We watched the old man on the other bank
Ritualistically washing Pema Khendup’s body
While the pyre was getting ready.
Students were busy piling up dry logs
In the form of a pyramid
Cut off its peak, as to serve the purpose.
The crematorium was at the narrow bank
Of a clear brook between two cliffs
In Khoma, a remote village in North-East Bhutan.
Seven teachers, principal,
And I, the only expatriate
Were resting on small rocks by the brook.
Four monks and their head priest at the pyre
Were incessantly chanting magic hymns.
I occasionally dipped my bare feet
In the icy brook that accepts the souls
From every crematorium in its bank
All along its way down to India.
The local wine our cooks served frequently
Warmed us against the chilling December.
Sometimes we shared cruel jokes
And shouted like empty pots
While our shadows shivered on the ripples.
The half-naked old man completed his task
And placed the body in a jute sac,
Lifted up, and carried on his back.
He slowly came along the narrow bridge,
The isthmus of life and death.
His dreams, mixed with drops of water and tears
Were falling on the bridge
While the wooden planks groaned.
It was last night, vomiting blood,
Pema Khendup, his only son, expired.
Rumor was that it was by black magic
Of some jealousy neighbors!
He was a bright middle secondary student
In my biology classes, the only thing I was sure,
But we were there to watch him burning down!
The monks urged to hurry up and finish
Before the terrible nightfall
At the haunted place.
The old man carefully placed the body
In a squatting position on the pyre
And kept the logs slantingly, covering it.
As the pyre was lighted up
We all stood up showing grave face.
A few boulders fell down from the hills around.
The dancing flames kissing Pema Khendup’s face
Had no masks but I wonder,
Even now, why most of us had!
(First published in /www.hollandparkpress.co.uk)
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