After great pain
Death occurs, and time expands or constricts. Either way, you’re left standing in the hospital corridor seeing life both walk away from and towards you. There is no knowledge of life beyond the present moment. That would be a lie, or maybe a half-truth. What you know is that life will no longer be in its familiar form. It will transform into a cold, dark thing right in front of your eyes, like the withered face of a ghost appearing next to your own in the mirror.
There are the hours of waiting. First, you must wait to see the body. No, you will not call it what you used to call him. It’s a body now. That would be a lie, or maybe a half-truth. That body will always be what he was to you.
The formal feeling comes to guide you through the bureaucracy and the paperwork. The hours of waiting to claim the body. For a short while, you who own nothing must behave as one of the propertied classes, for you have come to claim the body.
They lead you to the morgue. It smells strongly of life. This takes you by surprise, the way the smell reaches out and grabs you by the throat. You expected it to smell of nothing, like the cold, sterile caves you see in the cop shows on TV. Here in the over-ripe atmosphere of the tropics, air as thick as a blanket and sun beating down on everything, it smells of life; only the kind of life that has stopped, decayed. Death, too, smells of life. Nurses and doctors and attendants appear to feel at ease here, among the bodies that don’t strike back, spit, piss and poop watery diarrhoea all over the bed, or vomit over their shoes. It must be calming. Who knows, maybe people even fuck here, where so many are present but no one is watching.
The body is rolled up, unceremonious. It is a slab of meat: no more, no less. Just a house for the dead. Yes, it is who it used to be. Now it’s just a body. What does it matter? No ma’am, please indicate that you recognise that this is indeed your father. Yes, of course it is, who else can it be? But it’s not my father. Ma’am, is this your father?
Forms are brought out, ceremonious. One has to be seated, one has to be given a pen, people and nurses mill about, looking prepared to take over at the slightest hint of trouble. There is the waiting. Forms, like bodies, must be subjected to the gaze of authority. Someone must sit in an office and nod and approve before anything else can happen.
After all is signed, the formal feeling dissipates. One feels ready and able to cry. However you go home and find that the wheels of death have been set in motion and there are many things to do before you can allow yourself the relief of your own feelings. The house is teeming with people, mostly strangers, mostly men, supervised by your brother, who is telling them where doors can be opened and hinges loosened in preparation for the arrival of the body, the body that is not allowed to return to its home without ceremony. The body will come in a coffin and a coffin needs space. Men stand together in small circles—their damp t-shirts reeking of stale sweat—and confer. The one standing fan in the room moves in a desultory trajectory, creaking every time it turns towards the right, circulating the thick, humid air in a way that makes no difference to anyone. Everyone is sweating but no one pays much attention to the sweat building up around their upper lip or trailing down their back. I notice the paint in this room, throughout this house, is peeling in many places. My mother is somewhere, sobbing.
There is no great freedom in noticing that the paint is peeling. The funeral is a performance and we are a family who must perform well. Exactly who has decreed this I’m not quite sure, but onward we go. The priest is contacted. The priest is busy but he will email us a list of things that will be needed for the grand show. My aunt shows up; my mother is still weeping and a woman is needed to take over. The priest needs men for the performance and women for the work that takes place offstage. The eldest son is to be the star of the show, the mother is the supporting actress, brave but stoic. I don’t think Mama can do it, she is frightened and prone to hysteria. Nevertheless that will happen only tomorrow and for one day the body is ours.
As it turns out the body is never again to be ours, as people have arrived and they are everywhere in the house and they are crying and embracing and singing songs. I have never been a cultured girl; I was reading books about teenagers going to high school in America when my grandmother wanted me to be sent to the Temple of Fine Arts to learn how to dance or at least look as though I know how to hold a sitar. She will not know the songs that must be sung for the dead when the time comes, she told my father, who told her to leave me alone. As my grandmother predicted I know not one word of the songs that everyone has started singing on cue. I would be rather be in my room then in this enthusiastic makeshift choir, with these cheerleaders for the dead.
But I am invested in the performance of the good daughter and sit in the living room, attempting to move my mouth as though I know what it is that needs to be sung, but have only temporarily forgotten the words in my grief. In my attempt to give a good performance, to not shame my father and my family, it’s entirely possible that I have forgotten that my father is dead.
I think about how we need to paint the house again; it’s been too long. I think about throwing out the rattan furniture, even though it’s beautiful, but it’s starting to crack and splinter in places, it looks like furniture that might throw up. In noticing these things I feel a Quartz contentment, like a stone. The songs go on, in a drone, and women have gathered in clumps to wonder about the poor daughter, the youngest, she just started university I wonder who is going to pay for it now the eldest is married isn’t he yes his son was just born a month ago oh that’s terribly sad was he able to see his first grandson I heard he could not hold him because the baby was premature and still in intensive care that’s so sad the wife has never worked has she I heard that the electricity board takes care of its staff very nicely so she will be able to enjoy a good pension the house was so beautiful when it was built but you see the paint outside is peeling and the stains yes it will require money to do it poor man he did it all by himself what will happen to them now what about the eldest daughter will she come back for the funeral I just heard from Mrs. Thava that she is pregnant with her first child oh the poor man will never be able to see his other grandchildren yes I do think they ought to do a paint job at least it’s a shame that a house this beautiful is allowed to fall apart like this was it his drinking that caused this he was ill a long time ago you know in 1986 it was his liver they said the poor man he should not have drank so much was his wife unable to stop him the poor lady she never worked and you know women like that I heard the second daughter is doing well for herself yes she is working in a hotel now the youngest look at her sitting there crying
Is the youngest crying? My cheeks are wet it is true but I am looking at the list of vegetables we need to buy for the rites of the prayers that occur on the third day after the death. My aunt has just pressed this list into my hand and crying needs to be postponed. Vegetables. Many vegetables, a variety of vegetables, required in groups of three or five or seven. I cannot face the vegetables, they do not hold my interest and yet the vegetables have taken control as I am to help my aunt get the shopping done. In addition to vegetables, there are coconuts, without which Hinduism will cease to exist. I take note of the amount of coconuts needed—a specific amount, as requested by the priest. My aunt is confused about the number and calls the priest, but the priest is busy and will email a full list, he promises, by tonight. In the meantime the assistant priest is available to answer my aunt’s questions and I scramble to find a piece of paper and pen to write his number down.
Someone else has to see to the obituary and someone else needs to get the food because these people are singing and they need to be fed; also in approximately one hour they will be thirsty, and this hour of thirst will happily coincide with tea time, so someone needs to make cups of tea and coffee. Someone is doing these things, and women are helping, they are in and out of the kitchen. As the youngest I get to do errands and I avoid going near the coffin, which arrived an hour ago and is redolent of embalming fluid. My father’s body is still oozing blood from his visible orifices, his mouth, his nose, his ears, that the wads of cotton fail to stop completely. After death the body continues to be a body. It continues to house the dead, but it has become public property. Unlike the peeling paint that everyone ignores, everyone attends to the bleeding body.
There are things to do, many things to do! The vegetables must be bought and the bleeding must be stopped. The songs must be sung, the passage to one’s next life should be as monotonous as possible so as to not offend the gods or even cause them to glance in this direction. One plies them with bananas and mangoes and coconuts and sweetmeats until they can’t think, then the body is ushered over into a higher plane of being. Or so we hope. Fingers crossed.
I look up at the clock and it suggests a different time that is no longer eleven in the morning when we rushed to the hospital, having not even showered, stinking of yesterday’s sweat. The paint is peeling everywhere, I notice, and mounds of dust I had not seen before were revealing themselves in dark corners, a conspiracy of dust that seemed rude, forward even, at a time like this. There’s a time and a place, I told the dust balls, and this was really too much. But that’s the problem with this house: it’s never the right time or place. Time, like dust, has been collecting here for too long. The sun seems to have gone, there are flashes of peach in the sky, like ribbons of silk. Shades of pink like ballet slippers.
I can’t seem to find the coffin, perhaps it has been set on fire already. Have the thirty days of prayers gone by so soon? I can’t remember who attended to the vegetables; vegetables were required every step of the way and it was required, in abundance, on the thirtieth day. Someone needs to stop these ladies singing; every voice a leech. They were sucking on my marrow. Such a terrible drone. I went from room to room with a notebook, taking note of exactly where the paint was peeling or discoloured. I took note of the damp stains from the years of leaks. These dust balls—they followed me from room to room. I saw the mildew on the edges of the bathtub. I wrote it down. Tomorrow, again, this will all have to be repeated and I needed to ensure I was making a list. The vegetables, the paint, the plumbing, the fixing.
I went downstairs to get more paper.
Subashini Navaratnam lives in Selangor, Malaysia and has published poetry and prose in Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Mascara Literary Review, Poetika Malaysia, Aesthetix, Sein und Werden, minor literature[s], Anak Sastra, and Jaggery. Her writings on books have appeared in The Star (Malaysia), Pop Matters, 3:AM Magazine and Full Stop and she has published nonfiction in MPH's anthology, Sini Sana and Buku Fixi's ebook, Semangkuk INTERLOK as well as fiction in KL Noir: Yellow. She tweets at @SubaBat.
Cover image: Отцы пустынники и жены непорочны (Hermit Fathers And Immaculate Women) - Mikhail Nesterov (1932)