me up to say that my father’s creatinine levels were down, back into the safe zone. I whooped. Loudly. Yes, it was a good day.

The next morning, I woke up with a spring in my step. By the next weekend, my parents would be back home and I would be back to being irresponsible, pampered, and indulged. At 4:30 pm, my mother called to say my father had gone.

I didn’t believe it, of course. I figured there had been some awful mistake. I figured that they would revive him. I just wanted to reach the hospital, so that I could help make that happen. I was far away though. I wasn’t going to reach before midnight.

I actually reached at 1:00 am. The driver took me to the hospital, where my beloved father was in a glass casket. That’s when I believed it. The father I adored, and still adore, was lying lifeless in a casket. The familiar, beloved features were still. There was no reassuring gentle rise and fall of his chest. His nose was stuffed with bits of cotton, and there were flowers on his body. I fell on my knees and hugged the casket. I sobbed quietly, not loudly as I had expected. When I couldn’t breathe any longer, I ran out of the hospital.

My mother was waiting for me, desperately hanging on till we could hold each other. The funeral was the next day, and we waited to hear from my aunt when she would be coming.

The funeral was beautiful. I wish with all my heart and my soul that it wasn’t my father there, but it was beautiful nonetheless. He was brought to a small temple for the last rites, before being places on a wood pyre.

As his only child, it was up to me to perform all his rites. I was expecting a battle, because girls are not usually allowed this privilege. I was prepared to fight, but they didn’t once ask me to step aside. My mother too stood by my side, collapsing periodically when what was happening intruded upon her consciousness.

Water, oil, and then ghee was poured into my hands, and I poured it on him. I couldn’t pour oil on his face, because I remembered how he hated oil on his face. I was given the first log, and instructed to place it on him, and I thought about how I used to put stuff on him while he was sleeping, just to annoy him.

He was rapidly covered with logs, and I was then given two wooden switches with their ends lit. They pointed to a spot under the wood, and was told to insert one there. This was near his head, and the second spot was near his feet. I was sobbing, and my movements were zombie-like. I did as I was told, barely aware of what I was doing. My father hated being hot. The fire was going to make him very hot indeed.

There was nothing else to be done that day. We had to return the next morning to collect his ashes and immerse them.

The next morning, I did return. This time, there were three people: the priest, myself, and a soul sister. The priest instructed me in the sequence of rituals. Here: take this water and oil, sprinkle it here, do it again, and once more. Take this bamboo stick. Use it to collect bits of bone into that pot.

I then covered the pot with two cloths, and held it, while walking to a nearby river tributary. The pot was then immersed into the water, and I watched it transfixed till it sank.

I was very close to my father. He was the best father, because he was strong and solid, a comforting presence throughout my life. Dependable. Stoic. He was also my buddy, and behaved very much like a brother. We fought and argued over little things, and my mom used to threaten to send us to two corners of the room.

I also looked after my father’s health, during all the crises that occurred in his life. My mother is even more squeamish than me, and so I swallowed my bile and stood like a post next to my father during scans, blood tests, and checkups. I gave him injections and talked to doctors on his behalf. I argued about medicines, and ensured he took them, and there was enough stock in the house.

I also applied cream on his back, because he had the most awful dry skin. Incidentally, genes he passed on to me. I applied ointment to rashes on a daily basis, and removed all the labels from his shirts because they irritated his skin. I applied pain rub to his back when it hurt, and massaged the kinks out it. I rubbed oil on his limbs to improve circulation, and lectured him incessantly about cola and salted nuts. He was my father, and also my baby. He loved the attention, for what it is worth, and enjoyed all the ministrations.

How then was I able to pick those bones out of the ashes? Those were the same bones I had applied oil to. How was I able to set his pyre alight, when I spent so much time and energy looking after that body? How am I still so functional, after having him so forcibly and irrevocably snatched away from me?

Grief is a strange, multi-layered beast. I don’t understand it at all; all I know is that there is a vice constricting my heart, and I find it difficult to breathe.


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