(Inspired from real events)
As the ten hour journey came to an end, She didn’t realize this was the last time She’d be visiting her village.
It was a sad day. Her father came to pick her up from school after dropping Her there just an hour ago. That never happened. As they got in his old government owned Pajero She asked him if Grandfather was OK. Baba didn’t answer. She was right. He was no more. As saddened as She was there was also a little excitement there. Bad girl! Always thinking and doing things good girls didn’t do. There was no doubt She was going to hell but this meant going to her village.
It was a rare thing but the few times She had been there She had loved it. Despite an urban upbringing there was a strong bond She felt with everyone there. The kids seemed to Her like Herself – wild, mischievous, loud, even a little evil.
Growing up Grandmother had told Her many stories about that wild, rough land. Of how she kept little chicks under a wicker basket to keep them safe from large scavenger birds. Of going down a big mountain to green fields along a gushing stream with her prized cow. That was where Grandmother spent most of her day talking with other village women, grazing the cow, cleaning up the little paths she had made from the stream to her field. She was lucky to witness the scene before Grandmother passed away. Her Cousinly, same age as herself, expertly carried a jug of buttermilk in her hand and a basket of cornbread over her head as She towed behind. How envious She was of Cousin. She half-hoped the buttermilk would spill or the basket slip from her head. Which never happened. Many years later, when they were both expecting babies at the same time Cousin died in her first trimester. The baby had died inside her without her realizing it. Could it be that Her wish had come true after so many years later? The perfect Cousin had made the mistake She had been waiting for?
Sitting there in that field, nothing had tasted better. Grandmother sat erect much like the Native Americans She had seen in movies with a few of her many tiny braids hanging out from her chador. Being the village chief’s wife all the other women treated her like royalty.
Today as they walked from the market, which was where the road ended, down the narrow path through mountains and villages with curious children and huge angry dogs She expected the same. Women grabbing her and giving her huge busty hugs and sloppy kisses while the men ignored with all the manliness they could muster. But no, this was definitely different.
Grandmother was never one to show emotions. Today she sat in a corner surrounded by other women as usual but something was unusual. She had some emotion that was hard to describe. Pain? Anger? Pride? Sorrow? Fear? She never expected to see Grandmother crying. Oh no. A woman didn’t cry over their husband’s death. It meant she loved him. This made for a lot of gossip. Was he loving and caring? That wasn’t very manly. But could Grandmother be crying without shedding any tears?
This was Her first funeral. Oddly She didn’t feel anything. Until then. As She sat with her back against the wall hiding from all those gathered in the biggest opening in the village, a queue of men started passing before Her. Tall men, stocky men, young men, old men. All with hard, weather-worn faces. Faces that had seen hardships beyond their years. Roughened by every day struggle to live in a ruthless land where there was no room for a gentle soul. But beyond those fierce tribal facades were many concealed moments of kindness. The world would never know about those moments. She saw them file past Her towards the middle of the opening where Grandfather lay on a high bed all wrapped in white. She couldn’t see his face from where She was. Hadn’t seen his face since they brought him to the village from Dera. Those proud men paid their respects one by one to the tribal chief and moved along to take their place on the stones with the other men. Fascinating!
That’s when Her uncle announced they were taking Grandfather’s body for burial and the women could have one last look. Curiosity made Her inch closer. That’s when She saw him. She didn’t know what She expected to see but this was strange. First time She was seeing Grandfather without his big, beige turban in public. He looked so vulnerable. Walking away as fast as She could warm liquid running down her face the voices of women crying and men chanting the Kalmah would forever change the way She looked at Her life. Pain would subside because the wounds would heal. Those were wounds to the body, not to the soul. That was a body being carried away. Grandfather was elsewhere smiling his amused smile with his piercingly intelligent eyes waiting for the right moment to tickle with his big hard fingers that hurt more than made Her laugh.
No one ate that day. Big cauldrons of food were made for the people who had come to pay respects. Different beans all cooked together. Later she saw the food carried away by the strong current of the stream. No one in Father’s village ever ate funeral food. Found it repulsive. She and Sister didn’t touch it either though they didn’t know the oddity. Genetics!
Later that day, Cousin and other children from the village went to gather “shankay”. She was charmed! What was “shankay”? Cousin just grinned and told Her to come along and find out for Herself. This was a different path from the usual one they took to go to the fields, stream or even to the other villages that they dared each other to go to. It was different. Rocky and barren as most of her village but with a bluish hue and some vegetation. This was where shepherds brought their cattle to graze. This was Her favorite part – discovering what She called a mountain on a mountain. Her village was on top of a mountain but She knew that there were other mountains surrounding the area. Here She was at the foot of one of the largest She had seen yet. And it was blue. A deep, serious blue – not one of those cheerful hues. On closer inspection, small crush-like stones were found to be the reason for the color. This was shankay – small blue stones people used to decorate graves with. Cousin was happy to see Her surprise. Cousin was like that. She liked showing Her new things and was delighted when the right amount of curiosity and excitement were shown. Does the mountain feel happy it gives a part of itself to decorate a grave? Or does it find it morbid? How would I feel if someone thought my hair pretty and took away locks to lay on a dear one’s grave? Is that why bits of me were taken away so they could make their ugly souls look pretty even if for just a while? She collected the stones because She couldn’t let Cousin take all the credit for making the grave pretty. Cousin had already started making a flag from rags to put on it.
Death should be mourned more. Isn’t that how it’s shown on TV and in books? But as the kids returned to the village and headed towards the graveyard, She saw women sitting by the graves chatting amongst themselves. There was nothing tragic. No tears. Just life going on. Grandfather’s newly dug grave was easy to find. She never knew he was this tall. They must have made the grave bigger by mistake. Here in the late afternoon breeze with the women’s silent murmuring and chuckles, running around of the children with slingshots around their necks, the chatter of tweens like herself as they spread shankay on the grave, Death was a friend and not the scary monster it was made out to be. Life and Death. Death and Life. Just a Dream separating the two. Both cruel. Both kind. Both divine.
Granduncle’s room with the tin roof shaded by pomegranate trees. Mud stoves and log fire. Enchanting rooms with poles smack-dab in the middle going up a hole in the roof for keeping night watches. Prized walnut trees. Ancestors. Roots. Simplicity. All dead. Displaced. And in Her mind She has covered it all with shankay.