We gather our father’s ashes from the crematorium, two days after the cremation because by then the ashes and bones have cooled down. We sift through them, find the stent that allowed him to eat for ten days before he passed away.
We gather our father’s ashes in our dead mother’s old bed sheet, red and white, the color of his blood and calcified bones.
We carry our father’s ashes in an old Amazon box that delivered my one-year-old niece’s Pampers. She, who used to crawl all over him when he laid down to rest his tired neck that hurt through the bones, his blood getting colder by the day.
We carry our father’s ashes in the Amazon box on the front footrest of my brother’s Activa scooter because he forgot the keys to the crematorium locker when we went to collect our father’s death certificate from a man whom we bribed Rs 1000 to expedite the paperwork. For an extra Rs 500 he promised us five more original death certificates in a fortnight.
We carry our father’s ashes in the trunk of my brother’s Ford Aspire from Pune to Indore because my father wanted nothing more than to return to his hometown, be with his friends and die in the house he built. The house where his wife of 50 years passed away quietly into the night, seven months ago.
We keep our father’s ashes in the trunk of the car because according to Hindu tradition you can bring a dead body in the house to bathe and get ready for cremation, but the ashes must never cross the threshold. So, his ashes stay in the Amazon box, wrapped in Ma’s old bed sheet the color of blood and bones.
We keep our father’s ashes in the trunk of my brother’s car and drive to the bank and the post office and the municipal office to sort out his financial assets. We get his photo framed and buy supplies for his funereal ceremony because a departed soul cannot cross over till his worldly affairs are in order.
Black sesame seeds
We drive our father’s ashes to the funeral house where my brother changes into a dhoti and performs the ninth- and tenth-day funeral rites. He offers prayers to our ancestors and my father’s departed soul while I read the Sanskrit shloka painted on the wall:
नैन चिन्दनती शत्रानी नैन दहतीं पावक:/ न चैन क्लेदयन्त्यापो न शोशायरी मारुत://
The soul is indestructible. It cannot be destroyed by weapons or burnt by fire, water can’t drown it and air can’t blow it away.
A mural painted on the wall shows the progression of mortal body from a baby to a toddler, teenager, youngster, middle aged, old aged, sick and infirm, death, a pile of bones and finally, dust.
We leave our father’s ashes in the trunk of my brother’s car as we walk to the crematorium grounds where he places five rice balls sprinkled with black sesame seeds on a raised platform and pours curd over them. The five rice balls represent:
My father, his father, his grandfather, his mother’s father and her grandfather.
We keep watch on the rice balls, color of bleached bones, waiting for a crow to touch it, signifying our father’s acceptance of his funeral rites.
Crows—cursed by Ram to be able to see only with one eye at a time, but also blessed to be able to see the invisible souls and carry their message to the deities—sit on the trees doting the cremation grounds.
We are hostages to the crows, waiting for the black winged leader to come down and partake our offerings, hoping he will expedite our father’s journey in the afterlife. We circumambulate the platform twice before a crow deigns to land on the platform and peck at the rice balls.
We drive our father’s ashes to Yashwant Road and park my brother’s car in front of the SBI branch where our father started his career in banking. We walk across the street to eat at his favorite breakfast joint and gorge ourselves on Prashant’s pohe and aloo kachori dipped in buttermilk chutney. We polish off the meal with thick milky chai boiled in copper pots. We tip our chai tumblers towards our father’s ashes.
We drive our father’s ashes to the banks of Narmada through narrow roads, flanked by tiny villages, navigating trucks laden with goods and families driving to the same banks for a picnic and a dip in the cool waters. My brother knows this route well. Seven months ago, he performed the same ceremonies and took the same roads to immerse my mother’s ashes in the waters of Narmada. Then, our father sat in the passenger seat, the insidious cancer spreading secretly through his body, all of us engulfed in the grief of Ma’s passing.
We leave our father’s ashes in the trunk of my brother’s car so we can go bargain the boat fare to take us to the middle of the Narmada river. We secure a pink boat and whittle the fare from Rs 2,000 to Rs 1,500 because seven months ago, my father did the same.
We carry our father’s ashes on the uneven cobblestone pathway, and on the way to the boat we feed the rice balls, the bones of our father, to the two brown cows standing around the banks because the holy cow is another conduit to the afterlife.
We hold each other’s hands over slippery mossy rocks to board the pink boat and ever so gently put the Amazon box with our father’s ashes ensconced in our mother’s bedsheet, between us.
The pink boat is manned by a deaf mute and his friend who navigate the Narmada with ease. They cup their hands and scoop the river water into their mouths. The mute sits on the prow and makes obscene gestures with his hands that indicate to the other boat hands to pleasure themselves.
We sit quietly on the pink boat and watch the dark waters glide underneath us. We open the Amazon box and untuck our mother’s sheet to gaze at the calcified bones and ashes of our father. His stent sits atop, an incongruent piece of wire mesh tubing, the color of burnt metal that was inserted in our father’s throat when he could not swallow food. He had it for ten days before he passed away, our upbeat father beaten down by a cancer that paralyzed his vocal cords, took away his voice and ate his bones and spread to his spine and liver and kidney and heart.
As we near a whirlpool near the middle of the river, the boat hand signals us to tip the ashes over. We stand, side by side, and lift the bedsheet over the side. The boat tilts a little but we are intent on the ashes and bones cleansed by the holy fire now being silently swallowed by the holy waters of Narmada so his mortal body can be free of this earthly plane and journey for a year to be reborn again a gentle soul who was generous to a fault and never wished anyone harm a faithful friend a loving father a good husband the last to submerge is our mother’s bedsheet the color of blood and bones.
A former Indian expat, current US citizen, Jaya Wagle’s fiction and non-fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Barrel House, Jellyfish Review, The Rumpus, Hobart, Pithead Chapel, Little Fiction, Big Truths, Janus Literary, and elsewhere. She has an MA in Creative Non-fiction from the University of North Texas where she is now an adjunct professor of World Lit and Technical Writing. She lives in Fort Worth with her husband and fifteen-year old son.