By Chitra Ahanthem
Last Saturday, as my colleagues at Imphal Free Press were gearing up for our founding day luncheon at the office, a younger cousin passed away. Another much younger cousin had passed away in far away Mangalore just as the year started. Both of them in their passing have left behind much anguish in the extended family and there is no doubt that immediate family members will need to take a lot of effort and time to grieve and move on. Which brings to mind really, that death is inevitable and that every moment of our lives are in fact a step towards our own final moments in this universe. And then of course, as social beings born into families and clans and certain beliefs, deaths come surrounded by various practices, some of which are beyond any comprehension but which prevail because they have been around for years and years.
In the Meitei tradition surrounding death related rituals, there is a very subtle gender perspective: women play an active role as palliative care givers in case a person lies ailing on the death bed but are made to stand back as soon as death is announced with the men taking the symbolic role of preparing the dead for the final rites. It is from the male gender that gets to light the funeral pyre while women folk get relegated to the role of being mourners. The situation may or may not be the same with different religions and communities for there are different practices of mourning over the dead. There is a hearsay that there were times and there are places now where professional mourners are hired to lament the dead but I for one cannot vouch for this bit of trivia to be a fact in Manipur. After having seen only Meitei related death rituals, the death of a school classmate opened up a different world for me. Our whole class had gone to offer our condolences to his family and what a non disturbing experience it was for us for there were his favorite songs being played and his other friends and family members recounting their memories of him. The entire class had gone dreading the possibility of having to burst into tears: in the bus ride to our deceased friend’s house, all of us sat in total silence unsure what we were going to do once we reached. Yes, seeing a different environment at our friend’s house was at first unnerving for it was the very introduction to a Christian funeral for all of us but later we felt the weights off our shoulder: that of not knowing how to behave. Many years later, my then 3 and a half year old son accompanied me to Pallel where I had gone to offer my condolences to a professional colleague whose father, who had been a former founding Chieftain of the village and who had passed away. My son still remembers the scene then vividly: that of peace and calm and often asks me why in the subsequent death rituals that he has seen of extended family members since, there are things that he does not understand that scare him.
My son is now eight years old but it does not escape his notice that there are certain ‘what can be done/what cannot be done’. Often he asks me why men do not cry at such times and whether it is not allowed and why women have to cry out aloud. The answers to his questions fail me for there are various practices when there is a death in the family or clan (the list if which is just too long and beyond easy comprehension or meaning). Then again, there is no end to what follows after the last rites are performed as there are the monthly offering of feasts followed by the annual feasts. A death in the family leaves a void that can never be filled up even after all the observations are followed without question, but question we must whether the array of mementoes given out at Shradh ceremonies, the number of items given in packs to people who turn up for them really matter at all. Another very curious practice is that of those dropping in for Shradh ceremonies asking for two packs (or even more!) of offerings and this strikes a note of irony, that the living can pay heed to their greed for more even as they assemble for someone who has died.
Death: that inevitable frontier is what waits for us all, lurking in some unexpected corner, but only that we prefer to conveniently wish it away by making a fuss over the dead. It is we, the living who will have to chin up and decide just how we live that bit of what remains. No one put it more succinctly than Friedrich Nietzsche here: ‘Death. The certain prospect of death could sweeten every life with a precious and fragrant drop of levity- and now you strange apothecary souls have turned it into an ill-tasting drop of poison that makes the whole of life repulsive.’