A Parting By the River (a short story)

Tumultuous smoke from the funeral pyre rose upwards, blending with grey smog that already hung over the groaning city of Kathmandu. A sharp bitter smell assailed Hari’s nostrils almost choking him, but he gulped it down like water, and his eyes stung from smoke. Only yesterday Geeta had been there with him, bright and jovial when she was at her best, foul-tempered and bickering when she was at her worst but, she had been there and her presence in his life had made a conspicuous difference.

 

Having lived together for twenty five years, he had grown used to her in a way that without her, he felt like a piece of puzzle lacking a counterpart. Not that there had been any kind of great love that transpired between them, but there had been love nonetheless. It had been a love marriage from the beginning for which he had even gone against his family, because she came from a caste, a notch lower than his. For years, his family had disowned him wanting nothing to do with him or Geeta, not even when a son was born to them. In the beginning, Geeta had not complained, but through the years, each time, rumours about her in-laws blaspheming against her reached her ears, she had often flared up pelting acrid retort against Hari’s parents.
Four years later, when Hari’s father passed away and they had gone to pay their respects, no one in the family had uttered a word of objection against them. Hari and Geeta saw that time had certainly put a lid on the bygone, for they had allowed Geeta and Hari to mourn together with the rest of the family. Geeta had reveled in the knowledge that his family had finally accepted her as the eldest daughter-in-law. As articulate as she had been, she had impressed them during their first meeting itself. Playing a key role in many of the religious rituals, family dinners, birthdays at her in-laws’ place, Geeta had been favoured well by Hari’s parents and siblings. Whenever an occasion arose in Hari’s parents’ house, Geeta had been fervently sought after. Gradually, Hari’s family had also acquainted themselves to her sudden fits of temper, which she had fully justified saying, one should  never harbour ill feelings within one’s heart. One must spit it out immediately so that one’s mind and heart may not be corrupted by vile thoughts. In time, everyone in the family got used to Geeta’s spiteful mouth but it had never bothered them much because Geeta also had a warm and forgiving heart.
The priest continually chanted a string of prayers as he poured small spoonfuls of hydrogenated fat into the burning pyre as Hari stared remorsefully through the tears that swam in his eyes. The month of April never failed to bring strong gusts of wind that left a fog of dust in its wake. This time too, the April wind blew with much zest but here, at the concrete cremation square by the turbid stream, all it could do was rage up the pyre urging it to consume the remains of the body without any loss of time. Thirteen days of mourning had begun. Thirteen days of living a life of an outcast in the temple along with his twenty two year old son, would soon begin after a ritualistic bathing in the river, shaving of their heads and of being clad in white from head to toe. Hari and his son would have to mourn as tradition required the husband and the sons of the deceased, follow the stringent rules of mourning. It comprised of cooking one’s own food, sleeping on hard ground, wearing only white, which lasted until the thirteenth day of the passing away of a parent/spouse. Only food devoid of any salt, spices or oil was allowed to be consumed. Some strictly ate only boiled rice but since Hari suffered from low blood pressure and since his son refused to eat saltless food deeming it illogical as far as mourning for his mother was concerned, they decided to include some salt in their food. The rest of the rules were obediently followed, after all, that was how tradition would have it. That was how Hari would have it and that was how Geeta would have wanted it.

It was only a mild stroke. Hypertension was what the doctors had said. After the initial unconsciousness, she had woken up filling Hari’s heart with hope. During the time she had been unconscious, Hari had watched his wife’s still body and unmoving lips warily. It seemed unnatural for Geeta to lay so still and quiet. She had talked even in her sleep. Hari was suddenly filled with a yearning to see those eyes open and those lips part in conversation. It was then he realized how silent his world would be without her. It was then, he realized how withdrawn he was from the cordial engagements of the world. Without Geeta he had no one connecting him to people, relatives, even friends. She was his medium into their lives and their spaces. She was his mouth-piece who made things comfortable for him whenever they were visiting friends or relatives. Whenever a question was intended for him, she would quickly reply with “he says” or “he means” and then he would simply have to look at her direction, smile and nod and he was often saved from the tediously long and harrowing conversation. A mixture of desperation and melancholy overwhelmed him and he felt like he would die along with her if she never opened her eyes again. He simply would not be able to endure the sound of the world without her voice in it. Then, Geeta’s eyes had fluttered open but little did he know that he had her only for that single day. He knew she hadn’t known either, because she would have said much more.

Geeta was an open book and without fail, her heart and mind always willingly reflected on her face. It was with great ease that her friends and relatives read her thoughts. Perhaps it was because of this open trait, Hari had loved her although he had never expressed it verbally. Even when he was courting her, he had silently done it through letters and cards that came with poems. Initially they shared a quiet life. She would wake up early, make his breakfast and lay it on the table for him. He would go up after her, drink his tea left by his bedside, take a bath, eat the breakfast meticulously laid out for him and then he would leave for work at the electricity board. He would hardly ask her how her day went when he came home in the evening. Instead, he would drink his tea in silence while she would fuss around their son, chiding him into doing their homework. She always came late to bed quietly climbing onto her side, while he had already reached the comfortable moment between wakefulness and slumber. Sometimes he would hear her murmur a thing or two about a gold necklace that one of his friends from the neighbourhood had gifted his wife, but by the time she said anything else, he was already  pushed into the oblivious world of sweet slumber. He never remembered her birthday. Not that she remembered his birthday either but she never forgot their anniversary. When he came home from work,  and the house was filled with an appetizing smell of chicken curry and sweet incense, when the new table cloth had been laid out on the dining table and,when a bunch of roses decorated the god’s altar, he would often be struck with the guilt for having forgotten their anniversary.

During the initial years of marriage, she had not cared to hide her disappointment and had attacked him with a volley of angry words each time the talk of their anniversary would arise. With time, she stopped expressing her distaste because of his indifferent attitude towards the idea of celebrating , but along with that, she stopped cooking him his favourite meal on their anniversary. Gradually, the new table cloth ceased to appear on the table too but the bunch of flowers continued to decorate the altar each year. That was her way of commemorating her fond remembrances to the day she had bundled up her clothes and slipped quietly from her home, to begin her most anticipated life with Hari.
The flames from the pyre, that had a while ago risen to a towering height, heating the faces of the onlookers, slowly diminished, and the intolerable carbonized odour of cremation gradually faded away. The crowd of watchers thinned as each walked away after placing a hand on Hari’s shoulder in a consolatory gesture. Hari witnessed his wife turn to ashes. In a matter of just few hours a lifetime had been reduced to handful of glowing embers. His eyes watered again, but this time it wasn’t because of the smoke. “Listen!” Geeta’s voice boomed in his ears, and he suddenly jolted turning wildly around. She had never addressed him by his name. She had always said “listen” when she called out to him.  “Listen!” she whispered this time and then there was silence. His son was staring into the last of the glowing embers, unmoving, and Hari realized that it was only he who had heard Geeta’s voice. Suddenly an excruciating sadness flooded his insides and without a care, he burst out with a loud howl. Hari’s son almost fell on the ground in the sudden shock of seeing his father’s uncommon plight. Uncontrollable waves of sorrow rocked his body back and forth as his son rushed forwards and held him tight. Not a single word except Hari’s mournful cries invaded twilight that evening. The priest gestured his son to hurry because on the other side of the river, a crowd was waiting with a body laden on their shoulders. It was time for another cremation.

Once the fire died down, and the ashes collected, Hari looked at the urn and wondered how  little a space Geeta now occupied. The living and the breathing, the flesh and the blood were all diminished into a handful of dust. Death had a frightening way of diminishing people into just a fistful of ashes and, to a memory that would in time fade away into the farthest recesses of one’s mind. The sky had already turned crimson making way for the impending darkness but the jargon of traffic roared continuously and Hari found himself returning slowly to the world that still held him. Not so far away someone was wailing and he saw that it was a young man under the weight of perhaps a dead father or a mother or a young wife, whose body was soon going to be laid for cremation. Hari twined his arms around the urn, holding it delicately against his chest while he and his son were gently ushered towards the concrete steps for ritualistic bathing by the sullen river. However, there was still time before the obscure waters drank the final remains of Geeta’s life. There was still time, before the thickness of time slowly blotted out the sound of her voice that resounded with such great affection in his ears as of now.

Image by Drocan (www.deviantart.com)

2 Responses to “A Parting By the River (a short story)”

  • pratee says:

    This was an excruciatingly beautiful piece. It felt as if this whole scene unfolded right before my eyes and i couldn’t do a thing to console Hari.

  • Nandan Sharma says:

    Dear Yoshay Di,
    Regards, I was given your blog address by your mom Chimi Aunty. I found some of the stories which is a really creative one and many are stitched beautifully with fictions. I liked your short stories and recent poem. Please do keep up writing and never give up.

    Best Wishes
    Brother Nandan
    from Kurseong

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Yoshay Lama

I welcome you warmly to my blog. This is the resting place of most of my creative work. This blog consists of book reviews, articles, poems, mere reflections and excerpts from my stories.

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