I was a child when I last saw her, and even then I remember not paying enough attention. It was pre-dawn, cold, bleak and my senses were thick with sleep. There was a crowd: people and Aarti trays milling about. I remember the snatches of the colour of vermillion as the sky grew a lighter blue; I remember men with shaved heads, clad in saffron and white mumbling a few carefully selected words repeatedly; I remember the sound of bells; I remember the smell of incense; I remember how everything was sticky-sweet, and in saturated hues.
The sun came up soon and the riverside clay was slippery under my feet. I watched men immerse themselves in water and I wondered about drowning and dying.
“Ma, what if they don’t come up to the surface ever again?” I had asked Mom, with palpable unease. Mom laughed and sat down next to me, still towelling her hair and throwing gleaming drops of water around herself, which annoyingly disappeared whenever I tried to track them.
“What makes you think they won’t? They will come up to the surface whenever they have the slightest difficulty breathing! You don’t have to worry much about them, my little Grandma! They can take care of themselves. Now, let’s go, take care of you first…” and she picked me up in her arms and we headed off to a small shop where Dad had been waiting for us with a few packets of biscuits. On our way back to the hotel, I had dozed off and was carried back to bed.
When I woke up, I remember following the sunbeams into the room and the hushed whispers from the balcony. Curious, I rolled over, climbed down the bed and made my way out. Mom and Dad stopped talking immediately and smiled at me.
“You finally decided to wake up?” Dad enquired, pulling me close. I didn’t resist and settled myself comfortably on his lap. It was then that I first noticed the bright red mark on his forehead. I turned to look at Mom and discovered that she had it too.
“What are those? And why don’t I have any of those?” I asked them, feeling my forehead for any traces of the colour. They laughed a good while at the question until finally Mom explained, “So, while you were asleep, Dad and I went for a walk along the banks of the Ganga, and we met this priest who wanted to grant us a wish. I thought for a while and told him I wanted to stay with your Dad forever. He sat us down by the river, worshipped the Gods, and gave us these marks, and now, according to the priest, Dad is tied down to me for all seven births,”
Even at that age, I took an instant liking to the idea of ‘forever’ and grew tremendously excited about it, “Of course! And you’ll be MY parents forever, and I’ll be so happy to have such amazing parents for all seven births!”
I remember the moment that followed with wonderful clarity: Mom’s tight embrace, the scent of her hair, her lips on my cheek, her glazed eyes, Dad’s warm smile and his fingers around mine. It was one of those moments which refuse to fade from memory. Ever. Instead, they sprout roots around the heart and cling to it.
It’s been a decade since these memories. And it’s been a little while since Mom left us for another world. Today, here I am, on the banks of the Ganga again, with Dad next to me, and Mom’s ashes in the palm of my hands.
The priests shall ask me to descend into the river in a few minutes.
And if the Ganges allows, I shall ask her just one last question, which I would have asked Mom only if she would reply, just one last question to the river which shall now take away from me whatever is left of Mom’s physical existence, just one last question to the holiest river of the world, just one last question to one of the most revered Goddesses in Hindu mythology:
Is forever truly a lie?