I sat on a hard plastic chair in a large, air-conditioned room. Behind me, more rows of chairs; the hall was fast filling up with parishioners.
In deference to my special status, three chairs were reserved for me in the first row; even though I was all alone.
In the aisle to my right on a low steel pallet squatted the reason for this special status: my husband’s coffin: he lay there in it, supine, lifeless, palms folded at the chest with a rosary entwined in his fingers as though engrossed in prayer.
A thin, voluble man took the podium. He had travelled all the way from Mattancherry to deliver a eulogy for the Pastor, my late husband.
“...Oh pardon me please, allow me to rephrase: not mourn, dear friends – we will all miss him very much, undoubtedly we will continue to – but we, at the Mission of the Holy Spirit, do not mourn a brother who completes his term of earthly travails and flies into the loving embrace of Lord Jesus. Rather, we celebrate his release.
“So to those of you who feel sad, crestfallen or indeed dismayed, and especially to his lifelong partner, sister Agnes, I will say this: remember all the good times we shared with Pastor Philipose while he stood in our midst, encouraging us, enlivening our gloomiest moments with hope and love and an understanding born of wisdom; the same wisdom he shared with us every Sunday in church, and in recent times from this very podium....You will recall what a wonderful preacher he was, Pastor Pius Philipose, how unforgettably his words touched all our lives....”
At this point, I stopped listening. My mind wandered back to my husband’s bedside, two nights ago.... The vigil had been long and tiring, but at last, I felt the end was near: a moment ago when I touched his arm, then forehead and neck, his body seemed unnaturally cold; the icy shock of that sensation travelled to my heart at the speed of light, and chilled it.
It was half past two in the morning. The night was warm, sticky, and unusually still. Cicadas, crickets, midges, gnats, creatures of the night, even the occasional soothing breezes, all fully sentient: aware, and overwhelmed by his passing. I felt his ice-cold arm once again. No doubt about it: the Pastor was truly dead and gone.
I lit a candle at his bedside.
We have a custom never to leave a dead body unattended. And I was longing to catch some sleep before morning....
There was only one way: Pauly. He’d be willing to keep vigil for the Pastor if I asked him.
Pauly is the sacristan at St Thomas Church next door, the one we owed allegiance to through all my childhood and youth. I know Pauly is always up by 3 am.
I wore my sandals and stepped out into the night. There was a nip in the air.
Presently, I was walking through a vast deserted churchyard and up the steps of a white confection-like structure whose ornate columns, cupolas and central spire glowed in the star-speckled night.
The heavy mahogany doors were shut, but one panel slightly ajar.
I shoved, and it gave with a creak. In the vast darkness inside, only a single dim bulb glowed at the far end of the nave. Pauly stood there, a short man, practically bald but with a dense beard of curls, polishing a silver candlestick.
“Kochamma!” he called in a loud whisper. “Is Pastor better...?” I shook my head.
“Aah! I’m coming. Just give me five minutes to lock up.”
A few minutes later there he was, seated reverentially at the foot of the Pastor’s bed; and I moved to my own smaller bedroom across the passage to try and get some rest.
But my breathing remained irregular; my heart fluttered just a bit as though still unconvinced this wasn’t another cruel trick he was playing on me.
Towards morning I actually managed to doze off; then opened my eyes to see the Pastor silently padding into my room. He bent close over me, snarling, in his renowned, pulpit-ready stentorian:
“Did you think it would be so easy to get rid of me, woman? Ye of little faith, remember ye not how Lazarus rose even four days after death had seized his body? And from mine, I assure you, you won’t detect the slightest whiff of putrefaction. Can you? Do you? Smell me, smell me!”
He brought his warty, furrowed face close to mine and touched it with the icy tip of his nose.... I woke up in a fit of shivering. A stench of stale cheese lingered in the room, even after I had shot up in bed realising I had been dreaming.
“As Archdeacon of the Governing Council,” a voice droned on, “it gives me great pleasure to make an important announcement: we have decided to bring out a small volume of Pastor Pius Philipose’s finest sermons....”
Not so long ago, the Pastor conducted his Sunday services at an austere Lutheran prayer-house. No stained glass, no ornamental crosses, no antique wooden pews; only a bare simplicity that was inspiring. But it was a wooden structure, alas. In the state-wide disturbances of four years ago, it was doused in kerosene one night and set afire by rioters. Many of the parishioners and, indeed, the Pastor himself, never quite recovered from the shock of that outrageous act of arson. A handful of goons were arrested by the police, but they are all out on bail.
Ever since, the diocese books this reception hall for Sunday services; but it’s a commercial centre, also hired out for weddings, first communions, business conventions and election rallies. The restoration of the former Worship Centre is still not complete.
“I’m sure all of you would like your own copy when it’s out. We aim to make it available in four to five weeks at most. I have the printer’s assurance on that. That’ll be something to look forward to, I have no doubt. And perhaps some of us will be keen to present copies to family members and friends...?”
When I entered the already crowded hall before the start of this morning’s service, endless condolences and hugs were pressed on me; now, at its conclusion, more came my way.
“Oh my poor Mary Agnes, how will we live without our Pastor...? How will you cope, dear, it’s so much harder for you.”
“A saint...Latter-day saint he was...god bless him, and god bless you, too, dear Agnes.”
“A young pastor is on his way to take over, I’m told. But, tell me, which young preacher can match the kindness and wisdom of our Pius...? Take very good care of yourself, I beseech you, Mary, do take care.”
These were people of my own neighbourhood, I’ve known most of them for years and years. But so drained was I by three wakeful nights of watching life ebb out of the Pastor – not to mention the wake on the following night, with its profuse readings and endless cups of tea – I barely responded to their kindness and warmth: a mere nod, a touch of the fingers...through most of it, my eyes were turned to the ground.
A few plantation workers had come, too, to pay their respects. I spotted them on the fringes of the congregation, reservedly reticent. Among them was old Thomachen, in a slightly faded black tuxedo two sizes too large for his lean frame.
Soon, Pius Philipose would be carried out to the nearby cemetery and laid six feet deep. Following a custom of Mar Thoma Christians – though as a young man, he had indeed formally broken with them when he adopted his evangelical persuasion – in his last days he specifically left instructions that he should be buried with his head to the west. So that at the end of time, when Jesus appeared in the eastern skies, and it was the hour for the dead to awaken, he would be among the first to open his eyes and greet the Saviour.
Well, to tell you the truth, I was hardly able to keep my own eyes open through the lengthy burial proceedings. Just standing upright by the pit, as they lowered the coffin, was itself a feat of endurance. All the same, having flung that clod of earth at his coffin with a resounding thud, I felt much lighter; as though in dispatching the Pastor’s dead body, a great burden had been lifted off my own chest.
The kind parishioners had organised a communal potluck in his honour, a number of them contributing dry, home-cooked meat dishes, vegetable assortments and salads. The whole spread had been quietly laid out on the long table in the lounge, while hymn-singing continued inside; quite a sumptuous offering, really.
A few moments later, I accepted a plate that was handed to me, nibbled at a bit of something for form’s sake, then pleading extreme fatigue, took my leave.
Excerpted with permission from The Prospect of Miracles: A Novel, Cyrus Mistry, Aleph Book Company.