The Rules

by f

the Godavari in Andhra Pradesh, via Flickr user kcheevious

This is my first real post in my series of posts on India. I promise I’ll actually follow through with the series this time. I have so, so much to say.

Aside from an awesome ninja airline employee who allows us to clear every security check in a matter of seconds — and an annoying dipshit who sits in front of me and reclined her chair into my knees for the duration of the flight — the flight is uneventful.

When I reach, the house is calm. It is a deceptive calm. My grandmother start crying a little when she sees my father, but she holds it together. My mother hates her in-laws so she skulks at the back, putting suitcases away.

Our house is a fortress. It is humongous and in a neighborhood surrounded by other bungalows. Most of the neighbors live in tacky monstrosities that exist between fetid piles of garbage. Actually, my grandmother’s is not so much tacky as it is a hodgepodge collection of granite boxes squished together by an inhuman fist.

There are five or six rooms downstairs. These include a front parlor and the bedroom where my grandmother sleeps and receives her close acquaintances. The dining room looks out into the courtyard and into the rooms where the servants sleep and rest overnight, away from the house.

Upstairs, there are two more floors. The second and third floors are the dominion of my father’s brother and wife. My cousins are now grown and living their lives elsewhere in the country, so many of the cavernous rooms upstairs are musty and unoccupied. There are remnants of their lives wherever I look — old face creams, pictures, swaths of blouse-pieces, copies of Ayn Rand’s execrable books etc — but they’re long gone, if only physically. There includes a great deal of politics in this arrangement. My father’s brother and his wife sleep upstairs to minimize my grandparents’ interference in the way that the house is run on those floors.

We arrive at four in the morning. Only W’s parents — whom are very close to my grandmother — and my grandmother herself are awake. My father’s brother and wife (for now SP & MP) are still sleeping. We stretch out in my grandmother’s large room and sit there for a half-hour before the rest of the house wakes up. It’s a slow process.

And that is when it all starts.

First, MP comes downstairs. I hear her voice first — groggy and morning-cranky — barking orders at the maid. She comes downstairs and supervises breakfast in the back kitchen. My uncle comes down shortly after. He’s just woken up from his sleep and his remaining hair and very bushy mustache are in a sleepy disarray. But he loses no time in getting down to business.

He gets my grandmother to hand him over the vaidyar’s list of rules and rituals for the thirteen day ceremony. He pushes the reading glasses down onto the bridge of his nose, and the planning begins.

The thirteen days signify the time it takes for the soul to be reborn into another body.  On either the fourth or the sixth or the eighth day, the family — men only — have to scatter the ashes in a sea-bound river and drench themselves afterward. The tenth day marks the passing of the soul over the celestial river and the thirteenth marks the day the soul is deposited into another screaming, crying, placenta-covered new form. The first nine days are relatively quiet. The grieving family is not allowed to leave the house to visit others. Instead, they must stay at home to meet and greet those who would offer their condolences.

Aside from these broad restrictions, there are things you may or may not do in any given day. One might not leave the house, but one also cannot use e-mail. I don’t know what they did to get around the telephone problem. Visiting or not visiting people may not seem like a big deal, but there are people who will consider the family of the dead to be polluted and therefore not be allowed to come over. It’s that polluted-ness that scares me. It scares me that this is acceptable.

When my maternal uncle passed away in 2003, his wife wasn’t allowed to events at my grandparents’ (I refer to my father’s family — my small cultural community is a very tight-knit one, so everyone knows each other). They made a show of deliberately avoiding her for a certain period of time. The message was clear to her: without a husband, she had no social capital. She was not welcome.

So it should be pretty clear that I hate these rituals.

As someone who was tainted, how was I going to be able to enjoy this trip? For the rest of the day, I watch the bustle of the people who drive themselves mad trying to prepare the house for the world. W’s mother, of course, does not have to submit to these restrictions. She jets off to Delhi in the morning. Leaving us, the rest of the family, to watch through the iron-wrought windows, barking orders at the servant girls and zapping mosquitoes to a crisp with an electrical bat.

2 Comments to “The Rules”

  1. A great lead-in. You’ve set the scene, now we very much want to know what’s next.

    I find such rituals completely bizarre, no matter the culture or religion. I know that many of them are based in absolutely ancient superstitions and partial understandings of truth. For instance, you burn or bury a body in short order because it can spread disease (and look disturbing) as it rots. The polluted taint is either an extension of the fear of disease (irrelevant in a great many cases) or just wanting to avoid bad luck altogether. It’s perpetuated through fear. I’m sure it must have felt incredibly strange to be part of that.

    Why the fuck did MP get to skip out on all of that!?

  2. I have never seen an electric bat to zap mosquitoes with. o.O; I’ve only seen the sort of lights you hang up outside. We call them Bug Zappers here. :p They do all the work for you.

    I agree with D on her assessment of this post. It’s a great beginning and I’m definitely wanting more! I find the rituals more interesting than bizarre, though. But, perhaps that is just me. :p

    Very interesting and I’m looking forward to your next update on this, F.

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