Head to the north, feet to the south

TW: Death

Sunlight streamed through the windows making every wall look whiter than it was, and there  was a flurry of activity. After over a year of staring into space, walking into neighbors’  apartments, forgetting to chew, and eventually lying in a rented hospital bed in my 200 sq ft.  bedroom for months, my grandmother had finally died. My mother and aunts bathed and  dressed her; they laid her on the cool marble floor, head to the north and feet to the south,  decorated the space around her with rice grains, flowers, incense sticks stuck in bananas, and  eventually covered her with garlands of marigold. In the stress of finding just the right flowers  and fruits, I forgot my grief while still engaging with her death. When we were done, she had  her best Kanjeevaram saree on, and her nostrils were stuffed with cotton- my grandmother  looked like a dead bride. 

I had reached home earlier in the day and confirmed that my grandmother, cold and covered in  beads of sweat, was indeed dead. I was relieved. I remembered the woman she was- the hymns  and Kannada folk songs she’d sing for us, her devotion to her alcoholic, abusive husband, her  children and us, and her obsession with us getting a good education; in my afternoons filled  with fear, whenever my angry young mother picked up the belt, she was a fount of patience, like a warm home in winter. As her dementia progressed, fragments of herself remained- they  came back to her for brief periods and left, and the intervals got longer and longer until one day  she was truly gone. I realized then that dementia, in its essence, was death. 

We carried her body on the makeshift bamboo stretcher toward the van; her nostril-packed  face peeked out of the cocoon made of a white shroud. We walked in silence. I don’t remember  the drive to the cremation ground, but I remember the pyre we laid her on. My father, her  oldest son, lit the stack of wood on fire. And we watched her burn, right down to her skull.

About The Author

Varun U. Shetty is a writer, critical care physician, environmentalist, animal lover, and almost vegan. He grew up in Mumbai and lives in Shaker Heights, Ohio, with his two amazing partners and a loving, stubborn dog. His work has appeared in Complete Sentence, The Wire, Literary Cleveland’s Voices From the Edge online anthology, Olney Magazine, The Bangalore Review, and others. Find him on Twitter @shettyvu.