And just when you think you've seen it all.
Near where I live in Bangalore, there's a Muslim neighbourhood that comes to life at dusk. Little hole-in-the-wall eateries turn on yellow lightbulbs and fire up charcoal grills. Sheek-kabab skewers lie on these grills like pyres at a cremation ghaat. The smell of charred meat cuts through the air, knifing the day's pollution.
The tea-house culture in these neighbourhoods, where they serve syrupy tea in tiny glasses, helps dissolve the ills of the world into the sorrow-hole of the community, and the joys of life are passed around like saltines.
The story began at one of these tea-houses, when an elderly gentleman walked in and plopped himself onto a chair. He was flushed and out of breath, but spared a genial smile for the boy that brought him his tea. Judging by the regulars' askew glances, this was the man's first time here. Each little clique exchanged salaams with him and went back to their conversations. Even as the gentleman's glass of tea clattered to the ground, it's possible that some in the crowd knew he'd had a heart attack. Credit this to that brief lag between knowing something and realizing it.
A search of the old man's pockets revealed nothing. A party of men was sent in different directions to see if anybody could help identify the man. Meanwhile, the neighbourhood Imam who'd been called in declared the man dead and instructed that the body be moved away from the crowd. And so it was, the body was carried to the back of the tea-house so that business could resume. As dawn approached, it was time for the tea-house to close, but there was no news about who the person was or where he came from. Had he relatives in the city? No one knew.
As per Islamic custom, the body needed to be buried within a day of death. It was beginning to stiffen, and would start to rot not long after. The police weren't going to be called in. The owner of the tea-house had had his share of run-ins with the law, and the body wouldn't help matters. All he cared about now was getting rid of the body, and no, he wasn't going to spring for a hearse.
An autowala who'd slept the night in his vehicle in the next bylane was woken up by the ruckus from the tea-house. Something about a body needing to be disposed of. A couple of voices demanded the body be buried, but a louder, gruff voice said he'd have none of it. More than the noise, it was the crassness, like a draft of cold air, that woke him up. The autowala made his way groggily to the shop. The situation was simple - there were rituals and rites to be performed, but there was no one that'd shoulder the responsibility or the body.
The driver carted the body onto his shoulders and into the back of the auto. It lay propped up awkwardly between the seat and the floor, wedged into place by a sack of potatoes that the driver found outside the tea-house. The autowala knew he couldn't afford to bury the body himself either. Custom called for the body to be washed by relatives first before being wrapped in a white shroud. The next problem was going to be arranging for a grave site, which needed to be in a Muslim cemetery, not just because of what it would cost, but because the autowala would be harassed about who it was that he was burying, how died he, about obtaining a death certificate, and then getting an Imam to recite the janazah prayers.
And he couldn't just ride a dead body in an open auto through the city - the police would swarm all over him. It wasn't just that the law wouldn't let him pass, even the culture of our country would be offended. Death is scary, possibly impure, and definitely confusing. The populace won't accept death easy. They'll question, they'll argue, they'll fight, even though it's no business of theirs. That's probably why dead bodies are transported in processions. Strength in numbers. If you have a problem with such and such person being dead, you can take it up with the procession collectively. That might also be why we make such a racket with the drums and the dancing when escorting the body to the ghats. A war cry to scare off not just the malevolent spirits, but also the uber-curious public. Here the autowala was by himself, weaving his auto through the city.
You've seen Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron. You know then that the only way to transport a dead body through a city is to dress it up, cap, goggles, unlit cigarette, the works. Moreover, if you've seen an autorickshaw driver in Bangalore, you've probably sensed the frustration that his khaki uniform causes him. These accessories are consequently always on hand for when the opportunity presents itself. And none more apt that this. So the old man's body, ridiculously outfitted, stared soulessly into the traffic as it was chauffeured to the outskirts of the city.
The driver stopped the auto at one of the lakes that dot our city's boundary. There were three hindu families there, each with a dead relative of their own. Three pyres had been built along the shore, and the bodies were being hoisted onto these. The solitary priest there was sprinkling ghee on the first of the bodies. A fourth pyre, unattended, was still aglow, all embers and ash. An earlier body must have burned there not minutes ago. That was probably the instant that religion and frugality melded into one. How lowly the obeisance to rites and rituals within religion, when stacked up against a last sacrament, against a sincere farewell to the dead? Win who then, religion or humanity?
The autowala left his vehicle metres from the pyres and walked up to where the priest was chanting his mantras. A metal bowl containing sandalwood paste lay not far. The paste had crusted over.
Three years later, as the head priest of the crematorium-by-the-lake, the muslim autowala chanted shlokas as he sent another body from this world to the next.