The problem with losing my mother was that I did not know where to find her. Even though I was a grown man of twenty-one, it felt as though Indra’sthunderbolt had sped through the heavens, torn through the clouds, pierced my chest and blown a big, burning hole inside me that would smolder through the rest of my body till there was nothing left.
Yes, that describes it perfectly.
I had no brother to share my load with, no sister to pamper. I must have been three or four when I lost my father. There are some hazy memories of him; me looking up at a thickly-mustachioed man, someone throwing me up in the air, chasing me around the barn.
The only thing I truly had was Amma, but we had to burn her. I watched as the body that carried me for nine months melted into the flames. With it went the hands that rolled my rotis, the arms that held me tight as a boy when I had nightmares, the eyes that looked at me with kindness. We burned the wrinkles and the silvery hair and the yellowed teeth and the crooked smile. We burned all of her.
The priest who performed her final rites said, “Son, we are not the body. We are the soul. Your mother has left her body, but she continues to live.”
But where did souls go after they left their bodies?
I remembered Amma consoling me when I was seven years old. We had lost one of our cows that morning and I was the first one to discover her laying there motionless when I had gone to change the water in the shed.
“Don’t cry, little one. Everything must die.”
“Why Amma? Why must everything die? Why did my father die?”
“This is samsara– where change is the only constant. Everything is moving, morphing, growing or withering. Things come, and things go. It is all an illusion; nothing truly dies. The seed becomes the sapling, the sapling becomes a tree, the trees bear flowers and the flowers become fruit, the fruit becomes the seed and the cycle continues. Do not worry about death, think about life.”
Did Amma become something else then?
For the fifth night in a row, I barely slept and by the time morning came there was in my heart a firm conviction that no matter what, I would find my mother. I went about my daily chores as usual; I fetched water from the well, ploughed the fields, cut and bound the corn into sheaves. I did as much as I could and when the sun began to set, I washed my face with cold water and headed in the direction of the temple.
Ours was a small temple, the only one in the village. It had clay-mud walls and a little door that was shorter than me. Inside it could seat fifty,which was more than enough for our village of about a hundred because hardly anyone went on regular days for the morning and evening invocations. The temple only overflowed on special days like the birth of Krishna, full moon or the harvest festival. On those occasions there was song, dance, merriment and free food. Amma was a regular at the temple and she attended prayers at least five times a week. She often tried to get me to go, but I always made excuses. As far as I was concerned, the only God I would celebrate was one that I could see and touch and a God that had actually done something for me-a God like Amma.
But I had lost my God and so there I was, walking up the narrow path lined with sparse and skeletal trees on either side. As I came close, I could see the evening prayers had concluded and a few worshippers were exiting. I waited at a distance and out of sight. When the last of them had left I approached the entrance, took off my sandals at the steps and went inside. There he was, the blue God with his mocking smile and the fake peacock feather in his fake hair. Stone-lipped, and stone-hearted in all his frozen glory.
The priest was nowhere to be seen. I sat down in front of the idol and stared at the flickering flame of the oil lamp. What was the point of all this faith and prayer? People came here, sang songs and offered sweets and flowers. They lit lamps and shed tears like beggars in front of this God. He could do nothing. He was helpless; even more helpless than the rest of us for he can’t even lift a finger.
“How are you keeping, son?” The priest appeared out of nowhere.
I stood up and bowed to him. “I want to find Amma. I need to see her. I need to know if she is all right, if she knows her way around wherever she’s gone, if she is fed and clothed.”
The priest anointed my forehead with the customary vermillion powder. His eyes shone brightly. “She is in another realm. You need not worry about her.” He turned to the idol, smiled and then turned back to face me. “Krishna is looking after her.”
“That is what you say- but how am I to believe it to be true?”
“Not belief. Faith. Have faith that it is true.”
“But there is no basis to this faith. Is there any way that I can find out for myself? Surely there must be a way to find her if she still exists.”
“There is no if. She exists. But not in a way that you can understand or know. It is complicated, my child. Pray for peace in your heart. It is your sorrow that is speaking.”
“She is all right. Trust me. Krishna is looking after her.”
How could a God who needed a mortal to look after his temple look after my Amma? I held my tongue, for I respected the old man. He was trying to help me in the only way he knew how. He had his beliefs, but I had mine. I was in the wrong place. I got up and bowed respectfully. He gave me his blessing and I left.
Dejected and disappointed, I walked for what must have been at least an hour without any regard for where I was headed. When the sky turned dangerously dark and the nocturnal creatures began their skittling, screeching and hooting, my feet hastened. An unease grew inside of me and I recognized it as fear. Which way was home?
The leaves scrunched beneath my feet and the branches scratched my arms as I tried to find my way out of the dense maze of trees. Just then, I heard a distant, rhythmic chant. I could not clearly decipher the language, but it was a strong and throaty male voice that cracked here and there. I hurried towards it. Any human company was welcome.
I found him in a clearing, sitting with a bonfire blazing before him. In his hand he held a stick and at the end of it was a small animal, a rat or a squirrel of some kind. He was roasting it on the fire and I could smell the flesh cook. The vagrant was dirty, unkept and dressed in tattered black robes. His hair was long and clumpy. His beard was scraggly and unevenly grey. On his forehead there was a smearing of ash and around his neck hung at least five long strands of wooden beads.
Slowly, I approached the stranger. Still chanting, he looked up. His face shone in the ochre light of the flames. He flashed a devilish smile at me and gestured me for me to sit. I did as asked. He picked up a chunk of raw pink flesh, stabbed a branch into it and offered it to me. I took it and held it above the fire. Then he began to sing in a dialect that was slightly different from my own, but close enough that I could make out the gist of his words.
“The curtains have closed, the dance is done,
Who is to know what new life has begun.
Like day to night and lip to sip,
Is the distance between breath and death.”
I wondered whether he was one of those mystical ascetics that could glimpse into the minds of others and see what was inside. Maybe he was a practitioner of black magic. The kind that believed in human sacrifice. My tongue went dry.
“How sad is the plight of man. Pivoting between life and death, he can never be sure if the next breath is his last and he can never know what awaits him beyond.”
“What lies beyond?” I asked.
“Isn’t that the burning question in every sorry soul? Isn’t that the reason we make up our Gods? So that we can palm this unsolvable quandary off to some power higher than ourselves?”
“Indeed. But has no man the answer to this question?”
The wanderer blew at his meat and bit into it hungrily. I watched the shimmering droplets of saliva seep out of the corner of his mouth.
“Most men are content to wallow in helplessness and fester in the pus of ignorance. Spineless!”
He pulled the animal off the stick and ate the rest of the meat, sucking at every last bone.
“You are not hungry?” he asked as the end of my stick started to give off a burnt smell.
“No,” I said. I handed him my cooked meat and he bit into it.
“I can help you,” he said, between bites. “You are seeking to know what cannot be known by mortals. I say to you, there is such a thing as immortality.”
There was a clap of thunder from the skies. “Do not protest! Your secrets are safe in the hands of those who understand their sanctity,” the wanderer said, looking up, and smiling defiantly at the heavens. He turned his gaze back at me. “Nature doesn’t like us humans to interfere.” He laughed loudly, and it echoed through the woodlands. After some moments, when he had regained his composure, he said, “The only way to know what lies beyond is to go beyond. But the obstacle has always been that those who go beyond never come back to tell. What if one could go, see, and then return?”
“Die and come back?”
“That is impossible!”
“Impossible is a matter of opinion.” He put his food down on the ground and reached into his bag. He took out a small, brown bottle no bigger than my thumb. “Inside this is a potion that will bring back a dead man. It has to be administered the moment one breathes his last.” He screwed open the cap and let me have a sniff. It smelled of herbs and something else, something putrid. “All you have to do is pour it in the dead man’s mouth as soon as he takes his last breath. In the time it takes for a bird to fly from one tree to the next, the man will return to life.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. How could something like this exist? Maybe he had supernatural powers. I had heard stories before of people like him who meddled in the occult. My friend Bikram once told me he knew a man who could detach his arm and then attach it back again just by chanting some sort of mantra. There were other stories that went around, too. Legends of men who held their breath for hours, who fasted on nothing but water for years, who teleported themselves from village to village and who had the ability to control weather.
Was this man a genuine shaman or he was just a delusional wanderer? I didn’t know but what I did know was that in that moment, I believed in him more than I believed in God. So, I took the bottle in my hands. “What do you want in return?” I asked him.
He started to laugh again, this time even louder. “There is nothing you have that would be of any value to me. I don’t expect anything in return.”
How would I use this potion? How would I find someone who was about to die so that I could administer this to them just as they took their last breath?
“You will have to kill someone and then bring them back,” the wanderer said, reading my mind again.
“It is not difficult. You could shoot them in the heart with an arrow, or poison their food, or hit them over the head with a rock. But in all these instances you cannot be sure that they will die at the first attempt. There is always a chance that you may need to inflict some suffering before the belligerent bastards are ready to separate from their body.”
My heart started to race. I couldn’t kill someone. I couldn’t see myself doing any of those things to anyone, even if I knew I was going to bring them back to life. I wouldn’t do it. “Is there no other way?”
His voice rose, “You asked to carry a mountain and I gave you a way. Now you ask to carry it on your fingertips.”
Worried that he would rescind his offer, I tried to pacify him.“It is just that I don’t think I could kill a man.”
“Oh universe, is there no limit to your ability of bestowing us cowards?” The wanderer began to pack up his belongings. He snatched the bottle from my hand.
“Wait!” I protested, refusing to let go. “Please, this is the most important thing in my life. I need to find her. I need to know she is all right.”
He let go of the bottle, dropped his bag and bent close to my ear.“There is one other way,” he whispered. “I could administer the potion to you. You can then see for yourself.”
A million questions swam through my mind, all at once. The stranger had offered to kill me and bring me back to life. Was I ready to die? How would he kill me? Would I experience pain? Would I see Amma? Would I finally be reunited with her? And what if his potion did not work?
A few minutes passed. Neither of us spoke.
Then he said softly, “Coward.”
It was worth it. The chance to see Amma again, no matter how small, was worth it. I would leap into the unknown, make it the known and then I would come right back. I would be the only man who could claim to have seen what is beyond death. Reassured and at peace, I would get married and start a family of my own. Everything would be fine and life would go on as it should.
He seemed happy that I decided to go ahead with the plan and disappeared into the forest while I waited by the fire. I thought about my whole life, my friend Bikram, Amma, the cattle in my shed, the farm, the priest at the temple. I thought about Krishna. And for the first time in my life, I prayed. Fervently.
The stranger returned some time later holding a king cobra. It slithered in his hands. Its steel gray eyes were angry, its slim, bluish tongue flicked in and out and it hissed threateningly. “Do not worry. He is a friend. He follows me around, always in the bushes wherever I go. The venom will work fast. There will be no pain. Lay down.”
I did as I was told, even though every cell in my being resisted. The fire crackled behind me, bones of the just-eaten animals were strewn around me, the stranger’s delirious face hovered above.
The world went dark.
Amma. My mother. My everything. No price is too much, no mountain too high, no sacrifice too big. When I was little, I used to lay in her lap and she would run her fingers through my hair. She’d tell me stories about Emperor Akbar and his witty advisor, Birbal. She would sing me songs and recite poetry. Amma was my favorite place in the world and I cannot tell you how good it feels to be back with her. Here there are no fields to plough, no cattle to feed, no wells to draw water from. There is no back breaking work and food is aplenty. We have servants who clean our home, cook our food and press our feet. We live like kings. The sheets are made from silk, the floors are lined with rose petals. We have no need for sleep because we never grow tired. I lie in Amma’s lap as much as I want, and she tells me stories from morning to night.
The blue god Krishna visits on some days.