Right across the river
Nothing brings out the colors of nature like twilight. The sky is a canvas of orange, pink and blue with twinkling dots, the early stars. The trees take on a mysterious shade of dark as the atmosphere turns beautifully misty like a slice out of a dream sequence.
The scene, despite its palpability, unfolds like it belongs to a movie.
The corpse is hardly visible under the pile of flowers, vermillion and a yellow cloth. A lanky teenager, his head freshly shaved, is shivering in a white dhoti. A middle aged lady, unconscious, is being supported by a few women. One of them is trying to take off her glass bangles, her own face soaked with tears.
A sad little party has gathered around the funeral pyre. The body is carried around it thrice before being laid to rest. The priest says something to the boy to which he nods. Robotically, he stumbles forward carrying a stick with a burning end. He hesitates for a moment before finally laying it on the corpse’s mouth. His feet suddenly give away and he falls. His body crumples and shakes in uncontrollable sobs. Nobody comes forward to pick up the pieces.
He is untouchable for the next thirteen days.
For Aryaghat, the bank of River Bagmati, this is a common sight. It has witnessed many, rulers and commoners, meeting the same fate as the unnamed corpse which is slowly being swallowed up by the flames. As you murmur your condolence to the unknown man, you become acutely aware of the temple of Lord Pashupatinath, the savior and nurturer of all beings mortal, standing as a magnificent observer.
The evening air of Kathmandu starts getting saturated with the melodic hymns and tunes of the arati conducted on the bank opposite to the burning pyre. There are more stars on the pitch black sky now that are bravely rivaled by the oil lamps lit in the earth below. It’s a stupendous sight— a cremation ground on the lap of the Savior God alit with the joint flames of death and devotion.
Your world turns foggy with the mixed smoke.
“Har har Mahadev! Jai Shamvo!”
(Deepest respect to the great Savior! Ode to the Holy Nurturer!)
The devotees’ passionate cries from somewhere within the womb of the temple awakens something profound inside you. You realize that the knowledge had been there in some forgotten corner of your heart all the while. It’s just that you never acknowledged it. You weren’t that busy or naïve. Nor were you ignorant or stupid.
You were just scared. Dead scared.
But deep down, everybody has always known this.
Death is an incontestable truth.
The information is well embedded in our psyche. Freudian analysis has made strong claims about the inexorable power of the death drive, popularly known as Thanatos. But we turn our heads conveniently and blissfully away from this stark reality. We label those who take away their own lives as sinners. We pronounce those who take away other people’s lives as murderers. We forbid our children from asking too many questions and keep ourselves insulated in the comfortable bubble of worldly chores, ambitions and inhibitions.
And then, one day, unannounced, death arrives at our doorstep like that distant relative who is too poor to fit into our social circle and yet cannot be avoided because they are family. We have no choice but to open the door and step aside as death, in all its glory, packs off with our loved ones.
Despite that, audaciously and adamantly, we move on with our lives. With time, dust settles on our memories of the deceased, fond or otherwise, and gradually the person simply becomes a picture hung on the drawing room wall with a garland of dried up flowers around it.
Recollections are a poor substitute for physical presence.
Hindus believe in the existence of an immortal life force, the spirit or the atma that leaves our mortal body after death. This energy becomes a part of the brahmanda, the universe, only to be reborn as another mortal body.
But these are just beliefs whose credibility cannot be vouched for.
Perhaps we are not as afraid of death as we are of what lies on the other side. It’s like crossing a river where we let go of everything that we have ever known. This fear of the anonymous is quite powerful.
You close your eyes and let these thoughts permeate you. The arati and the hymns are over. It’s supremely peaceful at Pashupati. The pyre is hardly visible because of the smoke. You imagine the cool, calm ripples of Bagmati.
The fate is sealed. It’s only a matter of time.
Sometimes all you need is courage. Rest is as clear as the pristine blue sky.
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