BOOK EXCERPT

All happy families are alike. Each unhappy family mourns its dead in its own way (as Kitty knows)

The funny, lost world of twin villages of Catholics in Bombay, where the gravedigger’s name is Hanging Gardens, comes alive in this novel.

Kitty was there at most funerals. People found that strange, particularly her friends. She attended the funerals of even people she did not know. She made it a point to stand in the condolence queue and shake hands with the mourners, looking intently into their eyes. Why, her friends asked her, was she so interested in dead people? Not dead people, she told them, it was the living that she went to see. You see them every day, don’t you? They countered. Every day I see them. At funerals, I come to know them, she said.

But those were glib and slippery answers designed to avoid the potentially lengthy, convoluted and possibly uncomfortable explanations for her unusual choice of social engagement, involving as it did her personal curiosity, vicariousness, empathy, insight, amusement, and of late, as a writer and journalist, a sense of history. Kitty believed that funerals were the bookmarks of local mythology. Each of them, singly and in clusters, sketched out the character of individuals, families and communities and, in time, served as the markers of a slowly changing age.

Even as a little girl of ten, when she would go to funerals, she would register every moan, cry and gesture of the nearest relative and the most indifferent spectator.

After coming back home, she would re-enact the event in which you might well be audience to comedy, classical tragedy, the theatre of the absurd or opera buffa: the remembrances of the dear departed’s kindness, bravery and even intimate conjugal moments melodramatically narrated, sometimes in plaintive plainchant by a dear-not- yet-departed, sometimes as a dialogue between the dear departed and the not-yet as if expecting from the departed a response: Remember darling how I came home with an upset stomach after that Murzello wedding and how you held me tight and…and then how you…Oh darling, remember? Which would bring on a wave of sniffles and sobs and the trumpets of noses being blown that made the rest of the story unnecessary.

In her early teens, Kitty began to do character portraits of families based on their funereal behaviour and then predict to a nicety what would be heard and seen at subsequent graveside events. The Misquittas, for instance, were different from the D’mellos, the D’Silvas or the Pereiras; the Sutaris different from the Gonsalveses or the D’Penhas. Again, one Misquitta family was not the same as the other. There were five Misquitta families in Kevni, each one with distinct funereal manners from which you could safely and quite accurately delineate their characters.

One of the Misquitta families presented deadpan (unfortunate description) faces around the coffin and the gravesite right up to the lowering of the casket and the covering of the grave. And for days after that they would be seen walking to their jobs as if still part of a cortege, gait and pace keeping time, it would seem, to the Dead March; head half bowed, eyes lowered, not wanting to make conversation with anyone.

Another Misquitta family was all propriety and decorum, as if in an international investiture ceremony: everyone standing immaculately dressed in mourning, in what seemed like pre-appointed places at the graveside and the condolence line; sticking out their fingers for dainty handshakes, heads appropriately inclined to one side and with a half-smile pasted on their faces when they said their soft thank-yous.

Another Misquitta family was all camaraderie, slapping you on your back, though with not too excessive an enthusiasm lest it seem an affront to the dead, and enquiring about your health and that of your family, and how you were doing in your job and noting what a lousy day it was, and thus making you swallow that nice little condolence line you had taken the trouble to practice before coming to the funeral.

The other Misquitta family was, of course, much melodrama and emotion, much general weeping and wailing and plaintive plainchant.

While doing a course in writing and journalism after her graduation in English Honours, Kitty was corroborating her hypothesis that villages, too, displayed distinct funereal behaviour.

She posited that the distinction was so clear that if she passed by the cemetery during a funeral she could tell, within a minute or two, which village it was that was burying its dead.

Kevni funerals were, as a general rule, personal, private, close-knit affairs, with the exception of the Misquittas at whose burials neighbours and friends clamoured to be seen as involved and helpful. Amboli funerals, on the other hand, were collective events, like cricket matches on their “tank”. The whole village would at least try to be present, whoever it was who had died, and prominent Amboliites would almost take ownership of that day. Being present was more than just a gesture of village loyalty and commitment; it was a show of solidarity and strength.

Andheri was understated but liturgically immaculate. Boasting of four priests and three nuns from just one gauthan, Andheri funerals paid attention to form, rubrics and ritual; at least one of the priests would be present there to officiate and wield some ecclesial influence in heaven for the deceased. The distant village of Ossorem could be loud and even ostentatious, with brass bands and mountains of wreaths and bouquets. Being farther away from the church than the other villages, they needed to inflate their presence in the parish, and expected and demanded a certain level of service from the church staff.

On one occasion, one of the mourners interrupted her moaning to ask the priest why the service was so short and demanded more prayers to be said. She had heard a longer prayer being said at an Andheri funeral. At an Ossorem funeral, Kitty was witness to an “aunty” in a nauvari mourning sari suddenly turn on one of the attendees and deliver in Marathi a rather piquant plaintive plainchant: “Are you happy now? He’s dead. You can go and take that langoti piece of land for yourself. He will not need it up there in heaven, where you will never go.” That was the cue for more sobs, sniffles and nasal trumpeting.

Excerpted with permission from A Village Dies: Your Invitation to a Memorable Funeral, Ivan Arthur, Speaking Tiger.

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