Countless walked down the length of the street and yet their mouths were locked; silence had swallowed their words. Nevertheless, the sound of their strides could be heard clearly.
This group of more than 200 feet was divided into three.
The first two feet of the leading group belonged to Ghategara Mallappa. He held a stock of cow-dung cakes in his left hand and in his right, he carried the kullaggi, the ritual fire amid four burning dung cakes, to perform the third-day rites for the dead person. His expression was solemn as he walked purposefully. The smoke from the smouldering dung cakes swirled about him like a hooded snake, egging him on. Though the white smoke stood out stark against his dark body, it merged with the dun-coloured turban.
Right behind Mallappa was Fakirappa. He held the kavala mora – a winnowing tray with bits of boiled meat, bones, brain, tongue and eyes of goat, some roti, savoury snacks like chakkuli and chivuda, a chipped cup of tea, some broken rice and two bottles of medicine. A new piece of white cloth covered them all, fluttering in rhythm with his footsteps. Fakirappa held it down firmly; his face grim.
Those in the second group followed empty-handed.
Some were bald, some had had a haircut. Some wore caps; some others, turbans. They walked swinging their arms as if marching off to war, dauntless; muffling a cough so that no one could hear it. Women made up the third group, their saris covering their heads as well as their mouths.
There were more muthaides than widows in this group, and no unmarried girls. Some held on to each other. Some others walked supported by other women on both sides. Their faces looked spent with weeping. Their breath heaved with grief as they walked along. And yet the wretchedness in their eyes seemed to say, “Let it be; don’t weep,” as they walked resolutely towards the graveyard.
Women from the by-lanes stood with mouths slightly open; eyeing them with compassion, talking among themselves: “It’s already been three days since Bangaravva died, isn’t it?”
“Yes, don’t know how the days have slipped by.”
“That’s the way it is with a muthaide’s death.”
“Whatever it be, one must be born with such blessings.”
“True, true, she was like a goddess; that woman.”
“And she had a fitting funeral, I heard.”
“Yes. Why, didn’t you know?”
“They gave away two bags of jawar.”
“And they tossed coins all along the way, from the home to the graveyard.”
“Yes, it seemed like a shower of rain.”
“Our children brought them home, in their clothes, in their caps.”
“Bangaravva’s family is showy.”
“True, there’s no one like them among the Machagera community.”
“They stuffed her mouth with gold coins; that’s the word going around.”
“Ayya, who does all that after a person dies?”
“No one spends as much even when a daughter dies.”
“One should be that blessed.”
“Avva, they say, if you drape a corpse with a grand sari, if you fill her mouth with gold, the Adavi Chonchas will dig up the body and steal everything. Is that true?”
“Why only them? Even magicians may steal the bones.”
“Ayya, what kind of talk is that? No mourning is enough for Bangaravva; no ritual is enough for Bangaravva.”
“Bangaravva is Bangaravva! She’s gold like her name.”
“She was chaste, like Ganga.”
“When we went to the fields, she’d fill our bags with grain until we cried, ‘Enough! Enough!’”
“And when we went to her house for alms with a sling bag slung over the shoulder, did she give us any less? ‘Why have you come with a hadlagi? Why didn’t you bring a proper bag, a jolgi?’’ she’d say.”
“Shiva has his eyes on such people; she should’ve lived longer.”
“But one must be blessed to die as a muthaide.”
“Why would anyone look at a widow’s face?”
“But it would rain even if such women were widows.”
“She had four sons like tigers and yet she was like stone.”
“Ayyo, I spoke to her just a few days ago.”
“And she spoke so warmly.”
“What a death, O god! You snatched her away in a flash.”
“Couldn’t he take old women like us, that Kurasalya?”
“Today looks like the third day ritual.”
“Yes, look how many people have gathered.”
“Ayya, you should’ve seen on the day of the funeral. A sea of people! A large circle of relatives.”
“Machagera Shivappa’s wife, I hear.”
“Her eldest daughter couldn’t come for the funeral, I heard.”
“Yes, looks as if she’s here for the third day karya.”
“Look! That fight-a-cock, Gangavva is with them.”
“Whatever be the ill-feelings, one should go. In the end, what will we take with us, after all?”
“Who’s holding the burning dung cake? Isn’t that Mallya?”
“Yes, but why is he holding it?”
“His father must’ve gone elsewhere, that bastard.”
“Let him be. Why d’you think of such things at such a time?” The women from the slums stood in the lanes and talked among themselves as they watched the crowd going towards the graveyard for the karya. The mourners went past the settlements of the Dora, Samagara, Katagara and Muslim communities.
The Holeyas and Madigas had visited her slum before they had set out, weeping their grief. The women kept talking even after the people on their way to the grave to perform the death rites disappeared from sight. Their tongues wagged to a continuous rhythm, missing a beat here and there.
Excerpted with permission from Karya, Aravind Malagatti, translated from the Kannada by Susheela Punitha, Hamish Hamilton.