The Silence of the Evening
I had just got out of the open grave. My right thumb bled. I had buried Ammi, my maternal grandmother, on a December evening in Hyderabad. Some glass jar in the mud broke and it left a cut on my thumb. I played with my thumb reflectively while praying with everyone about her place in paradise as she was religious and pious; but my prayers were half-hearted. I knew that there is nothing beyond life and nothing happens after a person dies. My jeans were up till my knees, my sleeves were folded and revealed a naked sweaty elbow that chilled in the December wind. Everybody waited. The wait seemed eternal. Even Godot would have appeared but the tears had refused. I waited for some more time, but observed failure sitting on the throne. My leather jacket lay somewhere on one of the graves of my ancestors that I have never known. My legs were soaked in the mud. The graveyard belonged to our ancestors who built centuries ago for their generations to rest after they complete their lifecycles.
The graveyard stood in its glory alongside the old dilapidated ancestral mosque where people pray only when somebody in the family dies. Nobody spoke. The silence lingered and the gloom cradled with the wind. The awkward silence was shattered by the bubble-gum of some kid. Nobody bothered. We all stood and stared at Ammi’s dead body. The sun turned blue behind the yawning clouds. A couple of cats loitered around the graves giving a feel of some cheap and cliche horror flick. We all stared at everything with our folded hands. Silence everywhere. A dog came from somewhere and showered one of the graves with its urine. The dead received their blessings. We all watched in silence. The December wind crawled distinctly and whispered the mockery of life and death in my ears. I gulped and cleared my throat. It was time that somebody had to take the entire dead-body, covered in white shroud, inside the grave. I jumped in and performed the ritual of putting the dead body inside. A yawn escaped and turned into a successful Mexican wave. My eyes turned red. I ate my yawn. I was still inside the grave. The mud felt cold just like the head of Ammi. My palm touched her ear-lobe and cheek when I was placing her head onto the concrete slab with gentle care as if she would flinch. The scents of incense and perfume were overwhelming and sickening. My nostrils wanted to block themselves with the mud. Why cover a dead body with all these fragrances when insects would crawl and undeniably feed on the carcass?
Her hair was dyed black with the streaks of almost invisible white hair peeping and insouciantly trying to wave with the subtle wind. Her skin still glowed in the mud. She used to apply honey, dry orange skin mixed with curd to her face, hands, and feet. She took good care of her entire body. It lay lifeless, just like any other dead body after the life betrays the living-walking body. There was a jar in the grave. It broke and left a deep cut on my thumb. The cut felt like a sharp burning sensation followed by a usual numbness. I started bleeding inside the grave, but nobody paid any heed. I climbed back with the help of a few people who gave me the hands to get out of the grave. I had pulled the glasses and threw the pieces out of the grave. Nobody knew, or even cared, from where that jar came. Surprisingly, the gravediggers never noticed nor any other relative standing there. The second Mexican wave of yawn followed. We all ate our yawns to avoid the awkward situation of yawning at a funeral of a respectable lady of a well-known family. We all prayed and threw mud at her together. We might as well throw mud at each other, I thought. Ammi’s face slowly disappeared in the dirt of the earth. She was soon underneath the grave. I stood there in silence and watched her freshly erect grave getting its eternal shape. I sighed and walked away to wash the mud off of my legs and hands.
Mosquitoes buzzed along with other unknown and invisible creatures. They feasted on our blood and sanity. I walked around the gloomy graveyard after wearing my boots back. There were many broken graves, belonging to some of my ancestors and nobody knew their names. I stood in the middle of countless graves in the eerie silence of the graveyard.
We went back in the truck after burying the remains of Ammi. I looked back at the day. How fast it went. How quickly she died. I didn’t get a chance to meet her or tell her that I got married just a month ago. Mecca masjid was full as it was Friday. My cousin and brother-in-law guarded her Dola, open coffin, before Namaz-E-Janaza, the prayers of the dead.
I don’t know when I had fallen asleep or lost consciousness but when I woke up, I found myself in an empty house. It was March.
Everything is hazy. I am disoriented and confused. It is difficult to see anything clearly. I try to see, to stand, and balance myself. I see myself standing inside Ammi’s open grave, staring at the unknown graves of my ancestors from underground. The silhouette of Peepal trees and the army of insects in all those broken graves make me cringe. There are glasses scattered around the graveyard and many jars. All are empty, many are broken. I feel an electric current run through my head. A sharp pain that is followed by a shock on the back of the head, above neck, after a hard blow— when the entire body goes in a shock of the blow. These electric currents feel excruciating at times. My nerves throb and I see various colors in front of me like colorful tresses, transparent yet colorful, like oil on water. The evenings in the graveyards are nostalgic. Every time somebody dies, you get the same feeling, the feeling of Deja-Vu, no matter how old you become, everything looks the same, especially when the graveyard belongs to your ancestors and you know that is the resting place of everybody in your family. I run my eyes around the people and think— ‘who’s next?’ and I am sure that the people who weep a lot, especially the older folks knew that they might be the next. Usually, that is a funny sight.
The evening is silent. I stand in front of three nameless broken graves of my ancestors dated somewhere in the mid-1800s. There were no names but years in Urdu, Arabic and Persian according to the Islamic calendars. I could not get the correct years. I see a small bottle that looked like a bottle of tonic lying around. I pick it up. Inside, I see a bunch of hair and nails. It takes me back to my childhood when we were little children. I, along with my sister and my cousin, used to play in the garden at Ammi’s under countless trees. Once we were playing treasure-hunters and were digging the earth with a hope to find a hidden treasure of our ancestors. We found a small glass bottle. Ammi had said that we should immediately bury it as it contains the remains of the Djinn. Murshad Pasha Sahabs always held Djinns in similar looking bottles. Murshads knew where the ancestors had hidden the family treasures. Dadi, my paternal grandmother, also had told us the tales of her childhood, back in the 1930s that they had kept gold coins inside the walls but the Djinns move everything with time. We shared a 400-year-old graveyard’s wall at Dadi’s place. When she died, I was high on drugs. I don’t even remember her death or funeral. Ma always told me to believe in Allah and afterlife. There is always afterlife, they say. Once a person dies, Farishtay (Angels) come and start questioning your deeds on earth. The life, they say, is an exam. Ammi used to say, ye dunya faani hai (this world is mortal). Ma said people who passed Allah’s Azmaish (test) on earth would see the beauty of Jannat (Paradise). When a person dies, they say, after forty steps, the dead can hear the footsteps of the people who have buried the dead body. Immediately, there will be questioning— ‘what have you done with your life on earth? What have you spent your life on? Where did you spend your youth and in what?’ And so on. They say, afterlife is eternal and body is mortal but soul is immortal. I have always wondered about death and dying.
I stare at the shadows on the wall. The candle’s flame dances with the smoke of my cigarette. The candlelight reminds me of the night when they brought Ammi’s dead body at around 11 PM. There were only two people and me near her corpse sprawled in the middle of the living room. I sat opposite her corpse, staring at her face full of wrinkles. There was no electricity. There was a lantern. It burned dreamily beside Ammi’s lifeless body. On many occasions, I felt her head move and eyes open and lips move. Her dark circles shone immensely under the glitter of the lantern. She got up and started yelling at the top of her voice. Her hair all haywire. She was accompanied by things in white whose faces were ash white and hair jet black and open. They all yelled together in hoarse voices. Their eye-lids were missing. I sat still watching all the drama of the dead, clutching the pen that I was holding tight. Ammi lay still. Dead. Everything was silent. The silence of evening turned into the mourning of the lantern’s light. I thought even the lantern did not want to burn around the corpse. She was cold. Cold as ice. It was December.
I turn and see Olympia Café in South Bombay. I am tangled in senses. My senses are tangled. Bombay is too busy. Nobody has time for your funeral. You have your shadows. You are lonely even in the crowd. I have my own company, I roam alone. I don’t like anybody’s company. Nobody is on my level. I wander like a maniac. I have memory issues. Whatever I know today is written in my journals. Do I need my journals all the time? Am I dependent? Am I only depending on one aspect or many? I have no clue. I feel like a blank book that I hold and stare at all the time.