Page 20 - POTB Issue 11
P. 20

Chattri




               Violet and Betty were standing at the edge of a copse, next to the cremation site.  The
               copse creaked in the breeze, oozing the acrid smell of rot.  Though it had stopped
               raining, Violet could hear water dropping onto the dead matted leaves.  Above her a
               seagull cried, an ugly gash of a sound, as it weaved circles in the dull sky.


               The cremation site was cut into the slope, with three platforms of cement and a
               rough screen of corrugated iron.  There were heaps of chopped wood and straw,
               covered by tarpaulins, next to the platforms.   A rush of bile burnt the back of Violet’s
               throat, and with another spasm she threw up onto a patch of ivy and dried leaves.


               “Sick again? People will talk you know!”  Betty laughed, and put her arm around Violet.


               “It’s just a chill.”  Violet wiped her mouth with her handkerchief, and checked she
               hadn’t stained her cloak.


               There were now orange lights on the track below, torches held aloft, marking the
               passage of the cremation party.  The mourners’ chanting could be heard above
               the tramping of feet as they carried Sanjay’s bier up the hill and laid it down next
               to the cement platforms.  The mourners were mostly Indian hospital staff, but
               also a few soldiers and some English officers.  As there were no women present,
               Violet and Betty decided to stay at the edge of the copse – spectators rather than
               participants.


               An Indian orderly came forward and swept one of the platforms with a hand brush;
               he then sprinkled water from a pewter pot onto the cement, and drew back the
               cloth from Sanjay’s face.  Violet dragged her eyes away and looked up at the grey
               sky.  The gulls cried in mockery as she watched them head out to sea.


               The Indian mourners were now gathered around the bier, sprinkling it with water
               and dabbing Sanjay’s face with honey and oils.  They left relics around his body, then
               settled on their haunches and resumed chanting.  The English officers shuffled back
               but remained standing, their heads bowed and hands clasped, so Violet and Betty
               did the same.  The nurses listened to the chanting, sometimes shrill, sometimes
               little more than a murmur; it ended with a loud shout.  Violet looked up to see
               that Sanjay’s bier had been placed on the platform and heaped up with the lumps
               of wood and straw.  The same Indian orderly now came forward and lit crystals of
               camphor on a spoon on the end of a long pole; when these were aflame, he thrust
               the pole into the centre of the pyre and set the straw and wood ablaze.  Violet stared
               at Sanjay’s body, a supine shadow behind the smoke and fire, and tears flowed down
               her cheeks.  She listened to the wood crackling, and the spitting of the flames when
               the Indians threw on their oils, and imagined Sanjay’s spirit reaching out to her.




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