Monday morning, almost seven months to the day that my grandmother (Nalinima) died, we went to immerse her ashes and to carry out the last rites. The reason we waited this long was that my brother Vishnu wanted to be present for the immersion. Since we are a really uneducated family in terms of religion and rituals, we depended largely on Saru, the younger of my grandmother’s two maids and on Tukaram, our Man Friday, to inform us on the procedure.
We were supposed to get a priest (they hired one for us) and the ritual was carried out at Banganga. Not at Chowpatty beach as I had thought. So I once again visited this picturesque district of Bombay, the houses set around the ancient tank which was supposed to have been created by Lord Ram when his arrow struck the earth and gave rise to a stream.
Our priest was a sixty-ish fellow in a dhoti with stubby grey hair and a bugs bunny smile. He chanted away at the speed of an express train and my father who was supposed to do the last rites had to follow suit, which he managed to do with relative agility – which impressed the priest because he guessed (quite correctly) we were just a bunch of poor westernised sods who didn’t know the first thing about our religion.
The chanting and pouring of ghee into the fire and onto banana leaves went on for what seemed like decades but finally it came to an end, after which my mother, accompanied by the priest walked around the tank to the side and left an offering on behalf of my grandmother, for the crows. I must say I was impressed because a dozen of them swooped down immediately, to finish off the ladoo in the earthenware bowl which resembled a large egg cup. Saru was mighty thrilled at this, and let out her shrill giggle and triumphant laugh. That meant the old lady was happy wherever she was, she informed us.
Mother, followed by Peg, Vishnu and Saru, off to leave the offering for the crows at Banganga
Dad, who didn’t come prepared as he should have, with the ceremonial dhoti, had to wrap a yellow towel round his waist for the ritual ( which Tukaram had thoughtfully brought with him, in case they needed to dip their feet in the holy waters). And to make up for the sacred thread which my father never wears, the priest threw a tattered strip of cloth over his neck and shoulder and began to chant.
Parvati and I watched from a distance because the steps were steep and the alcove where the rites were undertaken was a bit difficult for me to access. To our left, men, young and old, who had lost some close relative, were having their heads shaved by the local barber, according to the custom. But modern attitudes have forced the priests to alter the requirements. For those who are not keen to lose their locks, a token bit of hair is snipped off – merely as a gesture. Which my dad agreed to, without a problem.
This morning the priest came over for a last bit of cleansing, and we had smoke pouring out of Nalinima’s bedroom as the house was purified and my father had to once again go through the various mantras like yesterday. Luckily the ritual was over in less than an hour.