In Memory of Our Fathers

Festival Issue 92 Jul, 2010
Text by Kapil Bisht / Photo: ECS Media

The sad plume of smoke rises from the tent, hanging momentarily and heavily against the cloud-strewn sky, almost reluctant, before being wafted heavenwards by the gentle breeze. Below the morning sky, in cloth tents dozens of priests recite ancient Hindu hymns, facing the sacred fire, not choking in the thick smoke arising from the pit in front of them, but rather breathing life into the Vedic texts. For a moment that plume of smoke, rolling in the wind trying to shed its density so that it may ascend, is like our lives itself. Like the smoke that rises from fire so do our lives. Our lives. too, are built around a fire, and each one of us has his own fire. And, this fire that burns within us, like the ceremonial fire burning under the tents, needs offerings: reasons, beliefs, power, fame and other things that keep the flames going. Some of these offerings are cravings, by way of which some try to create brilliant flames, though ephemeral. Others are in the quest to learn the purpose of the fire, the search for meaning, for the methods, so that once realized the offerings may make the flames seem more meaningful.

A few offer nothing to the fire of life; and that is their greatest offering. These few people have learned not to offer to the fire what they can, but to seek contentment in what the life-fire itself has to offer. They are one with the fire that is life, just like the priest or a wild savage sitting in front of the fire, taking the heat, carefully placing twigs to keep it going, watching the twigs crackle, seeing the logs burn to ashes, all the time not worrying about the fire, not trying to alter the flames, but just observing the process of the fires burning and dying. Such are the ways that the fire that is life burns. The smoke from the ceremonial fire that hangs lingering in the air, unable to mingle with the air due to its weight, is like our lives, heavy with earthly desires, trying to wrest free from the weight and uneasiness of material wants. The thick smoke ball rolls upwards, diffusing into the air. Primeval hymns fill the air. The atmosphere is strongly atavistic.

Prayers and hymns for the deceased
Hymns from the scriptures flow from the loud speaker. Prayers for the deceased, for their souls. The hymns have a strange quality; serene yet strong. They not only seem to implore the Creator to bless the souls of the departed, but also sound like a candid account of the lives of the souls, recited in a tone that reflects the unflagging faith of the living in the divine judgment. Sonorous sounds are everywhere and I, standing, looking at the tents on the field in Pashupati, begin contemplating what we can do to honor and revere our dead. Religious ceremonies such as these, where hymns are supposed to connect us to the deceased, are a way of remembrance. But, is remembering someone honoring them? If that is so, how well are our martyrs, poets, saints and great people remembered, for we all have a holiday celebrated in their names.

Two huge pine trees stand condescendingly, mockingly, in the vicinity of the temporary setting of tents and ceremonies. They are ancient trees, and seem like two giants gazing into the distance, where now lies the concrete sprawling city of Kathmandu. Through a narrow gorge below them, the river Bagmati flows, bedraggled and slowed by filth. The tree branches sway drearily in the breeze, pitying the state of their ancient companion, that flows wearily.

The old and the new
The vista afforded by the hill in Pashupati is a painting of the hurried arrival of development, the grotesque growth of concrete; houses strewn, not built. Smoke arises from the funeral pyres along the river bank. In the background, against the thinning smoke, is the road, with vehicles rolling along on it. Maybe a vehicle carrying a pregnant woman is passing on it. Presently, opposite the bank where lie the charred remains of someone’s life, a group of solemnly-amazed and camera-poised tourists arrive. Like the two banks, the mourning families and the tourists could not be so near, yet so apart—the one discovering a new way of life; the other, death.

The Pashupati area is a picture frame impression of life, of birth, belief, riches, poverty, death. It is like the cycle of life, being enacted by the figures in the painting that is the Pashupati area. I wriggle free of the captivating effect of the scenes and realize that I now know, although in a small manner, what we can do to honor the memories of the dead. The deceased require nothing from us but to honor the living, to love them, to be kind to them and to drift with them as brothers and sisters in this flowing stream that is life.