For our first installment of exemplary creative writing by LaGrange College students, we are thrilled to bring you Puja Roy’s “Antyesti.” Readers should be warned that the piece includes troubling imagery and explores an upsetting theme. We remind all of our readers that this piece is fiction and despite its controversial subject matter, Puja handles her characters with respect, grace, and sincere beauty. We hope you enjoy it as much as we do.
By Puja Roy
I am fortunate that my religion requires the body to be cremated within three days of its death. We have my uncle Prem laid out, dressed in white, hands neatly folded as if he was merely sleeping. The temple apprentices had washed his body, ridding him of all impurities. I doubt they were able to clean them all.
The temple apprentices begin to pile blocks of wood on the base of the altar. The priest comes and tells my mother to oil the skin. Her tears fall in silent agreement. She takes the jar from his hands and sits near the end of her brother’s body. Carefully, she pours some oil into her palm and starts applying it to his feet.
These same feet would caress my ankles and calves under the dining table. At first, my naiveté considered it a game.
My mother moves up to his chest. I can still feel the way that chest would press against mine, forcefully trapping me against the wall, suffocation settling within the spaces of my lungs. I couldn’t scream.
His arms are next. They were once vipers. They would wrap around me in the most inappropriate times: when my mother went to the restroom, on my way back from school, in the backseat of the car. If I squirmed in protest, they would tighten violently.
Mother rubs the oil gently into every finger. Every finger has dragged across every inch of my skin. Every touch has left a bruise. There are blotches of blue under my ribs, purple prints on my hips, and fading greens on my thighs.
When she reaches his neck, I can recognize each vein. That was my view as he would push into me, taking pieces I’ll never get back. Over and over and over until I blacked out.
The last of the oil is painted over his mouth. “You’re so good to me shona,” he would slur in his haze of pleasure, the greasy term of endearment slick as what cooled on my stomach.
But not anymore.
It had happened in the morning. My uncle had just finished eating breakfast and was taking the first few sips of his tea. It was routine. I had spiced his tea with some cinnamon and cardamom.
He started convulsing. His breath came in short gasps, pained grunts synchronizing with his waning heartbeats. My parents left me, their fourteen-year-old daughter, unsupervised in a rush to get him in the ambulance.
I knew he’d be dead before they got to the hospital. I carefully disposed of the broken pieces of the teacup.
The creaking of the gate jolts me out of my reminiscences. The town herbalist walks in and hands a woven basket to the priest. Both bow to each other and she makes her way to the presented corpse. She kneels opposite to my mother. Her eyes track the movements of the oiling process. She refuses to meet my gaze, no matter how intensely I stare at her. She places a hand on my mother’s shoulder, a whisper of sympathy from her parted lips.
No one notices the bandages on the herbalist’s other clenched fist. The cuts that creep up her slender fingers match my own. We truly struggled to uproot that vicious plant. It took weeks to prepare. So much numbness and pain. The only evidence? These jagged lines of raised flesh and our consciences.
The herbalist stands up and blends in with the white of the congregation.
They finally lift him onto the altar. The rest of the wood is placed on top of his body. My father is called forward to light the pyre since my uncle was unmarried and had no sons.
I volunteer. The crowd erupts in shocked murmurs. My mother’s face holds a tinge of pride. I step forward, the heat of the torch scorching through my blood. I ignite the pyre and the warmth sears away the last vestiges of him. My soul blazes with relief.
As the blurriness of my vision clears, my gaze finally meets the herbalist’s. We share a look, the flames flickering in reflection of our triumph.
I shouldn’t be so happy at a cremation ceremony.
But I am.