A friend of a friend passed away last week. She died of cancer. There was a massive outpouring of grief on social media; the kind that is made more poignant by the fact that the person who has passed is young. There is something hard-hitting about the death of someone who is supposed to be in their prime. Perhaps it reminds us that we, the young, are not invincible. Suddenly, our mortality is staring us right in the face.
One of the people who paid tribute to her on Facebook mused about how it is almost indecent to express our grief so publicly on social media, but since many people will not be able to attend the funeral due to the lockdown, the only available outlet for people’s grief is social media.
It made me realise something about the expression of grief amongst the Khasis. Our mourning and grief is actually very public because of the nature of Khasi tribal funerary customs, which consists of a 3-day and 2-night wake where the body of the deceased is on display for everyone who has come to convey their condolences.
During these 3 days and 2 nights, there is a constant stream of people going in and out making sure that the family is never alone. All the doors and windows are left open for the soul of the deceased to be able to freely flit in and out. There is a make-shift kitchen running 24×7 serving black and milk tea, rice, pork, beef, fish, and vegetables all day long. Lying all around the house and lawn–at strategic spots–are plates of kwai, the Khasi areca nut eaten with betel leaves and concentrated lime.
As a child (I left Shillong at the age of 18), I was always made in charge of carrying tea biscuits around on a tray while the teenagers carefully carried kettles of hot tea. We obediently followed them around the home compound of the deceased’s family offering all who came tea. There was always the odd person who would ask for tea that has no sugar or who enquired if the tea was made with “real” milk or powdered milk. We dreaded to serve these people. It’s difficult to get special orders made in a community kitchen where one half of the cooks are mourning while the other half are drunk.
Once the late night approached, the youngsters would keep vigil and stay up all night. This was the best bit about funerals. This was when we played games like carrom, told each other ghost stories, and related to each other fond stories of the person who has just passed. There was always one person who was the designated storyteller. Think of them as the Khasi version of the minstrel who kept everyone entertained with their theatrics. The girls would scream in horror (and delight) whenever a ghost story being told was a particularly good one.
In the end, many young people who met during these late-night vigils ended up marrying each other. Amongst the Khasis, it’s more plausible to have “Four Funerals and a Wedding” rather than “Four Weddings and a Funeral”.
Now, each time I visit home for a holiday, I inevitably end up attending the wake and funeral of at least one person in the community. But, things have somewhat changed. At the more affluent homes, the community kitchen has been replaced by professional caterers. No doubt this is being done to increase efficiency, but it does add an element of impersonality to our funerary customs. Gone are the lively fireside conversations as the tea boils in large pot while the cooks are stealthily swigging booze from bottles on the side.
While growing up, my relationship with death as a young child was shaped by these funerary customs and gatherings. I didn’t fear death. I saw it as a part of everyday life. A death in the community meant meeting scores of new people and catching up with friends. We were always taught to be respectful of the deceased person’s family’s grief but we also played our role in alleviating the sudden emptiness that comes with the death of a loved one.
In many ways, Khasi funerals become a celebration of a person’s life. People sit around and reminisce about the life of the person who has just left this earthly realm.
As I sit in Delhi, far away from all these familiar customs and rites, mindlessly scrolling through data where the deaths of people is listed in numbers, I realise how impersonal death has become. Death is now just a number flashing on a screen. There are no personal stories of the person who has passed. There is no community rallying around the grieving family. The 21st-century city life stares at me like a yawning emptiness.