A short story by Devashish Makhija
By the ninth cycle of her chemotherapy Kalyani couldn't swallow. So Girish had tried to stay on liquids too. He had already stopped eating samosas and batata vadas months ago when they put Kalyani on a boiled food diet. But over the last month Girish had started to feel weak. Both in body and spirit.
Illustration/ Uday Mohite
Though visiting hours were 9 to 11, he'd leave her bedside at 15 past, in casual defiance for no particular reason other than his increasing distaste for all the painted signs that had begun to populate his life now. This one mocked him the loudest… 'Samosa - Rs. 10/-'. Right outside Charni Road station, he had turned away from it at around 11:30 each morning, for months, thinking of Kalyani, and all the samosas she could now never eat, and all the boiled sabudana she now had to.
This morning Kalyani's bed was crisp, the mattress cold. It had been vacant since 5:17 a.m. He stared at the room his wife had occupied for most of the year, empty now, a womb that was home to a miscarriage.
At 8, Girish dropped his cheap plastic ball-point pen next to his last official signature, bewildered by how heavy it seemed. At 9 they carried her out on a large white tray on wheels to be perfunctorily swallowed by a groaning black van.
At 10 he stood before that sign again - 'Samosa - Rs. 10/-'. He watched as the samosa came to life, its cold pale white skin slowly frying into a crisp hot bronze. He imagined the samosa being cremated on his dry tongue, as his eyes quivered, and burst, and flooded themselves.
At noon he was standing in queue at the electric crematorium. Only two of the four electric furnaces were operational today. Kalyani had chosen to die on a public holiday. Girish wondered if this made a difference to her? Could she see him now, standing here waiting for his turn to put her body in the fire? What does she think about this? Does she think at all anymore? Does it matter to her that he hasn't eaten since last night? That he turned away from a samosa for the thousandth time today? Does it even matter to him anymore? Up until now he had thought there would be more to life than this.
The group before Girish was a tableaux of wailing men, women and children. An old man's corpse lay on the ground amidst them. Girish watched them, a blinding irritation starting to rise within him like the faraway approaching din of a hundred dhols.
By the time Kalyani's corpse crackled and hummed inside the hot metal box, the world outside the crematorium had turned into a deafening roar of dhols and chants. Girish could feel himself being crushed very slowly by a very large invisible hand. His insides were aching now. His vision blurring with a heady mix of anguish and fury, he stormed out, hurtled down the stairs, across the smoky yard and into the hot, burning chamber behind the furnaces. Outside it, the wailing family, now silent, waited. Inside it, two young barebodied men, their grimy skin gleaming with sweat and fire, sat on their haunches, casually passing what looked like a bidi between themselves, but could have been ganja.
Girish stopped before them and exploded. Why would they put a mourner through this? Have they no respect? Do the authorities know they're smoking illegal substances when they should be collecting his wife's ashes from behind the furnace instead? Should he complain at the office? What are their names? Have they never lost anyone dear to them? Do they even know what it means to see someone die? Slowly?
The first man stared at Girish with unmoving glassy eyes. The second started to chuckle. Which is when Girish slapped him, harder than he thought he could.
Girish stood along the seashore now. The blinding panic of a thousand fevered chants and a hundred screaming dhols had long since blurred into a hypnotic murmur. He watched as one after the other Ganpati murtis of every conceivable size were immersed in the sea. From his whitening fist hung an urn, its mouth sealed with muslin. The ashes inside it had gone cold hours ago. Girish didn't know if it would be appropriate to cast his wife into the sea alongwith so many decomposing versions of her god. He didn't have an opinion in the matter. He wondered what Kalyani would have thought of this though. She celebrated Ganesh-chaturthi with a fervour he had never matched. He'd get drunk to make sense of it all. It must have been his drinking that made her turn to this god when they should have been seeking out a doctor instead. The medicines came only when the prasaad had failed her. He wasn't going to send her off on her eternal journey in the midst of all this muck.
Pulling the collapsible gate shut outside the furnace, the glassy-eyed man wondered if they might have committed a sin today. The other, still smarting from the slap, said, 'The m*****ch*d should've stuck to cursing no? Why'd he raise his hand? Anyway, I've informed Ganpati that we swapped the ashes. As long as the Lord knows who's who, the old man and the woman will be alright.' And he chuckled again.
It was dawn before Girish could walk into the sea. Around him the water was littered with smiling elephant faces bobbing quietly, their garish colours slowly dissolving off them. He undid the muslin and cradled the urn in his hands. He looked into it, at what remained of his wife, one last time. She was grey ash now. She didn't look like Kalyani. She looked like every other dead person that ever went into that furnace and came out as grey dust from the other side. But he shrugged off that thought as quickly as he had it. How dare he defile his wife this way? He apologised to the ashes, felt stupid about it, and slowly tipped the urn over, letting the grey flakes scatter over the filthy water.
The breeze suddenly changed direction, blowing some of the ash into his eyes. He felt like crying then, but it felt somewhat pointless. He couldn't tell why. He could hear voices returning to the shore behind him now. He wasn't sure he wanted to return to any of them anymore. He walked deeper into the sea, wading through the ashes and the clay and the colour and the flotsam and his hunger and his hopes and his grief and his questions and their answers, he walked.
Till he couldn’t hear those voices anymore.