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Ceremony or, A Funeral for a Wandering Spirit is a Human Affair

by Shane Pillay



Prologue 

Death and After 

The Funeral 

The Third Day and Sleep Part 1 

The Third Day and Sleep Part 2 

The Wandering Spirit 

Epilogue 


Prologue 


The guard swung his arm and steered the driver left. “Don’t worry,” He whispered, “The car will fit.”


The driver looked back. He bit his tongue and negotiated the turn. Almost done – the wheels straightened. 


The guard knew both driver and car. Every night, for the last month, this car arrived at six. That made sense - visiting hours at the hospital were between six and seven in the evening. The driver knew the guard too. Both greeted each other with a perfunctory nod whenever they met. The guard took care of the car for an average tip. The city was a dark place at night. Security on the road eased the mind. 


The driver locked the car and waved. The guard instinctively stuck out his thumb. The driver nodded and skipped onto the pavement. 


Further down the line, he spied two silhouettes at the hospital entrance.


“Hello Jay,” said one. 


It was his sister Sheila, together with her husband Niklesh. They regularly visited at six. But not yesterday and Jay wondered why. But he didn’t pry. 


The evening was cold. A large jersey wrapped warmth around Sheila. Her hands folded tight across the chest. Niklesh crunched his fingers into his jacket pouch.


“Getting colder now,” He mumbled. 


Niklesh had a slight speech impediment. He spoke through grunts and groans. Everyone grew accustomed to it, although strangers asked him to repeat his words until they understood. Niklesh didn’t mind - he had done that since childhood and sometimes automatically recalled his last words without being asked. 


“Yes,” said Jay, “very cold. Let’s go in.” 


The hospital was speckled white and clean. Jay was glad the family had bandied money together so their mother could stay at a private hospital. The public ones were tardy and smelt like chicken runs. 


They entered the ward, their mother’s bed closest to the door. She watched them arrive but was too weak to raise a smile. They saw her try. Her jowls humped. Sheila took her hand and kissed her cheek. Jay walked around the bed and did the same.

 

The old woman’s asthma had worsened. Her air pipes tightened and breathing was difficult. The doctors discovered a lung infection.


It is old age, they said, her body can’t take the asthma attacks anymore. It is better she stays in the infirmary. The nurses will care for her and monitor the contagion in the chest. 


The late visits were difficult. The old woman only managed short sentences. Her children did not trouble her with conversation. In fact, they usually did the talking. She acknowledged with blinks and nods. 


Sheila talked about her children. Jay strayed from that subject. He hadn’t married yet and knew his mother wanted to see him settle down before she passed.

 

“Must get married, eh Jay?” She whispered hoarsely, “Need someone to take care of you.”

 

Jay nodded. He avoided such talk and wished his mother would do so too. Her throat grew sore when she spoke. They were quiet and Sheila held her mother’s hand tenderly. The old woman coughed and swallowed. 


“I want only three days, eh?” She said. 


Jay glanced broodingly at Sheila. This was an ongoing subject.


“Ma,” explained Sheila, “You know we can’t do that. It is not right. And besides, everybody will have something to say.” 


“And you should not worry about that,” put in Jay. 


“No,” His mother insisted, “only three days. That’s how I want it,” (cough), “Ten or thirteen days is hard work. Not worth it.” 


The old woman was religious. Upon passing, the soul of the dead wanders the earth. After the funeral, a family observes sacred rituals for ten days. On the tenth day, a ceremony is held. Thereafter the soul is free to join God or reincarnate. Even after the tenth-day ceremony, the family practices further rituals. That could take days, months or even years. In contrast, a three-day ceremony is much shorter. Further rituals are not necessary. 


Observing a ten-day ceremony requires many hands to ease the burden. Jay's mother did not want this. When her husband passed fourteen years ago, she observed all traditions and ceremonies. It was difficult, her family struggled to put bread on the table and milk in the fridge. She vowed that her children would never undergo the same strain. A three-day ceremony would suffice.


Jay and Sheila agreed in theory with their mother. But reality was different. Short ceremonies were frowned upon by the extended family. Any ripples to the pond of tradition were viewed with contempt. Their mother's siblings were wealthy landowners. Rather than see their sister's ceremony rushed like a slow car tailed by an impatient taxi, they preferred to donate money and hold the proper rites. 


However, Jay and Sheila were adamant and independent. This was their mother and they would take care of the funeral and everything else. Besides, accepting money from every member of the family meant planning would spiral out of control. Everyone would demand a say in how the ceremony should be handled. Then you must please every uncle, aunt and cousin twice-removed. It was not an easy task in a family whose minds changed as often as mynahs flapped their wings. 


Still, it was an insurmountable decision: go the normal route and observe a ten-day ceremony, or obey their mother's last wishes and perform a three-day ceremony. Jay didn't want to think about it. His mother was still alive. 


Death and After 


Two days later the old woman died. She had fallen the night before. Her hip fractured and the doctor recommended surgery. The following morning, she was taken to the operating theater. When the surgery was done, she complained of tiredness. Three hours later she passed away on the hospital bed.


The entire family knew within hours. Those who lived in the furthest parts of the country prepared their journeys. Most took leaves of absence from the office. Sheila was hysterical and Niklesh dragged her away. Jay finished the paperwork. 


But there was a problem. The cause of death on the hosptial records were marked as unnatural. The doctor suspected she died from an overdose of anesthetic administered during surgery. A post-mortem was required. Thus the funeral would be postponed for at least a week. 


Jay decided to continue with the ceremony nonetheless. At home, in his mother's room, he lit a clap lamp filled with ghee. This lamp must burn continuously throughout the ceremony. People streamed to the house and offered condolences. 


"So they won’t release the body?" asked Krish. He was the old woman’s eldest brother. 


Jay nodded. What could they do? The mortuary would never release the body without authorization from the doctor. 


“We’ll see about that,” continued Krish. He called his youngest daughter. “Where’s my phone? I must make a call.”


Krish was the wealthiest of the extended family. He had inherited the lion’s share of his father’s money. The eldest experiences the best of traditions. The girls of the family receive very little. 


Krish held his mobile phone to his ear. “Superintendent? Yes, this is Krish Mathura. There is an urgent matter…” 


Krish moved to a quieter part of the house. The crowd was noisy. He could not hear much. 


Niklesh arranged for the local undertaker. He set up a large tent and plastic chairs in the yard. The old woman was well known. A large crowd was expected to pay their last respects. Catering was required. 


Krish returned from his phone call and addressed them. “I have taken care of it,” He announced. “The Superintendent has agreed to change the cause of death to natural. The body will be released.” 


"I'm very glad to hear that," said the undertaker, "I mean, she was old. There is no need for a post-mortem. She needs a funeral without delay." 


Krish nodded and beckoned Jay. “I must talk to you,” He said.


Krish Mathura could be commanding if he wanted. Since his father’s death, he had assumed patriarchal duties. It was another warm tradition for the eldest. 


“Jay,” He said, “What next? I hope you will do things properly.” 


Jay shuffled his feet. "The thing is," He began, "Ma did not want a big funeral. She wanted a three-day ceremony." 


Krish nodded. "But you and I know better, don't we Jay?" He said. "Your mother was ill. She didn't know what she was talking about. Never mind - we'll have a ten-day ceremony."

 

Jay was unsure. His mother did not want a ten-day ceremony. But Krish Mathura, in all his omnipotent glory, did not agree. Over Krish's shoulder, Jay saw Sheila. She stared because she knew Krish’s ways. 


“But Ma said…” Jay began. 


"You know your mother was ill," interrupted Krish. "That is why she said what she said. A ten-day ceremony is the proper way.”


"I'm sorry. My mother wanted a three-day ceremony." 


"But I told you Jay - she was ill. She was delirious. Why won't you listen?"


"She wanted a three-day ceremony," said Jay, firm this time. 


Krish Mathura’s temper soared! Jay was thirty years younger. How dare he tell him how to arrange his sister’s funeral? 


“Jay, stop this nonsense.” 


"But I tell you, this is what my mother wanted - a three-day ceremony. She told me and my sister." 


Krish raised his arm. It was a request for silence. "It is a difficult time for you," He said, "You can't think. We will talk after the funeral." 


Jay wanted to forget the conversation. There were more important issues at this point. Krish Mathura was not one of them.


The Funeral 


A marquee was erected in Jay’s yard. The coffin arrived in the morning. A priest recited the prayer script. Since Jay was the son, he performed the last rites. The priest pasted ghee and sandalwood on his forehead and feet. A crowd of women and children sat on chairs. Men stood on the road. They smoked and talked. A long procession of onlookers marched around the coffin to see the face. Jay, Sheila and her aunts gathered around the casket and cried. 


When the time arrived for the coffin to leave the yard, Sheila held on to it with both hands. Her cousins pulled her away. Jay and a few others carried the coffin and loaded it into the hearse. Shrieks and wails accompanied the procession. People got into their cars and drove to the crematorium. 


The coffin was placed on a huge slab in the crematorium. People had twenty minutes for the last view of the face. A worker from the crematorium gently nudged the coffin onto the rollers, so it carried to the furnace. 


Suddenly Krish rushed to the center and shoved the surprised worker out the way! The women screamed! Krish grabbed Jay and motioned him to push the coffin onto the rollers. It was fitting that he continue the last rites to the end. Jay dutifully consigned his mother to the furnace.


After the cremation, the ashes were collected in a clay pot. The men drove to the seaside where Jay cast these into the water. They spread and floated. Then a wave splashed and swallowed them whole. At the house, the ladies lit a fire at the garden gate, next to a bucket of water. When the men returned, they sprinkled the water on their bodies and dried off by the fire. 


Sheila was still crying in the house. She refused to sleep. Instead, she sat on the sofa in the living room. A garlanded photograph of her mother stood next to the altar. 


“Jay,” said Krish, “You must continue. Where is the clay lamp? In the house?” 


Jay nodded. He prayed before the garlanded photograph and then went to his mother’s room. The clay lamp with ghee was there. The wick burned. His duty was to keep it lit until the ceremonial days passed. 


Tradition demanded that Jay and the immediate family make several observances for ten days after his mother’s death. They would abstain from salted food. They were not allowed to leave the yard. Worldly pleasures, like sex and television, must be avoided. 


But according to his mother’s request, Jay would only perform these duties for three days. This, the old woman reasoned, made it easier for her children.


However Krish -“How can you do this?” He stormed, “You know your mother was ill! You will not desecrate the memory of my sister, do you hear?” 


The rest of the brothers and sisters, long under Krish’s yoke, agreed. They assembled in the living room of Jay’s house. Krish ranted about Jay being a nuisance. 


"Listen boy," His finger wagged, "This three-day ceremony must be forgotten. Whoever heard of such a thing?" 


“But Ma said…” 


“I told you!” Krish thundered, “Your mother was ill in the hospital! Now you listen to me…” 


And Krish continued. Jay looked at Sheila. Her head was down. The noise of Krish’s voice singed the air. The rest of the family, like a large flock of birds, murmured agreement. Jay was tired. He stood up and Krish stopped talking. 


“And now?” He said, “Where are you going?” 


"I'm going to see the lamp," said Jay, "And we are still having a three-day ceremony."


There was a gasp in the room. Jay hurried out. He did not wait for the backlash. Krish could not understand the insolence of youth. He said the same to everyone in the living room. They agreed with sullen faces.

 

The Third Day and Sleep Part 1 


On the morning of the third day the men, Krish included, gathered at Jay's house. A barber and a priest were in the group. Women prepared different foods. Sheila picked grass stems from the yard and mixed these with turmeric, oil, and mustard until a paste formed. She dabbed this on the men’s fingernails. 


Finally, the men got into their cars and drove to the river. The priest led the prayer on the banks. The barber cut their fingernails and shaved Jay's head. The clippings and hair were placed inside a hollow coconut shell. The priest set it on the river and it floated away. 


As payment for his work, Jay gave the priest a bag of groceries and an umbrella. The priest bowed his head and smiled. It was a good omen that the priest was satisfied. Meanwhile, Krish and a few men fetched food from their cars. The priest lay on a grass mat. He was given bread and milk. There was fruit in the milk and the priest did not spill a drop.


Finally the priest, blessed and content, signaled that they could return home. Jay sat in silence as the car winded through the streets. He thought about his mother. This was what she wanted. 


When they arrived at the house, Jay went to his room. He was tired and lay on his bed. But his sleep was troubled and he tossed relentlessly. At eleven o’clock he was awakened by a child. 


“Come,” said the child, “You must do the prayers now.” 


Jay washed his face and walked to the yard. An open fire, known as a hawan, burnt a strong flame. Sheila scooped the ashes and sand, and presented this to Jay. He threw these, together with fruit, into the hawan and recited a short prayer. Next to the fire was a garlanded picture of his mother. Jay dotted her forehead with hardened gram flour. People sang low songs. It was a solemn affair. Nobody dared say anything out of turn. 


Sheila ladled food on a banana leaf. Everybody followed suit and served a little from the pot onto the leaf. Jay led the people to a quiet spot in the yard. He carried a glowing stick to ward off evil demons. They sang as they marched. 


The afternoon sky was gray. The people were exhausted and the men retired to the living room. They talked in hushed tones. Jay went to his bedroom. He passed the room of his mother and heard Sheila crying. But he did not open the door. He hoped that her husband Niklesh would come soon and comfort her. 


In the evening Jay returned to the hawan. The fire burned no more. The men and women prayed over the ash. Jay collected these onto a saucer. 


‘I will take this to her room. The clay lamp is there.” 


The young man carried the saucer with the ash to his mother’s room. He smoothed the ash until it was flat. The wick of the lamp was still alight. Jay placed the saucer close to the lamp. He opened the window, clasped his hands and prayed. Then he left the room and shut the door. 


It was custom that the saucer of ash is next to an open window. The window allows easy passage to the house for the dead person’s spirit. The dead person is not yet gone to God. In the morning the ash is inspected. 


Two things may happen – 

  • a small footprint appears 

  • or the ash is untouched.


A footprint confirms reincarnation. The pattern of the print signals the reincarnated creature. If the ash is untouched, the dead person has gone to God. 


That night many people slept in the house. Jay gave up his own room to some children. Blankets dressed the floor as makeshift beds. Jay slept there. He rested easily and soundly. The only disturbance was before dawn. A shriek came from Sheila’s room. Jay heard her cry. Thereafter he was unable to sleep. 


The next morning everyone stood in the kitchen and debated. 


“When should we see the ash on the saucer?” They asked. 


“Go now,” said Krish and nobody disagreed. 


Jay opened the door to his mother’s room. The window was still ajar. On the floor was the clay lamp. The wick smoldered. Nearby the saucer had toppled. Ash lay strewn on the floor. The young man sobbed. Krish, who was at the door, shook his head. Sheila rushed to Jay. 


“What does this mean?” She cried, “What does this mean?”


Jay gathered the ash from the floor. "I don't know what it means," He replied. "I must ask the priest. Ma is at peace after her suffering." 


“In peace?” said Krish, “What do you mean in peace? The ash spilled on the floor!"


“I need time alone,” said Jay. 


“What?” asked Krish, “You don’t want us here?” 


Jay shook his head and left the room. “Where are you going?” asked Krish. 


But the young man returned to his own room and slept. Everyone left the house that day. Jay was glad. He had enough of these people. They always told him what to do. 


The Third Day and Sleep Part 2 


Four days later Sheila invited Jay to her house for dinner. 


“All is well?” Jay asked Niklesh. 


“Fine, fine,” said Niklesh with the familiar repetitive mumble.


The supper was a vegetable feast with roti. Jay ate with relish. He had hardly eaten much during the last four days. His mother always cooked his food. But now that she had passed, there was nobody. He struggled to cook and ate from cans. 


After dinner, the children went to bed. Niklesh and Sheila sat with Jay in the lounge.


“Jay,” said Sheila in a very grave voice, “Have you been sleeping?”


“I sleep,” He replied, “Why do you ask?” 


“I have not been sleeping well.” 


“Not well, not well at all,” said Niklesh. 


Jay stared at him and then turned to his sister. “What do you mean?” He asked. 


“You know that night when you put the saucer of ash in Ma’s room? In the morning I had a nightmare and I screamed.” 


Jay remembered the shriek. “I heard you,” He nodded.


“I have the same dream every night,” Sheila revealed. “It’s the same nightmare. I woke up, frightened and scared.” 


“What is the dream?” asked Jay. 


Sheila held her husband’s hand. “I’m in a room,” She said, “I don’t know what room. There is a window, but I can’t see outside.” 


Jay swallowed. “And for some reason,” Sheila continued, “I want to leave the room. My face is stricken with terror and I need to get out the room. So I run to the door and turned the knob. The door is unlocked. I pull it open.” 


Sheila paused. She looked at Niklesh. “And?” said Jay, “What happens?” 


"Something pulls the door shut from the other side," said Sheila, "And I can't get it open. But I pull and I pull. For some reason, I must get out the room. But the thing on the other side doesn’t let go. And then suddenly with all my might, I pull the hardest I can. The door flings open! Something stands on the other side. I don't know what it is. A creature - but it is big, almost as big as me. It has red eyes. It jumps through the doorway. That is when I wake up and scream!” 


Jay ran his hand through his hair. “When did you first have this dream?”


“On that night at the house when you placed the saucer of ash in Ma’s room.”


“And what about you Niklesh?” Jay asked, “Do you have the dream as well?”


“No,” said Niklesh, “I shake Sheila and wake her up. Shake her. But why do you ask?”


"Because," Jay leaned back, "For the last four nights I had the same dream as well." 


The Wandering Spirit 


“The dream is vague,” said the priest, “It is difficult to interpret.” 


“But why?” asked Jay, “Why is it happening? If we know that, then we shall know what it means.” 


“If we know what it means, then we shall know why it is happening,” replied the priest.


Jay stood up. He scrunched his fingers into his scalp. “Listen, we need your help.” 


Sheila held his hand. The priest understood his anger. “It points to your mother and her passing,” He said. “It is natural. The first dream happened when you left the saucer of ash at the window.”


“And then?” asked Jay. Both he, Sheila and Niklesh had concluded that the recurring dream had religious undertones, connected to their mother. So the following Saturday they visited the priest at his temple. The priest was delighted to see them but his face grew grave when he heard the dream. 


“This is a sad state of affairs.” He muttered. 


“I tell you why this dream has come,” said Sheila, “It is because the saucer with the ash toppled. There wasn’t a footprint. Nor was the ash clear. It is connected. I know it.” 


“That is true,” nodded the priest. “Your mother wanders the realm of spirits and souls. She does not rest. But she must rest. Else her children will never rest.” 


“Then what must we do?” asked Jay. 


"You must perform the ceremonial rites again," answered the priest, "But not for three days. You must do a ten-day ceremony." 


"She did not want a ten-day ceremony," Jay replied, "She wanted a three-day ceremony."


“I know that young people want a three-day ceremony," acknowledged the priest, "But modern changes to traditions invite such problems. A ten-day ceremony is required." 


Sheila stared at her husband. But Niklesh was uncomfortable. So she stared at her brother who, after a minute of indecisiveness, nodded. 


“We will have a ten-day ceremony,” Sheila told the priest, “But are you sure it will work?” 


“Nothing in life or death is certain,” answered the priest, “But it is our best chance to help your mother.” 


Sheila and Niklesh returned with Jay to his house. They assembled in the lounge and discussed plans for a ten-day ceremony. 


“The family,” said Niklesh, “Will they come, the family?” 


Sheila looked at Jay. “The ceremony - we will tell the family, right?” 


But her brother shook his head. “No,” He said, “I won’t allow it. Krish will gloat. He will say that I should have listened to him.”


“Krish, yes,” mumbled Niklesh. 


“But Jay,” said Sheila, “What if something bad happens again because we did not include the family?” 


"The priest did not say that we needed the extended family," Jay answered, "He said that we must do the ten-day ceremony." 


That was that. Jay would not hear anything else. Sheila and Niklesh understood. Jay had defied Krish Mathura about the ten-day ceremony. He did not want to admit he had been wrong. It meant another victory for Krish who would not let anyone forget. 


The priest visited Jay and urged him to act with haste. He performed a prayer with his garlands and ash. 


“Will there be anyone else?” asked the priest.

 

“Only me,” replied Jay, “My sister and her family will observe the fast at their house.”


The priest nodded. "Do you know the ritual, Jay?" 


“Yes. I know.”


The ten-day ceremony was similar to the one that Jay had performed earlier. There was abstinence in the days leading to the tenth day. Jay did not leave the yard. Neither did he watch television or listen to the radio. Sheila brought foods without salt, and cakes without eggs so he could eat. Another clay lamp was lit in his mother’s room. It burnt continuously. During this time the dreams occurred less frequently, became shorter and less terrifying. 


On the tenth day, Jay left a saucer of ash near an open window in his mother's room. Sheila stayed at the house that night. Their sleep passed peacefully. The next morning Jay stood outside his mother's door, his hand on the knob. Sheila found him there. 


“Did you go in yet?” She asked. 


"No," He replied, "I have been standing here for the last few minutes. I'm too scared to go in. What if…What if the saucer has toppled again?" 


“I don’t know,” answered Sheila, “But we must go in.” 


“Will you come as well?”


Sheila nodded. She took Jay's hand and they both turned the knob. The door creaked and they peered into the room. All was calm. Across the doorway, the saucer sat on a table close to the window. It had not toppled. Both brother and sister heaved a sigh of relief. They walked to the saucer and stared at its contents. The ash was smoothed and flat, as it had been the night before. 


“There’s no print,” whispered Jay, “She’s not reincarnated.” 


“Then she’s gone to God,” Sheila burst out in tears. “Ma has gone to God!” 


She fell onto her mother’s bed, sunk her head in the pillow and cried. Jay touched the saucer to make sure it was real. He said a small prayer. A thin film appeared over his eyes. 


Epilogue 


A few days later Sheila cooked lamb with rice at Jay’s house. Niklesh and the children were there as well. Jay cut a large banana leaf on which the food was served. 


“Did you call the priest?” She asked her brother. 


“Yes,” replied Jay, “He will be here soon.”


The food would be taken to the open fire again where the priest would recite a prayer and perform the last rites. They heard a car gently ascend the sloped driveway. 


“The priest?” asked Sheila. 


Her husband Niklesh hurried in the kitchen. His face was pale. “Come quick,” He whispered, “Come quick.” 


“What’s the matter now?” asked Jay. 


They followed Niklesh to the front of the house. The priest stood in the verandah. 


“He came to the temple,” said the priest and beckoned towards the car. “He picked me up. I don’t know how he knew.” 


Jay and Sheila looked over his shoulder. The car did not belong to the priest. The driver, still in his seat, searched for something on the dashboard. Then he unbuckled his seatbelt and unlocked the door. Even though the windscreen was glazed, they saw the grim look on his face. It was Krish Mathura.



 


Shane Pillay is a creative artist, working in music, art and literature. He is based in The Netherlands and collaborates with musical artists from the USA, Ukraine, Indonesia, and Australia. He has also produced animation films, including “The boy who forgot his birthday” in 2021.


His short stories can be found in multiple journals, including Hawaii Pacific Review, Nthanda Review, The Kalahari Review and Fiction Magazines.

His adult novella, "Affairs of the Dick", was published by The Little French Books (2018). His horror novella, "The Knocking", was published by indie publisher Alban Publishing (2019).

 

Further information about Shane Pillay can be found at www.shanepillay.com.


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