By: Maya Unnikrishnan
It was one of those afternoons when after a slightly heavy lunch on the regular Friday Biryani, they settled down to watch a movie. As usual he would switch on the English channels and surf. She sat next to him on her cane chair waiting for him to choose. Her husband went inside to his room for his nap not really keen to be part of the mother-son noon session. The Biryani was his contribution and normally the duo would find some fault with his cooking. They were his food critics and many a biryani has been rejected for want of the right texture or sometimes not the right amount of masala. Today he was relieved as both agreed that the Biryani was superb,the masala just right. The biryani was slightly moist and the taste lingered. Finally her son decided on “KillBill” on Star Movies .Uma Thurman was trying to punch her way out of the grave and his mother remarked “When I die, don’t bury me, I can’t do what she is doing. I am not as strong as she is”
He had smiled then. She had made it through four brain surgeries in the last 10 years. He didn’t know of any braver woman than her.
Today as he sat by her side watching his mother let out short small breaths he knew her time had come. Just this morning he had got extra Morphine shots from the hospital. Last night she was in pain and screaming. The doctor had prepared him for what was coming. He too recognized her restlessness. His father had gone through the same pain a few weeks ago at Baptist Hospital.Just 15 days before on Dec 26th,he was at his father’s side stroking his forehead while he breathed his last.
When a person is nearing death, they are not your father or your mother or anyone you know well. They are different. They struggle to fight the feeling of life exiting from their body. Some are lucky; they die while sleeping or so we think; some are unconscious, we comfort ourselves.
His father had died that evening at 6.30.The father who made delicious biryanis; the man who waited for him to call every afternoon and tell him what he wanted for lunch; the man, who took care of his mother; the man who went for his Friday prayers and tried his best to be a devout Muslim; the man who had eloped with his mother when she was just 17 years old and had given her,her Muslim name,Parveen, that man had finally breathed his last.
His mother had been upset with his father for dying on her elder son’s birthday. Couldn’t he have chosen another day, she had remarked. Struggling for breaths beneath the oxygen mask,surrounded by her husband’s relatives, she didn’t know how to react. They were keen that she took a last look at him before his final journey, but she hadrefused. They had lived together for 37 years; they mostly fought, and that day she hadn’t wanted to see her husband one last time. Their relatives were aghast by her reaction.
Many didn’t know that she herself was ravaged with cancer, her lungs functioning at 10% and it was fast spreading to her brain. She was bought to the same hospital the day her husband was shifted here and Doctors ran checks on her alarmed to find that the cancer was eating into her . They were quite surprised that she looked quite normal from the outside, gracious and smiling at her visitors. When she came to know from her son about her condition , she decided against further radiations and chemotherapy. It would be just pain relief and palliative care for her.
Her husband’s relatives took his body to his elder brother’s house and while she was in the hospital taking in life saving breaths from the electric machine which bubbled the precious gas , her husband was laid to rest in the graveyard behind the nearby Mosque . Her son kept her posted and told her that his father got a decent looking grave . Both smiled . This was how they were, they could make light of the most serious of events. They had their way of going through it . Rarely you would find their faces doused in grief , rarely they would talk of pain and very rarely have they let others see them in their most painful moments .
The doctors gave her a few weeks. She wanted to be at home and the hospital agreed to send the Doctor on a weekly basis to check on her.
It was then he had asked her: How would you like to go?
And she had said: I would like to be burnt.
His brother was shocked. “Ma, you are a Muslim after marriage. How can you say that?”
But she had replied: “Yes I want to be burnt. I don’t want any part of me to touch the earth.”
He had noticed that she hadn’t said cremated. She had only said burnt.
He went out for a smoke and suddenly heard his brother yelling for him. As he went into the room he knew it was over. While he was closing her ears and nostrils and tying her jaw with a cloth his mind was working. He had to be quick, it would not be long before his father’s relatives came to know and they would be here. He called the ambulance and wrapped his mother’s body in a saffron cloth. The ambulance arrived in 30 minutes and while he was taking her out, his cousins arrived. He told them that he was donating her body for research as per his mother’s wishes.
“That’s against our religion…”
He ignored them and quickly closed the ambulance door shutting them out.
At the hospital,he showed her school certificates and the ration card which had her Hindu name: Vijaya. He showed a nikkahnmma where his mother had signed Vijaya. The doctors gave a death certificate with her original name Vijaya on it.
At the crematorium, he watched while her body was placed on the platform.He performed the rites as a chaste Hindu would. His thoughts rushed back to Dec 27th when he had buried his father at the local mosque as a Muslim would. He smiled. As he carried the pot of water he heard his uncle hit the pot thrice. He then dropped the pot and walked away not turning back. He returned home with a heavy heart. His mother used to call him her soul and today he had been separated from his soul.
He collected her ashes and bones the next day and at the Vedic Samaj performed more rites. As the pundit poured milk over her ashes he felt the pain leave his body. He felt soothed and while the priest was explaining his mother’s journey from Vishnuloka to yamaloka he was quite amused. To him it seemed like a story for children and he quite enjoyed listening to it and repeating the shlokas.His records showed his caste as Muslim and here he was wearing the scared thread and chanting shlokas in Sanskrit. Somehow all this didn’t seem too complicated.
That he was a Muslim was most evident during festivals when delicious Biryani and khaleeji were served. As a family they were not too vocal about religion. His mom used to clutch a sai baba’s small idol in her palm and his dad used to pray at the Mosque occasionally. In their life they had visited more hospitals and clinics than temples or Mosques. Their lives were in the hands of Doctors and surgeons and after each surgery , his mom would thank the Doctors for extending her life . His dad used to ask him often how long and he would reply as long as you get your blood transfusions. That was their life . Blood reports, scan reports, prescriptions, biopsy reports, these filled the shelves of their home. Religion.where did feature in all this he wondered.
His mother’s remains were placed in a mud pot filled to the brim with milk and water and it was time for him to leave for Cauvery to immerse the ashes. This would be the final one. He knew he wouldn’t do anymore rituals . All he wanted was to fulfill his mother’s wishes to be burnt as she wished and here he was going through the motions of cremation and final rites .His Hindu side of relatives finally felt as though she had atlast paid for her sins by marrying a Muslim. Some of them called his grandmother to express their approval .His Muslim relatives would surely curse him for his act . How could he explain that all she wanted was to be burnt?
He remembered how his mother used to cry that she was not accepted at her amongst her in-laws. Once when she had worn a bindi, they had laughed at her obvious Hindu ways. She had tried for acceptance. She had changed her name, removed her bindi, and covered her head. But she had never been accepted. When his mother’s brother asked her not to attend his son’s thread ceremony, for it would embarrass her Hindu relatives, he had seen her cry. All her life she tried to be gracious, but to him it looked like she was always apologizing for her decisions to everyone. She didn’t have to apologize to anyone for her final decision.
With steady steps, he walked into the river and immersed her ashes, he knew that she had won finally. She was, after all, Vijaya.