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Rembering the Departed

By Sujaya Mohan

8th November happens to be the death anniversary of my maternal grandmother. Incidentally, this year marks her 30th death anniversary and even to this day, she is thought about with great respect and fondness by all our family and friends, near or far. This makes me wonder what a formidable lady she must have been.

She left for the heavenly abode when I was too young and hence I do not have many memories of her except of a lady in a pink 9 yard cotton sari with a dazzling smile, standing by our gate and waving me good-bye. Unfortunately, this happened to be her last good-bye. She was on her way to a major surgery and died unexpectedly during the procedure. Her death came as an utter shock to her entire family which comprised of her husband, four daughters and a son with my mother being the eldest. She also had an additional member, her younger sister who was unmarried and hence not accepted by her brother’s family. My grandparents were kind enough to bear her responsibility and thus began my grandaunt’s journey of utmost dedication and support.

Keeping her grief aside my grandaunt took the responsibility of the entire household. She soon enough donned the role of a matriarch and not for a single moment made my mother and her siblings miss their mother. She was giving back in multitude the love and affection that she had received from all of them for several years. Running the household just like the way my grandmother did became the sole aim in her life.

Having said so, my grandmother’s death anniversary was the major event in her life every year. In fact, in any Brahmin household, death anniversaries are observed with much fervour. It is believed that on this day, the dear departed souls visit our homes and bless us with good health and prosperity.  These days with the lack of time, infrastructure and support, the rituals surrounding such anniversaries are outsourced to temples. Hence, the poor souls now visit the temples to bless their families. No wonder the priests are healthy and the temples wealthy these days.

Being steeped in orthodoxy and traditions, such ceremonies were followed with lot of fastidious decorum or what we call in our common parlance as “Madi”. It was nothing short of a festival and my grandaunt would leave no stone unturned to appease her sister’s soul. Preparations for this would begin a couple of days in advance. The head priest would first be summoned and after his approval, invitations would be sent out to half a dozen brahmanas (members of priestly class within the Brahmin community) to grace the ceremony. These brahmanas would be the guests of honour. Typically, a death ceremony would entail prayers and rituals not just for the departed in question, but even a few other departed members like my great grandparents, their brothers/ sisters etc. We believed that these Brahmanas represented each soul and thus they would be treated with highest respects. Once they were confirmed, other relatives and friends would be invited thereby bringing the guest list to 30-35 people. The next activity would be to get the house and the yard cleaned.  Though this was a regular activity throughout the year, on this particular occasion, it was done to make the soul feel that nothing was amiss, that the house was not neglected in their absence and it was being tendered to with the same love and care as of their times.

The day before the ceremony all the ingredients required would be bought and kept in a secured place. My grandfather and uncle would fast the night before and until the ceremony was completed. On the D day, the household would be up at dawn.  The kitchen and the dining area would be cordoned off. One of my aunts would vigorously clean the area to ensure that no foreign particles like hair strands or dust would come in the way of ceremony, as they were considered as contaminators of the offerings to be made.

My grandaunt had a cousin who happened to be the wife of our head priest. Initially, she used to come to assist her with the cooking but later as the years progressed the roles were reversed. She took over the entire cooking and my grandaunt would supervise her and assist wherever possible. Both the ladies would fast since morning and wear “madi saree” while cooking to protect the sanctity of the proceedings.  Sometimes due to the unexpected November rains, the sarees would still be wet and coupled with November chill, make them extremely uncomfortable. Inspite of this, they would go about their business without a single fuss. The menu would consist of a few items that had to be prepared mandatorily and a few others that happened to be the favourites of the departed. My grandmother was a great foodie and hence the menu easily consisted of 20-25 items!!!

Half way through the cooking, the head priest would arrive and the rituals would begin in the dining area. The other invitees would slowly trickle in. Each of them would exchange a few kind words about my grandmother and a tear or two would roll down. We would all assemble in the living room and at the signal from the head priest, would be directed to the dining room to pay our respects. My grandfather would sprinkle holy water on each of us thereby symbolising the blessings from the souls. This would mark the completion of the ceremony and we would all get back to the living room.

The area would again be cleaned and readied for lunch. The head priest and the six Brahmanas would be the first to be served lunch. My grandaunt and her cousin were the only two having the authority of serving them. Clean and tender plantain leaves would serve as plates for the lunch. Utter silence had to be observed during this time except for the occasional hymns sung by my aunt.

Once they were done with their lunch, the food would now be served to us, the lesser mortals. They would be given dakshinas or monetary compensation and would later disperse. My grandaunt and her cousin would be the last ones to have lunch and by then the time would generally be 3-3:30 in the afternoon. Since the food had to be prepared using wood fire or charcoal, you can very well imagine what the state of the kitchen would have been. Again, my aunts would be given the ardous task of restoring the spark! The entire affair would thus start at dawn and end at dusk.

When the last guest would disperse, my grandaunt would heave a sigh of relief and plop on the sofa. I would be often called to massage her aching legs and back. “Don’t you get exhausted?” I would ask, simultaneously noticing a sense of fulfilment on her face. With two cardiac attacks, she never let her illness come in her way of enthusiasm especially on events as significant as these. “Yes, of course” she would reply with a wistful look in her eyes and continue, “but considering the amount of joy this brings to your grandmother’s soul, my exhaustion simply weighs down.”

Several years later, I left my home town to pursue my masters in Pune. I was living as a paying guest in a 2 BHK apartment owned by a Maharashtrian lady. She was a widow and rarely had any visitors except for her son and daughter in law.  She was a quiet lady, speaking only when spoken to. She was in her late sixties, but had maintained herself very well.  She used to follow a schedule throughout the day and not a day went by when she missed it. Her life was a stark contrast from what we had way back in my town, where our schedules changed every minute and had hordes of visitors every day.

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