I went out today to pay the half-yearly water tax to the challengingly acronymed CMWSSB. When the city was called Madras it was the MMWSSB, but now it is the Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewage Board.
As I drove, listening to Pandit Shivkumar Shankar play the santoor on the CD player, I was remembering a conversation that took place at home yesterday. It was quite interesting and wide-ranging, and one of the topics was death. I mentioned the T*e*r*r*y S*c*h*i*a*v*o case, and said that we Americans just don’t seem to be able to handle death (vast generalisation, I know). I cannot imagine that such a thing could happen here, where death is acknowledged as what it is: part of nature, part of life. Our guest suggested that the reason is that Christians, (and other People of the Book), believe that there is only one life, and that makes them terrified of its ending. Hindus, Buddhists, etc. believe in many lives – it makes things seem more relaxed. It’s not the first time I’ve heard this, of course, but it is an interesting thought. We talked about it, and then Ramesh joked that this janam-janam (life after life) business is the reason for Indians’ tendency to postpone everything: “There’s plenty of time, in the next janam we’ll see.” We laughed and moved on.
I also remembered, as I have many times, that when my father died, my mother refused to look at his body in the coffin – she had seen him for the last time being wheeled into the operating room – because she ‘didn’t want to remember him that way.’ But then she had to send my brother-in-law to look, before they closed the coffin, to make sure that it was really his body: otherwise she would have wondered, she said, whether they had mistakenly put someone else inside. How difficult, I thought, how different from the way death is handled here.
And then, waiting for the light to change, it suddenly struck me, for the first time in all these years, that I hadn’t looked at my father’s body either. I had also left it to my brother-in-law (though it hadn’t occurred to me that it might be anyone else in the coffin). I was so amazed – how had this never occurred to me before? -- that I missed the turning to Spurtank Road, and had to go all the way over the Chetpet Bridge, and a long way down Poonamallee High Road before I could turn around and come back. And then one stretch of the road was full of flower petals, mostly crushed into the pavement by the traffic, because a funeral procession (in which the body is carried on a kind of stretcher, decked with flowers, and with its face visible) had recently passed by. Which seemed charged, significant to me, although it wasn’t. And for several hours after that I would be doing my work, when a large exclamation point would pop up in my head: !!How?? and go away again.
When you pay the water tax you have to stand in line at the counter where someone looks into the computer to see what you owe. He writes it on a slip of paper, which you carry to the cashier’s window, where there is another line for payment. As I was waiting in the second, cashier’s line, three women walked into the office together, went up to the counter, and began shouting all at once. They went on and on, and everyone craned their necks to see. After a few minutes, from the official side of the counter, a Lady Officer moved forward and began gesticulating and shouting back. She was large and had an ugly face, and looked powerful – she had a smaller lady minion hovering behind her – but the three women did not stop their angry tirades. I thought snobbishly, That’s how uneducated women speak, so loudly... And then as I was going out, a well-dressed woman, whom I had heard speaking good English inside, was shrieking into her cellphone in the echo-chamber of the stairwell, so that I had to put my hands over my ears in order to get down the stairs and out.