There were incidents of Bibi Amrit Kaur losing her gold ring in the temple, Sardarni Nasib Virdi forgetting her purse in the market and Preet leaving her mobile phone in college, but it happened for the first time that the three residents of Bungalow number 10 lost what was precious, rather, most precious, on the same day in the house.
Nasib clashed her wrists to break the bangles into pieces. The bangles – made of solid gold – produced a jarring clink. Those around her heard it. She pitched the impact of her unbearable loss with a loud cry that choked in her dry throat. She gagged her inaudible sobs using the chunni. Sardar Pal Singh, her voice, had left her forever.
Bibi Amrit, fondly called Biji, doubled her thunderous output on realizing that she had an opportunity to overpower Nasib, to show the train of mourners that a mother’s grief was heavier than a widow’s. She wept inconsolably, beating her chest wildly to gather sympathy as the most unfortunate survivor.
Preet, who had never expressed her deepest emotions in the midst of a public gathering, appeared inhibited. Her father’s dead body lay in front of her, shrouded in white. Her mother and grandmother were engaged in a competitive tearful farewell. The daughter, too, was supposed to whip up hysteria. It was the last chance to show how madly she loved him, how terribly she would miss him. The world waiting to judge her grief was disappointed. She remained conscious of drawing public attention with her cries. Her sobs emerged irregularly like hiccups. Despite her best effort to react to the cold reality staring in the face she failed to put up an impressive debut.
Sardar Pal Singh’s funeral attracted large crowds. He was popular among all communities, cutting across age groups, in the small multi-cultural town where he was born, raised, educated, and married. Almost everyone in bustling Kendrapara knew him as the bountiful, cheerful, delightful, helpful, merciful, resourceful and respectful Sardar who owned Pal Motors – his automobile spare parts shop beside Uttam Market on Station Road.
Plenty of hands jostled to pay last respects, to establish the final physical contact, to touch the body, the feet or at least the white cotton sheet. Many showed up for the sake of attendance and melted into the crowd. Throngs of mourners waited to see the farewell and funeral proceedings in a Sikh family. Some trooped in just because they wanted to enter the bungalow that looked impenetrable like a fortress. The spiked iron gates were thrown open for trucks and general public.
Biji detested the sight of Nasib kissing her husband’s face and resting her head on his chest. She half-closed her eyes to avoid the intimate scene. When Samir trained his lens to shoot these candid moments, Biji opened her eyes and objected, “What’s the use of taking photos now?”
Traders from the market were huddled under the shady mango tree, smoking and discussing how the death of the secretary of Byabsayee Samiti should be observed. The festive season ahead deterred the committee from imposing a 24-hour shutdown of the market to pay homage to their friend, philosopher and guide. Wreaths and prayers for the peace of the departed soul were considered satisfactory tribute.
Nasib Virdi ran out of tears soon. There is a limit to shedding tears. Her slightly composed self encouraged Mrs. Das to press for details of the tragic end. She went to the washroom, leaving the crowd of mourners whispering about her attitude. Her delay in returning to the spot was seen as an attempt to evade queries.
Biji also needed a break. Her best friend, Mrs Jagir Chawla nudged Preet to take her inside. She cleared the space for hesitant mourners waiting with marigold garlands and yet-to-bloom rajnigandha sticks. In the hurry to capture pensive faces, Samir had forgotten to offer Shradhanjali to Pal Kaku who not only patronized S.N. Studio for passport-size photographs but also referred it to his clients. With the camera dangling from his neck, he bowed to express gratitude for making him stand on his own feet.
Samir clicked Pal Kaku from as many angles as possible. Full-length shots and close-ups that included lateral view of his nostrils stuffed with fluffy cotton balls. Fluctuating levels of natural light and obstruction by mourners milling around the dead body shook his faith in his clicks. He went on a shooting spree in case some precious moments were lost because of poor print quality. This was the last chance; Pal Kaku would not pose again.
The corpse flanked by all women survivors in the family was Samir’s brainchild. He went inside and asked Preet to tag Biji and her mother along with her for a group photograph. Biji walked out arranging her chunni, to cover her head properly. Preet held her hand to escort her back to her original position, with Nasib following behind them, pressing her mouth with the small floral handkerchief. Samir created space for them to sit together, cordoned off from other mourners, and went on clicking one after another till he was asked by a pesky intruder to vacate space for mourners arriving in droves. It was a coup of sorts that he had frozen three generations in a single frame despite visible gaps among them hinting at the prevalent undercurrent of discord.
Preet saw trouble marching in her direction. Anu and Reshma, her college friends, arrived to pay homage, with Abhisek Chatterjee hiding behind their svelte figures. He emerged from their shadows as they came near Preet. He sat beside her while her friends kept waiting behind, allowing him unlimited scope to console. With his hand placed on her shoulder.
Abhisek was not sure whether her father’s untimely death had made things difficult for him. He utilized this opportunity to introduce himself to her family and create an impression of being a dependable guy who would stand next to her in every difficult phase. When Preet shrugged off his hand that remained beyond the permissible limit of consolation, he proceeded to touch Pal Singh’s feet before the mad scramble for last darshan prevented him from paying obeisance. He offered tributes like a close relative would do. Knees bent, eyes closed and hands clasped in prayer. In all probability, he advised Pal Singh to rest in peace. He was there to take good care of his daughter.
Mrs Das and Mrs Gupta distracted Nasib with clichéd condolences that seemed to marginalize, trivialize, generalize and impersonalize her sorrow. Mrs Chawla urged Biji to have a look at the clean-shaven guy beside Preet, much earlier than Nasib took notice of his presence as a privileged male sympathiser hobnobbing in the ladies’ circle. When Nasib turned around to see what was happening behind her back, a bespectacled raven-hair guy in white kurta-pajama was spotted beside Preet, imparting lessons on how to manage grief by clutching her alabaster hand sparkling with a ring that she forgot to take off before joining the crowd. The listener, with eyes fixed on the ground, absorbed his words just like she did when her father reminded her of silly errors in examinations.
This sight was an indication of another tragedy looming large in the distant horizon. So many eyeballs had grabbed what Sardar Pal Singh’s daughter was up to. Tongues would start wagging with this indiscretion serving as clinching evidence of her romantic impulses that could not be controlled on the saddest day. Nasib chose to underplay it though she felt like thrashing her for daring to hold the hand of a male friend when the dead body of her father was yet to be consigned to flames.
During the brief hypnotic spell Preet had forgotten that Abhisek was not part of her family yet. It was only when Biji introduced a fresh angle to the tragedy that she realized the extent of damage his proximity had caused.
“Who will tell this little girl what is right and what is wrong? A girl without father is difficult to control,” Biji said helplessly.
Samir captured Preet in the frame along with her friends, focusing on the meddlesome boy who stayed close to her all the time. This was no less shocking for him than Pal Kaku’s death. Unlike most convent-educated girls, Preet was never seen hanging out with guys.
Clueless about what else to do, Biji launched the final round of crying, louder than before. Nasib sobbed and prayed that Preet herself would realize the blunder and put an end to the excess. Anu whispered in Preet’s ear that she should rush to her mother’s side and join her in saying goodbye. The body was now being readied to be lifted onto the bedecked truck.
Just as the Headmaster marches down the corridor and the entire class turns silent, the arrival of Babaji, the gurudwara priest, had a similar effect on the crowd that was just a little while ago chaotic and directionless. Orchestrated sorrow toned down. Mourners disciplined themselves as Babaji, in silken white garb, walked briskly towards the bier, his lips mumbling something prayer-like. He positioned himself in front of Pal Singh’s head and lit dhoop though some incense sticks and camphor were already burning. Without issuing directions to the swelling crowds, without consulting the prayer book, he started reciting the last prayers loudly.
Biji discarded her lachrymose state to indulge in divinity. Endowed with a booming voice, she pronounced every word better than the priest who was accustomed to saying prayers in front of the microphone. She said it louder, clearer and with the holiest appeal to the Almighty. Members of the Sikh Sangat preferred to follow Biji who maintained a steady flow. Babaji, who took up this part-time job in the lure of free accommodation in the town where rental rates were steep, felt embarrassed. Sardar friends of Pal Singh, who received the shocking news of death, had pulled Babaji out of his bed to attend this emergency call. He was tired after night shift duty in the State Electricity Board where he was employed as a technician.
Nasib remained low-key. She did not wish to compete with Biji in high voltage drama. Preet brought an anglicized accent to the Punjabi words she was uttering for the first time. Though Biji had urged Preet to read the holy book and learn to say the five basic prayers, she had deferred it as her academic pressure kept mounting every session. She not only realized her mistake but also felt guilty that being the only child of Sardar Pal Singh she could not pray competently.
The truck revved up; the driver wanted to reach the burning ghat before the skies opened up. The route became waterlogged after heavy downpour. Babaji consulted his watch and waited for approval from Biji who made it clear to the Manager that sandalwood should be used to light her son’s pyre. She was strongly against dumping her only son into the electric tandoor, to be roasted and incinerated at high temperatures, faster than meat is cooked. Under no circumstances should the electric option be availed of, even in adverse weather conditions, even if people were in a hurry to leave. The Manager was instructed to spend liberally to ensure the best traditional funeral rites.
Mrs Chawla, her acolyte, asked Durga to fetch a garvi of water, a sign that authorized him to make a move. It was offered to Babaji who began sprinkling water on the path the body was to be taken along. Chants of Satnaam Wahe Guru rent the air, with mourners picking it up on their own and abandoning it at their own free will. Cries of women rose further as the body was carried by his friends and able-bodied community members.
Preet had wished to hop on to the truck and spend more time with her deceased father. She reminisced those childhood days when she used to be stubborn, when she pestered her father to take her along and he implored her to stay home. She felt helpless for not being able to accompany him on his last journey.
Nasib had a string of reasons to feel sad – to be widowed, to be sidelined, to see her daughter saddled with a guy. Depriving her brother of the chance to see her deceased husband deepened her sorrow. The Manager had expedited the funeral journey on the ground of bad weather, in consultation with Biji and Preet. The contingent could have waited for another hour as her brother was about to reach Dum Dum. A car had been sent to the airport. Nasib did not feel like requesting Biji who was not fond of her brother. She would say there was no purpose in retaining the body when the soul has flown.
Preet hadn’t experienced what it means when the boat of life loses its anchor. Today, she lived through it and realized the gap between imagined sorrow and real grief was wide and a treacherous terrain. Death had snatched her father when she needed his support. Her mind, a whirlpool of memories and ambivalent thoughts, did not grant residence to concerns regarding her own future alone. Her mother and grandmother, left stranded as a consequence of this tragedy, also had a future to plan. They weighed heavily on her being, making it necessary to station her mind elsewhere. But that elsewhere was like a tract of land that had not been discovered yet. Her whole world, the entire ecosystem seemed to be under strain.
Condolences pouring in throughout the day came to a drizzle. With mourners returning to their abodes, shadows of silence began to haunt the bungalow, pushing its residents in the grip of loneliness. Biji sat with her hand on her womb. A strange emptiness enveloped her. The overcast sky did not give an idea of sunset. She felt the sun had already set for her and the family.
The quest for inner peace takes one to places far and wide, from the mountains to the forests to the islands. In the reading of the scriptures one finds the solace one wanders in search of. Biji needed a tranquilizing shot of that. Mrs Chawla led her to the Puja room revered as Darbar Sahib.
Devraj Singh Kalsi works as a senior copywriter in Kolkata. His short fiction and essays have been published in The Bombay Review, Earthen Lamp Journal, Kitaab.org, Open Road Review, Delhiwallah.com, Deccan Herald, Bonobology.com, Readomania.com, The Assam Tribune, Tehelka, The Pioneer, and The Statesman. Pal Motors is his first novel.
About the book:
Devraj Singh Kalsi has woven an intricate tale of fortitude in the time of loss. The three protagonists of the story – Biji, Nasib and Preet – face the loss of the man in their lives with inherent strength. The equations between the three women change like a kaleidoscope with shift in power. They bond in ways they had not done before. It is also a story where they pursue their dreams supporting one another and adjusting to the changes in their lives. The story is peppered with Punjabi phrases as the author loves his roots. The story is gleaned from everyday experience and punctuated with doses of humour. This flowing narrative is embellished with minute observations by Kalsi about people in all walks of life. It is an easily readable and engrossing book which keeps one wondering about the events that are to follow. All in all, a story that looks forward.