Editor’s Choice: The Truth – Short Story with Moral Lesson
“As I recite the mantras, repeat the lines after me and say his name at appropriate places”,
Said the pundit, clad in a white kurta, saffron dhoti and with three white sacred lines running across his forehead. The two of them, crouched with folded hands, started the recitation from a sacred book as 10-15 people stood behind them in the open air of the verandah with the sunlight slowly fading away in keeping with its daily routine.
As the 65 year old man recited the first line after the pundit, he broke down in an inconsolable grief. For a moment he lost control of his physical being as a whole with his torso helplessly swaying as if he had got a seizure. He folded his hands again and shook his head frantically in denial as tears gushed out of his helpless eyes.
“No God, No. Please” – he wailed in pain.
Two men standing behind him rushed to console him. In vain. The patience and stoicism that the man had shown for the last few hours had finally given away as he looked into the eyes of his 38 year old son, dead from a cardiac arrest, decorated with flowers and covered with a white cloth, lying on a wooden bed on which a man traverses on his final journey. 38 years old ! And there it was – lying right there in front of him. Motionless. Breathless. Dead.
For most it would have been the most helpless sight they would have ever witnessed. And for some, the breaking down was reassuring of his pain as the stoicism showed by the man with a young dead son till now was disturbing and confounding as though it was a sacrilege to some mandatory social norm of demonstrating “visible grief”.
“Why doesn’t he cry?” – they thought. But no more.
They finished the mantras and proceeded to the burning ghat alongside the holy river for the final rites. With the body neatly stacked in the middle of a heap of shabbily cut wooden logs, the man started the first of the final rituals of touching the legs and the face of his son with the burning wooden torch in his hand.
“You did not touch the face with the torch correctly. Do it properly or else it is unacceptable”, shouted the pundit from behind angrily.
The instructions of the sacred book had been apparently violated. With a heavy heart and a numb indifference for the “correctly” the man re-did it in an “acceptable” way.
“Stop it. There is a mistake in the paperwork. I will not allow you to burn the body” – yelled the ghat government official from the porch behind and then rushed back to his office.
For a moment there was silence. Dead silence. Literally and figuratively. Followed by indistinct chattering as the man rushed to the office with three companions.
“The address of the body is not mentioned in the death certificate” – said the official.
“What ? Address ? But sir all that is written by the death certificate official. And in a hurry we only checked the name/age/father’s name and the date of death in the certificate”, the man replied.
“I don’t know all that. I will not allow you to proceed. Go back and get the address written and take the body back with you” – he retorted with arrogance and an air which breathed “I shall not be convinced (verbally) ”.
The string of cars parked outside had replenished his repugnant insensitive resolve. The man broke down again at the torture – both divine and human. The pain of the situation could not do to the official what two pieces of valuable paper slipped below the window by one of the companions did. The human torture had been weathered. The divine beckoned.
The next rites followed and soon the entire wooden framework and the body caught fire with mild crackling sound of the burning wood and stream of flints flying off from the pyre diffusing into the air as though meeting their destiny. The raging fire slowly engulfed the body. The near and dear ones dispersed slowly. A tall lanky guy in his twenties – named Apoorv – stood by the side of the pyre looking unceasingly at the façade. He was a cousin of the deceased and had been there witnessing everything the entire time. He looked at the face of his brother first being innocuously kissed by the flames, then being slowly plasticized to bereave it of its identity, and then being ripped off of the skin to expose a charred skull and eventually getting annihilated to mere ashes. A sequence disturbingly etched in his memory. His most profound experience yet.
There was a fire raging within Apoorv with repulsive hatred and obnoxious anger. The disgust and outrage at the thought of the helplessness and debilitation of man who turns from a living person a few moments ago to a mere “body”. Everything experienced, learned, felt, emoted – over in the blink of an eye. Just like that. Fate, destiny, an all-controlling omnipotent supreme power who tracks meticulously all that one does – is that the explanation? Really ? And does it really matter if the torch doesn’t touch the face of the body “correctly”? What is it that makes us fastidiously bound to instructions of a scared book? Is there a grace in death? And what is it that we are madly and frenetically running after in our lives? Where and what is its purpose and what are we trying to achieve? What is it that is just an idiosyncrasy cultivated unwittingly by us ourselves and what is it that really matters? Where and what is the “meaningful” part of life? What is the point of it all?
In the funeral pyre, Apoorv unloaded and cremated a baggage. A baggage of feelings, emotions, battered hope and sorrows that he had been untiringly carrying for the past few months. There can be no sorrow greater than that of a 65 year old man cremating his young son. There was no point in carrying it further. He completed its final rites. Resigned and despondent.
After a few hours, the pyre subsided and he carried the collected ashes to be ushered in the holy river, but the fire raging within him burnt unabated. Such was the preposterous magnanimity of the of the dearth of the answers to the torturous questions. There were none in fact. Only the one single absolute truth – Death.
Undeniable. Unavoidable. Unequivocal.
P.S. – It was later found that there was no provision/mandate of mentioning an address on the certificate.