Opinion | The final remains of my father and his beliefs
Humanity as a whole is feeling threatened. If nature doesn’t survive, we won’t either
Air pollution has shrouded much of north India. The sun has become feeble and the air poisonous. The condition of water was already bad. As a result, people’s eyes are burning and their breathing has become irregular. Even the capacity to listen and see clearly is affected.
With whom does the responsibility to save us from pollution rest? If it rests solely with governments, what’s the role you and I can play? Those who keep cribbing are themselves a permanent part of the problem.
Let me begin with a personal experience.
My father passed away last Monday after having lived a fulfilling life of 89 years. Three weeks before his demise, he unfortunately broke his hip bone and underwent a major surgery. It is uncertain whether the operation was a success, but in between he contracted a lung infection. This was the immediate reason for his departure. What followed was a series of events that my father himself might not have approved of. Before the final rites could be performed, people began propagating disparate ideas, traditions and belief systems. Each of them believed they were right and everybody else wrong.
Arriving at a consensus with so many different opinions was next to impossible.
The day after cremation was the ritual of gathering the remains of the deceased, also known as picking “flowers”. One need not explain how emotional a son will become while picking up his father’s bones, but this can happen only if the priest and the crematorium officials allow him to. This was an emotional struggle that I somehow managed to overcome. After some time, the remains were in my hands and a stranger standing before me with a sack-load of ashes.
I was advised that I should immerse the bones in Haridwar’s Brahmakund and “drop” the ashes at any other spot in the Ganga. The ash in the sack that the man was holding wasn’t just burnt wood, it had the final remains of a person responsible for bringing two generations into being. Not just had the man lived in the 20th and the 21st century, but had made a substantial contribution to these centuries. How could I “drop” the final remains of the person just like that, that too in the Ganga, a river that he loved and respected throughout his lifetime!
It was my father, who, while looking at a person bathing with soap on Assi Ghat in the 1970s, taught his children a timeless lesson: Flowing before us was not only a river, but a mother-like figure for India and Indians. Polluting the Ganga was equivalent to disrespecting one’s own mother, he had said.
The pundit conducting the ritual was unable to pronounce or comprehend even a single shloka (traditional hymns) in Vedic Sanskrit that my father had taught us. I was caught in a dilemma. If I refused to drop them at the Ganga, I would be admonished by those close to our family. Finding a middle path, I said there was a ban on immersing ashes in the Ganga. They had an answer ready. No problem, there are a number of rivers on the way to Haridwar. Just “drop” the ashes in any of those! The obsession with “dropping” was getting on my nerves.
But my father’s ashes were now in my possession along with his life lessons.
The scene at the Brahmakund in Haridwar was even more bewildering. The barrage that emerges from the Ganga is closed every year at Dussehra for cleaning. Small amounts of water seep through its walls and merge with the water that has already deposited. People said I should immerse the ashes here.
I saw dozens of people bathing around the Brahmakund hidden below sluggish and shallow streams of water. People were going there and “dropping” the remains. The water which changed its hue because of the ashes would “wash” these people and move forward. Even if you disregard what is happening with the water, what are we doing with the Ganga and our health?
Here, I am not trying to narrate a personal tragedy, but through it, explain the circumstances that I witnessed at close quarters for 48 hours. All of us face such situations in life and there is a need to discuss these with an open mind.
Why don’t learned men of every religion think about this issue and lead to way with the solutions possible? In the long history of this country, there have been several occasions when religious leaders have scripted a narrative on striking a balance between nature and humanity.
Be assured, the subject doesn’t relate only to a particular religion and its traditions but to nature itself. It has to do with nature that is like a mother to all of us. If it doesn’t survive, we won’t either.
Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan. His Twitter handle is @shekarkahin
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