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Let Me Do It!

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By Savitri Narayanan

The wall clock chimed one.

‘Where’s Babuji?’ thought Meenakshi as she put down the magazine and got up. It was his lunchtime. Babuji didn’t own a watch but had a great sense of time! Sharp at one he would be in for lunch! Farming was in his blood so even in his eighties, Babuji couldn’t stay indoors! In the mornings he would be out with his spade and found things to do in the backyard. He would know when to wind up his work, put away the tools, wash up and come in. By then his lunch would be ready, his durry and plate in place.

Meenakshi opened the kitchen door and called out, “Babuji, where are you?”

“Why are you shouting, beti?” called out Mukesh uncle from his yard across, “What’s the matter?”

“Daily he comes in and is seated for lunch by this time, uncleji”, she said, “Babuji….”

“Ramlalji, aren’t you hungry today? Where’re you?”  said their neighbour Mukesh as he parted the shrubs and came over.

A sense of alarm rose deep inside Meenakshi. A retired aanganwadi teacher, the father and daughter were mutually dependent in many ways. Soon after Meenakshi took charge of the local aanganwaadi, Maaji had passed away. Babuji kept to himself, turned uncommunicative. Apart from a maternal uncle in Raspur and the villagers, there was hardly anybody to turn to. Meenakshi rose to the occasion and took charge of the family including siblings Kavita, Veena and Rajeev – all three students of the village high school. Unfortunately, Rajeev too disappeared from their life. One evening he just didn’t come back from school! Everyone tried in their own ways to find Rajeev, contacting relatives who stayed near and far, with no results. As the years passed by, the thought of Rajeev too faded away.

Kavita and Veena had completed school and with the help of the elders in the village, their marriages could be arranged. Migrant labourers, both the grooms had found work and stayed on, one in Bihar and the other in Udaipur. Kavita and Veena too did their best to connect with their new families. Every summer vacation they came home with their children to spend time with Babuji.

Babuji…,” Meenakshi called out again.

“Ramlalji, get up!” hearing Mukesh uncle’s scream she ran there in panic.

There was Babuji, collapsed face down near the bamboo grove! The spade lay by his side as if it had slipped out of his hand! Arun bhaiyya and Kundan uncle had also reached the spot. Together they lifted Babuji, put him on the cot in the verandah. As the news spread, the villagers assembled in no time! The sarpanch came along with the doctor from the Primary Health Centre.

The doctor examined Babuji. Slowly, he stood up. He covered Babuji’s face with the bedsheet, bowed to the assembled villagers and said pointing to the sky.

“When God calls, one has to go!”

He lifted his medical kit and walked away.

Meenakshi stood, shocked, rooted to the ground! The women gently guided her inside the house as the men stood around the body, eyes downcast. The front yard was filled with people.

“The cremation needs to be done before sunset,” Mukesh uncle found his voice.

“Have Kavita and Veena been informed?”

“Well, even if they start by today’s train, they’ll reach only by tomorrow night,” said someone. “The cremation can’t wait.”

The villagers had already started lopping the devadar and stacking the logs in the southern yard.

“Who will light the pyre?” asked the sarpanch, voicing the thought in many minds.

“In the absence of a son any male relative can light the pyre,” said the Panditji.

Ramlalji had no brothers and no other relatives.

“I can light the pyre!” said Vijay Mamaji’s son Somu bhaiyya. They lived in Raspur, an hour away. He taught in the primary school there.

“That’s ok,” approved the Panditji, “Never mind from the mother’s side but he’s a blood relative.”

“Then you’ll do the teravi too,” the Panditji stated the rules. “A lamp has to be kept alight for eleven days where you’ll do namaskaar every morning and the concluding rituals will be done on the 12th day.”

“Oops! I have to attend a training session for a week in Kirankot,” said Somu bhaiyya. “It starts the day after and is compulsory for all government teachers!”

He was apologetic but no scope for a change of mind.

“Any other relative?” asked the Panditji aloud. “This needs to be done before sunset!”

“Can’t any boy or man do this?”, someone suggested. “He could be paid for helping out at this time of need!”

Meenakshi, who was huddled in a corner, wiped her tears and stood up. She walked forward, stood at the front door facing the villagers and said, “It was not my choice but God’s will that I was born a girl! God will surely be pleased to see me do my duty to my father! Let me light Babuji’s pyre, I seek your blessings and help!”

There was a shocked silence! People looked at each other. All eyes turned to the Panditji and the Sarpanch who soon got into a muffled conversation.

Head held high, tears streaming down her cheeks, Meenakshi came down the steps. With due respect, she held the bamboo frame on which the dead body was kept. Within seconds, Somu bhaiyya came forward and held the rear end. As they moved towards the pyre, the Sarpanch and all others followed chanting prayers. The Panditji hastened ahead, taking charge of the rituals.

The flames of the funeral pyre danced in the evening sky. When the rituals were complete, the people slowly dispersed.

Meenakshi too went home escorted by caring neighbouring women, her heart strengthened by Babuji’s blessings.