The monsoon rains had, thankfully, fallen heavily that morning so the heat was not as sweltering as it often can be on an August day. Bangladesh doesn’t do ‘drizzle’ so when rains come they usually fall as though the heavens themselves are angry, throwing the water like a weapon and growling in the clouds. This morning had been no different and somehow it seemed a fitting response from above for what had happened overnight.
We wandered around the maze of roads and paths until we finally found the village where the funeral was taking place. Bina was there already and said she had noticed us coming from a distance and came to greet us. In fact, I suspect she had been waiting anxiously for our arrival. We had, by accident of being there at the time, become somewhat important in this event because without us her mama, her uncle, would not have been returned. No one likes taking dead bodies in a car or a vangari, so they all charge crazy amounts. For us, it was affordable. For Bina it was a few months’ wages.
Bina leading the way, we entered through the mud doorway into the shared courtyard area where two or three mud dwellings shared the same outdoor space for cooking and cleaning. Usually there would be various utensils and benches scattered around but now all the household items had been replaced by just one large bed, draped in white cloth. I was surprised when I saw just how many people were here and I felt my son squeeze my hand tighter as he too registered that there must have been close to two hundred people sat cramped into an area not much bigger than someone’s front room. I squeezed back to reassure him that he was safe. He doesn’t startle easily and always assumes that the entire world is his friend but sometimes I forget that he is just seven and that we ask him to deal with some heavy situations for much of the time. Just sometimes, we see a crack in his composure, but never for long.
We were led to the far side of the courtyard and to the veranda area, removing our shoes before entering and were greeted by a friend of my wife’s who took us to the far end overlooking where the bed had been placed. I felt nervous as I was offered a chair, conscious that everyone else sat on the floor and that all in that area under the veranda were women. I looked to my wife for confirmation that it was alright that I was here and, picking up from my face the panic that was mounting she turned to her friend and quietly spoke Bangla to her. She nodded her approval and motioned to me to sit and that all was thik ache. My son, daughter and wife had, by this point, sat themselves down on a smaller bed at the end.
In all of this, there had been so little sound from all around that it came as a shock when suddenly a wail came from amongst the women sat before me on the veranda. Dazed by the force of the cry breaking the silence, it took me a while before I located the source, a woman who, judging by her clothes, age and look of utter anguish on her face must have been the wife of Bina’s mama. Convinced the cry was my fault I was horrified.
Oh my God, I thought, what have I done? Have I caused offence?
The widow’s cry spread like a ripple amongst the other women who, I now realised, were all on the verge of tears, holding back the distress only as long as everyone else continued to do the same. Some of the more stoic and wise older women there, having seen death countless hundreds of times before, comforted and calmed the widow but still she sobbed. Respectfully, I turned away so that she did not need to feel stared at by the strange white man and looked at the clean white bed in front of me.
It was then they brought the body out, cleaned, washed and dressed, laid out in white, garlanded with flowers and laid on the bed. I was now so close I could have touched his naked feet, this man whom I had only met the once and that only days ago when he came to the hospital. I felt an intruder, a fake. Had Bina just been kind to invite us all and really expected a polite refusal on our part? We seemed so out of our depth, with no other bideshis, no foreigners here to look to for cultural advice. Two years here and we have had many dinner invitations but this was our first funeral in a tribal village and we had no clue what to do.
The widow broke out into another anguished scream and this time no wise comforting from friends were going to stop the floodgate of emotion that just had to gush from everyone there. Suddenly we were surrounded by dozens and dozens of women sobbing, crying out, rocking, looking to the sky as though pleading with God. I found a wave of sadness overwhelming me.
As the tears filled my eyes my British reserve fought the temptation to allow even one of them to fall.
What is this? I thought. They can’t all be feeling so much pain, can they?
I heard sobbing by my shoulder and turned to look behind me. My daughter was streaming with tears, unable or unwilling to prevent them whilst her brother leaned on his mother’s side, arms around her, looking sad but with wise understanding in his eyes that told me that he knew this was not about him, not time to play up or wriggle but to be quiet and still for others. My wife herself was trying to hold back the tears but increasingly failing.
I turned again to the body. Now began the smearing of the face, hands and feet with holud, a turmeric paste, starting with his widow, then daughter, then other family and important people followed by all well-wishers.
Why turmeric? I wondered.
Normally this paste is used at wedding parties where everyone has much fun smearing others with it after the bride-to-be has been covered by as many as wish to. I’ve seen grown, dignified women chase young men, grabbing at their clothes to catch them so that they can smear this putty onto their cheeks. The normal taboos for men and women ignored as the sense of celebration and expectation takes over. Here it was being used not for a new chapter in life but for death.
But are they so different? I wondered as I watched woman after woman smear mama’s face with the holud and their tears. Surely they are just two sides of the same coin? We don’t celebrate air because it is always there, never lost. All our lives it never leaves us. But each and every one of us will face death and will probably experience it happening to those around us first. It is precious and can never be taken for granted. We can lose it in a second.
And here, in this remote part of Bangladesh, the presence of death is felt keenly, meaning that everyone, Muslim, Hindu, Christian share a common bond – to grasp life, value it and appreciate it at every opportunity. The taking of life makes the giving all the more important. I do not know the religious meaning behind the holud. But for me I cannot put it on another’s face again at a wedding without some part of me thinking this is not just fun. This is not just rejoicing. It means much, much more than that.
A wretched cry tore me away from my thoughts. This was not the same voice as before. It was not the widow this time but Rupali her daughter who had struggled through her time of applying the holud. Something had snapped and she had rushed back through the crowd standing, staring around the bed. Caught just in time by one of the men leading the ceremony as she attempted to fling herself upon the body, instead she was grabbed by another man and a woman who both held her and held her back as her body crumpled in grief.
This was too much. I could hear my daughter sobbing behind me now and suspected I could hear my wife as well. I turned and saw that my boy, ever the empath, had seen one of our young friends breaking down and had gone over to her, sat with her and just held her as she wept on his shoulder. I wondered if we should go. Was this too much to ask my young children to bear? Yet it was fascinating, not just because of how different the ceremony was, with the body uncovered and handled by so many people but also because the depth of emotion that was just so totally foreign to me.
The British in me was appalled. The cynic in me was doubtful. This is not, I thought, how the dignified behave. Such theatrics are for the TV, not reality. Almost as soon as I thought these words, unbelievable guilt rose up inside and I felt ashamed. This was no fake display. These people were feeling the most incredible grief. You could see disbelief in every face. “How could this have happened?” they seemed to say. Every cry of the widow or her daughter was one that seemed to realise, as if for the first time, that the man in their life was not coming home anymore.
Why did I not feel this for my own father? He had died only last December and not a day had gone past that I had not thought of him, not a week gone by when I had not played music I knew he loved and remembered who he was. Yet, at the funeral itself I did not feel this intensity of emotion. There was no holding back the tears as I was now doing for this man I never knew before. I was, of course, deeply sad that the man I had known and loved as ‘Dad’ for nearly forty years was gone but there was no surging grief the like I was seeing here in this tiny village scene.
Was it perhaps because I could see others I know and care about – like Bina – being so overtly devastated? Teachers, ayahs, guards, children, shopkeepers – many I know well and who are special to me. Ordinary people who normally don’t mess around when there is a crisis but face it and deal with it calmly. To see a woman, normally dealing with problems with a stony face, now red-eyed and with quivering lips holding back such sorrow – yes, maybe there was something in this.
But another thought now occurred to me as men were raising the body and lifting it into a wooden casket in preparation to take it away and bury the coffin. As the crying and wailing arose, not just from wife and daughter but from all around I was winded by the force, by the rush of grief. I suddenly realized the significance.
This man, husband, father, uncle, friend to many, had only died yesterday .Last night.
My father, by contrast, had been battling cancer for years. He had nearly died a year earlier. We had said our goodbyes and made our peace with him over anything that mattered long ago. When he died, there was nothing I wished I had said to him, nothing I regretted not getting out into the open. I’d even told him I loved him several times – the hardest thing for a British man to tell his father. Here was a man who was certain of his fate and where he was going and knew that all who were special to him would continue without him and in peace. He died trusting in the rightness of things.
But Bina’s mama had trusted that he would live. A worm, it was thought, nothing more. A simple operation and he would be just right. But when he went elsewhere for the surgery, he was refused. The previous diagnosis was rejected. Tests were done all over again and precious time was lost but doctors at that hospital would not commit themselves. Two days later and he was dead. Maybe he would have died anyway but that wasn’t the point. His family expected him to return home alive. He didn’t.
Just hours later, they were burying him. It took over a week to bury my father. In that time I had composed a speech and a piano piece which I performed at the funeral. All the time in the world to come to terms with my loss, my way. And the no one was going to suffer when my Dad died, but here, who was going to look after his wife now? Who was going to pay for his daughter’s education? Who was going to provide them a wage when his wife had no schooling and no skills?
Slowly, we withdrew from the crowd as they moved to the cemetery area and left them to bury the dead in peace. Along the road we said nothing for a while, each of us reflecting quietly on what they had seen and heard and felt. Eventually, as we reached the busy main road where all the shops do their trade and vehicles thunder past, some sense of returning to normality came to us all. My son almost shook himself as if out of a strange malaise and ran off back to the house. My wife and I discussed about what we had just experienced.
Deep inside I felt a sadness that something was missing from my own culture. In securing a ‘bright new future’ where we expect everyone to be safe and our loved ones to return home each day as our right, we have lost the urge to celebrate life as it is. Instead, we always seek more and struggle with discontent in our own lives. Day by day as our dreams become bigger and harder to achieve our lives seem to dwindle into a kind of passive ‘existence’. I envied the ones I had witnessed and their grief. I was jealous of their ability to ‘feel’ intently.
But in thinking of this I heard that widow’s cry and saw her anguish again in my mind’s eye and I thought of the very real troubles that are to confront her from now on; the overwhelming difficulty of being alive but also needing to ‘exist’. I truly have no idea which of us is better off – The one who has no pain or the one who is still able to feel it.