Samskaara – n. Term signifying tradition, culture, or funeral rites. [Sanskrit]
A hot wind gusts across the field, making his dhoti flutter, cooling the sweat slightly on his chest, arms and nose; it whips the mantras from his ears. He holds the earthen pot tightly on his shoulder, concentrates on placing one weary foot ahead of the next, the soles red from the dusty earth. As he walks, his gaze falls on his brother, Raghu, the youngest, who stands on the opposite side, eyes held steady on the heavens, glasses askew, mouth agape. Turning away from Raghu he leans forward and holds the torch out to the pyre.
‘Why the traditional way?’ Savitha had asked yesterday. ‘Electric is better, I’ve heard.’
The flames rise, mirage-like in the sunlight till the searing heat spreads; he steps back. Somewhere in there is Annayya, his elder brother. He closes his eyes, images flash in frenzied succession – shaving the stubble from the cold cheeks that morning, ironing an old shirt and pant till the creases were crisp – exactly the way Annayya liked it. Bathing the body, dressing it. He looks across the pyre at Savitha, his wife. Tries to catch her eye, she isn’t looking up. His brother stares at the sun.
He remembers how she’d cried two weeks ago. Annayya, unconscious on the bed. Just after the beating.
‘Why didn’t he tell us before?’ she’d wailed, ‘Why did he keep it all to himself?’
He told me, he’d wanted to reply, and I asked him to hold on. I told him nothing would happen.
His eyes tear up. He cannot remember when he last cried. He looks into the fire and somewhere in his heart refuses to take responsibility for what lies burning in front of him. Why did Annayya ever aspire above his station? Just for money? Had he really thought he could escape? That there would be no trouble? The land mafia, the loan sharks ... Annayya should have known better. Known better than to trust my words.
He looks at Savitha. Will she ever forgive Annayya? She was the one who took care of him these last few weeks, after the beating at the hands of the loan shark’s ruffians. But had she sympathised? Would she forgive? Raghu circles the pyre, his thumb hooked in the belt holding up his dhoti, his other hand scything through the air with every step. Savitha still isn’t looking up.
The body in the fire lurches, rises. He gasps, then realises it’s just the flesh contracting with the heat. He was told this might happen. He swallows, wants to ask someone for water, dares not. There is a loud pop as the skull explodes from the heat. He can suddenly smell burnt flesh. His brother stops, swivels around and stares into the flames. Savitha turns away; he can see her shoulders shake.
Will you understand that Annayya did it for us, he wants to ask.
It’s almost over. He heaves a sigh, wipes his eyes. Time to go home. He walks up to Savitha. She looks up, smiles tentatively. He puts an arm around her shoulder, feels her body melt into his, feels the wracking sobs begin. His mind, however, is on other things. Bank work. Insurance. Did he throw away the medicine bottles yesterday? He cannot remember. He looks at Savitha – he cannot ask her.
He can recall vividly the evening, two days ago. They were in the hall. Savitha was screaming, Raghu had collapsed against the far wall, hands clasped around his ears. He never could stand screams.
‘But I remember clearly!’ she was screaming, hands clutching at her hair, tears falling to the floor.
‘What do you remember?’ he had asked, shaking her in his anxiety, more worried than scared.
‘Annayya’s medicine bottle! I’m sure it had more than twenty pills this morning!’
‘Now it’s empty!’
‘Relax, Savitha. Annayya wouldn’t do something stupid like that. He was already very sick.’
‘But they threatened to kill him! And you, and me! And he kept saying how we could use the insurance money!’
‘Sshh...relax. It’s okay...’
He had then held her close, shutting ugly thoughts from his mind, already thinking things through, planning...
Has he thrown away the medicine bottles? He cannot remember.
Karthik Subramanian is an actor, writer, film enthusiast and engineer based out of Bangalore. He has written short stories, poems, scripts for stage and film and is now working on a novel.