‘Once you reach the crematorium, just look out for no. 23.’
That’s what the reply read when I messaged a friend’s friend for directions. It isn’t her fault. That was the correct way of getting to the right place. How else would I find my grieving friend in a sea of sadness that surrounded a row of pyres? Number 23 – that is what everything gets reduced to. The mother, the grandmother, the husband, the wife, they all get reduced to the tag ‘patient’ first. Then, if you are lucky, there is a bed number attached to the patient. If not, a hurried BD (Brought dead) gets scribbled on the papers. There is no person. No memories, no dreams, no angst, no smiles – just a tag – a patient, a body, a pyre, a number. Number 23.
All number were burning – some, tired of raging a fire, were dying out while some were engulfed in snaking flames. All numbers had groups of people watching the name, the person, the relations, and the memories lick the roof of the crematorium and disappear. Soon there will be just ashes and dust, waiting to get collected from number 23. There is a suspended silence amidst distant, muffled wails. The desperate silence is perhaps trying to hold on to the relationship, the name, the flick of the head, the distinct cough, the favourite colour, and the irritation at leaving a slipper over the other. The silence is trying not to scream every time someone asks, ‘What was the age?’ or ‘Was it sudden?’
Is there an expiry date? Is there a certified age that warrants lesser grief? Is death ever not sudden? Does it announce, give an appointment, socialise and then collect the soul? It just is. One minute a legacy, a promise, a future and the next just fading history. How does one come to terms with that? There are pages after pages of theory that we read on grieving and coping but every theory seems to fail when the last piece of wood turns to ash. That very wood which gives warmth on a winter night as we gather around a bonfire, is scorching now. It isn’t warm, it is offensive. It is not supposed to be. Yet there it is, consuming a chunk of life, sucking a couple of others with it and raging on.
Each day that we spend, each minute that goes by worrying about our children, our parents, everything goes up in smoke. Our purpose, that ambition, the one secret desire that only your dog knows besides you, the frustration when the kids refuse to listen, the relief when they do – everything looks meaningless when I watch a name turn into a body, a body into a pyre and a pyre into a number. The smoke renders everything meaningless. The mechanical caretakers of the crematorium lend a surreal air to the proceedings. I think of them. They do this everyday. They watch death at close quarters, they hear wails, they see tear-streaked faces, they see resignation, yet they go on about their ‘job.’ Why do they not give up? When everything has to turn into a pile of ash, a whiff of smoke and a number on the wall, why go on?
Everyone grieved not just for her. They relived their ghosts of the past. I cried for what all my friends had lost, today. I cried for all that I lost, today. I grieved for the shreds we cling on to. I have a folder tucked in another folder on my computer that I have no courage to delete. The folder has my Nani’s death certificate. It will stay, for it is the only way I can remember that she’s not here. I wonder how all these people would come to believe that the smoke has carried their love away. Does it ever go away? Or does it stay hidden in a corner of your desktop, a forgotten bottom drawer, or a pile of letters?
We walked away after the last bit of the rituals was performed, trying desperately to strike inane conversation and failing miserably. The whys hung in the air and followed us to what was a home earlier. There, after a room full of grey adults, was a bright spark – a child immersed in her book. She shunned the world outside and just turned a page. That moment deepened the mystery yet shooed the questions away. It is not about finding meaning, solutions, or outcomes. It is about turning the page, no matter what. The page could be dark, hopeless and have doom written across it, yet we must turn it. The next might be darker, yet we have to turn it, for who knows, somewhere between the pages, there could be a fleeting hint of sunlight.
Hence I continue to turn page after page, hanging on to the bright sparks, and beams of light. I try not to think of the last page. I try not to think of the smoke, the pyre, the body, the name and the number. I just turn a page in the hope of love, of togetherness, of slivers of elusive joy.