She removed her bangles one by one and let them fall on the floor. They made a small sound as they smashed on the ground; nothing that changed the feel of that night. Next, she removed her saree, pleat by pleat and let the garment flow around her. With one deft, athletic stroke the bindi was gone. For a second she was taken aback by the starkness of her face in the mirror. She stared at her bare self before stepping out of the small enclosure the saree had made around her, almost as if she wanted her body, more than her mind, to be sure of what it was doing. When she was done, she adorned the white which was now going to be her destiny. It was a hot May summer of 1957. She quietly sat beside her husband and started fanning.
The body had to be preserved till her son came back.
As she fanned, she waited for her son to appear amongst the steady stream of visitors that were coming home to pay homage to her husband. She was anxious but anxiety could wait, there was work to be done. Relatives were eager to cremate the husband. “Should we wait for the son and let the body rot?” was the refrain.
Four days ago, her son had left for Ahmednagar to meet some relatives as it had been long since they had heard of them. Telephones were impersonal so they preferred visiting. She remembered the father loading his belongings in a tonga and setting him off to the station. Four days ago. Today he lies lifeless on the floor and the son who has to redeem him is nowhere in sight.
Thinking of making the most of the time, he had gone off to Bombay from Ahmednagar. It was going to be a short trip, just a day or two, so he hadn’t bothered to inform.
She guarded the body fiercely but her all hopes went away with the sun. As she looked around, everyone, along with the flies around the body and the melting slab of ice under it, seemed to be asking her, “Would she agree to a relative cremating her husband instead?”
“No man in this family is going to tell my son, that it was he who lit the torch to his father’s redemption. No one, absolutely no one,” she announced.
With that, she asked everyone to arrange for the cremation and went inside to fetch her sleeping grandson. Five years old, he was the one who will have to take his father’s place today. She bathed and got him ready. When the people chanted “Ram naam satya hai…satya bolo satya hai” as they lifted her husband for his last journey, she was right in front with her grandson.
She took the torch from the Brahmin and gave it to her grandson. As the flames engulfed her husband, she shed her first tear.