During the many months when I stayed in ‘Charu Villa’, Didu was usually living with us; she held an important part in the family. Her place in the home was so different from what I had known in Europe, where very rarely do grandparents stay together with children and grandchildren. I was just experiencing for the first time the extended family and initially it was strikingly awesome. How such a frail old lady could prompt so much love and respect fascinated me; she had a magnificent presence and she was constantly alert and was watching every move around the house.
Kakima’s younger brother, Dilu, was living in a small village in the middle of West Bengal, with his wife and daughter, and every six months he and Kakima would take turns taking care of Didu.
The first time I saw Dilu, he came and visited for a few days only, and when he went back Didu went with him; she would switch home and stay with her son for the next few months. Dilu was a simple and very lovely man; he was a clerk in the small post office in his village, and he insisted that I come and visit. I would travel with Rana and stay a few days.
And so one evening, after a very early start from Charu Villa and a full day first on the cycle rikshaw, then on the overcrowded bus to the huge Howrah station on the other side of the bridge spanning over the Hooghly river on the other side of downtown Calcutta, a 4 hours train trip, another bus and finally a ride on top of a cart pulled by a bullock we arrived right in front of Dilu’s small house. The sky had just turned into all the shades of red, the air was thick, thousands of mango trees were full and birds and insects of all sorts were going wild in the sky.
Didu is the first person I saw; she was squatting on the porch near the door, under the bamboo shade, in her same white sari and with the same smile as I had always known her. This was now her home for the next 6 months.
Charu Villa was located in a very organic and lively suburb south of Calcutta and it always felt extremely peaceful, yet alive with people and nature all around.
But here in Dilu’s village it was suddenly a completely different experience. There was so much space all around; the sky seemed to stretch to the infinite. We were right in the Indian country side and it was impressive. I loved it.
In Dilu’s home I slept alone on the veranda outside, on a thin mattress put over a bamboo mat, and of course under a mosquito net. I was in heaven under the open sky. There didn’t seem to be as many ponds as in Calcutta, but frogs were part of the night. I loved watching the stars before falling asleep, I loved the thick air of May, the abundance of night smells and sounds that were all so new to my system. I drank it all.
One afternoon I wandered on my own through the little village and headed towards the river. The land was slightly hilly and all I had to do was follow the path towards the sound of flowing water. I walked along with buffalos, a few stray dogs, some villagers and herds of goats and sheep.
The river was actually a meeting of 2 effluents of the mighty Ganga, and the sight in front of me was gigantic. As I reached the topmost part of the hill I was suddenly and directly overlooking the merging of the two rivers, and there on that special area was a gathering of people. I sat on a big rock with a direct and outstanding sight over the whole area, and I watched.
From further down were farmers arriving, probably from some other villages. I noticed that most of them were carrying some piece of wood or a branch of some sort. I could hear singing, drumming, and an energy unlike anything I had experienced so far in India. The atmosphere was grave and deep, and yet people were playing music, drumming, and dancing steps I could not understand. In the centre of the gathering was a stretcher carried by 8 men, filled with flowers. A corpse was covered with a white linen and the head of an older lady was in the open, in full sight. Someone had obviously died and was going to be cremated here on the bank of the river. “What a place” I thought to myself.
We were in the midst of the afternoon on a hot summer day, with temperatures well above 40 degrees Celsius. Sitting on that huge rock, absorbed in the nature, alone, I was about to witness my very first open air cremation.
In the decades that followed I watched hundreds of people burn in India; some were close friends, some were acquaintances, some were complete strangers. Each one would be a unique reminder of my own unescapable destiny and my own death to come. But in a similar way that I remember my first lovemaking experience under the roofs of Paris, this first direct encounter with death remains carved in a special soft spot of my heart.
Drums were being hit faster and harder, and the rhythm was increasingly maddening. It felt like people were going on a trance, connecting with the energy of the earth while opening their wings into the vast sky. Those villagers seemed to sink deeper and deeper while taking off into new heights. The pyre was just being lit, the rhythm of the drums intensified, screams filled the air, and smoke grew thicker and thicker. Even from the distance where I was sitting, I could feel the heat of the flames adding to the heat of the scorching sun. A warm breeze was playing with the smoke and the whole scene was out of this world. It took me a while to figure out what was smelling so unusual. I wondered if they had used kerosene to start the fire, or some kind of plastic, or maybe it was the wood of unusual trees? When suddenly the wind shifted and smoke flew into my face I did realise that I was indeed smelling something I had never smelled before; flesh, blood and everything that makes a human body.
The sun was slowly moving down behind the mango trees and the light in this late afternoon was outstanding. At this time the crows were competing with the volume of the drums, the breeze had stopped and the river kept flowing as if nothing had happened.
Everyone was so immersed in this cremation that I was left alone and unnoticed. As I sat there cross-legged on the rock for hours, absorbing the whole experience in my own time, I became aware of the extreme privilege I was being granted.
The sun was now setting on the other side of the river over a horizon of coconut and mango trees. Behind me, almost unnoticed first, a full moon was rising brighter and brighter, flooding the whole land with a light that kept pulling me inwards. I took a breath and relaxed, realizing that there was no hurry to leave now and that the night would be bright enough for me to find my way back to Dilu’s home.
The drums had stopped and the fire had left place to a mass of ashes.
As the villagers were busy with rituals I didn’t understand, I could feel myself sinking deeper inside. I was left in a state of no mind I had rarely experienced, plunged into my destiny and my own death, contemplating a mystery I would certainly have to encounter one day.
As I stared into the pile of ashes, I thought of the old lady who was brought on the stretcher a few hours ago; she certainly had been alive this very morning, and I wondered what kind of a long life she had had. I wondered what was left of her now. No matter how I looked at it, I was facing myself, facing the fact that I didn’t know anything about the only certainty of my life.
Starring into a burning body is the deepest experience I know. It is diving into the mystery of life and encountering the only question worth asking. In many ways that afternoon by the river set a new pace to an already intense longing that was aching in my heart for as long as I could remember. Who was I? What will be left when I am all ashes like this lady today?
As I made my way back to Dilu’s home I knew that I would never leave India before those questions were answered.