Return to India, Part 21 - Benediction: Sujitha takes me to the sacred waters; fish dine - a crow flies
I wrote this in Part 2 - the true introduction to this series:
Even though I had an intellectual knowledge of Soundarya's death, emotionally I had never accepted it. I had not seen her body, I had attended no funeral service, I had not been present at her cremation or for the release of her ashes into the sacred waters. Inside me, there has been a stubborn streak that has refused to accept her death as permanent - even in the mortal sense.
For almost 15 months, against all logic and evidence, this stubborn streak had continued to tell me she would somehow reconstitute herself and we would return to our regular exchange of emails and chats. She would still come to Alaska to visit Margie and me and we would yet ride bicycles together through Denali Park and she could bungee jump off a certain bridge that spans the Copper River and paraglide off the Chugach. These were things she wanted to do.
So I came to India in the hope I might at last make my whole self come to an understanding of the truth, to find a way to accept that truth and come to terms with it.
I came intent to visit the place where she took her life, the crematorium where her body was returned to ash and dust, and the holy waters into which her ash and dust had been released. It is kind of like when you lose a person you love in a car crash. Even if you weren't there when it happened, you go to the site where it took place. You look at the skid, oil, and maybe burn marks left on the road. Then you go to the junk yard to look at the crumpled car, the blood stains inside it. You go to the funeral home; view the body. You attend the funeral, then stand beside the grave as your loved one is lowered into the ground. None of this is macabre. When you lose someone you love, you just have a human need to know what the full process was that took them from the living person you loved into the grave.
If I could see the places and things that told of her process, I thought, I might finally, wholly, know. I might accept the truth and come to terms with it.
And so, on March 6, Niece Sujitha hired a cab and a driver to take us on this journey. We began right here, just over a block from her parents' home, beneath the under-construction Metro track.
Our planned destinations: the place of death, the crematorium, and the sacred waters - but in reverse order.
Of all these destinations, the sacred waters was the farthest away. I cannot remember exactly, but I think it was about 65 kilometers - a half-hour journey on a typical American highway, but, given the congested traffic of Southern India and the narrow highway, it would take two-and-a-half hours. I didn't mind the time. In fact, I was glad for it. It gave Sujitha and me time to just sit and talk, to share the feelings we have about all that has happened since Anil and Nikhil died in the tragic crash that spawned so much tragedy and heartbreak. I also needed the time to better fortify and prepare my mind for the visits to come.
Many tears fell as we talked and our driver motored us toward the sacred waters. My mind is conditioned to analyze the picture possibilities at all times and in all situations. In Sujitha's falling tears, I saw strong picture possibilities. Sujitha wants to help me tell the story of her sister and knows that to tell that story I must have pictures of pain and I knew she would be okay with it.
Yet, on this drive I took no pictures of those tears. For the moment, I just set my camera aside and shared those tears with her.
In fact, I hardly took any pictures at all on this drive - but I did take this one, during a pause in the conversation, a moment of cessation of tears. I also took the image that follows:
I believe the needs I stated above at what one experiences at the loss of a loved one are inherent in all humans, be they male or female. Certainly, it proved to be so for Sujitha. She had been there with her entire nuclear family and several close extended family when her sister had so suddenly and unbelievably slipped through not only her sleeping embrace, but the collective embrace of all present and had taken her own life.
Yet, Sujitha, too, had missed the cremation and the release of ash into the sacred waters. In fact, Soundarya had also missed these moments in the funeral rites for her husband Anil. It is the practice of their particular religious group that only men attend and participate in these final rituals of cremation and dispersal. The women stay behind. Soundarya had stayed behind when it had been Anil. Suji had stayed behind for Anil and then, just one day later, for Soundu, too.
Yet, she had that burning need to know first hand, to see, to touch, to feel all that had happened to her sister - the same burning need that I felt, but from the perspective of one who had lost not only her admired and beloved older sister, but her best friend. So one day, without telling anyone, Sujitha found her way to the crematorium. The people who operated it proved most understanding. They brought her inside, they showed her the recorded names of her sister and brother-in-law. They showed her the oven each had gone into - one, one day, the other the next. They allowed her to witness cremation.
Then she knew.
She also determined she would visit the sacred waters where her sister's ash had been released, but she had not done so yet - in part, because she had gone off to join Manoj in London - but also because she knew I needed to go there, too, and I would come for her wedding. So she decided to wait, and take me there herself. Then she would take me to the cremation site, show me what she had seen and afterward we would visit the house where Soundarya and Anil had lived, where Soundarya had died.
There had been some concern among family members when they became aware that she, a woman, was going to take me to this place where the women of their group do not go to see their dead off or return to mourn for them afterward. I was worried, but she told me not to be. She told me that after we visited there and then nothing bad happened as a result, it would be okay. The family would accept what she had done. They would embrace her and love her still, with no recrimination. Soundarya, Sujitha, Ganesh - born into a loving family - daughters, son - all, female and male, deeply loved and cherished. This I have seen and felt.
About half-way into the drive, we stopped at the roadside stand of a coconut vendor. Sujitha bought three coconuts - one for the driver, one for herself and one for me. The heat was near searing, and the cool, sweet, milk of the coconut proved to be an excellent and refreshing quencher of thirst.
As we drank the milk of the coconuts, I saw a man walking with two head of cattle down the road. I briefly thought about going out to photograph him, but then I thought, "No, I will hold back. If he wants me to photograph him, he will let me know and then I will."
The man walked a short distance past us with his two head, and then he stopped. He spoke to another man in his own language. That man then told me that he had asked if I would take a picture of him.
So I did, and this is it.
The sun is harsh. It casts dark shadows on his eyes and forces him to squint. You cannot see his eyes in this photo. You can see his pride. I had no way to give him a picture, but it didn't matter. He knew I had taken it, he knew I would show it to others in far away places and these people would then know he existed, here in South India, with at least two head of cattle, of which he was proud.
In time, we came to a junction and turned left onto the less busy fork. I knew we were drawing near. I began to grow nervous, almost fearful. My breath grew short. The road we were on looked familiar. I was all but certain I had gone down this road on a side track to a temple and swimming hole when Melanie and I had toured Mysore with Vasanthi, Buddy, Soundarya and Anil following the May wedding of 2009.
We traveled for a bit longer, and then the driver came to a shaded place on an embankment over the Kaveri River. People milled all about, yet there was an air of quiet and serenity to it - in contrast to the emotions tearing at my gut. This was the small community of Srirangapatna - a holy place. Down below, on the river bank, a large platform made of stones descended in steps down into the water. A small structure that looked to me to be a shrine stood on the far corner of the platform, above the river. This was Sangama, an "amalgamation of three holy rivers" - the Kaveri, Kabini and Hemativi.
It was from this platform that Anil's ash had been released into the holy waters one day and then Soundarya's the next. I wanted to go down to that water, but I did not want to go down to the water. I wanted both to put my hands into the water and to turn away from the pain and leave, to say that I had seen the water and the place and that was enough. Yet, it was not enough.
A short distance in front of us, I could see three beggars sitting, their open palms extended out in plea to passersby. Sujitha, who insisted on covering my every expense when I was with her, gave me a few ten rupee notes to give to them, then hurried down to Sangama. That's her, up ahead of the man in the cream colored shirt, walking resolutely toward the Sangama shrine.
I took the picture, then gave the rupees to the beggars and set off to catch up to Sujitha.
When I reached her, I saw this man wading through the water in front of us. On each side of us were separate, very small groups of men, priests among them, covered from the waist down by their wrap-around panches, their upper torsos bare. Incense and oil burned. Coconuts, bananas, garlands and other flowers lay on stones near them, along with two orange clay urns to our left and one to the right. The urns were open at the top with only flowers and leaves to serve as lids.
The sun stood close to straight overhead and the heat bore down upon us. I shot a few frames of the man in the water and did not look too closely at the men to the sides or at what they were doing. I did not seek to photograph them or to intrude upon the final, sacred, rites they conducted. Sujitha observed that the man wading in the water had some kind of wire sieve into which he scooped and strained material from the bottom of the river. Then he would peer closely into the sieve, apparently in search of whatever valuables might have been left behind.
We sat there in the stifling heat, feeling the overwhelming sorrow as the holy river flowed by before us.
Beyond this step was another. In the water above it, tiny, minnow-sized, fish swam. Sujitha told me these fish will bite your feet. When she was younger and would go to a river's edge with Soundarya and Ganesh, her brother and sister liked to stick their feet into the water where these type of fish swim. They liked the feeling as the fish nibbled away at the dead skin on their feet, doing them no harm. Suji did not like the fish to bite her. She kept her feet away from them.
I wanted to experience this for myself, so I stuck my feet into the warm, deeper water over the next step. The fish completely ignored my feet.
"They won't bite because your feet are too clean," Suji observed.
My feet are American feet, always protected by shoes and boots. They lacked the thick callous and tough, dead skin that had built up on the most often bare feet of Sandy and Ganesh. The fish had no appetite for live human foot flesh - only for dead.
I would not get to experience the sensation Sandy and Ganesh had loved to feel as the fish nibbled away at their feet. I pulled my feet back onto the same step as Sujitha's. I noticed my toenails were too long. I had not clipped them in awhile. They, too, remain always hidden in my shoes and boots. I just don't think about clipping them until they start to bother me a bit, or Margie complains that they are poking holes in my socks.
Sujitha had saved a rose from a garland that had adorned her sister's body. She had dried it and had kept the remnants in this little plastic container, just for this moment.
She handed the container to me and told me she wanted me to be the one to release the rose into the holy waters. I suggested we do it together. We did.
The remants of the rose that had adorned Soundarya Anil Kumar drifted off in the modest current. Oil released from a burning lamp in an an upstream ceremony joined it.
Sujitha gently placed the container upon the water. It followed after.
Sujitha had also saved this scarf to give to me as a memento of Muse, my soul friend, her sister. As we sat in the hot embrace of the sun, I pressed Sandy's scarf tight against my face, breathed through it and held it there for many minutes. I could still smell traces of the life that had been hers.
After 15 months, I finally said goodbye.
Suji wept. So did I.
In time, the group of men downstream to our left finished their rituals and left. We could see that the four men to our right would soon deliver the urn now in their care into the water as well. "You can take pictures," Suji told me. "It's okay. They won't mind."
Feeling most unsure of myself, I shot a couple of trial frames of nothing significant. The priests did not mind. They then picked the urn up from a plate-like platform which, along with a split-open coconut, a garland and bananas, had sat atop an elevated stone behind them. Flowers and leaves lay over the ash in the urn. Smoke rose from what appeared to be a tiny container of burning oil atop the outer edge of the flowers. Together, the four men reached out to lift the urn over the river's edge, lowered it to the surface of the holy waters...
...and let it go.
The urn floated for perhaps one foot, then the shoreward lip of it dipped beneath the surface, sacred water poured into it to displace ash which then spilled out in a brown plume into the river. The urn sank. As ash and flowers drifted ahead of it, a large air bubble escaped from the sunken urn and burst through the surface.
Then, as the plume drifted past us, the tiny fish that eat the dead skin of calloused feet suddenly began to shoot and dart through the ash, breaking the surface of the sacred waters with their chomping mouths as they did so. Nutrients still remained in the ash. The person whose flesh had contained those nutrients had no more use of them, but the fish did. The physical part of this person had been completely returned to the larger world and now nourished the environment from which it had been made.
So too had it been with the physical body of my dear friend and Muse, Soundarya. Of this, my knowledge was now certain.
Sujitha, 15 minutes and 54 seconds after the ash had been released into the river - according to the metadata on my pictures. We spoke very little during that time. We just sat there, quietly, soft tears sliding, thinking about, feeling, what we had just witnessed.
After another four minutes, Sujitha got up. Before we returned to the cab, she wanted to look for something among the vendors set up at the top of the rise, so she suggested that I spend a few more minutes here contemplating by myself. She dipped her hands into the sacred waters, rinsed off her arms, face, forehead and head and then, standing in place, turned a complete circle.
She instructed me to do the same before I departed. She then headed back up the hill.
Five minutes later, after performing the ritual just as I had observed her do, I left, but paused to look back upon and take this one last image of Sangama - the place where the ashes of Muse and soul friend Soundarya had followed those of her husband Anil into the holy amalgamation of rivers.
Over an hour had passed since we had arrived and it had been a long drive before that. I needed to use the restroom but when I got to the top of the rise there was a boy stationed outside the door to collect an entrance fee. I had no more rupees, but it didn't matter - Suji had already paid the fee for me.
After driving a very short distance away from the site we came to an intersection I felt certain I recognized from the 2009 trip. If we were to turn right, I told Suji, I thought we might soon come upon a yellow temple. We turned right, and quickly did come upon a yellow temple. Suji purchased various alms for us to leave at the temple, including the coconuts and the garland that can barely be seen beyond her left side. We went inside.
Soundarya had expressed differing thoughts about religion. She would visit the temples and perform her Hindu rituals, yet would sometimes go sit in a Christian chapel, where she found comfort in the quiet and serenity. Sujitha does this also. On one of her social networking sites, Sandy listed her religion as "human" on another, "atheist." She would often tell me she had been praying for me, was praying for me, would pray for me. In one writing to me, she referenced the coming day when she would "stand before my God."
As I have written before, she once found an injured crow and brought it into her apartment to nurse it back to health. When her landlord discovered the bird, he vehemantly ordered her to evict the crow, or he would evict her. A crow in the house will bring seven years of bad luck to the house, many in her culture believe. She refused to evict the crow until it had healed.
She loved this whole family of birds - crows and their raven cousins - as she loved all animals, bugs and cobras included. Anytime I would happen upon a raven here in Wasilla, I would photograph it and then email the photo to her. Once, shortly before she and Anil married, we were chatting and she told me how they had been out on her motorbike. They found what I remember her describing as an injured raven, but I think it was probably a crow. Maybe I just remember wrong, because I was always sending her pictures of ravens. It doesn't matter. The two birds are closely related. Both are intelligent, clever, cunning, share many attributes and Soundarya shared the love she felt for both with me. At her home, the bird would most likely be a crow; at mine, a raven.
She picked up the injured bird and sat down behind Anil on her motorbike. As he drove in search of a vet, she cradled the big, black, injured, scared, bird and sang to it.
"What did you sing?" I asked. I thought she might name a Hindu lullabye I had never heard of.
"Safe in the Arms of Jesus," she answered.
They found a vet, but he scolded them for bringing the bird to them and told them to take it away. Sandy scolded him right back. He yielded to her, accepted the crow/raven as a patient and treated it. When it came time to release the healed bird, a crowd gathered. The crow/raven flapped its wings and flew away. The people cheered.
We passed through the temple and came out with red marks upon our foreheads. I had taken the interior shot from the one place inside where photographs were allowed. Now, I wanted an exterior shot. We still had other places to go and needed to move along, so I decided to shoot a quick picture, right where we were - just for the record.
Just as I pressed the shutter button, this crow flew into the frame.
Coincidence - this is what my intellect tells me the appearance of the crow was.
Coincidence - there have been so many.
My heart tells me otherwise. My heart tells me the crow was a gift.
Sujitha asked the driver if he knew of a good restaurant and so he took us to this place, a resort. The restaurant was large, filled with abundant table space and empty of customers. Two waiters stood nearby. We took the seat of our choice and then just sat and quietly visited. The underlying sorrow had not disappeared, yet atop it there was now an extraordinary feeling of warmth, a feeling of peace, different from any I had ever felt before.
Perhaps this is why we sat there in an otherwise empty dining room with two waiters watching over it, for a full half-hour before we finally asked the waiters if they ever intended to take our order.
The food - nothing like Vasanthi's, or Bhanu's. It did not match the restaurant Sujitha took me to on her bike before we went wedding shopping.
Still, it was good.
My Angel baby,
These are not just words but prayers...
May you live in joy, wealth and prosperity for many more years!
This is the best gift one can ever get...
To lay in the arms of the loved one, you bet!
A boon you are to us,
So shall you receive many a bonus!
And smiles all through...
May all your dreams turn true!
01:44 am 02/10/2009
In her emails and chats, Sandy would often write of her sister and always with great affection. She seldom referred to her as "Sujitha" or even "Suji."
"Barbie," she called her.
Barbie, immediately after reading the birthday poem Soundu wrote to her in 2009.
I no longer felt any need to visit the death site, or the crematorium. I did not want anything to break the feeling of warmth and peace the visit to the river had given me, the solace I now shared with Sujitha. We both felt the same. We decided instead to return to the Ravichandran home in Bangalore.
Upon our return, notwithstanding what we had witnessed and the beautiful feeling afterward, I still found the message of the garland a hard one to bear. It still hurt to look at it.
My eyelids felt heavy, in need of a nap. I went into Ganesh's room, which had also become my room for the duration of my stay. I turned on the overhead fan and lay down upon the bed. I was definitely better off for having made my visit to the sacred waters with Suji, yet, lying there beneath the spinning fan, the pain still seared. I closed my eyes and soon fell into that strange state of consciousness between wakefulness and sleep when one is aware of what surrounds him, yet engulfed in dreamlike visions of other places and experiences as they float through his head.
I saw myself as a youth, scaling and walking along the tops of cliffs on a stretch of seacoast on the edge of the redwood forest about 25 miles north of Eureka, California, beneath a pristine, blue sky in a stiff breeze with a chill to it. Down below, I could see a narrow, rocky beach, pounded by the constant onslaught of big, roiling, Pacific breakers that endlessly rolled in from their journeys of thousands of miles, one after the other, to explode in a roar of churning, tumbling, surf and then to die in a rush of sizzling froth.
A song from the time period - the mid-60's - came into my head, a song about freedom, about making deep connections with people only to move on in heartbreak, but with new memories to be cherished. I looked at the boy on the cliffs and I thought that when he had walked there, Soundarya did not even exist as a human being - not as a Ravichandran, not as an Anil Kumar. She had not been born, she had not been conceived, she simply... was not.
While beset with the usual problems of adolescence, the boy atop the cliffs felt happy, carefree. He enjoyed the wind, was enthralled by the big, open, blue sky, relished climbing the cliffs and surfing the grand Pacific breakers below. Her absence on this earth caused him no pain at all.
Was the basic situation not the same now? Why, then, all this pain? Yet, pain remained. Coming to terms does not eliminate pain.
Murthy, Vasanthi and I roamed about Gujarat and Rajasthan for six days - just enough time to get a tiny, but flavorful taste. We arrived in Mumbai on the evening of March 19th. Murthy and Vasanthi had to catch their flight to Bangalore almost immediately. Sujitha and Manoj were headed up from Pune to catch a midnight flight back to London from Mumbai, where I would overnight. Suji had planned to meet up for one last hello and goodbye, but shortly after I arrived at the home of my Mumbai hosts, I received a message that they were running late and did not have time to drop by.
Yet, Suji did drop by, her parents with her, in this car driven by one of Manoj's friends. Given the density and unpredictability of Mumbai traffic, she ran a real risk of missing her flight, but she came anyway. They did not have time to come up to the sixth-floor home of my hosts, so I came down and met them in the driveway. Her time in Pune with her husband and new family and her mom and dad had been good. She and Ravi and Bhanu greeted me with smiles and laughter and warm hugs. Then they got back into the car, and left.
A few days ago, she wrote with some thoughts she said I could share in this post. In the past, when she was away from home, her father did not call, but left that to her and others. "Now he is afraid to leave me alone anywhere," she wrote. "He (in Bangalore) has called me twice in three hours (in London) to know when I am reaching home. Fear has engulfed in everyone's heart now, fears of losing the others... I fear nothing now... because... if I can live through this... so CAN others... So COULD YOU."
Never does the love she feels for her sister leave her, or the longing to see and hold her again. "If at all I had said these words to you, if at all before I closed my eyes I hugged you tight and told you how much I loved you... that I feel emptiness around me... when you are not there."
And this is what I have to say to all readers as I close this series (there will be no postscript): When life's dark hours fall upon you, as they surely will, perhaps many times, fight! Fight! Fight the temptations of grief and sorrow. Yell and scream if you must. If you believe in Jesus and it helps you bear the unbearable to pray to Jesus, pray to Jesus! If to kneel at the altar that symbolizes a Hindu deity of your faith is what gives you the strength to endure, then kneel at that altar and pray. If what gets you through is to sit in a roasting sweat lodge with others who mourn and struggle and pray and weep, then go into that sweat lodge, mourn, pray and weep.
For me, in this case, it has been to walk alone; in the north, to tread the frozen lagoons under the midday moon, to shout and scream at the emptiness; in Wasilla, to wander through those loneliest places where I am least likely to encounter others and to converse out loud with one who no longer walks this earth, to communicate with those who do and exchange tears with them, in person, by email, on the phone - Sujitha - in particular. Soul friend Sujitha. You too, Ganesh. Finally, to sit upon a stone step and to place my feet into the warm, sacred, waters. These waters are sacred. I am not Hindu and never will be, but these waters are sacred.
Whatever it takes for you, whatever faith, whatever action in absence of faith, fight on. Survive, survive - until the day circumstance and fate beyond your control removes you from this life. You might not always feel like you can. I sure don't. But, as Suji says, you can. Please do. Survive.
Survive... Survive... Survive...
And never cease to love those who don't survive. And if you must, no matter how precious the thing they took away from you in their seemingly unbearable moment of blind grief, forgive them. They did not mean to hurt you like this. In that desperate moment, they did not fully understand the impact it would have on you. The love they held for you was real and it still lives.
Forgive them. Love them always.
Forgive them... Forgive them... Forgive them...
Love them... Love them... Love them...