The Funeral (06.12.1992)

7 min readDec 13, 2023

Hundreds of mourners fill the auditorium of Cooper Hospital. They are standing in clusters, groups of random people who haven’t seen each other in years, business associates of her father’s, and relatives who hopped buses within hours of hearing the news. The first thing I see, beyond the dark crowd, is a wooden pyre — logs, and logs of wood set up in a crisscross manner covered with flowers with Hetali’s body sandwiched in the middle. A bald priest, naked from the torso up, is swaying next to the pyre, holding an earthen pot tied to a triangle of rope. I see the pyre and then register that my friend is inside it. I’ve never seen a pyre before, and the realization hits me with all the force of a physical blow. I want to tear the logs apart, gripped by the insane notion that she won’t be able to breathe in there.

Prakash is at my side, and I don’t want him there. Suddenly, I can’t bear the idea that Prakash is at Hetali’s funeral, but there’s nothing I can do about that now. I keep my body between Prakash and her mother’s wheelchair. I don’t want him near her.

“Listen,” I whisper in his ear, “I have to stay around her mother. Why don’t you go sit over there — ” I point to an empty corner next to a few friends he knows slightly.

He looks at me accusingly.

“Pakya, just do it,” I say.

I watch as Prakash squeezes past an older couple and takes a seat next to some of my college friends. He looks lost in their midst, like a grown-up who has accidentally wandered over to the kids’ table. He’s still glaring at me, and I turn my head away. Prakash has told me something within hours of her death that has chilled me to the bone — “As long as I’m alive, you’ll never have to worry about doing anything”, he had said, his voice hoarse with emotion. The implication was as clear as day. Back off and I will find them myself and when I do, I will slit their throat with my own hands — The voice was steady when he said it. Straightforward, almost.

As I walk alongside her mother’s stretcher as they wheel her down the center aisle of the crowd , it occurs to me that Prakash is here, all right — but he’s making things worse.

People descend like vultures. They converge on her mother’s side, leaning over her, their eyes wet with sorrow. The doctor’s words — She may not survive this — swim through my head, and I gently, or perhaps not so gently, push her mother’s friends away. I see dread on her face. She had seen me pulling down Hetlai’s body, which is now right in front of us, and a moan escapes her lips. She squeezes my hand, the edge of her ring digging into my palm.

I call Rekha her friend from a nearby payphone. She is at the hospital. “I wish I could be there ,but at least this way I can keep you updated about Mitali if anything comes up”, she says with a touch of sadness.

“What about Mitali? What’s Mitali doing?” someone asks as if they need to know where her sister is. A white-hot rage crashes over me, and I turn to see who the asshole is who could imagine that she has a choice in the matter, that she might not go to her sister’s funeral. But something stops me, something stronger than rage; I realize it’s guilt that I’m feeling, horrible guilt that I have to choose between attending my friend’s funeral or being in the hospital where her sister was undergoing an eight-hour surgery.

“I’ll call you,” I whisper to Rekha on the other side. “From the cemetery. The minute I get there.”

“ I’m so sorry you have to go through this alone, I am more worried about you”, she murmurs and I just stand there running fingers through my hair.

“I’ll try to get there as soon as I can. Just don’t go to the funeral site please”, she pleads before I drop the receiver back onto the cradle.

Prakash and Mehul, her uncle are having a conversation about the one thing they have in common: Real Estate. Somehow they both have not just met but also discovered their similar professions.

“That builder Raheja is quite a machine,” says Mehul, who is a real estate builder, having spent most of his adult life building towers in Bombay. “You can easily destroy those mills in Lower Parel and build some real good towers there.”

“I am working on a twenty-two-floor before I got this one,” Prakash answers, “and I’ve got to tell you — ”

I fade in and out of their conversation, wavering between numbness and disbelief that they’re talking about real estate on the way to my friend’s funeral. For Mehul, this is part of grieving, this grasping onto the tangible world — in this case, real estate — because after all, what good would it do to talk about anything else? But Prakash talks about his work all the time. He could just as easily be on his way to a dinner party. I close my eyes, lean my head back against the side of a stationary truck, and try to summon Hetali’s face. I strain to hear her voice, to feel her touch — somehow knowing that these will be the first to fade. Years from now, I will no longer be able to feel her hand on the small of my back or hear the particular way she has always said my name, with traces of a Gujarati accent. But today I still feel her all around me. I pull her closer, like a cloak.

There’s a problem,” a guy in white pajamas says, addressing Mehul.

“What?” I blurt out. I can’t imagine, in this context, what could possibly constitute a problem.

“They’ve taken the wrong plot for the funeral,” the guy says.

“What do you mean?” I hear my own voice grow shrill.

“Exactly what I said,” he answers.

“But how could that happen? Whose — ”

The thin membrane of self-possession that has gotten me through the morning crumbles, and I begin to shake uncontrollably.

“How could they make a mistake? How?” I ask, the word stretching into a howl. I am an animal, incapable of thought, blinded by pain.

“So what’s happening?” Prakash asks evenly.

“Well — the funeral plot folks are on their lunch hour.”

“When are they due back?”

“I’m not sure. There’s some question about whether they’ll be able to do it today.”

“Have you tried to reason with them?”

Prakash is firing off questions as if interrogating a witness.

“They said — ” Mehul’s voice is getting a familiar edge.

“I don’t give a shit what they said. Surely they can be persuaded.”

Prakash and Mehul suddenly stare each other down, and for a moment I wonder if they’re about to get into a fistfight. I feel as if I’m having a nervous breakdown. My body is flying apart — limbs shooting in opposite directions, head twisting off my spine. I look at the pyre. I think of her sister, back at the hospital. What am I going to tell her?

Without a word, Prakash stands up from the plastic chair that he is parked on for the last half hour.

“Where are you going?” I call after him.

“Be right back,” he says to the wind.

For the rest of my life, I will know that Prakash urf Pakya paid off the plot bearers, that he reached out a hand with a neatly folded hundred rupee bill just the way he might to a maître d’ in a four-star restaurant. Prakash’s money got my friend her funeral. The rest of the men — Mehul, Diven, Rajesh — would never have thought of it. It takes a certain kind of mind to believe that anything can be bought.

Within an hour the Pandit is praying and making circles around the pyre pouring clarified butter or ghee on the wooden logs. It happens fast — terribly fast — once they are all gathered around her pyre. I fade away slowly and find myself standing on the opposite side of the road to the funeral ground. I had promised Rekha that I would not attend the funeral or talk to anyone there. “They would not like you being there. There will be more questions than answers. Just let them be in peace”, she had said wisely. For the first time in many days, I heed to someone’s well-placed advice.

As I sit by the side, I realize I’m shaking and sweating wearing the same black shirt from yesterday, and the mourners have formed an aisle as they say some words to her uncle and other near relatives. I want to stay. There is an old bench across the road, and I want to sit there alone, still as stone, and guard over my friend’s ashes until I have collected every last speck of it. I want to spend the night here, listening as the wind whips through the plot and the trucks rumble on the highway. Instead, I do what I usually do. I walk away.

Before I get back on the bike with Prakash, I stop at a pay phone in a gas station across the street from the cemetery and call Rekha.

“How was it?” she asks.

A flock of pigeons scatters as a taxi hits a water-filled pothole, drenching the side of my dark blue jeans. I close my eyes.

“It was beautiful,” I say. “It was just what she would have wanted.”




Life is represented by two distinct sets of people: The people who live it and the people who observe them. These are their stories.