Goodbye to my Grandmother neighbor, the one who lived across the street in my village, went home to God last week. She was a vibrant and exuberant woman, who had tirelessly blessed thousands of people in her native mountain village temple festival last March. I have videos to prove it. On a full-day fast, she danced and blessed everyone, including the fire-walkers before their dance across the hot coals at the height of the festival; she blessed everyone with a small branch of neem leaves dipped in yellow turmeric water for all who ate from the banana leaves at the end of the festival.
When my husband and I arrived to live in this tribal village, she told me, “I don’t have daughters, so you will be my daughter. I will protect you as long as I am alive.” Only once or twice before in my life had anyone ever verbally laid it out like that for me. Grandmother put her words into action one day; after telling her (in my silly broken Tamil) that two neighbor boys had been throwing stones over my wall to stir my dogs into a barking frenzy. I spend a lot of time in the garden and ducked away to avoid a few of these boy’s rocks. As fierce as a she-tiger pursuing an adversary, she began to inquire about the boys. I hid behind my gate as I heard her barking commands in the Baruga language. My Grandmother neighbor fought for order. That she remained loyal to her word made me cry.
Here in the Western Ghats, in the Nilgiri region lives a group of people called the Baruga. Their language is an oral tradition, as nothing is written. They are said to have come from the Mysore region some two hundred and fifty years ago, fleeing from Sultans Hyderali and his son Tippu—men known for warring and introducing rocketry in modern warfare. In this particular region where we live, there are 60 Baruga villages. We are fortunate enough to be “allowed” to live here.
A friend of ours had mentioned to us that at a Baruga funeral, people will dance. We couldn’t believe it. After paying our respects to Grandmother in the morning, we left our sandals on our doorstep, and walked barefooted down to the common meeting ground in front of one of the village temples. Everything was organized. People from the village were already passing out trays of hot tea or coffee, and continued to do so for hours. Men rolled large coir mats out on the lawn for people to sit. A covered pavilion was erected for the musicians and singers. Buses and trucks full of people came in leaving well-wishers and family off. And with each new group of arrivals, another round of wails ensued. I sat near a group of women and saw my husband across the way sitting with Grandfather and his family men. Grandmother was lain out in a cradle that had a rooftop. A man deftly placed five rainbow umbrellas, and wound strings of marigold flowers along to decorate. She was tended to very lovingly. Two benches were set up on either side where women sat. Women came, cried and wailed to her, and touched their foreheads to each other. This is their way.
Raj and I returned to the house so that he could put on traditional dress (a white mundu cloth) because he had been invited to walk with the family men in the final ritual. Other rituals were performed. Incense burned; baskets full of flowers from her native mountain village arrived, carried on mourner’s heads; family members brought different colored cloth to cover her; another round of chai was offered to family and guests by my neighbor. In the community kitchen, lunch was simmering, for nobody leaves a funeral with an empty stomach.
As we returned from our home, the bajan music had already begun. And in formation, the women on one side, and men on the other, danced in a circle around my Grandmother neighbor. I sat with my young friends, the great-grand daughter of my Grandmother neighbor, and my neighbor’s daughter, the sister of the boy who threw rocks at my dogs, and another friendly young girl. “Why are you crying, Auntie?” they ask me. I had to think about it; I hadn’t realized that as I was watching these friends and family members dance in formation around Grandmother, I was deeply moved by the love and care shown to her—and to us as “outsiders.” Meanwhile, the man who sat next to my husband said to him, “You and your wife are like Baruga people—you are family.”
Two weeks ago, Grandfather neighbor and his family observed Grandmother’s 16th day after passing. This is typical of many religious celebrations here in India. A great feast was made in her honor, and close family members attended. We also took part. Grandfather went to stay in his family’s homes for a while. Today we visited him. “She just went without any indication,” he said. ““Yes, it was a good death,” said my husband. Grandfather replied, “In this world there is nothing but love. You give away and get back love. There is nothing else, is there?” Goodbye to my Grandmother neighbor.
In : The Spiritual Life
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