Following my aunt’s passing away last month, we had a small condolence and prayer meeting.
Like all prayer meetings we paid respect to the departed. My aunt smiled: her typical high-cheekboned smile from a recent picture at her grandson’s wedding. Dressed in finery it was a fitting way to remember her: she indeed was a fine woman.
As friends, family, acquaintances poured in, I sat and watched how each one of us is brought together by one life and now one death.
Gentle devotional music played in the background. At some stage there was a murmur of discussion on the music. I couldn’t quite catch it. Then the music stopped altogether. In one clear nasal tone then, one of the women started singing. Hymns to the Lord. Odes. Paeans. There was music at its most raw. No accompaniments. The only accompaniment was devotion and a deep sense of loss.
Following this, some gentlemen added to the music repertoire. And it took me back to the days when we had lavish lunches and dinners with my aunt and uncle. These were the same people who used to be part of those leisurely long evenings followed by sessions of singing. These were the same people who filled the crisp summer evening air with strains of Hindustani classical music, even Hindi film songs that were all time favourites. I had tears in my eyes. This was indeed a fitting tribute to my aunt. She would have loved it. And I am sure somewhere, wherever she was, she was looking down and smiling, just the way she was smiling from her photograph.
The condolence meeting traditionally ends with a visit to the temple. That same temple two blocks away. Previously though, my aunt lived in another house, once again a stone’s throw away from the temple. It was a one-storied traditional house, and my aunt occupied the ground floor. As a young girl, my job was to ensure that my naughty little cousin brother did not run out of the gate to the temple. Even before he could walk almost, he had mastered clambering up the steps of the temple and attacking the ‘prasad’ bowl. Embarrassed I would pick him up and bring him back but the temple priest would smile indulgently knowing half an hour later the ‘prasad’ bowl would be attacked again.
The visit to the temple brought back all those memories. As we came out I turned to see if the old place where my aunt stayed had been replaced by one of the fancy glass and chrome high rises so typical of today.
Lo and behold! Like a page out of history the old house stood as it was. And the past came flooding back to me.
We gingerly knocked on the door to see who lived there now. It was the actual owner, an old lady who had moved in there. She knew my aunt, knew she had passed away and smiled genially welcoming us in.
Like a flashback in a movie, the house came alive for me. Sounds of laughter from my cousins filled the hallway. I saw my little cousins (now parents themselves) as toddlers. As I stepped into the kitchen smells of my aunt’s cooking wafted in my memories.
Those huge long lunches that all of us as young cousins had shared over loud jokes and chuckles of laughter, invariably ending up with someone coughing and spluttering out their food. My aunt’s best pickle. My older aunt’s best pickle. I could almost taste it. And then I wandered into the central area where I spent quiet afternoons daydreaming. And walked out into the backyard. The mulberry tree where I had picked juicy berries out of boredom had gone. But in my mind, those were vivid memories that suddenly came to life. So alive I could reach out and pluck them.
And then it was gone. All gone. Gone with my aunt. Sobering up, I stepped out of that house into the present.
In clear light of day, I realize that my aunt left behind a bereaved lot. And each of us reflected on what she left behind as a family legacy – a family culture so to speak, knowing full well that each of us bears the responsibility of carrying that forward. The gentleness, the grace, the non-judgmental nature –everything that my aunt embodied and so much that we struggle to even emulate.
And we parted with silent goodbyes, in a pensive mood, having gone back years in our lives in those couple of hours.