Posted by: cochinblogger | July 28, 2010

A Tale of Two Coffins

The biggest shock I have ever got in my life occurred a few hours after I returned home from my mother’s funeral, when I saw that someone had carelessly thrown her coffin in the rubbish bin outside my house. My mother, you see, unlike most dead mothers, needed two coffins: the coffin in which her body had lain during the flight that brought her to Cochin from Mumbai, and the coffin in which she made her final journey. Naturally, it was the former coffin that I saw lying in the rubbish bin. I stood there looking stupidly at the coffin in the bin for some time. It did not belong there; it did not seem right. I felt that something sacred had been violated, not something sacred in the abstract, but sacred in a deeply personal sense; in fact, I felt personally violated.

It finally sank in that there was nothing I could do about the coffin in the bin, just as there had been nothing I could do about the chain of seemingly inexplicable, commonplace, and yet terrifying events that were set in motion when my mother detected a lump in her right breast just over a year earlier, when she was in her mid-fifties.

Recently, almost 20 years after my mother’s death, I found myself attending another funeral in a church cemetery. After the burial, I was chatting with some relatives when my eyes fell on a heap of garlands in a disused corner of the cemetery, garlands that had been placed with loving care on loved dead bodies; I could even read some of the names on some garlands. Then and there I was unexpectedly transported back to the day I saw the coffin in the bin.

Three days later, sitting in an auto on the way to work, I saw this:

A religious program that spanned a few days had been held near-by, and this hoarding of Mother Mary had been a prominent and striking feature of the banner-swathed welcome arch near the entrance. Now the program was over, and workers were dismantling the temporary structures that had sheltered hundreds of supplicants and worshipers. Some worker had laid the hoarding by the side of the road. What could be more natural? And yet … The hoarding lay there in the same position, with Mother Mary all but kissing the road, for two or three days, before it returned whence it came from. This time there was no flashback, but the beginnings of illumination.

One month later, again on the way to work, I paused on the road at the sight of frenetic activity near the entrance of a company. The arms of a troupe of chenda drummers were working furiously as they swayed to the rhythm. Well-dressed employees rushed here and there. The entrance was tastefully decorated, and a banner near the entrance announced the imminent arrival of a senior functionary of the company. I stood there for a few minutes, transfixed by the swirl of preparatory activities on display.

A couple of days later, and this was what met my eyes at the same location.

The proud plantains that had graced the entrance were lying face-down in the drain. The bunch of bananas on one plantain grinned stupidly at the pedestrians on the road; the bananas on the other plantain were nowhere to be seen. The plantains lay in the drains, very near the spot where they had been installed with care and pride to welcome the chief guest, for another three or four days.

More illumination, more understanding. Life is a great teacher.

So, what did I learn? There is the obvious point that the limelight, although its allure is seductive and universal, is fickle-minded. But what else?

Although I’m a rationalist in many ways, I learned to respect the role of ritual in human affairs. One cannot just dump a dead body in the grave (similar to how the coffin was dumped in the bin) and walk away. The funeral service is an elaborate goodbye. Emotionally charged objects have to be disposed of with due ceremony and respect. That is why the priest drains the wine jug after the communion ritual in church. That is why idols are immersed in rivers.

I also realized that the coffin had not been placed in the bin thoughtlessly by whoever had put it there; no, the coffin could not be left in the house indefinitely, so someone had helpfully taken it out and put it in the closest receptacle: the bin. That someone and I had viewed the coffin with different eyes. That’s all there was to it. That’s all there was to the garlands in the cemetery, the hoarding of Mother Mary lying on the roadside, and the plantains lying in the drain. The emotional charge of an object varies from person to person. And not every emotionally charged object can be disposed of ceremonially; one has to draw the line somewhere. 🙂

After all, the circumstances of the funeral were unusual. You see, usually there is only one coffin to deal with. However, we had two coffins in the house. The coffin my relatives purchased in Cochin in anticipation of the arrival of my mother’s body ended up in the grave. The coffin that came by air from Mumbai was, so to speak, the odd coffin out; which is why it ended up in the bin. From this distance of 20 years, with most of the emotions having sloughed off, what was an impenetrable mystery to me then (why would anyone in his right mind put a coffin in a rubbish bin??) is as clear as daylight now.

In this way, through a series of chance events (or perhaps this was Jungian synchronicity), an unpleasant image whose memory I had repressed was dredged up, examined anew, and given wings to fly, freeing me in the process.

I also know now what I would like to have done with the coffin in the bin. I would like to have set it floating down the mighty Periyar river.

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