This was the second time Shamaldas Patel had come to die at Moksha Bhavan. The rays of dawn shimmered across the Ganges, bathing the temples, shrines, Ashrams and domes in a golden hue and hymns. Enshrouded by the fragrance of incense, ash smeared monks meditated on the banks while priests and tourists dipped in the holy waters. Everyone in Varanasi seemed to know where Moksha Bhavan was located, though there were no signs leading to it from the busiest intersection of the city that bustled with cycle rickshaws, Bajaj Chetaks, bicycles and a few black and white ambassadors.
“Remember, we came here before, in 1984, two days before Indira Gandhi was assassinated,” Rajni said to Vishnu while signaling Lachho to bring her father inside. She ironed her wrinkled, bottle-green bandhani sari with her palm.
“Yes, yes, I remember it well. It was a bad time. It was a bad time.” Vishnu shook his head and fumbled to find a guest register from a set of dusty tomes behind the counter. The table fan on the counter screeched and spit dust in the space around it, mostly on Vishnu, the target of its wrath.
Vishnu told Rajni that he had seen over 18,000 people die at this place, and he could predict if a person was going to die. He didn’t think Rajni’s father, Shamaldas, would die this time either. He added that non-resident Indians came from as far as Mauritius, Japan, America and Tanzania. His predictions remained accurate in those cases too. Rajni told him that her father was insistent and kept murmuring, even in his sleep, that he wanted to go to Varanasi and die there.
While Lachho helped Shamaldas walk up to the allocated room, Rajni waited to ask Vishnu a question.
“Is there any discount for the returning guest?”
“No discount,” Vishnu said as he showed his two bare hands and shook his head. “We are giving rooms at subsidized cost anyway. This is not business for us, you see. We let poor people stay here for free. The money has to come from somewhere to run this place.”
Vishnu explained that people came here to die. They wanted Nirvana but didn’t want to pay the price. He helped families to cremate their relatives, and when a person didn’t have anyone to look after them, Vishnu took special care of the guest. He even sat with them at times and asked if they had any final wishes that he could help bring to fruition. Sometimes a person wanted to talk to an estranged brother or sister and apologize over a fight that took place decades back and ruined their relationship. Sometimes they asked Vishnu to play sitar music more frequently. Before Rajni left, Vishnu explained how people carried so much weight all through their lives and only thought of shedding it when they came closer to death, when they knew they couldn’t carry it any longer.
In the room, Shamaldas rested on a bed with his gaze fixated on the Ganges. “I just want to go to the abode of God,” he muttered and continued chanting mantras and rotating the prayer beads in his hands. In the past few years, Lachho had heard this sentence from his master many times, but he nodded obsequiously, pretending to believe his words.
Rajni kept her handbag on the study table and observed the room for a while. She opened the wardrobe cabinets, had Lachho clean them with a piece of cloth and asked him to help her rearrange the room. They moved aside a mini dining table, chairs and a wood-carved magazine stand in the corner so that her father wouldn’t trip on any of it.
“My feet are burning. Someone massage my feet,” Shamaldas said, directing attention to himself. Lachho came to his bedside and started massaging his feet.
Rajni decided to take a stroll in the corridor. She called her husband, Navin, and asked if he thought her brother, Aditya, would come this time. Navin told her not to have any hope. If he wanted to come, he would have by now. She asked him if the kids were studying for their exams and if the maids were cooking per the weekly menu she put on their fridge door. He assured her that he could come any time she wanted him there.
Rajni wished her father had chosen a different time to come to Varanasi. All his life, he had thought only of his own needs. The last time he had an epiphany that he was going to die, Rajni’s younger son was barely two. She had to leave him in the care of her mother-in-law. This time too Shamaldas wasn’t frail. He could walk with support and clutched to life as tenaciously as before. He berated Lachho when he didn’t get his tea or meals on time or forgot to place his shoes under the bed. She knew her father nagged her and Lachho, because they listened to him. Aditya hadn’t even spoken to him in the last four years. In spite of Aditya’s cold treatment, Shamaldas craved to hear from him, to see him again. All her life, Rajni wanted her parents to have this yearning for her. She did everything she could to spin their love towards her but rarely succeeded. Rajni saw Vishnu in the corridor.
“Vishnuji, don’t you get dejected seeing people die every day?”
He grinned and said that they celebrated death here. At the beginning of his thirty-five years working in this supervisory position, he confessed that he was frightened to live at the compound. But eventually he decided to raise his family of five in this same building. Now everyone at his home was used to sickly bodies and soiled sheets. The screams of pain became background noise like the constant horns of vehicles they heard outside the gate. Before Rajni left, Vishnu handed her a letter, Shamaldas’s letter. The mail man hadn’t come that day. He requested she post it herself in a mailbox outside.
Rajni placed the letter inside her handbag. She was curious. The letter had an address of some place in Bhopal, and per her knowledge, the Patels did not have any connection in that city. Besides, her father was not fond of writing letters. He never wrote a letter, even when he travelled abroad on business trips leaving behind their entire family for a month or two.
That evening, Aditya called Rajni’s hotel.
“Aditya, are you coming?”
“No, Didi. I won’t. Because I know that old man won’t die. He is a hypocrite. All he wants is to cling to life as long as he can and order people around.”
“That old man is also your father. Can’t you be grateful once for what you have received? Our father has kept some properties for himself so that his living expenses could be taken care of. You know, old age has its own problems. I haven’t even asked for my share, because I don’t need it,” Rajni said in a stern manner, devoid of any warmth.
“It’s the son who inherits all the wealth.”
Rajni didn’t chide him on his regressive ideas. She also didn’t say that he shouldn’t have been given a penny when he refused to care for his father and abandoned him. Instead, she told him that their father remembered him and wanted to see him one last time before he died.
“Let him die without seeing me. I am not coming.” Aditya hung up the phone as curtly as he had slammed the door in their last meeting four years back.
Unlike Rajni, Aditya was given love, attention and family resources unsparingly, and he took all of them for granted. Rajni, on the other hand, had to go a great distance to gain her share of love and attention. She scored higher than her brother and did everything he couldn’t do in their childhood like fetching things from upstairs in the dark for her mother, bargaining with a vendor, maintaining a good student image throughout her school years.
While growing up, she often wondered if her father loved her at all. She envied Aditya for the way Shamaldas pined for him. She wanted to tell her father that his son didn’t deserve his affection after abandoning him. She hadn’t confronted him earlier for she lacked courage, but now it was more to protect the tenuous relationship they built in the last few decades.
Shamaldas was self-absorbed in his youth and constantly travelled to expand his business. When his first wife died during childbirth, he was trading automobile parts with a dealer in Chennai. The second wife, Rajni’s mother, was fifteen years younger than him and had studied up to the third grade. She read him newspapers in the morning when he was in his eighties and could no longer read. When Rajni’s mother died a decade back, Shamaldas didn’t show any sign of grief and hired Lachho to fill the void. Lachho read newspapers for him, massaged his feet, walked him to the park and bought necessary things from the market. Lachho came everyday at seven in the morning on his black bicycle which he had purchased secondhand from a milk man.
“Bhaiya, how much would you charge for the boat ride?” Rajni wanted to see Varanasi and decided to take a tour of the Ganges River to witness the activities along the city’s ghats. She wanted to witness diyas, burning day and night, and the sounds of brass bells and incantations to soothe her agitated mind.
“Two rupees. I am also a guide and have studied Upanishads from my uncle. I can explain the history of this place for an additional payment of two rupees.”
“What’s your name?”
“You are a good salesman for sure,” said Rajni, giving him an additional two rupees. Rajni sat on the edge of the boat and picked up a floating marigold from the river.
“Didi, this is a city of death. I see bodies blanketed by white shrouds and orange marigolds on these ghats everyday. Funeral pyres burn nonstop here, melting human flesh on piles of mango wood. My uncle, who works at this ghat as a priest, told me that around thirty thousand bodies are burnt at this ghat every year. Thousands of people come to bathe in the Ganges. It’s a good business. My entire family makes their living from death. Last year, some Japanese tourists came just to see the rituals.” The guide recited the speech he must have used on hundreds of tourists. Rajni observed his yellowish teeth and bleached white shirt that blended well with the background, the same colors of the buildings around them.
“I can also show you best places for Banarasi silk saris,” he said, pointing his finger towards a series of small shops surrounded by dilapidated buildings with narrow staircases.
“I don’t need to buy this time.”
“Didi, Prem Chand, Tulsi Das, Sitar maestro – Ravi Shankar, Ustad Bismillah Khan, are all related to this city in one way or the other. This city is compared to the supreme reality—brahman, one which is without expansion or contraction, without change, without any form, unmanifest, which encompasses everything and is everywhere.” In between their conversation, Rajni read lines by the poet Kabir from one of the buildings they passed.
Seeing the grinding stone turning, turning,
Kabir began to weep.
Between the two stones, not a single grain is saved!
Rajni thought that no matter how fiercely her father clutched to life, he would have to let it go one day.
On her way back to Moksha Bhavan, she saw a mailbox and remembered her father’s letter. Before she could post it, the letter escaped her hands and fell in mud. She wiped the mud with the end of her sari. She couldn’t help but open the letter.
The letter was addressed to Jaanu. It was a nickname and before she read the entire letter, she scanned it again to see if it contained the lady’s real name. To her disappointment, it didn’t. She sat down on a large stone under a tree and began reading.
I am writing this letter as much for my own peace of mind as to soothe you. I am sorry I let you down sixty-five years ago. I don’t know if this will make you feel any better, but I have not loved anyone as much as I have loved you. Two marriages, children, grandchildren, success in the business world, nothing could ever come close to the happiness I felt with you. Look, here I am, still a coward, and I don’t have even the guts to put your name on my will in my last time. Honour is the most useless of the societal inventions but, having carried the weight of it all these years, I am incapable of unburdening myself now. I am dying. No matter how the world perceives me after my death, I know within my heart that I am a failure. There is no greater misery than that of living an unauthentic life. At least, you remained true to your love for me and waited for me all these years. I know that you will be able to die peacefully. I hope our daughter and you are well. Please forgive me, if you can.
When Rajni returned to Moksha Bhavan, she saw Lachho stroking her father’s feet.
“He was breathless earlier and then he said he had a burning sensation in his legs and hands,” Lachho said, massaging Shamaldas’s feet with petroleum jelly.
“Give him whatever he wants,” Shamaldas whispered. “I want to see my son. I don’t want you to keep anything for me. The gold is dust for me if I don’t get to see my son at my last moment. Call him and tell him I want to see him. His father is waiting for him,” Shamaldas finished with tears in his eyes.
Rajni went to reception to call Aditya. She wondered if she should say anything about the letter to Aditya or Navin but only asked her brother to come at the earliest and told him that he would get whatever he wanted.
“I spoke to Aditya. He is coming the day after,” Rajni said.
As soon as Shamaldas heard this news, he sat up for the first time in the past four days and demanded to watch TV. The anchor was voicing his opinion on India’s economic crisis.
Shamaldas listened attentively. He clapped and blurted out, “End of license raj! Finally we have got common sense. There is still a long way to go.” Shamaldas spoke as if he was participating in the debate on TV. It was evident that the change in his disposition was not due to the turn in India’s economic policy but because Aditya consented to visit him after all these years.
“Papa, you should sleep now,” Rajni said, getting up from her seat.
He started chanting Sanskrit mantras, closed his eyes and gave his glasses to his daughter to put away.
All she wanted to do was to send Lachho outside the room and ask her father about the letter. She knew that doing so would make him feel worse though so she continued pretending as if she knew nothing. She didn’t see the point in burdening someone else with this secret either, which she knew would remain with her all her life. If her father couldn’t have peace at the end of his life, at least he deserved his good name to continue after he was gone.
Rajni woke to the tune of bhajans. In an hour, Aditya arrived.
“Didi, how is he?” Aditya asked, putting down his small suitcase.
“He is doing much better since he heard you were coming to see him.”
“Beta, you have come. Sit beside me,” Shamaldas said, putting his hands on Aditya’s shoulder.
Shamaldas asked about his daughter-in-law and kids. He asked if Aditya’s son still played hockey and if their house renovation was complete.
“Rajni, bring something to eat for your brother. I will eat jalebi today. Beta, in old age, what can you want more than seeing the person you love the most? Mostly, it’s love that nourishes us in this age,” Shamaldas said.
“Papa, you know, I can’t let you stay at my place. We can’t take care of you.” Aditya moved away from the bed and sat on the chair.
“Beta, but you can visit me often, can’t you?”
“We have met now. What’s the point? I left an important meeting to come here. I will be leaving by tonight,” he said, eating his golden brown jalebi and relishing it as if he was in a restaurant. They heard an old woman shrieking in the next room during their conversation. There was a crowd of half a dozen people outside her room.
“Son, I have asked Rajni to give you whatever you want. Tell my daughter-in-law that it’s for her.”
“Papa, I am going to Burma next week to evaluate export possibilities. My business incurred loss last year. I need to find new markets for my product. I am going to freshen up,” Aditya added, getting up. He whispered to Rajni that their father looked perfectly healthy to him.
“You seem to be disappointed to see him doing well,” Rajni said in a sarcastic tone, looking at Aditya with her piercing gaze.
“Not disappointed, but a person should go when his time comes. He is ninety-eight now. How long would anyone want to take care of him? He is like my five-year-old son. When someone gives him money on Diwali, he says no a couple of times before accepting the money. Why this hypocrisy when you want it so badly? Our father says no to life but, seeing his appetite for it, I don’t think he means what he says about dying.”
“I knew my son would come see me,” Shamaldas told Lachho.
It was the first time in the last four months that Shamaldas got up from bed on his own. He began exercising with the support of a chair. He rotated his neck clockwise and counterclockwise then rotated his hands in the same way. His white dhoti opened up during this movement. He turned around and fastened his dhoti again and started lifting his legs one by one like an army man. Rajni wondered if the man in front of her and the one who wrote that letter were the same man.
“Beta Rajni, give me my shawl. I am a bit cold.” Shamaldas requested it in his stentorian voice. Rajni opened the chest where she kept Shamaldas’s clothes. She brought new clothes in case he died and needed to be changed into them. She fumbled to find a shawl but instead saw her father’s Nehru jacket.
Rajni still remembered hiding dried fruits in the pockets of the Nehru jacket to eat later. She stole one rupee and sixty paisa for a movie from that jacket. With a college identity card, she got twenty paisa back, which she spent on a plate of samosa during the break. Aditya got Rs. 5 in pocket money. Rajni knew she deserved as much as Aditya received so she found various ways of securing money. Sometimes her grandmother gave her money, but, for the most part, she took it from her father’s wallet without telling him.
Rajni calculated a rough amount her father would require to live at his current standard of living. She decided to sell some of her mutual funds from the portfolio she built over the years while teaching in a high school. Rajni had taught for almost a decade. She wasn’t passionate about teaching from the start, but she liked being independent. She had invested in mutual funds, silver and gold to diversify the risk. Investing was one of the skills she picked up from her father. Navin insisted on paying for their house, car and all the other expenses so her investments had remained untouched all these years.
Having nothing else to do, Rajni asked Vishnu questions whenever she saw him in the corridor.
“Vishnuji, isn’t it strange that people believe that dying in this place can free them from the circle of life and death?”
“It’s a matter of belief. You must have faith on what you cannot grasp with your mind,” Vishnu said in his tranquil voice. His bright eyes and calm mannerisms reflected the wisdom he carried in his heart. Rajni found herself listening to the tales of dying men and women from the man who had witnessed the deaths of thousands of people.
While leaving Moksh Bhavan, Rajni came to Vishnu to hand over the key to their room.
“You were right in your prediction about my father. His health, in fact, has improved since we came,” Rajni said, smiling.
On the fifteenth day, Rajni, Shamaldas and Lachho settled in a black Ambassador car and left for Indore. Shamaldas insisted on wearing his thick glasses to see verdant fields outside. They stopped at a hotel for dinner and to rest for a couple of hours. Shamaldas demanded to eat Khaman, a side dish he was fond of. Rajni fed him with a spoon, and Shamaldas finished a half plate of Khaman covered in coriander and sesame. He was adept at chewing food with his gums. He had refused to wear dentures for years and preferred soft food he could easily chew. Rajni noticed that his bald head, massaged with almond oil, shone under the red and yellow lights of the highway hotel.
In the morning, when Rajni saw prayer beads lying under Shamaldas’s bed, she tried to put them back in his hands. He did not respond. His eyes lay closed. His mouth was slightly open. She knew Aditya was in Burma and out of reach. She had brought a white sari even when she didn’t believe her father could die this time. They went back to Varanasi for the funeral. She could have called Navin, but she decided that she wanted to light the fire on her father’s funeral pyre herself. It was so rare for a lady to perform this ritual that priests around the ghat approached and asked if there was no male who could perform the rights. When her mother had died, she had stood away from the funeral pyre and didn’t have the courage to go closer. She saw her father’s half opened mouth for the last time and wondered if he wanted to say something to her. She lit the fire with trembling hands in the presence of priests chanting mantras and waited for flames to evaporate the vestige of her father’s physical form. Later, she dispersed his ashes in the Ganges and wandered around the congested streets of Varanasi. The chaos of the city brought a strange sort of relief.
© Kruti Brahmbhatt
[This piece was selected by Katrin Gibb]