Translated from Tamil by Madhu
Sambasiva Shastri returned home after the evening worship rituals that he usually performed at Karaneeshwarar temple. His grand-daughter Manasi was sitting at the dining table, doing her homework.
“Thatha, where did you go?”, Manasi asked, without lifting her head from her work.
Sambasiva Shastri replied, “Where will Thatha go? Just the usual Karaneeswarartemple for today’s pradosham.”
“Gowry!” He called out to his daughter-in-law.
Gowry came out of the kitchen asking, “Did you call me, appa?”
“Can I get a shot of coffee please?”
“Certainly! You never usually ask for it, but today you did… you’re tired after your outing to the temple…” so saying, Gowry went back to the kitchen to get the coffee.
Shastri took out the easy-chair and lay down on it. In a low voice, he started chanting Deekshadar’s keertanai from the pujai earlier this evening:
“Namaste udhate te rudhram te namaha
… 4 lines …
Gowry set the coffee on a stool next to Shastri. After a while, Shastri paused with his chanting to drink his coffee. Meanwhile, Gowry finished her chores in the kitchen and went to the pujai room. She turned on the decorative electric lights, lit the auspicious oil-lamp, incense sticks and prepared for evening pujai at home. She called out, “Manasi, it’s Friday! Time for the Saundarya Lahari practice”.
Turning on accompanying music, mother and daughter started singing the Saundarya Lahari, a beautiful Tamil song written by the saint Sankara bhagawad padar in praise of the divine beauty of Goddess Umadevi.
The smell of jasmine flowers and burning incense sticks mingled with the mellow voices of mother and daughter singing the divine lyrics, spreading in waves around the house.
Shastri, closing his eyes to enjoy the music, and steep himself in the worship of the Goddess.
— a bit of saundarya lahari slokam to be translated here –
Shastri dozed off listening to the sweet music. Even though trained as a priest in the Vedas, he was a school teacher by profession, retired now. He had a son and two daughters. Shastri, as is the custom in these parts, lived with his son and family at their home in Madras. The daughters were married and settled in Bombay and Cochin respectively. His son Vedapuri, was also in the teaching profession, a college professor. Vedapuri had a son and a daughter: the son was currently pursuing higher studies somewhere in North India. His daughter Manasi, was studying in 8thstandard in a school in Madras. Shastri’s better-half, his wife Sankari, departed this world the previous year, complete with manjal kumkumam(*).
Gowry and Manasi finished their Saundarya Lahari session. Professor Vedapuri just entered his house, after a long day at work: due to the approaching exams, he had had to conduct special classes many evenings such as today.
“Gowry, appa seems to have slept off very early today?” Vedapuri said, as he went in to change out of his work clothes.
Gowry replied, “He went to the evening puja at the Karaneeswarar temple, came home, had coffee, and was chanting rudrams; Manasi and I were singing the Saundarya Lahari; he must have fallen asleep listening to the music.”
“Let me get dinner ready, I’ve already made the rice. Just need to fry some vadam, and it’s ready. Manasi! Take the curds out of the fridge and set the table!” she continued, planning aloud.
Then calling her husband, “Yenna ungalaithan! Can you please wake up appa for dinner?” she entered the kitchen.
Having changed into a veshti for the night, Vedapuri came close to his father in the easy-chair, and called, “Appa!”. No response. He touched him lightly to wake him. Shastri felt cold to the touch, and his eyes didn’t open. Vedapuri felt a jolt of shock. “Gowry, something’s happened to appa! Come quick!”
Gowry rushed to the living room in a panic. She too touched her father-in-law, and understood…
Vedapuri, dragging on a towel over his bare chest, rushed out to call his opposite house neighbor Dr. Sivaraman.
“Thatha! Thatha!” Manasi held her grand-father’s hands and started sobbing.
The doctor came and checked Shastri with his stethoscope.
“Doctor, if we admit him immediately, will he … survive?” asked Gowry, with fear and yet a small shred of hope.
“He’s been gone half an hour, amma…” replied the doctor gently and moved aside.
In the meanwhile, the second floor flat neighbor and Vedapuri’s friend Sundaresan, hearing some disturbance downstairs, came over and peeked in at the door. After the doctor left, Vedapuri felt a sense of unreality. The 12 families in the flats soon came to know the sad news, and men and women from all the families assembled in Vedapuri’s house. Some of the men helped get Sashtri’s body down on a mat on the floor*.
Sundaresan tried to console the disconsolate son: “Just as he desired, he died peacefully, that too right after he paid his respects to God at the temple, and at an auspicious puja hour, listening to a divine song, meditating…”
“Like Deekshadar who attained mukti while listening to Meenakshi Devi’s singing, he too attained the feet of Goddess Ambal while listening to Her divine song Saundarya Lahari…”, sobbed Gowry.
Grand-daughter Manasi lay on Shastri’s chest and cried inconsolably. All the assembled women gave voice to their sorrow and cried aloud.
Practical arrangements had to be made. A while later, Vedapuri and his friends planned the funeral for the next day. The daughters and their families, living out of town were informed and were going to fly in the next morning. The priest had to be informed. The cremation ceremony was to be started at noon the next day.
The next morning, Sundaresan went to the cremation grounds to make the necessary arrangements: first the official payment to the corporation officer.
“The body will arrive here at 1pm. Can you please make sure everything is arranged with the kattiyan for the cremation by then?” asked Sundaresan.
“Yes. However, it is best if you have a word directly with the aadal arasan lying on the bench under the tree there. He will do everything necessary.” said the officer. The not quite spoken implication of this was that, the undertaker, known by many names – kattiyan, aadal arasan – had to be “taken care of”. Paid “unofficially” for his services.
Sundaresan went to the tree where the adal arasan was lying half asleep. Being woken up abruptly, “Who? Who is it?” the adal arasan stammered in a confused, agitated state, and finally focused on Sundaresan. His brain suddenly grasped that a Case had arrived. He was going to be rolling in the jollies tonight!
“Why are you staggering, man? Have you put eets*?”, Sundaresan laughed at him as he unsteadily leaned on the tree for support.
“No, not at all! Wha..sh up?” adal arasan slurred.
“You float in water 24 hours of the day! A true adal arasan, dance-king!”
“Oh, you make fun of me, but try doing my job all year round! Then you’ll know… you think just throwing some money at us settles it. We are supposed to do this depressing, disgusting job generation after generation, while your kind of people get educated for generations. And that makes you the civilized ones, with a right to ridicule us?!” said the adal arasan with hatred.
In a manner of “let’s get down to business”, he said further, “Alright ayya, have you paid up? What time’s the body arriving? What will you give me? Let’s sort all this correctly up front! This adal arasan is a man of his word!”
“Yes, of course! I’ve paid to the official there and got a receipt, why do I need to pay anything else?” asked Sundaresan.
“Ayya, you speak as if you are new to the cremation ground customs! Well in that case, the guy who gave you that receipt will do everything, go to him!”
“Alright appa! You need money to keep you in your cups! Fine. Keep this 100/- rupees!” Sundaresan offered a hundred rupee note.
Adal arasan took it. “This is the advance. You must give me another 400/- rupees when the body arrives.”
“What are you saying, appa? That much??” objected Sundaresan.
“Sami! You speak as if you have no understanding of these matters! Got to buy the wood, the fuel vratti*… there are many expenses!”
“So? I’ve paid 350/- for that officially, haven’t I?”
“Ha! You think the fat one is going to give me any of that money? All these expenses are on my head! If you don’t pay me when the body arrives, the cremation cannot proceed! Am I not the one who has to pay for the fuel?”
“Well nevermind… he’s doing this disgusting job, let me just pay what he asks and be done with it!” Sundaresan thought to himself.
He offered the additional 400/- saying, “I’ve paid now just as you asked. You must not create trouble later that you want even more. Is that understood?”
Saying “I am, as I said, a man of my word!”, the adal arasan took the 400/-
As Sundaresan left, the pathos of the vettiyan’s life swirled in his thoughts. Sundaresan, brought up in the best traditions of a Tamil Brahmin family, with a strong moral code against drinking alcohol, not normally used mixing with a different class of society outside his comfort-zone, was now by chance, faced with the reality of the vettiyan’s life.
Being a fair-minded man, he felt allowances must be made for the lifestyle of the vettiyan. He felt his rules against drinking must be relaxed, or somewhat discounted in this case. All the time spent in the midst of burning corpses… surrounded by that suffocating odor… surely it cannot be considered a big wrong-doing if he drank to drown the harshness of his life? Surely the vettiyan cannot be compared to the normal variety of alcoholic, the man who drinks to enjoy life, and ends up beating his wife and children every night?
There was a time in the not so distant past, that there was a specific caste of people whose exclusive job it was to clean human excretion. Luckily, thanks to modern toilet facilities, this job became extinct. Perhaps the advance of science and technology will make electrical cremations more common, and eliminate the manual, harsh and unpleasant job of the kattiyan…
All these thoughts crowded in his mind as Sundaresan hurried along to take care of other necessary tasks for the day.
Back at the flats, Shastri’s daughters, their husbands, and his grandchildren had all arrived to pay their last respects to him. The family priest and his disciples were busy chanting the prayers of the last rites. Two bamboo poles, smaller bamboo sticks, and sturdy green coconut fronds had been brought to make a traditional corpse-bed, a stretcher of sorts, on which the body would be carried to the cremation ground. One of the disciples of the priest was now busy assembling the stretcher: the long bamboo poles laid out as parallel rails, the smaller bamboo sticks tied crosswise across the poles at intervals, the coconut fronds laid on top as a green bed. Another disciple filled the specially brought mud pots with water and prepared them for the ceremony by arranging green mango leaves around the neck of the pots in a sort of upside-down skirt formation.
The priest continued reciting the Sanskrit chants. Son Vedapuri as required by tradition, had a cleansing bath and came to the ritual mat to perform the last rites in his wet veshti tied in a kacchham. The auspicious thread that Brahmin men wear across their torsos, the poonool, was required to be worn on the opposite shoulder than normal, for the death ceremony. Vedapuri switched his poonool to match, and sat on the mat in front of the fire which the priest had lit for the rituals. The performance of the rites continued.
Women and children were not allowed to go to the cremation grounds. They had to say their last goodbyes here in the house. The tradition for this was to put some uncooked rice grains over the mouth of the dead person, and circumambulate the body in an anti-clockwise direction. The cries of the mourning women filled the air. The home rituals were at an end at last.
The body of Sambasiva Shastri was placed and tied onto the prepared corpse-bed. The lips that had chanted the rudram, the eyes that were closed in worship, the ears that were last filled with the divine Saundarya Lahari music, had all infused a glow of serenity on the lifeless face. Everyone present felt awe and wonder that death could not cast its ugly pallor on that face which seemed to shine with divinity.
“Govinda, Govinda!” thus chanting the name of God, male relatives lent their shoulder to carry the corpse-bed. The grandsons carried small fire-torches dipped in ghee. In the mid-day heat of March in Madras, Sambasiva Shastri’s final procession set out towards the cremation ground.
Vedapuri lead the procession, holding a pot of fire in his right hand. His lips were moving, softly chanting Shankarar’s Bajagovindam, the philosophical treatise about life and death:
Punarabhi jananam, punarabhi maranam,
Vedapuri’s mind was full of thoughts of his father. Appa is a saint. He will not be reborn. Chanting rudrams, he has attained salvation at the feet of Parameshvaran, Lord Shiva. Hi eyes filled with tears as thoughts of his father went round and round in his head. By and by the procession arrived at the cremation ground, the Rudra Bhoomi.
The stage for the cremation was set: logs formed a high pyre, on which the body was now placed. The man who had setup the pyre, the vettiyan, adal arasan, looked at the face of the corpse. Shock and dismay hit him hard, as he realized this was his old school teacher. He let out an agonized cry: “Oh vadyaar ayya! My master, my teacher!”
Amidst the priest’s chanting of prayers, Vedapuri performed his duty as son, and overturned the pot of fire he was carrying, over his father’s chest.
“Ayya, ayya!” continued the disconsolate sobs of the adal arasan…
Ceremonies complete, cremation ground empty. Only adal arasan, his Vadhyar ayyaand Agni Bhagawan were left. Swirling smoke. The stench of a burning corpse. Adal arasan was doing his job mechanically, prodding with his stick and turning the burning corpse to ensure it burned evenly and completely. His mind flew several years into the past.
Adal arasan was a young boy then, studying 5th standard at a school. Poor, no money to buy the books prescribed by the school. “Who have not yet bought the required books?”, asked the teacher, addressing his class in a strict voice. Adal arasan stood up guiltily. “Why not, son?” asked the teacher kindly, stepping next to the boy. He knew: poverty was the reason. Not that this kid was a very bright student either, for earning the kindness of the teacher.
“The money my mother set aside for my books, was stolen by my father… he drank and beat us up…” said the boy hesitatingly.
“Oh! What does your father do for a living?” asked the teacher.
“He pulls hand-rickshaws”
“Hand rickshaw! Hand rickshaw!” The other boys in the class sniggered in ridicule.
“Shutup! It’s not a shame to pull a hand rickshaw for a living! You ought to be ashamed of yourselves, making fun of it!” roared the teacher at the rest of the class.
Then turning to the squirming boy, he said, “Child, don’t cry. Come to my house this evening, I’ll give you books.”
It was this same teacher that the adal arasan had to offer to fire today…
The teacher’s kindness that day had made a deep impact on him. He had told his mother about it. In spite of the kindness, young adal arasan could not rise above his circumstances. He had not been a good student. In his teens, he fell into bad company, smoking beedis, wandering around the streets when he should have been studying. His mother, in a desperate attempt to secure her son’s future, sought the teacher’s help to correct his bad ways.
Once again, the teacher showed him kindness. “What class have you studied upto?”
“8th standard, ayya” he replied.
“Why did you stop with school?”
“Appa died…” he said sadly. The implication being that he needed to start earning for his family.
“Hmm… alright, will you work as a watchman at the school?”
“Yes sir! I will”, the boy’s face broke into a spontaneous smile of thanks.
A turning point for young adal arasan. Only possible to have achieved with kindness and understanding. He worked for several years as watchman at the school. Marriage, wife, children… his life progressed on a charted course. His son Kannaiyan studied at the same school, under the same teacher. It was thanks to the teacher’s good influence, that Kannaiyan later learnt to drive a car, and had a means of living…
Mid-night. Street dogs howled in a chorus. On the pyre, the tongues of fire seemed to be dancing a ghastly dance, a rudra tandavam…
As circumstance would have it, Kannaiyan too, like his grandfather, fell victim to the dreaded drink. Driving drunk, he got in an accident one day and died before his time. Adal arasan had by this time, taken retirement from his watchman job.
After his son’s premature death, the evil drink that consumed his son caught the adal arasan in its clutches too. Losing his wife, son, his family… he finally took up his current job as vettiyan. Feeding and watering him sufficiently, this job kept him numb from his pain, helped forget…
The flames had consumed the body of his respected teacher. The embers were burning bright. In adal arasan’s heart too, his humanity was burning bright, shining like newly smolten gold. The face of that great man who had lived morally, done what good he could to whoever came to him in need felt and looked very much alive to this repentant disciple, adal arasan. Ah, how peaceful, how serene the teacher’s face looked! Surely he must have become one with Sudalaimadasami*.
Slowly a thought formed in his mind, refusing to let go: “Yes… what have I done in return for this great man’s kindness towards me?”
“Shamefully, I’ve extracted 500/- rupees even from him… why? What for?? For this demon drink!”
“I shall not drink again!” adal arasan made a vow to himself.
Was it just a drunk’s promise, would it simply float away in the light of day? We can’t tell… if we could have asked his vadhyar, Shastri, what would he have said?
“My soul and his soul are jeevathmas, part of the Universal One, the Brahmam: fire cannot burn them, water cannot destroy them. This is rudra bhoomi. Rudran is Lord Pasupathi, he will burn to ashes the sins of jeevan, this life.” He would certainly have taken adal arasan’s promise seriously, his word as the truth.
Day break. Vedapuri and Sundaresan, along with the priest came to the cremation grounds to collect the remains. Washing the bones in milk, they were collecting them in a pot. Adal arasan approached them respectfully. He placed the 400/- rupees in his hand, in front of the pot as homage. Everyone looked at him in puzzled surprise.
Hands folded in reverence, he addressed the asthi-pot in a voice choking with tears: “Vadhyar ayya, sinner that I am, I took money from you to drink! Forgive me! I have already drunk for 100/- rupees. The remaining 400/- rupees are here. With the Lord Sudalaiman as my witness, I will not drink again”.
* Manjal kumkumam is the mark that married women are allowed to wear on their foreheads as long as their husbands are alive. In this culture, it is considered auspicious and lucky for married women to die before their husbands, while their right to wear manjal kumkumam is still intact.
* Traditional way to lay a recently deceased person’s body.
*put eets – a colloquial, derogatory usage for asking if someone has had a bit too much alcohol to drink.
*vratti – cow dung cakes used as starter of the fire on a funeral pyre.
* Sudalaimadasami – another name for Lord Shiva the much revered God of destruction.