Alagu Subramaniam, courtesy of Rajiva Wijesinha, An Anthology of English Poetry and Prose, Godage & Bros, 2016, … see http://www.godage,comas Addendum to the item on professional mourners in Thuppahi, viz https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2017/03/03/professional-mourners-in-ceylon-and-southern-india/#more-24442. The Original Title of this Essay is “Professional Mourners”
My grandmother died late at night on a Saturday while my sister, brother and I were fast asleep. We were wakened in the morning by the cries from grandmother’s house and the sound of drums. We dressed hurriedly and ran to her place. A large gathering was there, and the space between the boundary fence and the outer verandah was lined with people. We pushed our way through the crowd to the centre of the hut in search of our mother. We were feeling afraid because it was the first funeral we had attended.
We had hardly entered grandmother’s house when we heard the shouts of the ‘Master of Ceremonies’, who was in charge of all arrangements on such occasions. He was our uncle, a teacher in a small school and a trifle mad. He always spoke rapidly and loudly. And when he was angry he would shout at the top of his voice until the whole village heard him. This morning he was furious because the professional mourners had not yet arrived. ‘I’ll go and fetch them myself,’ he said, and stamped out of the house. I left my brother and sister, and ran after him, as I was anxious to see the mourners about whom I had heard many stories.
We walked through sandly lanes and narrow winding footpaths. There were no dwelling houses about and no noise, though I thought I heard the hissing of snakes under the bushes and the howling of jackals in the distance. ‘The snakes won’t bite you. Don’t be afraid,’ my uncle reassured me.
Presently we arrived at a row of huts near the seashore. By the beach stood fishermen, some mending their nets, assisted by their wives, others on the point of putting their catamarans out to sea.
‘Stop, stop, you stupid rascals,’ cried my uncle as he ran up to them. ’Don’t you know that my aunt’s funeral is to take place today? You low-minded fellows! You should be there instead of on the seashore.’
‘We didn’t know about it, ‘ they said, as they left their fishing nets and catamarans. ‘ We shall be there soon.’ They clasped their hands and bent down.
Admonishing them again, my uncle walked on in search of the mourners. ‘That is where these wretched women live,’ he said, pointing to a few huts even smaller than the ones we had left behind.
He stopped outside and called to the inmates. Two women, dressed in coarse saris which did not come over their shoulders or heads, came out. They wore bangles from their wrists to their elbows, and anklets that jingled as they came forward. He shouted at them angrily: ‘I sent word to you that my aunt’s funeral will take place today. Why haven’t you come all this time?’
‘We were getting ready to come, master, please pardon us for being late,‘ said one of them.
‘Where are the other mourners?’ growled the Master of Ceremonies
‘There are only two of them here at the moment, sir, two sisters. We don’t know where the rest are, but even these two cannot come as their mother died this morning, and they will have to attend the funeral.’
‘Nonsense! Where do these wretches live?’ he demanded.
‘Not far from here , sir.’
‘Lead me there!’
The two women led the way and we followed them. They stopped outside a hut and yelled for the two sisters who came out, tying the upper part of their saris which had slipped down over their pointed breasts.
They stopped suddenly, stared for a moment ,and then prostrated themselves before the Master saying, ‘Please excuse us today, Sir. Our mother died this morning and we are too much overcome with grief to come and cry at the funeral of outsiders.’
‘Impudence!’ cried the Master. ‘Two mourners are not enough for my aunt’s funeral. Remember who she is.’
‘Please excuse them,’ said the mourner who acted as the spokesman. ‘It is not fair, as they will have to shed tears of genuine sorrow on the loss of their mother instead of pretending at your place.’
I noticed that the lips of my kinsman were trembling and his eyes were dilated. The woman who had spoken looked down. I shook my head in sympathy. The Master’s anger was now diverted to me, rushing like water through fresh sandbanks.
‘Don’t be a silly fool,’ he scolded. ‘What do you know of these things? Your father’s lawyer friends are expected. His Honour the Supreme Court Judge and the Police Magistrate are coming, and what will they think about us if we don’t have enough mourners?’
The sisters, still on bended knees, begged to be excused.’ We didn’t mean to be rude, sir,’ said one of them, ‘but please let us go this time. On the next occasion when there is another funeral at your place, we will come and howl until our throats give way!’
‘Insolence!’ shouted my uncle. ‘So you are wishing for another death in my house. Probably you desire mine, you miserable creatures! I’ll have you flogged by the magistrate for such impudence.’ And getting hold of their saris he dragged them along the ground for some distance.
‘Please remove your hand; we are coming,’ they wailed.
The Master of Ceremonies released them and strode forward leaving the four mourners and myself to bring up the rear.
On reaching grandmother’s house the women threw their hands in the air, unfastened their hair, and began to cry. They joined other women relatives and friends, who sat crying in groups of twos and threes with their heads resting on each other’s necks. The professional mourners sat down a short distance away from the others and, throwing their hands in the air, now beating their heads, now their breasts, began to wail and moan. They spoke as they cried, using various expressions in praise of grandmother. In the course of their professional duty they heard some of the genuine weepers whispering that grandmother might have been taken away from us long ago, but the great god Siva had spared her till Cousin Thampoo, her favourite grandson, returned from Malaya. This gave them a new slogan. They rose from the carpet, ruffled their hair, crossed their arms, beat their shoulders and cried :
‘Your grandson has come, wake up, my beloved!
Your grandson has come, wake up, my darling!‘
Meanwhile, the Master of Ceremonies had boasted of his great deed to his friends who, contrary to his expectations, were horrified at his cruelty. They protested against the inhuman act of the Master, who was forced to apologise to the two mourners. Many of the guests, too, offered their condolences to the sisters, and my father, after promising to compensate them adequately, told them to go home.
Now that the Master of Ceremonies had been reprimanded, the women preferred to wait till the entire ceremony was over, declaring that they might as well stay a little longer and give the full benefit of their services.
The Master, on the other hand, since an action of his had been severely criticized, tried to make up for it by undertaking extra work and engaged himself more busily in his duties than before. He scolded the drummers for slacking, ridiculed them because they could not even drown the voices of the professional mourners, and exhorted them to beat faster and louder. Then he carried bags full of rice, packets of incense and other ceremonial necessities to the bedside of the corpse. By this time he was tired and panting.
The effort, following on the walk to fetch the mourners, had exhausted him. Suddenly he fainted and fell flat on the ground. Some of the visitors shrieked, while others ran to his assistance, carried him to a corner, washed his face with water, and fanned him. In a few moments he recovered, apologized, and said he would get up soon. His friends assured him that there were others to help in the arrangements and asked him to rest for some time.
The two sisters among the mourners, whose voices had till now lacked their usual intensity, rose and rent the air with their shrill cries, quite unconcerned about the fate of the Master of Ceremonies. The four mourners now worked in unison, their bodies swaying like reeds in the wind, and lamented in chorus:
‘The poor will miss you, oh, you charitable one!
Who is going to feed us on festival days?
Your grandson has come, wake up, my beloved!
Your grandson has come, wake up, my darling!’
After a while their lamentations waned, but there was a fresh outburst when the priest arrived. This was followed by a lull to enable him to perform the religious ceremony.
During the ceremony the priest became curious about the repeated mention of ‘grandson’ and, being told the story, he called Thampoo to grandmother’s bedside to burn some incense and offer prayers. Thampoo, who had maintained an abnormal composure throughout the day, burst into tears just after he had said the prayers.
‘You had been waiting for me for many years,’ he cried. ‘What fate was it that kept me away? And when I came at last, you lay unconscious on the bed and I was not even able to speak to you.’
The mourners took up the theme and wailed :
‘Why do you remain silent, mother of a great lawyer?
Answer for the sake of your loved ones!
Open those eyes that are shaped like a fish!
Like those of Minakshi, famed goddess of Madura!
Your grandson has come, wake up, my beloved!
Your grandson has come, wake up, my darling!’