It was a little past four in the afternoon, the light softer now and more diffuse, the intensity of the day’s heat beginning to wane, and standing by himself in a corner of the garden Krishan was observing the people gathered in Rani’s house for the funeral, somewhat unnerved, after his long and meditative journey, by how quickly he’d found himself in this place so different from his point of origin, this setting that, despite conforming to all his abstract expectations, had nevertheless managed to catch him off guard. The sense of calm, peaceful self-containment he’d felt on the train had remained with him on the bus during the quiet, two-hour ride from the Kilinochchi station, and it had persisted too on his walk from the bus stop, as he made his way slowly and leisurely along the network of paths that ran through the noticeably deserted village. The properties on either side of the lanes were marked off by low fences of dried palm fronds thatched together with wire and rope, most of them fronted by small, well-cultivated gardens, each with its own little vegetable plot and an assortment of trees—drumstick, banana, coconut, curry leaf, as well as others he couldn’t identify. The houses themselves were simple and unadorned, the larger concrete ones containing two or three rooms, the smaller ones consisting of mud walls and thatched roofs and no more than a single all-purpose hall. He’d taken his time noting and regarding everything he passed, as if he’d come for no other reason than to discover what effect the surroundings had on the trajectory of his thoughts, and it was only as he turned into the lane where Rani’s house was located, as he heard the low, irregular beat of funeral drums rising up from the end of the lane, that he began to realize his journey was over, that he’d finally arrived at his destination. He wondered suddenly how he should comport himself, what he should say to Rani’s daughter when they met, how he could give her his grandmother’s money without drawing attention to himself, questions he’d had the whole day to consider but had avoided thinking about till then. Approaching the house he saw first the band of drummers standing just behind the palm-leaf fence, four men aloof from everyone else in the garden, looking at one another intently as they rapped the small, flat, beautifully constructed drums that hung from their necks—members, he knew, even if nobody talked about it, of one of the most oppressed castes in the northeast. In the garden behind them a large crowd had already assembled, two or three hundred people at least, almost all of them people from the village it seemed, which explained perhaps why the village had felt so quiet on his walk. Some of the attendees looked desolate or forlorn, some merely bored, but most of them were talking in low voices, as if using the gathering as an opportunity to discuss whatever matters were on their minds, the women wearing black, gray, or white saris, some of them in pale, unobtrusive colors, the men wearing mainly shirts and formal white sarongs. The band began to drum louder and at a faster tempo as he made his way toward the gate, giving, Krishan realized with discomfort, what was in effect a kind of announcement of his arrival. Walking through the garden he did his best to ignore the curious faces of the people as they turned and looked at him, all of them aware no doubt that he was not from the village, most of them probably able to tell from the way he was dressed, from his trousers and dark blue collarless shirt, that he wasn’t from any of the neighboring villages either. The house was on the larger side of the houses he’d passed on his brief walk through the village, with white concrete walls, an untiled asbestos roof, and smooth red cement floors, and climbing up the two short steps to the veranda, where the crowd of people was more concentrated and nobody seemed to notice him, he took off his sandals, left them by the collection of footwear near the entrance, and went up to the threshold of the front door, where he stopped and looked inside.
In the center of the front room, elevated on a kind of low table or cot, was an open wooden casket overlaid with plastic lamination on its surfaces, and standing around the casket were a number of people, mainly women, some of them looking into the casket and whimpering or crying, a few quietly reciting hymns from small booklets they held in their hands, verses most likely from the Sivapuranam. Seated a little away on the floor in front of one of the walls was a priest, an array of fruit, coconuts, lamps, and other items spread out on banana leaves in front of him, and sitting cross-legged opposite him was a broad, muscular man of about thirty, wearing a white sarong and a white thread tied diagonally across his otherwise naked torso. He was conducting the rites for the deceased, which meant, Krishan guessed, that he was Rani’s son-in-law, the husband of Rani’s daughter, the responsibility of performing the rites generally falling on a son-in-law if the deceased didn’t have any sons. Krishan scanned the room for Rani’s daughter, and his gaze soon came to rest on a woman whom several other people in the room were watching too, a woman in her mid- to late twenties standing by the head of the casket, her arms supported by a couple of older women as if they were worried she might faint. She had Rani’s dark complexion but didn’t quite resemble Rani on first glance, her build much less substantial, her face rounder and softer. She wasn’t crying so much as out of breath, it seemed, her eyes not quite focused, as if she wasn’t able to see clearly, and it was only when he noticed the two young girls holding on to her dress and looking somewhat lost, the only children present in the room, that Krishan realized the two girls must be Rani’s granddaughters, that the woman they were holding must be Rani’s daughter. Not knowing how to approach her Krishan remained at the threshold, wondering what to say, studying Rani’s daughter till the older woman beside her noticed him standing there and gestured him toward them. He went up and introduced himself, looking first at the older woman and then at Rani’s daughter, trying to diminish his stature and summon a look of grief on his face. This was the moment he’d feared most since learning about the death two days before, the moment Rani’s relatives finally came face to face with him, looks of silent accusation on their faces, but registering who he was Rani’s daughter only smiled sadly and welcomed him, her voice soft and plaintive, very different from how it had been on the phone. So you managed to make it, she said looking straight at him, you managed to find the house. I’m glad you were able to come. Turning to the two women she was standing next to she explained who he was, that it was at his house that her mother had been staying in Colombo, that it was his grandmother her mother had been looking after. Krishan looked at the women with an uncertain smile, searching their faces for any sign of resentment, for any sign that they, if not Rani’s daughter, might hold him responsible for what had happened, but they too simply looked at him knowingly and warmly, as if to them he was simply one more mourner at the funeral, not the object of any ill will.
The older woman motioned him toward the casket, which he’d carefully avoided looking at till then, and drawing closer to it, slightly hesitant about looking directly at Rani, the first things Krishan noticed were the two oversize garlands draped over her chest, the way the plain white sari she was wearing blended in with the white satin interior of the casket. Her strangely pale, almost white hands were patiently folded over her waist, and her equally pale, unadorned feet were tied together by a thread that linked her two big toes. Taking in these details Krishan allowed himself to get a little closer, glancing at last toward the head of the casket at Rani’s face, at the hair combed neatly back, at the eyes closed, the lips slightly pursed, the skin just as strangely pale as her hands and feet, coated, he realized, with several layers of talcum powder. Her face was expressionless, or rather wearing an expression that didn’t seem exactly coherent, certainly not consonant with the mournful faces around her, and standing there with his hands by his sides Krishan was not sure what exactly he should be feeling or what exactly he should do. He was somehow moved, but he didn’t feel any sadness or tears rising to his eyes, only a softer, tenderer version of the alienation he’d felt upon hearing the news two days before. Even if he no longer had difficulty remembering who Rani was and what she was like, even if he could remember all her mannerisms, her gruff but warm way of speaking, the sadness and vague longing she always carried with her, he struggled to connect the image of Rani in his mind with the body now lying in front of him, which seemed, with its ghostlike face, hands, and feet, with the unfamiliar white sari and strangely formal posture, to belong to someone he didn’t know. He heard, coming from behind him at that moment, the sound of a woman wailing, and turning around saw that an older couple had entered the room. The woman held Rani’s daughter’s hands in her own for a moment before pulling her hands away and striking them against her temples, crying out that she could not believe Rani was gone, that first it had been her sons, then her husband, and now Rani herself. She repeated these statements rhythmically and without break, becoming even more strident as she left Rani’s daughter and approached the casket, causing some of the women who were already standing beside it to begin crying louder themselves. Krishan watched the scene for a while, surprised by the pitch of the woman’s emotion, especially since Rani’s daughter herself was so subdued, and decided that the woman must have been a close relative or perhaps an intimate friend. Turning to look at Rani’s daughter, seeing that for a moment nobody was paying attention to her, he took from his shirt pocket the envelope his grandmother had given him and went up to her, leaning forward as he told her, almost in a whisper, that his grandmother had asked him to give it to her in order to help with the funeral expenses. Rani’s daughter looked a little surprised, even though his mother had told her about the money the day before, then nodded her head in acknowledgment as she took the envelope. Looking away she hesitated for a second, then turning back and meeting his eyes she spoke to him again. My mother felt very close to your grandmother. She enjoyed staying in Colombo a lot, and would always talk about your family when she came back for visits. I don’t know why she ever decided to leave. I kept telling her that she should go back, that that was what the doctor had said was best, but she was so stubborn about remaining here. She didn’t want to stay in Colombo anymore, and she didn’t want to go back to the hospital for treatment either. She said that the only thing she wanted was to stay at home with her granddaughters, that she didn’t want to miss them growing up. My mother loved my two girls so much, even more than she loved her youngest son, I’m glad she was able to spend some time with them at least before she left us behind. Rani’s daughter paused upon saying this, reflecting on what she’d said with the distinctive manner the bereaved sometimes have when talking to other people, appearing on the surface to be responding to their statements when all the while they are really in conversation only with themselves. Krishan nodded and tried to smile, glanced at the girls who were now standing next to the priest and their father, observing the men with a mixture of interest and confusion. He was unsure what to say and waited to see whether Rani’s daughter would say more, but smiling with an air of finality she turned and went into the adjacent room to put the envelope away. He waited there a little longer, hoping they might continue speaking when she returned, but by the time she did another family had entered the room and begun giving their condolences. Seeing no point to remaining inside, Krishan looked once more at the casket, touched his hands to its base, then slipped out to the garden and looked for an uncrowded place to stand, somewhere he could watch the proceedings unobserved and reflect on what he’d seen and heard.
He’d believed till then that he would be able to learn what happened to Rani by attending the funeral, that merely by studying her daughter’s face he would be able to ascertain the nature of Rani’s death, but seeing her daughter in person at last it was evident to him that his expectation had been misplaced, and not only because the constant stream of people coming in to give their condolences made conversation impossible. He’d expected, for some reason, to be able to obtain some kind of decisive affirmation or refutation of his suspicions, but the moment he heard Rani’s daughter talking he realized that no unambiguous verdict was possible, that even if he waited till the funeral was over to talk to her the subject of suicide would never come up explicitly, that he would be left in the end with only his own interpretations of whatever she told him. He’d been relieved by the warmth and openness with which she’d received him, so different from the distant and somewhat mechanical tone of her voice on the phone, and he’d been relieved too by what she’d said about Rani’s feelings toward Appamma, which meant his fears that Rani resented Appamma and their life together in Colombo were unfounded, that she hadn’t left because she disliked staying with them but for other, more significant reasons. She had said she wanted to spend time with her granddaughters, and this was no doubt true, but he got the sense from Rani’s daughter’s account that Rani had left more because she wanted to escape her mind and her mental condition than anything else, that she’d left in the same way that so many of those who are chronically depressed move from one place to another or back and forth between different places, hoping that a change of environment will make things better, though at the end of the day they were compelled to take their minds with them wherever they went, like movable, invisible prisons in which they were trapped. He’d been struck, too, by the palpable tone of regret in Rani’s daughter’s voice, as if her mother’s decision to leave Colombo and stop therapy had led to the worsening of her condition and perhaps ultimately to her demise, as if her mother’s depression and her death were connected in some significant way. This more than anything else made him wonder whether his suspicions about suicide might be right, but there was a good chance he was reading too much into the way Rani’s daughter had spoken, he told himself, for there was always a certain kind of regret in the way the bereaved talked about how the people they’d lost had died, as if they believed that the death would not have come about if some small detail had been different, as if they believed that not only the more specific death but also the more general phenomenon of dying itself could have been avoided. There was an openness or vulnerability in Rani’s daughter’s bearing that felt incompatible with the possibility that Rani had committed suicide, for if she really did believe or suspect that her mother had killed herself she would have been a lot more guarded, he felt, would have spoken less freely about her mother, not only out of guilt but also out of fear that someone might guess what happened. Even if there had been concrete signs that Rani had killed herself it was obvious her daughter was oblivious to them, that either she hadn’t noticed the signs or, more likely, if there were such signs, that she’d intentionally averted her eyes from them. There was no sense pursuing the possibility of her mother having committed suicide unless the facts were undeniable, after all, unless the facts made any other response impossible, and in this case, since there was no concrete evidence, it was probably just easier and healthier to assume it had been an accident and leave the matter at that. In a way Krishan was grateful to be able to stop there, to learn that he would not be able to find out anything more, that he could let the issue go with the relative likelihood that Rani hadn’t ended her own life. Even on the off chance that it had been suicide, he told himself, it was clear from what Rani’s daughter had said that his family couldn’t have been responsible, that they’d done their best to help her and that what she’d done to herself, if indeed she’d done anything, was the result of far more subterranean forces inside her, forces that had their genesis outside their lives.
Looking up from the patch of ground he was staring at Krishan saw that the crowd in the garden was getting larger, the buzz of low voices around him louder now and more sustained. New arrivals were continually trickling in, acknowledging the various people they saw as they walked toward the house, everyone knowing everyone, it seemed, which was in a sense what defined village life, the total absence of anonymity, nobody a stranger to anyone, even if not everyone was friends. Entering the house the new arrivals all went straight to Rani’s daughter to give her their condolences, the women crying loudly and dramatically as they took her hands and then breaking out into loud waves of lamentation as they approached the casket, beating their chests, raising their hands up to the sky, speaking to Rani’s dead body as if she were still alive. Coming back out to the veranda, wiping their tears away with their hands or their sleeves, a few of these women seemed to undergo a remarkable transformation, as if having left the presence of the body and the bereaved they were immediately able to regain the composure they’d lost while inside. Krishan had often heard his mother, who’d grown up in Jaffna and had always resented village life, disparaging the lamentations she claimed could be heard at every village funeral, not the lamentation of the bereaved, whose grief was of course usually sincere, but the lamentation of everybody else, the people who were much less affected by the death and who sometimes didn’t even really know the deceased, people who, according to his mother, would come to the funeral whistling a tune or telling jokes, who would break out into histrionics in front of the body and then afterward, when no one was watching, go on with their lives as though nothing had happened. It was all just acting, his mother had said contemptuously of such women, a performance they put on to show everyone else how close they’d been to the deceased. It wasn’t just the people who came to the funeral either, she went on, at some funerals the family of the deceased themselves hired people for the purpose of lamenting, just like they hired drummers and a priest, in order to show everyone how important their relative had been, how loved they were and how missed they would be. It had been hard for Krishan to actually understand what his mother meant at the time, never having been to a village funeral at that point, and because his mother was generally suspicious of emotion, preferring to cry in private if she had to cry at all, he’d dismissed what she said as simply another example of her general cynicism regarding the expression of emotion. Listening now to the crying and wailing of the new arrivals though, not all of whom could have been close relatives or friends, observing how coming back out to the veranda they returned so quickly to a state of equilibrium, he couldn’t help wondering whether perhaps his mother had been right, especially since the only woman who didn’t seem to be shedding any tears was Rani’s daughter herself, the one person who should have been more affected than anybody else. Despite being in a state of visible distress and vulnerability Rani’s daughter was not, Krishan could tell, completely beside herself like many of the other women were or were pretending to be, perhaps because she was too exhausted to really feel grief, because she was still processing everything that had happened, perhaps because there was no natural correspondence between the moments conventionally prescribed for grief and what the bereaved actually feels.
The man directing the funeral, a middle-aged man with a slight limp who was casually dressed in trousers and shirt, came out to the veranda and began calling out to everyone assembled in the garden, shouting that everybody who wanted to put rice into the deceased’s mouth should come forward. Several people on the veranda and a few in the garden stood up and went into the house, filling up the already crowded front room, and Krishan too took a few steps forward, not to go inside but to get a better view of what was happening. He watched as one by one the close relatives and friends of the family went up to the casket, took a small handful of dry rice, and let the grains fall gently from their palms over Rani’s mouth, an act whose meaning or significance he had never been quite able to understand. All he could think about as he watched was the irony of Rani being accorded the full set of funeral rituals, she who’d mentioned on more than one occasion during her time in Colombo how much she wished, instead of having to leave her youngest son by the side of the road for the flies, she’d been able to give him a proper funeral. She’d been unable to do not just the funeral, Krishan knew, but also any of the other ceremonies, certainly not the kaadaatru, which was supposed to come the day after the cremation, when the ashes were picked up from the cremation ground and taken home. Interned inside army camps, she probably hadn’t been able to do the function that was supposed to take place on the fifth or seventh day after the cremation, the ettuchelavu, as it was called, when all the deceased’s favorite foods were offered up symbolically to a garlanded photograph, and not having any of her son’s ashes she wouldn’t have been able to conduct the anthiyetti either, the ceremony in which the ashes were scattered into a river or a tank or the ocean, probably the most significant of all the postcremation rituals. The only ceremony she’d been able to perform was the annual death anniversary, the thuvasam, for which neither the body nor the ashes were necessary, only a photograph, a garland, and a priest. Rani had done the thuvasam for both her sons every year since leaving the camps, and in the previous two years she’d used the money she earned looking after Appamma to organize them with great lavishness, inviting everybody in the village and leaving Colombo more than a week in advance to undertake preparations. They’d been watching the news one evening in Appamma’s room, Krishan remembered, listening to a report about a months-long protest in a small village organized by the aged mothers of disappeared Tamil men, the women demanding that the government form a commission to investigate the many thousands of Tamil people who’d vanished without a trace during the war and immediately afterward. They wanted some kind of verdict on their disappeared sons, husbands, and brothers so they could finally have a measure of peace, one of the women was telling the reporter, so that they could conclusively learn what had happened to the people they loved. Rani had turned to him after the segment was over and told him, shaking her head, that she was grateful for having seen her dead sons’ bodies, for having managed to hold the youngest one in her arms for a few seconds, that she didn’t know what she would have done had either of them suddenly gone missing one day, had she been forced to live in uncertainty about whether they were alive or dead. When you didn’t see and hold the body of a dead child you couldn’t understand that they were gone, she told him, and unlike her the relatives of people who’d gone missing were forced as a result to live their lives in a kind of suspended state, unable to accept that their sons or husbands or brothers were dead, knowing there was a chance they might be alive in some unnamed cell somewhere, though at the same time they were hesitant to give this possibility too much credence, afraid to believe in it given how many unmarked graves they knew were scattered around the north and east.
Krishan had always assumed that Hindus cremated the bodies of the dead and scattered their ashes as a kind of acknowledgment of the body’s impermanence, of its vulnerability and transience, and so it was strange for him now, watching as one by one people dropped grains of rice over Rani’s mouth, to think that nevertheless the physical body played such a central role in Hindu funerals, that it was given such prominence in all the mourning rituals. It was acknowledged not just at the funeral, where the body was dressed up, caressed, and talked to by the people who came to mourn, but also in the cremation and the rituals that followed, first in the ash that was collected in the urn after the body had been burned, the urn becoming a kind of materially reduced body that was treated, even after the cremation, with all the reverence due to the original body. Even when the ash was dispersed over water thirty-one days later, when this materially reduced body that had been held on to for a month was given up, even then a kind of symbolic body was retained in the physical object of the photograph, which was garlanded and placed on a wall of the house, taken down every year during the death anniversary and prayed to and offered food, as if the image itself were capable of consumption and digestion, the photograph becoming, in other words, not so much a representation as a physical manifestation of the dead. The process of letting go of a person was always done in gradual stages, from what he’d seen, from the actual body to a reduced body to a symbolic body that was always kept in the house, an acknowledgment both of the difficulty of giving up the body and also of the fact that the bodies of the ones we love can never be fully renounced. And perhaps this was why the symbolic acts of feeding were so important in the mourning rituals, it occurred to him, in the pouring of rice over the mouth of the deceased and in the offering of food to the photograph of the deceased, for it wasn’t surprising that in a culture in which food and the activity of eating were so important, in a culture in which feeding was one of the primary acts of care, in which to ask whether somebody had eaten was to ask whether they were well, in which the question of whom you can eat with and whose food you can eat was a way of enforcing the boundaries between castes, that in such a culture the acts of serving and eating were also the physical processes that the bereaved found most difficult to part with, so that even after the body had stopped consuming and digesting food the bereaved continued to find solace in the act of feeding the deceased.
This simultaneous and seemingly paradoxical acknowledgment and rejection of the body’s importance reminded Krishan, in a way, of something he’d once read about the portrayal of the Buddha by the earliest Buddhists in India, who apparently never allowed themselves to produce lifelike representations of their lord. Unlike his own country, where statues and icons of the Buddha were found everywhere, not just in places where Buddhists worshipped but even in non-Buddhist areas, as a physical sign of the power of the Buddhist state, early Buddhist societies never produced paintings or carvings or sculptures of the Buddha, believing it would be an act of disrespect toward this individual who’d so deeply felt the pain of being embodied, of being attached to the material world, who had striven so intensely to escape the condition of bodily imprisonment. Whenever artists from that time wanted to represent the Buddha they would depict only his footprints on the earth or the umbrella under which he was taking shelter, sometimes a halo to indicate the aura of his presence. They would draw or carve, in other words, only the faintest traces of the path the Buddha’s physical body took through the world, an act of oblique representation that was, like the Hindu mourning process, both an acknowledgment of the inescapability, for ordinary humans, of the body and the world in which it is situated, to which we are so intimately bound that we cannot even represent the Buddha without employing some trace of his physical presence, and also, at the same time, an expression of the desire to escape the body and the so-called real world, which was why of course the Buddha, one of the few people to have achieved such liberation, was worshipped with so much devotion to begin with.
Standing there in the garden looking into the house, thinking about funeral rituals and what they meant or symbolized, Krishan thought of the cemeteries for fallen cadres that the Tigers had built all over the northeast, cemeteries that no longer existed and which harkened back in his mind to a time, only a few years before, when the northeast had been an entirely different place. The Tigers, though they consisted mostly of men and women who prayed in private to Hindu gods, had always buried their dead instead of cremating them, a practice inspired, Krishan had learned somewhere, by the significant population of Christian Tamils in the northeast. Cadres who died on campaigns that were successful in capturing new land were buried in new cemeteries constructed on the land they’d fallen fighting for, while the other dead cadres were buried, symbolically if their bodies could not be recovered, in one of the several massive cemeteries already established across the north and the east. Krishan had never been to any of these cemeteries but he’d seen photographs and videos of them—vast, open spaces filled with endless rows of large horizontal stone tombs, identical except for the small engravings at their base indicating who rested there. The cemeteries, which were swept every day and kept open through the night for anyone to come and mourn their dead, were festooned on special occasions with the small red-and-yellow flags of the Tigers strung out high above the rows of tombs, and during Maaveerar Naal, the annual day for the remembrance of the war dead, masses upon masses of people would gather at these sites from all over Tiger-held territory to listen to speeches and cry over the sons, daughters, brothers, and sisters they’d lost, taking sorrowful pride in their sacrifices as they listened to Tiger songs of fearlessness and devotion blaring from loudspeakers, scenes of immeasurable pain and sadness that Krishan had never once seen in person but which were, somehow, etched into the back of his eyes. All those cemeteries, containing hundreds and thousands of dead fighters, had been razed to the ground by the army after the end of the war, their huge Chinese-made bulldozers mowing down graves indiscriminately, hardly a trace of them left anywhere in the northeast now, hardly a trace of any of those male and female cadres who’d died fighting in anonymity for a future that never materialized, not even of Rani’s eldest son, who, Krishan realized now for the first time, must also have been buried in one of those cemeteries, must also have had his remains destroyed and removed from their place of rest.
It was not just the cemeteries that had been destroyed, naturally, for all the former Tiger offices, bases, and weapons depots had been destroyed too, all their signs, posters, and statues, after which the army had begun the labor of clearing rubble from bombed sites, of extracting the land mines buried all over the northeast, of re-laying shelled-out roads and train tracks. Soon the only external signs that there’d once been a separatist movement and that there’d once been a war were the tents in which people still lived and the scars still inscribed on their bodies, the hairless skin on what remained of people’s amputated arms and legs. The purpose of all the government’s demolition and renovation in the northeast had, of course, been to erase any memory that might spur the Tamil population back toward militarism, and in this it had been more or less successful, for one hardly heard ordinary people talking about the Tigers in the northeast now, one hardly heard anyone giving them more than a passing thought. It was strange to consider, since for decades the Tigers had been the central fact of life in the northeast, but it also made sense to a degree, for memory requires cues from the environment to operate, can function only by means of associations between things in the present and things in the past, which meant that remembering became far harder when all the cues that an environment contained were systematically removed. Without the physical objects that allowed it to operate organically, memory had to be cultivated consciously and deliberately, and how could the average person in the northeast afford to actively cultivate their memory of a world now gone when there were so many more urgent concerns, how to make ends meet, how to rebuild their homes, how to educate their children, concerns that filled up all their mental space? The truth was that eventually most people would have ceased remembering the past anyway, even if all remaining traces of the Tigers had been left untouched, for the truth was that all monuments lose their meaning and significance with the passing of time, disappearing, like the statues and memorials in Colombo dedicated to the so-called independence struggle against the British, into the vast unseen and unconsidered background of everyday life. Deliberately or not the past was always being forgotten, in all places and among all peoples, a phenomenon that had less to do with the forces that seek to erase or rewrite history than simply the nature of time, with the precedence the present always seems to have over what has come before, the precedence not of the present moment, which we never seem to have access to, but of the present situation, which is always demanding our attention, always so forceful and vivid and overwhelming that as soon as one of its elements disappears we forget it ever existed. A shirt we wore every week for several years can be thrown away and then forgotten forever the week after, a table on which we ate two meals a day for a decade can be replaced and the strangeness of the new arrangement gone within a month, and even when something vital disappears, something our lives have centered on for years, even then we move on very quickly, very quickly adjusting to the new circumstances, so that within a few months or years the new way starts to seem like the way things have always been.
Forgetting was, of course, something we ourselves chose to do on purpose sometimes, as when after the end of a painful relationship we delete all traces of it that existed in our phones, attempting to excise it from our lives, and in this sense forgetting was not so different from remembering, an important and necessary part of life, just as central as remembering when it came to establishing an identity and orienting ourselves toward the future. And yet there was a crucial distinction, Krishan knew, between the forgetting that takes place as a result of our consent, which is a forgetting we need in order to reconcile our pasts and presents, and the forgetting that is imposed on us against our own will, which is so often a way of forcing us to accept a present in which we do not want to partake. Whenever forgetting was imposed in this way it would always give rise to people who insisted stubbornly on remembering, people who resisted not only the specific erasures of the past by those in power but also the more general erosion that would anyway have been brought on by time, people who remained committed to commemorating the world taken away from them no matter what happened, sharing stories and images and songs and videos that they kept safe inside their heads and their hard drives, trying to ensure that even if all the objective evidence was taken away, even if there was no means in public spaces for the communication of such histories, that their pasts would continue to exist somewhere, somehow. Even if sharing what happened during the war was painful, even if it was easier for most people to pass over these wounds in silence, suppressing their memories of the world they’d helped construct and the violence that had destroyed it, even so people would remain who insisted on remembering, some of them activists, artists, and archivists who’d consciously chosen to do so but most of them ordinary people who had no other choice, people like Rani who, in the most basic sense, simply couldn’t accept a world without what they’d lost, people who’d lost their ability to participate in the present and were thus compelled to live out the rest of their lives in their memories and imaginations. Perhaps this, it occurred to Krishan as he stood there in the garden of the funeral house, was why Rani had seemed to spend so much of her time in Colombo lost in thought, not because she was sad or depressed but because she was busy constructing in her mind a place where she could be reunited with the sons she’d lost, a place she could occupy as an alternative to the world that bombarded her senses with its emptiness every single day and night.
The sound of the lamentations was more or less continuous now, rising out of the front room in waves and mingling with the drumming from the gate, the tempo and volume of which in turn had been increasing, the quicker, louder beat that announced new arrivals becoming almost indistinguishable from the beat that was rapped out in the interim. Looking up Krishan saw the funeral director come out to the veranda again, this time to say that it was the last chance to see the body, that they were about to close the casket, upon hearing which the people who’d been waiting in readiness in the veranda and the garden gave a collective stir, those in the garden moving toward the veranda, those on the veranda forming a line near the door so they could enter the house. Krishan made his way toward the house, which was more or less packed with people now, joining the haphazard line that went in through the front door. Those already inside were thronging around the body, jostling to get closer in the same way devotees jostled in temples to catch sight of the deity when the curtains were drawn, the men touching the casket with their hands, some of them crying and talking to the body but most of them stone-faced, the women stroking Rani’s face and shoulders and arms, raising their hands to the sky and beating their chests as they wailed out loud. The lamentation was reaching a peak, all the women crying in unison, their voices rising and falling so loudly and rhythmically that at moments it seemed even to eclipse the drums, whose sole function now was to provide accompaniment to their voices, to give the music of collective lamentation a beat on which it could fall back. Overwhelmed by the scene around him, so different in its emotionality from the staid funerals he’d witnessed in Colombo, Krishan caught sight of Rani’s daughter as he edged deeper into the sea of mourners. She was standing behind the head of the casket and no longer fully in control of herself, her feet not quite steady, supported by the two women who were standing beside her earlier, sobbing loudly as she touched her mother’s face. This was the last time she would see her mother, only men being allowed to accompany the body to the cremation ground, and goaded perhaps by this knowledge, by the intensity of the drums and the wailing of all the women, she too had begun to speak to the body, to cry and lament with the other women, though what she was saying was lost among all the other voices rising and falling in the room. Krishan still couldn’t tell how genuine most of the lamentation was but it occurred to him, as he was pushed toward the center of the room, his feet trampling and trampled by the feet of the others crowded around him, the heat of their bodies and their breathing pressing in against him, that perhaps he was wrong to think of lamentation in terms of sincerity or insincerity, that perhaps the crying and wailing and sobbing all around him was intended not as an expression of emotion but as a kind of service offered to the bereaved, a performance in some sense but a performance that, together with the drums and the rituals, was meant only to help the bereaved with their own lamentation, to ease out, like the calm rhythmic words and firm kneading hands of a midwife during a difficult birth, the tears that the bereaved so often found impossible to bring out by themselves. It was so difficult after all to understand what a death meant, even for those who will be affected most vitally by the loss, it was difficult to really accept a death, to really let go of oneself and in doing so begin letting go of the other, and perhaps the custom of lamentation was meant above all to help the bereaved in this process, the friends and relatives and community of the bereaved trying to help the bereaved cry by crying themselves, even if they did not feel the same pain. Nearing the casket Krishan was seeing Rani’s body for the second time now, her powdered face, the grains of rice that had fallen from her mouth onto the white satin of the casket, her pale hands clasped together over her waist. He was unable to cry, unable to produce anything more than the welling in his eyes, but caught up in the density of people around him, in their pushing and pulling and jostling, in the wailing and lamenting and the sound of the drums, he now felt totally immersed in what was happening, a participant in this process, whatever it was, rather than a spectator, capable of feeling fully the force of what was happening, as if something inside him too was being channeled by everything around him, being called to the surface of his mind. He brought his hands together and touched Rani’s shoulder lightly, brought his hands to his eyes and blessed himself with her, touched her neck and forehead and blessed himself again, and understanding now that it was really Rani lying in front of him, he stood there in front of the casket looking at her till the pushing of the people behind him compelled him to move, to shuffle around the casket and make his way back out to the garden.
Outside there was an air of anticipation, the drums beating with a feverish intensity, the four drummers still standing in the same place behind the fence, immersed in the rhythm of their drumming. More and more of the people who’d gone inside the house returned outside, the funeral director calling more impatiently now for people to leave the front room as he tried to clear a space around the casket. Krishan watched as the two women supporting Rani’s daughter, who was still standing by the head of the casket, drew her back a little, as the director and his assistant carefully lifted the lid of the casket and then lowered it over the body. The two of them came out, went to the side of the house, where a bier consisting of two wooden poles was leaning against the wall, the two main poles held crosswise by several sticks that were bound by rope and covered by a patchwork of dried palm fronds. The two of them carried the bier around the side of the house and placed it on the ground a few feet in front of the veranda steps, the director trying to shout above the wails and the drums for everyone to give them space. He signaled to his assistant, who went back inside and, together with four or five other men, heaved the casket up. The director leading the way, clearing the path in front of them, they brought the casket out through the door to the veranda, moving slowly and vigilantly, doing their best to keep the casket stable, Rani’s daughter coming out behind them together with all the women who’d been inside from the beginning, all of them beating their hands against their chests, their wailing loud and unabating. The men moved with the casket down the veranda steps and into the garden, shouting at one another over all the noise to coordinate their movements, then cautiously, almost delicately, they lowered the casket down onto the bier. Everybody in the garden crowded around this central point despite the repeated cautionings of the director, watching as the men began to secure the casket to the bier with rope. The drummers had already made their way out through the garden gate, Krishan saw, were beating their drums out on the lane, and Rani’s daughter’s husband, who was carrying a large and seemingly heavy clay pot on his right shoulder, followed them out without expression. The funeral director shouted for the people around the bier to give them space, and, the casket now loaded firmly onto the bier, the men gave a count of three and heaved the bier up onto their shoulders in a single motion, two men in front, two behind, and two on each of the sides. The lamentation reached a crescendo, a chorus of mainly female voices rising up into the air, and shepherded through the garden by the director, the bier was carried in stops and starts toward the gate, the crowd following them as they went. Struggling a little at the narrow gate the men carried the bier out into the lane, the women in the crowd following them only up to the fence, raising their arms to the sky and continuing to wail, the men following the body out through the gate, forming a cortege that Krishan too joined as the body began to move away from the house. Turning back Krishan saw Rani’s daughter standing in front of the fence, no longer crying or wailing, entirely silent, chest heaving, struggling for breath it seemed as she watched them, her figure becoming smaller and more spectral as they moved farther and farther from the house, till they turned a corner and she was lost to sight. The procession continued at a slow but even pace, led in the front by Rani’s son-in-law, who carried the clay pot on his shoulder in silence, followed by the bier and the rest of the all-male procession, some of whose members dropped out as they passed their homes, the rest continuing to walk soundlessly behind the body. They made their way slowly through the village, not toward the main road where he’d gotten off the bus but further and further away from all links to the outside world, through narrow, winding, unpaved lanes that opened out, eventually, into a sprawling landscape of grass and brush. They scarcely seemed to advance as they walked through this vastness, making no discernible progress against the palmyra trees that stood solemnly in the distance, their tall figures turning into silhouettes as the sun began tracing the visible portion of its descent, as the afternoon moved toward its climax and the golden-yellow light began enfolding the land around them, as Rani began making her last, silent journey into the distance beyond.