Last night at 11:30 pm, Prem’s mother passed away.
Aidan and Pascal stayed over at my apartment, and in the morning we went to their uncle’s house for the funeral. When we arrived, everything was still new. Aamaa was still upstairs where she had been alive yesterday evening. Besides our Aamaa, the only other person in Nepal I call simply “Aamaa,” instead of “small mother” or “big mother” or some other aunt-related mother-qualifier, is Prem’s mother. She spent most of last summer with us at Didi and Prem’s, sitting quietly cross-legged on the bed, head bowed forward over her ankles, while the kids dangerously hammered a football against the indoor wall of the house, screeching with delight. Many evenings I would come sit next to her, even if there wasn’t much to talk about, to make sure she was part of the fun. Aamaa has been frail for many years now, and often her whole day was spent in near-stillness. Sometimes on those summer evenings I would rub her back, to make movement. At first she’d simply sit while I made circles over her ribs. And then she’d say udo, udo – a little up, a little over. And then she’d say, esari, and lift up her cholo above her shoulder blades, and I’d run my hands back and forth over her papery skin, the half moon of her spine bowed toward the floor like a stone path.
At Narayan’s house, Prem pulled a sheer red sari back from his mother’s face and I passed a spoonful of scented water between her parted lips.
As the yard began to fill with callers, Aamaa was moved downstairs and laid on the porch. Her body was wrapped in sheets and covered in garlands, and as they arrived, her adult children and their spouses leaned over her and let out piercing cries. Prem and his brothers shaved their heads, pouring water from brass vases, shivering in the cold. I was transfixed by the first pale stripe of scalp that appeared, like a gash between walls of black hair, which too fell away and curled bodiless and foreign on the ground. A bamboo gurney was prepared in the yard, and Prem’s mother was lifted on to it, her tiny body barely wider than the edges of the narrow stretcher.
We walked four kilometers, along a length of the lake, and then through the bazaar, where a trailing white sheet pinned to wooden poles announced our procession and was swallowed close behind by vehicles and diesel swirling around our knees. Death in the middle of the mundane. An entire lifetime borne on her sons shoulders through the bus stop, where vendors were selling oranges.
Pascal had gone home to help Didi pack her things. Didi and Prem will sit kriya for thirteen days back in his home village of Piodi, where Aamaa raised her six children. Pascal would have wanted to walk in the procession at his father’s side, but he was more urgently needed to help Didi prepare for the ritual mourning period. Pascal is our serious boy, a mercurial, old soul, and I felt the sting of his loss at not being able to accompany his grandmother to her last. Bethy and I followed behind Prem and Aidan and his cousins, Suman and Nalin, all roughly 12 years old, all steps behind manhood. One becomes finally a Brahmin son, in some ways, when performing the death rights for his parents.
Although I’ve been present for the preparation of the funeral procession a handful of times over the years in Kaskikot, I’ve never followed it from house to river before, and I hadn’t realized that it is customary to jog. When I stop to drop off my backpack at a shop I frequent on the corner, where I can ask the proprietor to hold my things until I get back, we are quickly left behind, and we have to sprint to catch up.
Once the pyre is lit, Prem will not touch anyone for thirteen days. But now, as we make our way toward the banks of the Gandaki River, Aidan is close by his father’s side, watching as men in the family take turns carrying his grandmother, their shoes pounding the asphalt. His cousin Suman is a sensitive, perceptive boy, who wept as his grandmother was lifted from his own father’s home to begin her final worldly journey in this lifetime. But Aidan is as shimmery and light as ever, energized by all the activity and people and the cousins he so loves to play with for endless, exuberant hours.
Then: “I want to try,” Aidan says suddenly.
The running stops for just a beat. Carefully, the back of the gurney is lowered on to Aidan’s still-childlike bony shoulders. Instantly and without discussion, Suman has taken up the front. Their fathers and uncles stand around them, and my gaze captures this sudden and fleeting coming of age. The two boys struggle slightly under the weight of their grandmother’s body, but the whole rest of the world has fallen away as their only focus becomes carrying her home. After only a few meters of progress, the gurney is handed back, and Aidan is a boy again.
At the banks of the Gandaki, an enormous furnace has been recently built to provide a more efficient and eco-friendly form of cremation than the traditional funeral pyre. All of Aamaa’s jewelry is removed – the gold rings through her earlobes, the bangles around her tiny wrists, which cut in to flesh slightly, producing no blood. She is covered one final time, and Prem and his brothers circle her with copper vases and pour water around her. Then she is lifted in to the furnace, and the door is closed.
Now the thirteen days of kriya begin.
Aamaa, you birthed eight babies and never got to raise two of them. Your 20 grandchildren held each other today as you were carried away to the river under garlands, and your grandsons lifted you beside their fathers.
We will miss you here.