When the helicopters had landed on the hospital terrace, it had been assumed by the doctors that the patient was alive. The team that ran up to the choppers comprised two senior physicians, who could tell instantly that there was nothing to be done. They remained silent, but it was clear from the looks they exchanged with the escort group that everyone knew this was over. Nonetheless, the body was taken down and subjected to tests.

The media waited outside for news, but none came from within the hospital. Instead, messages and half-whispers confirmed to the nation what most of the media already knew. No formal announcement was made by the hospital. A note was sent instead to the PMO and to the head of state, informing them that the Big Man had gone and asking if an autopsy was to be conducted.

There was no lighting at the crematorium. There was no time, and no one to prepare for the ceremony and its theatrical elements. The Big Man was brought out in public one last time. He seemed smaller now that the breath had gone out of his body, and he also seemed out of place in this ordinary setting.

The floor was sticky, the walls grimy, and the smells and sounds of a functional crematorium were all around. The cameras were in a corner, some 30 feet from the bier, behind a barricade, along with as much of the public as could be accommodated. Many more had gathered to bid farewell, and to cry and experience a surge of emotion. But since the space was limited, the setting unentertaining and dawn not far away, some had left. The holy men began the preparations, and the party’s grandees stepped forward to say their piece.

Swamiji went first. He was robed in white, shaved and tonsured, looking even younger than he was. He had convinced the family that postmortems did not exist in ancient times, that such mutilation was wrong. And that putting bodies on display was not a part of the faith. Instead, a quick and simple funeral was the order of the day. With no input on this from anyone else, the family went along with Swamiji’s suggestion. Swamiji carried a large ceremonial torch, whose flames lit one side of his face. His eyes closed as he spoke. He uttered the ancient incantations appropriate for the moment, and prayed to the gods and to the corpse. His words at the end of the ritual were few and direct.

The Big Man was on his way to heaven. He, Swamiji, would ensure that the rituals and the rites were performed as prescribed. The good that the dead man had done would carry him most of the way. This good work had to be taken forward and concluded. The faith had to be integrated fully with the laws. This would produce divine blessings that would vitalise the nation. It was inspiring stuff. Jayeshbhai stood in the first row, a few feet behind Swamiji. His face was captured by many of the lenses. The flashes of irritation showed.

When Swamiji spoke about the faith and the laws, Jayeshbhai’s face froze as he tried to figure out how to respond to this and win some advantage back. He knew he was an average speaker. He recognised, too, that his rival had delivered something special, which Swamiji’s unamplified voice had carried cleanly and convincingly. What he had said had to be countered. But how? Jayeshbhai’s mind was in that space where trying too hard didn’t work, and his disquiet produced a daze. Swamiji ended his speech, offered another little prayer and then turned around and walked to the side, eyes still closed.

Jayeshbhai stepped forward to speak and was about to begin when, to his visible disconcertment, Swamiji returned with the Big Man’s brother. A plain fellow with an almost featureless face, the brother allowed himself to be led. With no agenda of his own, feeling real grief for the loss of someone he had loved and admired, though he did not know him well, and with no idea of what was expected of him, he stood facing the crowd behind the barricades and broke down. His hands covered his face.

Swamiji, standing next to him with eyes closed, allowed twelve seconds to pass. Then he put his hand on the brother’s head, discreetly but firmly applying pressure. The brother sank to his knees, relieved to be guided on what to do, and clung to Swamiji’s thighs, burying his face almost in the crotch. It was impressive, and even Jayeshbhai could appreciate the craft and improvisation that went into the performance. He knew that the brother had no strategic value with either the party or the general public, being unknown and kept at a distance by the Big Man. He calculated that though this was in Swamiji’s favour, it was manageable. He stepped forward, gently picked the brother up and took him to the side, and then stepped forward again to speak.

His content was more banal and included a list of some of the schemes, acronyms and other things concerning governance. The Big Man had launched scores if not hundreds of missions, visions and movements. Some of these had been forgotten and some had been discontinued; a few were just previous schemes renamed. Jayeshbhai assured those present that he would continue to carry forward this material contribution of the Big Man and bring it to a conclusion. After a point, when he realised that he was repeating himself and had lost the attention of some members of the audience, he stopped abruptly and signalled to the holy men to initiate the cremation.

Excerpted with permission from After Messiah, Aakar Patel, Penguin India.