Sunday, June 11, 2006

the bus that means death

One day after a heavy rain, there is a death in the family whose wedding puja I had just attended. Shortly after the wedding, they awake to find that their grandather’s sister had passed away in the night. She has been living in the household for years, but the night before she said she felt unwell, and asked that her older brother be called. He was on the other side of the city visiting a clinic with his wife, who has also been ill. He is located and comes at once to see his younger sister. They spend a short time together, and then she rests. By morning her long life has ended.

She was frail and old, and always smiling, my neighbor Anna tells me. When news of her death comes early in the morning, Anna dresses at once and goes ‘to say goodbye.’ The grandfather’s sister is laid out for viewing in the house, her nostrils and mouth plugged with some bit of cloth. Bodies here are cremated as soon as possible, generally the same day, and we are told she will be taken from the house for cremation in a couple of hours. Word spreads quickly, and the neighbors and family in the area come immediately to bid her farewell.

Later, as I am leaving my room, I see a white bus marked with a large red cross on its way out of the institute. Her body has been placed inside. The bus has no glass windows, just grills, and is filled with relatives of the deceased, accompanying her body. Others who will not go the cremation ground walk along behind the bus, seeing it off to the main road. I join them. Only one face is trailed with tears, a young woman. The rest are subdued but calm. We soon reach the gate, where the relatives remaining behind will part company with the deceased.

Everyone knows what this bus means. “Who has died?” the staff who are just now arriving at the institute ask us. We tell them. They nod, and stand beside us in silence as we all watch the bus pass on to the next leg of its journey.

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