Cry Out Loud
By Sakhi Dayanand Gundeti
The orange, yellow, and red flames of the fire licked the air and blew out thick black smoke. The wood pyre crackled as if it was coming to life. I couldn’t see Amma, but I saw a round thing burning at the top of the pyre; it must’ve been her head.
It was a good time to start crying, but I couldn’t; I wasn’t sad enough. But the peer pressure around me was real; my aunt and other female relatives wrung their hands and wailed in each other’s arms. Mummy was crying too. I’d never seen her cry with reddish eyes and snot running down her nose. She cried the way I did when it was the last day of summer vacation, or when I was told to study and banned from watching TV during my exams. Was she learning from me all this time?
On any other day, my aunt and Mummy would’ve complained about Amma. When they lived together, she would slog them in the kitchen everyday when they were newly married and would never help them out with their kids. I think they were crying not because they were sad, but because they had no one to criticize anymore. Tom would cry if Jerry died, right?
Daddy and my uncle stood aside with serious faces, but they didn't have a tear in their eyes. If my mother had passed away, I’d have lost my mind and cried for hours.
Somebody tapped my shoulder and said, “Gauri, go sit in the car. You must be feeling cold.” It was Tata in a brown sweater. He clasped my hand with his paper-like palm and walked me towards our car. I felt his bones and veins through his cold, grayish-brown hand. Along with Daddy and my uncle, the only other person who should’ve been giving a stellar crying performance was Tata. He’d lost his wife, a woman he’d spent sixty years of his life with. That’s six times my age! But there he was, giving me a tiny smile and telling me to stay warm.
The day had started as usual. I woke up late, Mummy yelled at me to eat cereal, and I dozed while my teachers taught history lessons. During the third lecture, an admin guy came into the classroom and told me I had to leave because my mother had come to pick me up. I thought she’d finally realized I was wasting my time at school; I should do what I love - play all day. But when I asked her why she’d come, she said nothing. Instead, she wrote my reason for absence in a register as ‘Grandmother passed away.’
At first, I thought it was an excuse. We all kill relatives when we need excuses.
So I asked her, “Did Amma really die?”
Mummy said, “Yes. She slipped in the bathroom and fell on her head. She was already weak because of other problems anyway…”
I decided never to bathe again. I’d rather be unclean than dead.
“This is unfortunate, but can you believe she passed away on my birthday? As if she’s trying to trouble me even after her death!” Mummy said as we stepped out of the school gate. With her hair tied in a bun, she was wearing a pale yellow salwar kameez and a small red bindi on her forehead as she always did.
Mummy and Daddy had made a rule for me - I should tell them whatever I did during the day and express my feelings and thoughts without any hesitation. I always followed the rules. Daddy almost never did and Mummy did it too often.
After going home, I packed my bag and changed out of my school uniform into a black Ben 10 t-shirt and blue jeans. With my aunts, cousins, and uncles, Mummy and I traveled to the town where Amma and Tata lived. They refused to live with us in Mumbai because they wanted to spend their last years in their hometown of Solapur so I never spent much time with them - the reason why I couldn’t cry.
Once Tata left me inside the car, I realized how cold it was outside. A warm sensation ran through my skin. I heard nothing. No crackling of the wood, no wailing, no murmuring, no whooshing of the wind or the fluttering of the leaves. I was watching a silent movie. Hands clasped behind his back, Tata stood next to the car and watched his wife disappear. The fire reflected on his glasses.
I fell asleep in the car and when I woke up, I was in an unfamiliar bedroom. The ceiling and the walls were cream. Thin green curtains hung on the window grille to my left. Sunlight poured through them and poked my eyes. I curled up to my right. Through my half-open eyes, I saw people gathered in the passage outside the bedroom and the living room beyond. A familiar woman walked inside and cranked open a steel cupboard next to my bed. The door groaned, so did its drawers.
“Get up. Don’t sleep now. There are plenty of people in the house.” Mummy took out a bunch of carpets and shut the cupboard door.
“How did you wake up so quick–” I yawned like a stray dog. Mummy rushed off to the living room before I shut my mouth.
By the time I had my breakfast, the house was empty.
“Where’s everyone?” I asked Mummy, who was busy adjusting her green saree with a deep frown on her face. With all the elder female relatives around, Mummy had to wear a saree instead of her usual salwar kameez or kurtis. For some reason, those old ladies had problems with comfortable clothing.
“Huh? They’ve left for the crematorium. We need to go too. Eat quickly.”
Will I ever eat a peaceful breakfast?
The crematorium was less gloomy and colder than the day before. A warm breeze blew gray dust on the roads. Men, young and old, carried logs on their shoulders in dirty cream shirts.They were preparing to burn someone and make them disappear forever.
Beyond the crematorium, a gray river flowed. The water shimmered under the sunlight and had flowers and leaves floating on it. Some priests in dhotis were busy carrying out rituals near the shore.
I took off my slippers and crouched near Amma’s ashes on a raised platform. It was hard for me to tell what was wood and what was her. The gray powder sat in a rectangle. I noticed a white piece. I stretched my hand to touch it when someone slapped the back of my palm.
“What are you doing? Don’t touch her bones,” Mummy said. Startled, I got to my feet.
“Bones?” My eyes widened.
“Yes. They don’t burn in the fire. There’s her jewelry as well.” She pointed at a shining gold earring in the dull ashes. “We’ll pick those out later.”
Before I could digest what I’d witnessed, I saw Daddy sitting cross-legged under a banyan tree near the river. A man, standing on his knees, was shaving Daddy’s head with a long blade. My uncle was already roaming around with a shiny, bald head. I knew that sons were supposed to lose their hair after their parent’s death, but it was the first time I’d seen it. Daddy looked rounder than he already was. He smiled and waved at me when he saw me gazing at him. I lifted my hand and waved it slowly.
A priest called us for a puja at the shore of the river. Daddy and my uncle came walking towards us shirtless and in white pants. They looked funny. I wanted to smile but I refrained, afraid the priest might give me a curse like, “You’ll always run out of chocolates!” or “You’ll fall on your face every time you play outside!”
Daddy carried a silver urn in his hands. I asked Mummy, “What’s in there?”
“Amma’s ashes. They collected them some time ago,” she whispered.
He placed the urn on a small wooden platform on the red mat we were all sitting on. The brothers sat cross-legged next to the priest and joined their hands. The priest chanted mantras like a robot. I yawned aloud. Mummy glared at me. I mouthed at her, “Sorry.”
Once the puja was over, we all stood up and the brothers poured the ashes into the river. The light gray powder floated on the dark gray water. Amma would live in the river forever.
Daddy walked up to me and said, “We’re polluting the river, right? Please excuse us for today, beta.” He patted my head. He didn’t know I was frowning because the sunlight fell on my face, not because he was polluting the river. That was wrong too, anyway.
When we returned home, the house was bustling with people. No food was to be cooked that day, so all the relatives brought food from their homes. They were chatting, laughing, telling stories, gossiping, and exchanging advice about the stock market. I thought I’d stepped into a family gathering.
Tata, Daddy, and my uncle greeted these people and talked to them. If Amma’s ghost saw this, she’d have come back to haunt us. No wonder they conducted all those rituals…
At lunch, Mummy and other ladies served the kids and men first. Once everyone was done eating and burping, the women had their lunch in the bedroom. They sat on the floor in a circle with the utensils in the middle and served each other. I stood at the entrance of the bedroom and waited for Mummy to finish. I had questions to ask.
“Why is everyone so happy?” I asked Mummy when she came back from the bathroom wiping her hands with a towel.
“What do you mean?” She sat next to me on the bed, chewing fennel seeds.
“Nobody seems sad. People were laughing and what was Shilpa aunty saying? You’ll be cooking Amma’s favorite food tomorrow? What’s the point of doing it if she can’t eat it?”
Mummy pursed her lips into a smile. A tired, sleepy smile. She said, “That’s how funerals are. People cry like babies, then laugh as if they're at a party.” She folded Daddy’s clothes lying on the bed. “And making their favorite food is a custom. We have to do it.”
“If that's the case, my funeral would be the best. There’ll be lots of hot chocolate, noodles, French fries–”
“Okay, don’t get too excited. You won’t be attending your funeral and I won’t be either.”
She stopped my fantasies the moment my mouth started watering.
I spent the rest of the afternoon playing Uno with my cousin and then dozing off at the edge of the bed. I didn’t sleep well though; utensils clanked in the kitchen as some women were busy washing them and the others were sweeping and mopping the house. I couldn’t hear the men. They went home for their daily afternoon siesta. Men and kids have pretty similar lives, except that we don’t earn money and we cry whenever we’re hurt.
The sun was setting for the day. Sitting on Tata’s cane chair in the living room balcony, I was munching on a banana. Our house was on the first floor of the building. On the street below, a dog walked with her two black and white puppies. Some kids followed them with biscuit packets in their hands. A thin man rode a bicycle with knives stuck on cardboards hanging down its sides. He yelled and asked if anyone wanted to buy them.
“Hello,” I heard a deep voice behind me. It was my uncle carrying bags full of paper plates and cups. “We’re going to take you to dinner at a famous restaurant tonight,” he said.
“Back then, it was a small shop. We used to go there all the time as kids,” Daddy smiled and added.
While I wanted to shout into their ears and tell them their behavior was lame, I didn't want to miss an opportunity to eat good food. They were eager to get me out of the house because the older male relatives had drinking plans. As if the afternoon wasn’t a big enough party, they wanted alcohol at night. Daddy didn’t want me to stay in that environment. How about not letting them drink in the first place? When I asked him this, he said it was a custom to offer alcohol to the guests. When I grow up, I’ll make sure to learn all the customs and then not follow them.
The restaurant was large and bustling with people. We sat at a corner table with steel glasses kept upside down on it. The ceiling fan above rotated at full speed. I was afraid it would fall on my head. We had a history of accidental deaths.
“Don’t worry. Fans don’t fall,” Daddy reassured me.
Unlike what I’d expected, Daddy, uncle and I sat eating in silence. The clanking of spoons against the plates and bowls and the rattling noise of the fan above were the only sounds at our table. I thought they’d crack jokes, tell stories, and behave in other ways they shouldn't. Instead, they looked down at their plates all the time as if they weren’t allowed to look up.
While leaving, Daddy smiled and asked me, “Did you like it?”
Once we went home, I found Tata sitting amongst a group of old men on a sofa. The living room, with pale green walls and a flower pot painting hanging above the sofa, reeked with the smell of beer and fried peanuts. Daddy and uncle joined them, dragging plastic chairs from a corner.
“Gauri! Are you back? Come here,” Mummy called me from the bedroom. I was glad to escape. Under the light of a bright white tube light, she sat with a rectangular wooden box on her lap. Intricate floral carvings covered its lid and body. I lifted the lid open and saw three pairs of gold earrings, two gold bangles, and a couple of toys. When I picked out a wooden spinning top, a thick layer of dust stuck to my fingers. I kept it back and wiped my fingers to the bedsheet. I held a pair of earrings in front of me; they were umbrella-shaped but instead of a handle, tiny gold beads hung down them. I’d spotted them in the ashes earlier that day.
“Your cousins got necklaces, rings, and anklets. Since you’re the youngest daughter, you got these. It doesn’t make sense. The gold should’ve been distributed equally,” Mummy clucked her tongue.
Leaving the box with me, Mummy stood up and left the room. While walking away, she said in a fading voice, “Keep the box in the cupboard. Once you’re done seeing everything, come help me in the kitchen!”
“Yes!” I replied. I kept the earrings back and shut the lid with a clicking sound. Daddy needed to see it.
In the kitchen, Mummy and my aunt did the dishes. “Gauri, keep these washed utensils in the rack over there,” Mummy said over the sound of running tap water. From the living room, I heard occasional chuckles and the clinking of glasses. I didn’t hear Daddy or uncle.
After I was done with the utensils, I walked towards the bedroom yawning. Daddy was ironing his shirts.
“You won’t need a comb for the next few months,” I said, leaning against the door.
“No shampoo either,” he smiled at me and returned to ironing.
“Can you please fold these t-shirts? We can sleep early then,” He pointed at a stack of his clean t-shirts at the corner of the bed. “Where’s Mummy?”
“She’s still in the kitchen with aunty. They’re preparing for tomorrow’s lunch.” I picked out a collared red t-shirt and spread it on the bed. “She has been working a lot since we’ve come here.”
“Hmm,” He pressed the iron on the tip of his white shirt’s collar.
Suddenly, I remembered the box. “Daddy! I got something nice today. Wait, I’ll show you,” I left the half folded t-shirt and ran towards the cupboard. The door creaked open and I took the box to Daddy. At first, he frowned, then smiled.
I opened the lid and kept it aside. “I’m too old for these,” I pointed at the toys, “And too young for these,” I pointed at the gold bangles and earrings. “Are these yours?” I spread out the spinning top, a few marbles, and a miniature wooden bullock cart on the bed.
“Yes,” Daddy grinned, picking up the toys.
They looked smaller in his large hands. He was, at a point, as young as me.
“Back then, a toy seller sold these carved wooden toys every Friday evening,” He cleaned the grooves of the top with his nail. “I’d cry and pester Amma to buy the toys but she’d tell me to save my pocket money and buy later.” He looked up and chuckled. “So that’s what I did. I saved pennies for months. I didn’t spend anything on movies, tamarind candies, or kites.”
“Did you save for this too?” I showed him the bullock cart. Daddy nodded. When I turned it around, I saw something written in Telugu.
“What’s this?” I showed the words to Daddy. He frowned.
“I don’t know. I can't read Telugu. Go ask Amma,” He turned his head to the right.
“How can I ask…” I stopped speaking when Daddy looked back at me with a blank face.
He looked down at the toys and the bangles. Like the cart, there were Telugu engravings on the inner side of the bangles. Daddy ran his trembling fingers over them. He pursed his lips and kept the bangles back in the box. Turning away from me, he sniffled and then burst out crying. He dug his face in his palms and muffled his voice. I stood up and ran my hand over his head. Seeing my father cry wasn’t a pleasant sight but I found myself smiling. I was happy he was acting normal.
“What’s going on?” Mummy entered the room with a frown on her face. As soon as she saw Daddy, she rushed to him. He wrapped his arms around her waist and stuffed his head in her saree. Puzzled, Mummy mouthed at me, “What happened?” I shook my head and smiled. Stretching my hands as much as I could, I embraced my parents. We were all finally following the same rules.
By Sakhi Dayanand Gundeti