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A Death in My Family

Snoopy's jaws, shattered by the truck that ran over her, could not be mended. Raja cradled Snoopy's body as the vet injected the lethal dose. She twitched for a moment and then lay still. Her moaning became weaker and stopped completely. Raja cried silently, his tears falling on the dog's shiny coat. He was coming to terms with the realities of death and dying.

When I was Raja's age, Granny had to explain death to me.

* * *

Maniannan was combing his hair in front of the mirror when I first woke up in the morning, His hair was wet; he must have already taken his morning bath. That was surprising because it was not daylight outside and the electric lamp was on. But more surprising was the strange look in Maniannan's face: a far-away look I had never seen before.

"What are you doing?" I asked.

"Combing my hair."

"Are you going out somewhere?"

"Yes, Father wants me to go to Usman Road uncle and some other relatives."


"Because he wants me to take a letter to them."

"What letter?"

"This one."

I looked at the letter written in Father's tight handwriting. I recognized some words but the others were too big for me to sound out. I asked Maniannan, "What does it say?"

Maniannan read the letter in a monotone as if he did not know what he was doing. The letter said:

After a lingering illness, Mrs. S. Valliammal attained the shade of the gracious feet of Lord Muruga at 4:30 this morning. Her cremation will take place at 11:30 in the Mambalam mayanam.

I could not understand what the letter said. I asked Maniannan, "What does it mean?"

"It means Mother's dead." Maniannan said softly.

I walked with him to the verandah where he put his sandals on.

* * *

Maybe "Mother's dead" meant she was more sick and in greater pain. I slowly went to the sick room were Mother stayed the last few months. Several grown-ups were in the room, including Uncle Nayagam. They all had a serious look and were whispering to each other. They did not say anything to me.

I quickly understood the reason for their whispers. Mother was in her bed, fast asleep. She had a beautiful peaceful look on her face so she could not be hurting too much.

The strange thing was that she was wearing a fine silk sari and had a big rose garland around her neck. She did not have a blanket or sheet over her. But she looked peaceful and beautiful.

I looked around for Father, but he was not in sight. Neither was Granny.

I sidled over closer to Mother and peered at her face. That usually woke her up, and whenever she opened her eyes to see me she had a sad smile. But today she did not open her eyes at all. Not even when I furtively touched her face.

I got closer and whispered into her ear, "Mother, are you sleeping?" She did not reply. I asked the next question in a louder voice, but not so loud that my uncle and the others could hear me: "Mother, what does dead mean?"

She did not reply.

* * *

Granny knew all the answers and I would ask Granny. I went to the back room.

Another surprise! Granny was in a corner, crying silently. I had never seen Granny cry, not even when Father got very angry at her and scolded her. But she was crying now and the tears were running down her cheeks.

Several women around Granny were crying also. When my aunt saw me, she started sobbing. "My sister, why did you die in such a young age? Who is going to take care of your little ones?"

That served as a signal for the other women to start wailing also. I heard the words but could not understand what they were saying. One woman complained about God's cruelty. Another recalled the time Mother took care of her when her husband had lost his job. My aunt said something about the time Mother and she were little girls. Another woman said that Mother was the kindest friend she ever had.

The women were not talking to each other, but just crying. Sometimes what one woman said made another woman cry louder. When somebody said Mother was always kind, somebody else said Mother was always nice.

Yes, Mother was nice.

Before she became very sick, Mother took me to a party at her school. It was in the evening. Mother and I went in the car. Our driver drove slowly and carefully because that was the way Mother wanted.

We went through a tall wooden gate into a nice garden. They had a big table with white table cloth and pretty dishes. Men dressed in white brought different snacks. First everybody had some brown and crunchy things. I was sitting on Mother's lap and reached to her plate to get a piece. But Mother stopped me and said, "That's too spicy for you." She held her glass to my mouth and I sipped something cool and pink and sweet. It smelled of roses. Maniannan later told me it was called rose milk and he had drunk a lot of it on several occasions.

The waiters then brought some small white balls floating in sweet water in a bowl. Mother fed me small pieces with her spoon. I liked it very much and she gave me a lot.

Some of the other women stood up and spoke. I could not understand anything because they spoke in English. One of them was a white lady who did not wear a sari. After some time, I got bored and took a nap on Mother's lap.

Mother woke me up and carried me back to the car. Her friends came and said that I was very cute. Mother smiled happily and explained I was the second one.

Yes, Mother was very nice.

* * *

Another woman, who had started crying later than the others, sobbed that Mother had made them all so proud by being the first woman in our caste to have a job. Mother was a teacher in a girl's school.

Granny continued crying, but she did not say anything. When I went near her, she did not look at me.

The wailing of the women became so loud I got scared and went to find Father to ask my question.

More men were in the sick room and they all looked sad. Some even looked like they were crying. But not Father. He never cried and did not want us to cry either. He never smiled either. His face had an angry frown most of the time. He had the frown on when I saw him.

I went near Father but he did not talk to me. He was talking to Uncle Nayagam about waiting for the others. When there was a pause in the conversation, I tugged Father's hand. He looked at me absent-mindedly.

"Father, what does dead mean?"

He did not seem to have heard my question. So I repeated it.

"Don't you see we are all busy now?" he replied.

That meant I should not bother him now. So I left the room. Just as I leaving, he said, "Thiagu, ask Mani to see me as soon as he comes back."

* * *

I came back to the sick room five minutes later. Mother was still sleeping. The cook placed incense sticks in different comers of the room. Maybe there was going to be a celebration because Mother was not sick anymore.

I followed the cook to the kitchen. I asked, "Samiannan, what happened to Mother?"

The cook did not appear to be sad or absent minded like the others but he did not answer my question either.

So I changed my question, "What is Mother going to do?"

The cook thought for a minute and said, "She is going on a trip."

"Are we going with her?"

"No! "

"Will she be gone for a long time?"


"When will she come back?"

"Not for a long time."

I remembered going to our village with Mother. We traveled in a train for a long, long time and Mother told me stories all the way. I met many people in the village, and they all gave me sweets to eat. If Mother was going on a trip, I wanted to go with her. Maybe if I told her I would be a very good boy, she would take me with her.

When I went back to the sick room, there were many more people. I saw Maniannan at the other side of the room and I went to him. But he slipped out through another door and disappeared.

Some men brought in a mat made of green coconut fronds. They tied two stout bamboo poles to the sides. My cousin's grandfather, the oldest man in our families, went to Mother's bed and put some holy ash on her forehead. A few women came and put flowers in Mother's hair. My aunt removed Mother's gold wedding chain from around her neck and replaced it with a yellow string. My uncle sprinkled some rose water all over Mother's body.

And all through these activities, Mother continued to sleep peacefully.

I was glad she slept like that. Before she became sick, we used to sleep in the room next to her. Soon after she got sick, sometimes in the middle of the night, I could hear Mother moan in pain. In the morning, Father would warn us not to make too much noise because Mother needed to sleep.

That day, Mother kept on sleeping. At 11 o'clock, Father and my uncle lifted Mother from the bed and laid her on the coconut mat. The mat did not look comfortable like the bed. Four men lifted the mat and moved Mother to the verandah. After pausing for a few minutes to place another garland around her neck, they carried Mother to the street.

The cook was right: Mother was going on a trip. When Father left on his trips, people sometimes gave him garlands. Usually, we went to the railway station in the car. But for some special reason, they were carrying Mother today.

Mr. Natarajan, the nice man who was a clerk in Father's office, picked me up. I told him, "I want to go with Mother."

"That's what we are going to do."

He put me behind the handlebar of his bicycle and propped it up by the window. Then he went into the house and brought back my little brother Chidambaram--who was crying softly--and put him on the saddle.

Mr. Natarajan pushed his bike and we followed the others in the procession behind Mother. Maniannan walked with Father up ahead, carrying a small clay pot.

"We've got a long way to go", Mr. Natarajan said. He looked very serious and I did not talk to him. We went through several side streets.

I listened to the conversations among the people who were walking with us. One of them said he liked processions with music. Another announced that they had declared a holiday in Mother's school. That made me realize Maniannan had not gone to school that day.

Sometimes people came out of their houses to watch the procession. There were no women in the procession, but some women from the streets looked at Mother and reverently patted themselves on their cheeks. A milk woman walked a little while with us and chatted with Natarajan, "They say it's a good omen to see the body of a sumangali who dies before her husband. She looks so young. What did she die of?" Natarajan replied that she was sick for a long time and that she was indeed a virtuous sumangali. The lady said she prayed everyday to God to let her die as a sumangali.

The procession went on and on. I finally asked Mr. Natarajan, "Is Mother going on a long trip?"

He was taken aback. After thinking for a while, he said, "Yes!"

"Is Mother in pain?"

Natarajan brightened up. "No, she is not." He said. "Your Mother would not feel any more pain."

That made me happy.

Chidambaram had become too tired to cry and Natarajan was holding him with one hand and pushing the bicycle with the other. I held tightly to the handlebar and began to enjoy the ride.

Soon I could see the railway line. Our street followed the railway line but instead of coming to the station, we seemed to be going away from the city. Soon, I could not see any more houses but only meadows with goats grazing the grass.

The procession came to a halt near a temple. Five small houses stood behind the temple. The houses looked strange because they had roofs and floors but no walls. On the floor of one of the houses, a lot of firewood was piled up neatly. The top of the pile was flat.

The men who were carrying Mother climbed up a few steps and placed the mat on top of the firewood pile. It looked strange and I was worried it might hurt Mother. But she did not cry. My cousin's grandfather went near Mother and said something. I was not sure she heard him.

Mr. Natarajan put the bicycle on the stand. Chidambaram was drooping in the saddle and Mr. Natarajan straightened him up and covered his eyes. The men poured something on the firewood. It smelled like ghee.

And then the terrible thing--which still haunts me in my nightmares--happened.

Father put a sliver of firewood inside the pot Maniannan was carrying. When he took it out, I saw a flame at the end of the stick. Father touched the firewood with the burning stick and the whole pile lighted up suddenly. I let out an anguished wail and closed my eyes.

When I opened my eyes after a long time, the fire was burning vigorously. I tried to figure out what was happening. Was Father angry at Mother and punishing her? Was he angry because she had become sick?

I looked at Father and he did not look angry. Actually, I could see a few tears rolling down his cheek.

Perhaps this is how sick people got well. Mother used to complain about the cold and I had brought her the yellow blanket. The fire might take away the cold so that she would not shiver any more.

I asked Natarajan, "When the fire goes out, will Mother be better?"

He looked perplexed. "When the fire goes out," he said finally, "We will collect your Mother's ashes and throw them into the holy river."

For the first time, the disturbing thought occurred to me that I might not see mother again.

* * *

When we returned home, everything was quiet. The men had gone to their work or to their homes after the cremation. The women had disappeared from our house. Even the cook was nowhere to be seen. Father had made Maniannan go to school for the rest of the day. Chidambaram had fallen asleep.

I went to the sick room. Somebody had removed Mother's bed and had cleaned the floor with Dettol. It was still damp. I went to a corner and sat down, trying to figure things out.

I was thinking hard when Granny came into the room. She sat by me and gently laid my head on her lap. I looked up at Granny's sad, kind, wise face.

"Granny, where did Mother go?"

"She has gone to God."

"Will I ever see her again?"

"Yes, Thiagu, but not the way she looked before."

I was glad about that. Mother looked very skinny during the last few weeks.

"What will she look like when I see her again? Will she look older?"

"No, she will be born a baby. It all depends on God's will. She could be a baby ant or a baby elephant. She could be a baby bird. She could be a baby boy."

I did not like that. "Will I able to talk to her if she becomes a baby ant?"

Granny did not answer that question but continued with her explanation. "God may decide your mother had enough and make her a part of God. Then Mother will be everywhere. She will be in the plants, in the rivers, in the flowers, and in the sunset."

"Granny, why does God do these things?"

Granny led me to the back room. She pulled out her dog-eared copy of The Legend of the Graceful Games. I had seen that book before. It had pictures and Granny told me stories of the funny things God did.

Granny read a verse from the book. The only word I recognized was playing.

"I don't understand what it means, Granny."

"You remember how you play hide and seek? God is a great gamemaster and he has all of us playing hide and seek. This verse says God plays with the whole world, with the whole universe which has many, many worlds. When you play hide and seek, you have a boundary. You cannot hide beyond Durai's house. But in God's game, there is no boundary. He has crores and crores of worlds like ours where everyone plays. When we play our hide and seek, the game comes to an end when it gets dark. You have to go home when the street lights come on. But God's game never ends. It goes on and on. Your Mother and you and I will be playing His game for ever and ever."

"But I want to find God and I want to find Mother."

"If you find someone, then the game comes to an end, Thiagu. We always keep looking for Mother in every creature. We are happy because your Mother is in every grain of rice and every fleck of dust."

"Granny, I want to die so I can see Mother."

Granny said, "You cannot do that."

"Why not?"

"Because these are the rules of the game. The game must go on. We need you to explain the rules to little Chidambaram and teach him to play the game. And when you become a big man, you will have children of your own and you will have to help them learn the game. Remember, this is a game without end and you have to help make sure it never ends."

Granny patted my cheeks.

I stood up and went looking for Chidambaram to explain the rules of the infinite game.

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