Tuesday, 8 June 2010

The Tao of Family

Apparently there can't just be a happy family reunion, it must come at a cost. In my case, just two months after my cousin's fun wedding, my uncle, the groom's father, died unexpectedly, most likely of a massive heart attack suffered while he was out on his early morning stroll. I hot-footed it down to Bangalore (Jason followed a couple of days later) for a decidedly less festive reunion.

I think my arrival was a bit of a reprieve from all the mourning. You see, it seems I've gotten dark. All that time waiting for rickshaws under the potent Delhi sun (even though it's overcast much of the time) has left me as dark as a Madrasi*. Nevermind that my father is a southie and this particular branch of the family, while Maharashtrian, live in the south and many have married southies, my prized pallid Maharashtrian complexion has fallen at the sword of the rabid northern sun. (Being pale-skinned, even in a progressive family like mine, meant that as an eligible 20-something I could get away with other sins, like being chubby, and still be considered highly eligible.)

As soon as my mother saw me she held me tight for a minute, then pulled away to examine me. "You've gotten so dark," she said, accusingly. Then followed a living-room wide examination of my complexion. "Don't worry," said my cousin through her tears. "It's easy to fix. Just stay indoors for a few weeks and your skin will improve."

Then my grandmother got in on the act. She halted her Hai Bhagwans when she saw me, then said, in Marathi, "How did you get so dark/ why are you wearing shorts/ where is your mangalsutra?", delivering the triple whammy of undutiful granddaughter criticism. "It's okay grandma," I said, stroking her arm. "I'm in my thirties now, no boys are looking at me anymore like that."

"But you look 25. It's just not nice."

Only family can turn what would normally be a compliment into a thinly-veiled stab at one's izzat.

So I quickly learned that I could manipulate awkward situations with my sartorial selections. Aunties arguing over flower choices? Saunter past in a singlet. Grandmother struggling to breathe through her sobs? Just a mere hint of cleavage and no dupatta would distract her. She pulled me aside at one point to make sure I would be appropriately dressed for the quasi-funeral. I think she would have burned some of my clothes in a pyre if she was more mobile. There were lots of discussions about my attire in Marathi, a language I don't speak and comprehend only snippets, but will forever associate with being told off.

There was a funeral of sorts. The cremation had already taken place, just a few hours after the collapse, although I don't think that's normally the case with Hindus. A section of a temple was booked, an ad placed in a newspaper, and a few days later people turned up to pay their respects. There was silent contemplation, a few Gita verses were read, a short speech, a queue to place flowers next to a photograph and to run our hands over incense smoke and over our hair, and that was it.

There are further religious ceremonies held on the tenth day and the thirteenth day after death - the latter is to mark the end of the mourning period and to officially release the soul into the ether. Priests are called to the house to explain the opaque process to the grieving relatives, and also give a price for conducting the ceremonies. I believe the price varies according to factors such as the size and location of the house, what sort of watches are worn by the grieving relatives, and other signposts of wealth. The initial quote was in the region of 1.2 lakh (approx US$2,400), the latest I heard was that it had come down to 20,000 rupees. One part that caused some degree of consternation involved procuring five Brahmins to feed before anyone else was fed. If this bit was eliminated would the rites still be "right"? No one wanted to accede to the antiquated notions of caste in this case. But then it all descended into Marathi and I couldn't follow.

*Madrasi is a derogatory term north Indians use to describe south Indians. When south Indians want to insult northerners they just call them uneducated. Maharashtrians are neither north nor south, but are haughtier than all put together.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Think cremation immediately after death is actually pretty standard procedure for Hindus? Least in my experience.