When the Pyre Burnt All Night

I do not have a native place. A village. A place in the country if you may. Some old house amidst lush fields and a well nearby. I have been born in this city. And I have lived here since then. Just like my Father and his Father. We don't know much about my Grandfather's father. So when someone asks me where my native place is, I simply say Bombay. However, if you ride down on the NH-17 towards the Taluka of Mangaon, and turn left and ride another few miles, you would come across a quaint place called Kadapa. And here on a small elevation lies a temple. This temple houses the shrine of Kadapkarin Devi. Or simply Devi as she is known in our family. As a child, going to Devi was an adventure in itself. My folks would offer our prayers and return the same day or at times stay over.

On one such trip, when I was 10, three families descended upon the temple. Most of us kids decided to explore the small hillock that rose behind the temple. There was a winding road going up to the village located at the peak. We slowly started ascending. Taking in the sights and sounds. I don't remember well but I am certain there would have been birds chirping and a red hue scattered across the evening sky as the sun made its westward journey. One of my cousins was dressed in a red outfit and we joked about a bull chasing her down if we came across one. Within a few moments of climbing higher as if, conjured from thin air, there were two sturdy bulls grazing by the edge of the path. We were terrified and tried to cover her, lest we activate their insanity. However, they went about their business of grazing grass nonchalantly.

As we inched further, we started hearing the unmistakable sound of drums beating at a distance. It could have been a marriage procession but there were no flutes, shehnai or any other pleasant sounding instruments. Just drums. It was growing louder with every second. We were still kids and hence had not infected by the logic and rationality that comes with growing up. So we immediately concluded that it was tribal ceremony which had begun and probably involved hunting down kids and roasting them alive. Or something of similar nature. It didn't require us much time to decide on our further plan of action, once we had arrived at this conclusion. We were running and scampering about to the base. We might have even aroused the curiosity of the bored bulls. But we didn't care. Chased by bulls was much better a proposition than being hunted by a cannibalistic tribe.

But it felt as if we were not running away from the beating drums but rather towards them! And by the time we reached the temple, the source of the noise was clear. Sure it was a procession but now it had stopped moving. A crowd had gathered in the open field located, just opposite the temple ; across the street. We saw a chair hovering above the crowds, carried upon the shoulders of a few men. On it sat a old lady. She looked frail. A dark green nine yard Saree ( colour signifying that she was married) was draped around her. Green bangles adorned her slender, withered arms. And her forehead was smeared in vermilion. She was dead. Her corpse was lifted from the chair and placed on a pile of logs nearby. Soon, a relative of hers lit the pyre and we watched her body burn.

We were too scared to watch any further and promptly retired to our rooms. The rooms only had one window. This window overlooked the burning pyre across the street. When the lights were out, the pyre was still burning. It cast an eerie glow on the walls of our room. All night we heard her bones crack and the silent roar of the fire. We kept guessing the name of the bones. Her skull or her femur perhaps! Or her rib cage? We were soon tired of this morbid game and pretended to sleep. But my ears kept registering strange noises. I vaguely recall hearing a lady's hoarse voice, beckoning me to the window. She was asking me for a glass of water. It was uncomfortably hot, that lady complained. She was pleading. Almost howling. I could hear her green bangles tingling and her voice getting shriller. She screamed for water and then I heard something else. The loud thumps. Hard wood on taut leather. Beating drums. They were drowning out her voice. And they were doing a good job. I was shivering by now and my heart was racing. I shut my eyes tightly and started counting the thumps. I don't remember when the noises subsided and I drifted into a dreamless slumber.

The wake up call was early. The first rays of the sun were fast waking up the sleepy village. Everything seemed to come alive at the crack of dawn. Probably morning is the only time of the day when the activity level reaches a peak in a village. When I woke up, by instinct I looked over to the site of the pyre. I could see burnt grass and a hint of bones. One of my brave cousins even went across the road to check. Indeed, there was a lot of ash lying about but there were also a few bones. As I sat, pondering over the events of last night, I wondered if the voice was real and a chill ran down my spine. Goosebumps erupted all over my body and I looked around for signs of an old lady lurking about the temple. I saw none. Thankfully.

Now nearly after 12 years, as I sit down and ponder over the events, I realise that I would have enquired about the ritual in detail if it were to happen now. I somehow could never figure out why they played those drums. But tonight, it dawned upon me. A chill runs down my spine and there are goosebumps all over my body. The drums were played to drown out her voice. The voice of a burning soul. The voice of a thirsty lady asking for water. The voice of a lady greeting death.


Nisha said…
Really scary. I am wondering now, was it real or a piece of fiction? :-)
Rushikesh said…
I leave it upto you to decide! thanks for reading Ma'am :)
lovely piece of writing, Rushikesh! am wondering the same thing as Nisha... is it real?
Rohit Jha said…
Thriller! Superb :-)
Anonymous said…
You can try being a columnist, eh?
SO well written! Especially how you ended it!

PS: I don't have a village, either ;)
Anuradha, thank you so much! What do you think? Who knows 10 year olds better than you ;)

Rohit, thanks for always dropping by! I am glad you liked it.

Kalindi, that's a nice title also! Thanks! That makes the two of us but you can always come with me :)

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