Sukaina Husain writes about her grandmother's funeral in Shamsabad, UP, and the rituals and food that surround her family's grief and loss.
My paternal grandmother, my Dadda, Begum Zamani Tahir died in November 2015. Through her death, she hoped to master the art of dying, and in its anticipation, carefully planned her funeral from bed to burial ten years before her health began to decline. Unlike the rest of our family, she refused, despite her love for our ancestral home in Shamsabad, to be buried in its garden with the rest of our ancestors, who in their infinite wisdom haunt us from time to time, visiting us in our dreams when we sleep in the rooms facing their graves. Instead, she chose to be buried in the back of the Shaheed-e-Saalis ki Maza’ar in Agra, behind the marbled room where the majlis often happens. The gate to enter its courtyard is so narrow that it barely accommodated the Tata Safari that bore her body and the cadre of children and relatives who accompanied her body to the shrine the day following her passing. Some say the gate magically expanded, some say it was an act of God, others say that as ever, it was the will of Tahirs that persevered— my grandmother said that a Tahir cannot relent, not in life nor in death.
As we drove back to Shamsabad, it was only appropriate that my grandmother’s funeral leave no stone in the performance of ruefulness unturned. As a Shi’a woman of unrelenting faith, my grandmother found stoicism in the face of loss an insult to grief itself — anguish, despair and the art of melancholy were an obsession, for the performance of sorrow was a mark of our cultural history, a piece of regalia that linked us to our forefathers. Grief is not to be cloaked in fortitude or a dispassionate shrug of the shoulder at the nature of God’s will but should instead, pulsate with an anxious joy at the possibility of the agony that follows loss. My grandmother refused to fear disaster; she stood at its edge, her snaggletooth glinting in the dark, laughing as she nonchalantly carved an apple with the knife that lay in her little purse should her blood-sugar drop while waiting for impending doom. She would cackle as it hit her, her mole moving up and down her wrinkled face, the white hair growing out from it glistening in delight as she commanded Misery itself to make her some toast with tomato ketchup. She ensured that she was in fact known as the master of all, and the mistress of none — a funeral she deserved, befitting the matriarch of sons.
On the day of her funeral in her village of Shamsabad, we, her brood stood, garbed in black, swaying to and fro, weeping and yelping in misery, as we bawled in perfect unison in her memory, just as she had always intended. We sniffled meekly until we reached a crescendo of hysterical emotion, timing the falling of our tears to the apotheosis of the maulana’s sermon — in a voice that rose from the highest of highs, and fell to the lowest of lows, we wept as he narrated the tried-and-tested tale of the martyrdom of our forefathers, highlighting in the story of their sacrifice, the apex of the dedication and dutifulness required of their kin. Matching the rhythm of our own present sadness, we hiccuped between sobs, oscillating between past and present, inextricably linking ourselves in time as we pitched the music of our misery to the memories of our beloved ancestors. My Dadda’s youngest daughter, distraught, wrapped her arms around the verandah pillars, their statuesque girth becoming the perfect substitute for the bodies of men that lack in the zenani section of the majlis. She fainted, only to be brought back to life in seconds with a sip of doodh-sharbat — an ambrosia that assuages anxiety. Distant relatives fanned her as she sipped its creamy, milky goodness from a styrofoam cup held to her mouth by a maid who had nursed her in childhood. Doodh-sharbat is made by pouring Roohafza into cold milk until it is coloured with a sickly sweet pinkness, embellished with slivers of almonds that are to be picked at delicately with the tip of your tongue when they sink to the bottom of the plastic cup. A fixture at the Muharram majlis, the drink is a familiar and comforting refreshment that belongs both in a glass jug at the dinner table or in a plastic tub at the door of the mosque, offering respite to men and women on the brink of dehydration after having cried for hours on the majlis floor.
A horde of women sit on the rickety chairs on the far right of the main hall, their knees in pain after having travelled for hours in little Santro taxis. Moaning, they look at the younger women, first considering them for their son’s sons, then as they daintily wipe a tear off their cheek with the edge of their dupattas, they silently plead with them for a cup of chai and a balushahi. Begum Zamani Tahir was known for her notorious sweet tooth; savoury foods were of little importance to her, simply predecessors to her little bowl of dessert, whose obligatory appearance on her breakfast tray in her room after she finished siparah was understood to be an integral part of household routine. Kheer, sewaiyan — milky, or frosted with licks of balaai and pistachios, egg halwa, or the old Shamsabad classic, aloo ka halwa would do, just as long as they were made at home or by the hand of a Muslim. My grandmother was by all accounts, a steadfast sectarian. However, it should be noted that she did make the odd exception for shrikhand from the Nathu’s in Bengali Market. She had never stepped out of the house, let alone been to the market, but could, with terrifying accuracy, tell the difference between her preferred dessert and a pretender. She was known to play favourites, and when it came to the majlis ka hissa, she knew there to be none better than a doughy balushahi, to be wrapped individually in little bags and handed out at the exit to the grateful masses. With due diligence, her sons assiduously followed her commands at her funeral too. Each balushahi was wrapped in little yellow plastic bags, assembled and given out by the caretaker Masroor’s wife, Badrun, in front of the loudspeakers that we rented from the vendor who used them at a wedding in the village the night before. Two hundred flaky doughnuts, fashioned out of maida, deep fried in ghee and then baptized in sugar syrup were wrapped in little yellow bags, each squeeze of the bag oozing fat and syrup. Little ants and flies visited, and the eyes of the mourners lingered lasciviously on the veiled hissa, anxiously waiting until they could wring their fingers around them. Understandably, they were hungry; most had arrived on an empty stomach in anticipation of the bounty that would furnish our dining table at exactly three o’clock.
Funerals are a solemn affair; however, numerous events in our family’s history demonstrate that it is unwise to assume that sadness has no appetite. In some families, people drown their sorrows in drink, others insist upon solitude, but in our case, honouring the memory of a woman who celebrated the bonds built by despair requires assembly around large quantities of artfully prepared food. One cannot hide in or from their misery; instead, they must revel in it and feed it most fully with qorma and roti. The latter must be fermented perfectly, risen to the titillating brink of despair, frothing with silent bubbles without a static flatness in sight; it must then be kneaded into submission before being fired onto the walls of the tandoor, awaiting its final place at the heart of the funeral feast. The mutton qorma, on the other hand, warms the bellies of men, women and children, imbuing bodies gone cold with fullness and gratitude at a life lived, tasted and savoured. Spicy, oily and benevolently heavy, the meat is cooked by the bawarchi in a large degh with the aid of two men — one of them peels and chops the onions, leaving a mound of pink skins by the jamun tree that Rafiq saw my grandfather under, in a dream three years ago. The bawarchi on the other hand cooks silently, adding a secret mix of spices to the vat of oil in which he stews enough meat to feed thirty families. The third man watches as if hypnotised, breaking his gaze only when commanded to vigorously stir the qorma by the bawarchi. The courtyard smells of meat and onions. I lick my lips in anticipation even though I do not eat meat. Badrun is flummoxed by my vegetarianism. She tries to convince to mend the error of my ways. I do not relent; I am a stubborn person.
The first door from the majlis leads our guests through a detour to the dining room at the centre of which stands a large, polished wooden dining table that has been furnished with food. In an orderly line, they chat amongst themselves as they pile their plates with food, squeezing limes on the qorma as they walk away from the table. Seated in makeshift circles in the courtyard, men and women speak of my grandmother and the iron fist with which she ruled her world while others sing praises of the bawarchi, holding up stray sticks of cassia bark as a testament to the quality of the khada masala. Her daughters have draped themselves on a plush suede couch with their heads held in their hands; limp, aged bodies framed by arched double doors. Their former nurses sit on the floor, pleading with them to eat from the plates of food they hold up in their hands. Their brothers come and pat their shoulders, gently pushing them to eat — sighing, they take their first bite of the day, chewing melancholically while gazing upon a portrait of their father. A howl erupts; my grandmother’s youngest son has suddenly broken into tears. He stands by a portrait of my great-grandfather, who, dressed in an officer’s turban, sits beside my grandfather and his sisters. Memories impale him and he clutches the wall; as he holds still, a single tear bleeds into his moustache. His sister pushes her plate of food aside and runs to his side — they weep together, arm in arm, cheek to cheek. Our guests watch in admiration, calling upon Rafiq to bring them some chai and Nizammudin ke pape now that our supplies of doodh-sharbat have been exhausted. We crowd around them and whimper. My youngest cousin runs behind a stray cat that has wandered onto a verandah. A man in a white kurta-pajama lights a cigarette, wondering out loud if the maulana has eaten. The men of the household rush out in a single file to check on him. I’m not sure if this is the same maulana who said that the jinns who live in the room above our main gate are friendly ones. If it is, I’d like to meet him. I suggest this to my mother; she does not think that this is the time or the place.
As our guests begin to leave; the eldest are the first, making well-thought-out claims of aches and pains that incapacitate their poor bodies, they dawdle from their chairs to the steel lota that stands beside the tap under whose nook a cat lives. The bathroom sink is little but a few feet away; the taps function perfectly well, as my father points out, yet the elderly take great pleasure in someone holding a little vessel filled with water over their hands as they wash their fingers with Dettol hand-wash and do a quick qulli to get the last bits of meat between their teeth out. My sister calls them disgusting. The Santros zip into the courtyard; the chairs have magically disappeared. Everyone is handed the hissa and the leftovers of qorma, roti and sheermal. Some eat the guavas they have picked from our garden, claiming it will help them digest the meal. In a final ode to both the matriarch and her clan, they hold each of us in their arms and weep. Almost all of them smell like talcum powder and fresh linen mixed with sweat. They wave goodbye and we cry a little more — in truth or in performance, at the end if this eventful day, it is now difficult to tell.
Sukaina Husain lives and works in New Delhi. Currently working copy at an advertising agency in the city, she hopes to go back to studying Byzantine illustrated manuscripts and icons later this year. She also occasionally makes zines.
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