Three days isn’t a long interim to accept the loss of a loved one. But in Hindu custom, the transient nature of life and death is of essence.
Three days ago, I witnessed and held the hand of a dying old man. I spent more time than my previous visits with a silent and heaving old man. The day that followed, I gazed at and grasped the cold palm of my dead grandfather in disbelief. And yesterday, from the side of his coffin, I stared at Tata’s face cold, waxy and dead and held his hand again crying.
Today, I went back to the crematorium completely in shock. Where there was a coffin and a familiar body within laying on the stone slab, there is now ash, dust and bones. Nothing prepares you to witness the transition from life to death, and from death to decay. I shook as I picked the bones of my Tata to place into the clay urn. I found it difficult to comprehend that the bones and ash were the composition of my living grandfather three days ago.
At one point of the ceremony, we had to scoop milk with our hands to pour into the urn calling out to Tata and indicating our offering. My aunt broke down. And when it was my turn, I cried. The words I was supposed to say was stuck at ‘Tata”. Why was I talking to ashes and bones? Why had I not talked more to my grandfather when he was alive?
From the crematorium we drove silently towards Changi Ferry Terminal. My uncle who was in ceremonial garb held on to the urn of his father’s ashes crying. There I sat beside him, placing my hand on his shoulder for comfort. As I took in reality of the last few days, I began guffawing silently at the front. I didn’t want my tears to be the trigger for my aunt (who knew Tata longer than I did) to start sobbing.
The journey on the boat was terrible. Everyone was dreading the symbolic letting go of my grandfather. We were headed to the waters near Pulau Semakau. When we neared our destination, my uncle in ceremonial garb sat at the edge of the boat and held on to the urn. I took my eyes off the urn for a second and at that moment it was dropped into the sea. The moment the urn sank into the ocean, with the red cloth wrapped around flowing at its side, I began to cry. My Tata was gone.
That marked the finality of the ritual. Between the day he died to the sixteenth day, the fire lamp in front of my granddad’s picture at the main house must burn continuously. The fire lamps on our god altars at home must be extinguished. We cannot enter temples. We cannot pray. We are required to be vegetarian if the situation permits. We are in mourning.
And at night, the dark house without the light from the fire lamp is a constant reminder that he is no longer here with us. This really is goodbye…