Photo by La Shawn Pagan via NYC Views and News

(A semi fictional account written in 1991 and edited)

They had to postpone the funeral by a couple of days. The children wanted to pay their last respects. Flights had to come in from Canada, England, Dubai and Australia. Transport had to be organised. Announcements had to be made. Everyone prayed that there would no curfew.

Sita Mami had always told us what to do. Now, everyone seemed confused. Which way does the body face ? Where should the lamps go ? Who will make the wicks ? Who will call the Priest ? Who will negotiate with the retainers ? Who will check the astrological time? Who will maximize auspiciousness during a time of tragedy?

There were only a few of them left: – the women of our oral traditions who are the keepers of our rituals. They know what is auspicious and what is not They give meaning to what appears to be meaningless. The new generation is a Professional elite. They have no patience with the symbolism of ancient ways. They are restless. The ceremony must be cut short. The Christians and Buddhists never carry on like this. We, Hindus, must learn the meaning of time. And, all that wailing, it must definitely stop. Funerals must be stoiclike the ones we see on T.V. We must learn to behave like Jacqueline Kennedy or Empress Hirohito.

Funerals like weddings had seen better days. They were once the “dreaded events”. They were the grand occasions for the extended family to get together. In the early days it would mean at least four hundred people according to the master list kept in my mother’s bedroom. There would be howling, laughter, fighting and feuding. The air would be full of the stuff of human companionship. The malice and the joy were all part of the same process. At times, it was exhilarating; but often, especially for the outsider, it could be suffocating.

These were the occasions of family community and the assertion of a family’s power. For weddings, the jewels came out; for funerals what was noticed were the numbers and the intensity of their sorrow.

The room was filled with elderly people. They had all come to pay their last respects. There was deep sorrow in their eyes. Not the sorrow of an individual death, but the blacker sorrow when eras end and the past loses all significance. There were only a few between the ages of 25 to 40. There were old people and all other generations were missing. They had begun to leave before July 1983, but after that there was an exodus. “Will we have enough young men to carry the coffin? “We can ask the undertakers to help us”. The remaining members of the family huddle together. Where have the four hundred gone?

They say she died of a broken heart. She had heard that her last child was going to leave Lanka and she had lost the will to live. Her friends consoled her by saying, “you can always go and visit him, you have never been to Canada before, and it will be great fun.” But, she would never leave here, why should she? She knew no other home. She came to Valli’s birthday party the other day and met all of us. She didn’t say a word. Yes, she did look very sad.

Sita Mami was born in Jaffna. Her father was a Gandhian. He spent many years in India with the Indian nationalist movement. When he came back to Jaffna, he wanted to change the world. She was deeply attached to him. She shared his simplicity. While her cousins reveled in beautiful Kanchiveram saris and an ostentatious show of wealth, she was always simply dressed – the bare essentials; but always perfectly neat, like someone out of a Jane Austen novel transposed in time to Sri Lanka.

She married a gentleman. He died early leaving her widowed; but with five children. The youngest was barely a year old when he left her. She was not very wealthy and did not inherit wealth. So, she went about her business, never begrudging her cousins whose husbands became businessmen, professionals, and civil servants. She did not care for that kind of prestige. She worked hard and brought up her children with love, affection and a sense of community. They were happy, secure and playful children who reflected her kindness in their eyes.

She never forgot the other members of her clan. If anyone died or was in crisis, she was the first one there. She never said much; but she organized the necessary measures, food for the family and the guests, the rituals, the lamps, yes, she always lit the lamp, even at funerals. She would sit by your side for hours, screening visitors, judging your moods, stretching out a thoughtful hand, rubbing eau de cologne over your forehead so as to cool your pain. She never spoke a word; but you always knew that she was there. She had that enormous reservoir of emotional strength that women of her generation seem to share. Today, brought up in nuclear families, having to cope with no problems; but our own, we have that fear of attachment and involvement. Restraint and decorum characterise social interaction. But, it was different then. To be strong, emotional and a woman, provided that you were married, was an important social virtue.

There were two kinds of strengths -at least that is what my grandmother once told me. The strength of Amman or the Goddess that is active, powerful and intervening. Very few people could be like her. The other was the strength of Sita, the quiet dutiful wife of Rama, who bore suffering with rectitude but who in the end proves to be the stronger emotional partner. My grandmother , my mother wanted me to be like Sita and I gather she was giving me a warning against my willfulness and the impetuousness of my nature. But, I never took her warning seriously. Neither she nor most of my aunts were anything like Sita. They were the most powerful, intervening forces of our childhood. I felt secure because of their presence but a part of me was always terrified. They were modeled on the Goddess … only Sita Mami – she was different. She was quiet and she was very strong.

The conversation turned to politics. Someone had killed someone, somewhere. There was anger all around. Anger at the Government, at “our boys” who were being unreasonable, at India, at the JVP, at the bureaucracy and at the grocer who was pretending to receive death threats so that he could raise the prices. Then a stranger walked in . Who was he ?” No one knew. Of what ethnic group ? Of what kind of politics ? The conversation stopped abruptly. Silence. Never say anything except in the most trusted company. You never know when you will be misquoted. Maintain anonymity at all costs or you will appear on someone’s death list. The art of living was to see how you could get by without getting anyone to hate you enough to send you a death notice. Keep strong feelings to yourself. Never expose your flank.

When the children arrived with their children and their children with their toys, the atmosphere visibly changed. Suddenly, there was life and youth. The gloom did not seem eternal.

Tiredness hung over the eyelids of her adult children; but guilt and grief kept them awake. Their sadness knew no bounds. They knew how much she had worked for their happiness. And yet, none of them had been there for her. The loneliness of her last few hours seemed to haunt them.

“What was her mood ?” “What were her last words ?” These were unanswerable questions, the ones that obsess close relatives in the immediate aftermath of death. There was nothing anyone could say.

The room was filled with children speaking English with different accents. No one spoke Tamil. Their chatter was like a frivolous cover over despondency. For the adults whatever was communicated was said in passing. Silence always returned. The Sivapuranam chanted in a somber baritone played through the day and night. Transience. What happens to a country when the young people leave and those who remain take up the gun ?

The conchshell called the community of mourners together. The last rites were about to begin. Her son, his hair cut in the alluring style of current western fashion, sat down, bare-chested, wearing the thread of the twice-born. It was a grueling ceremony but very few knew the significance of the ritual except that it had to be done. Agni, or fire, was omnipresent:- the destroyer, the cleanser, and the symbol of a noble tribute. The grandchildren held torches of flame for a grandmother who was their last link with their roots in a land gone mad with hate and anger.

They carried the innocence of those who live beyond intensity and survival; those whose most anxious moments were watching the war movies on their television. Their light and cheerful temperaments were refreshing, like rebirth, but, this time, in someone else’s country.

The older generation circled the coffin and threw rice at her forehead and at her feet, with the hope for a prosperous rebirth. Coins were also placed at her feet in the hope that the soul is satiated with material desire and would therefore leave the body in peace. Just before the coffin is closed, an egg is placed inside so that the soul takes with it, its attachment to this life. The ceremony is infused with symbolism, but the symbolism is now lost on a new and modern generation. To them, the symbolism is an end in itself, the rituals of a community, a part of its identity, and its nostalgia.

The heat, the smoke and the chanting conjure up images of the caves in Forster’s Passage to India. It must have felt like that for the grandchildren whose eyes were wide with amazement. What on earth is happening? This was not their identity. Why is it that every ethnic group makes its rituals incomprehensible to the layman. Funerals were never an event in the West. Death was confined to the austere presence of funerals homes. The grandchildren call themselves British, Canadian or Australian of “Sri Lankan Tamil origin”. What is the content of that identity or any other identity for that matter ? What are the emotional markers that they keep with them so many miles away from the roots of that identity ? What is the transformed nature of their imagined community ? As a marginal minority in another country, who will even care to ask those questions ?

The sight of these grandchildren, so unselfconscious in the fluidity of their identity, brought back memories of my youthful years in New York.

At the international level, what was most significant in the 1960s and 70s were the regional identifications. When Hinduism failed me, I openly laid claim to the heritage of Buddhism. Even today when I want to calm myself I see the face of the Buddha. Indian nationalism and the political legacy of Mahatma Gandhi. I also appropriated as my own.

Orthodox Islam as a religion was foreign to me but our homes were filled with books by Rumi and the Sufi music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. I always felt that Mughal history and Mughal art were part of “my” heritage. These identifications supplemented and enhanced my spiritual values. They were central to my identity as an Asian living in the West. They were part of my imagined community.

Now, in Sri Lanka I could feel the oppressive weight of ethnic catergorisation. To be Tamil was to be hostile to Buddhism, to be Sinhalese was to cultivate insensitivity to comments about Muslim attire and the size of Muslim families, to be Sri Lankan was to reject India and Indians. Christians too were slowly being hounded since their original sin was to be identified with imperial masters. Everyone is becoming more fundamentalist- the centre shifts and does not hold. I instinctively resist these rigid, parochial compartments. Sometimes I feel a visceral sense of suffocation, especially in places where an air of callousness and the objectification of the other was the only way to be- after all we have to get on with life. And yet, this is the political reality; the most dynamic aspect of independent Sri Lanka.

“Thuppai” spat out an undergraduate with venom and anger. He was referring to lecturers committed to international socialism. Anyone who resisted narrow ethnic catergorisation in the political heat of battle was to be dismissed-rootless, polluted, cosmopolitan – a cancer on the ethnic body politic. This categorization was to render the subject “inauthentic”. At the heart of this anger was an underlying resentment. Those whose identities were fluid and moved easily among plural categories have had the luxury of multitudinous opportunities, opportunities denied to the vast majority of their countrymen. This distance in experience then turns to resentment and the resentment quickly turns to hate. The opportunities themselves become demonic, seductions away from true ethnic self-realisation. “Thuppai”, then is a cry from the heart. The dissent of those whom the system has deprived. An assertion of pride against the snobbery of those who claim, access to world civilisation.

The crying reached a crescendo. The women are not allowed to go to the funeral site. They pay their last respects while the coffin is being loaded into the car. The men fall in line behind the hearse while others follow closely behind. Again, youth is missing. A generation puts one of its own to rest with little hope of regeneration. Not here anyway, not now.

At the final rite, the son carries a pot of water, which is then pierced three times as he circles the body lying on the pyre. The water symbolises life, purification and rebirth. For Hindus, life originates in the water and life must always go back to it. The essence of Hindu spirituality is that after death, there is always rebirth. This view of a cyclical cosmic order has kept many generations complacent and whole. It tolerated injustice in this life with the hope of a better rebirth in the next. But, today, other more modern worldviews competed for hearts and minds. One held up the hope of a Tamil moral community in a Tamil promised Land. Many had died pursuing that elusive goal. Another pointed to material advancement and prosperity in the West or in Singapore. All false Gods ? Very few drew out the humanistic spirit. None advocated the emotional distance and compassion that is the essence of their faith, an essence they share with their Buddhist brethren. Sita Mami had that distance and the moral integrity that such a perspective brings. But, she never articulated it. She just got on with her life.

“So, I hear you are writing a book?”, shouted an uncle well known for his cutting remarks. He was secretly proud of any of his relatives who dealt in the world of ideas; but he felt that it was important to keep them in their place. “You intellectuals… the country is burning .. and you continue to live in a world of your own, an ivory tower!”. He shook his head in disgust. And then he looked at me intently, but he was talking to someone else. His grey hair seemed more pronounced. In a soft voice, he whispered under his breath, “how did we come to this ?”