Thursday afternoon was all about mellow sunshine and blue skies and red leaves on chestnut trees. Hema had served some of the last “lesu” rotis of the winter season , given the dogs their farewell cuddles and returned to her life.
The phone came alive. The 92 year old father of a dear friend was not coughing out the phlegm gathering in his chest. Everything else was fine, if Alzeihmer and senility could be taken as the norm. Being at a loose end, and wanting a drive anyway, the dogs were dumped into the car and we drove the 7 odd winding kms to their home. In the quiet and comfortable room, the old decorated war veteran was gasping gently. Concerned and loving care surrounded him, not just from his son and daughter-in-law, but also from his attendants from the village. Crooning “Booboo ” ( grandfather), they lovingly stroked his back, held his hand and poured all their love into the departing soul. In less than two hours, the breathing became fainter and quieter and then, without a grimace or moan or any discomfort, he passed away to the other side.
I spent the entire night contemplating on that peaceful passing away of a life. In his own bed, surrounded by love and care, no pain inflicting injections and tubes to extract a few more breaths, he moved on.
50 years ago, in this month,his wife had received a telegram about his death on a battlefield. She then got another telegram assuring her that he was still fighting for his life. With bullets in his brain and abdomen, with medals and glory on his chest, with humour and charm in his persona, he continued living, celebrating and being himself for half a century.
The cremation was performed the next morning. Arrangements were made swiftly and efficiently by an amazing local hero, Mr Satish Pandey and his Jan Sewa Samiti. This organisation arranges the last rites of unclaimed bodies, provides bamboo poles for every cremation in Ranikhet, and ensures that every cremation happens without a hitch.
It was a clear sunny Ranikhet day when we reached the densely wooded and clean Mukti Dham, situated on a constantly flowing stream. The pyre was prepared and waiting for the body, and Pandeyji guided us through the minimal last rites. The pyre was lit and we watched the fire consume the wood and the body. It was a quiet time of the day, with the breeze encouraging the flames, the trees shading the watchers, and the resident Babaji sitting with his two dogs and watching us.
We talked a little, watched the dancing flames, shared thoughts on mortality and 3 hours quietly slipped away, leaving a heap of charcoal and embers at the site of the pyre. Two strong men retrieved the unburnt wood from the pyre ( to be utilised for some unfortunate body who had no one to pay for the wood presumably), Pandeyji escorted my friend to pick up a few fragments ( respectfully termed “flowers”) and ash into an urn, and then the entire place was cleared and washed clean in a few minutes.
I had never witnessed a cremation earlier. There have been a few occasions of going to the electric crematorium where the process is quick and the entire cremation is completed in a few clean seconds.
Sitting in the cool shade and watching the flames consume and complete a well lived life…it was an experience which I will always remember. Those 3 quiet hours peeled away thick layers of well meaning justifications, perceptions and explanations with which I couch my life. Watching the wood turn grey and crumbly while the flames engulfed the entire structure with air flowing between the spaces in the wood, looking at the pyre getting smaller but not collapsing in the fire, and the finality of that heap of charcoal and burnt wood…it was a wake up call to live each day as completely as possible.
I can now understand the tomes of words and advice which have emerged over the centuries, regarding the finite nature of our lives and that strange illusion of infinity with which we live. In watching the passing away of a person beloved to others, in being a witness to the final journey of a great soul and by being present without the emotions of personal loss and sadness, I was given, for some time, a window of insight into the Actual Reality which is so easy to forget.
And for that, I remain truly grateful.