Years Apart – A Journey’s end – life writing
“ Beta (daughter), I would like my ashes scattered in the Ganges in the same place we scattered your father’s ashes, please make sure that happens after I die.”
Same spot? That was some twenty seven years ago. India has changed, Hardwar, the town we went to must have changed, the world has changed, how am I going to find the same spot, I reasoned with her.
“That’s not my worry, that’s your worry” she said, as mum’s do with a degree of finality that you cannot question.
I made arrangements to go to India to fulfil her final wish. Packing my bags including plenty of anti-bacterial hand gel. Twenty seven years ago, my mum had decided that we would go to India to do my father’s final rituals. She was sure it was what he would have wanted. This time again, she had decided the journey for me.
At that time, I was in my early teens and had not been back to India since we had left, when I had been very young, so I was looking forward to the adventure more than feel sadness about making the final journey for my father. In fact as I counted the years that I had actually lived with him in total, it only amounted to seven. That amazed me, such a short time to have known him, when his struggles to settle in the UK provided me with a better life. It was a total shock that he had passed away so suddenly.
I remember landing at Mumbai airport with my mother and sister and being amazed. Colour, noise and smells, came at us from every direction. Trucks, cars, rickshaws, cows, cyclists, scooters and pedestrians all shared the street. Each one fighting for space. It was amazing that no one was killed, every second to me it looked like someone was likely to die. The rule on the road it seemed, was that there was no rule!
This time landing at Mumbai, clutching the urn with my mother’s ashes in my arms, was a different feeling than the last trip. Taking a taxi from the airport I went to the hotel feeling completely alone. Even the chaos of the street which had more then quadrupled since I was there last, seemed stifling, the inevitable delays annoying. Sitting on my own in the hotel room I wondered whether it was because I was much older or was it because I was more upset about my mother passing.
Could I have loved my mother more than my father. I was sure that was not the case. He, I know loved me a great deal I was always his ‘princess.’ He struggled to provide for us, doing nightly tuitions and in the day time working as an accountant in Whiteley’s, it was the first department store in London he would say proudly.
My love for my father was a mutual combination of respect and fondness, after all I had not spent as much time with him as I had with my mother. She had always been the constant in my life whereas my father’s visits in my eyes were that of a VIP who brought lovely Cadbury chocolates in posh boxes all the way from London. One time he brought me a Intercity train set, I was the most popular friend in the whole nursery for months. His visits to India were very rare, as money was always an issue and looking back I realise that I had been too young to feel anything more emotional for him then childish pleasure at the gifts he brought for us.
The whole trip for my father was filled with incidents so bizarre and funny that even years afterwards my mother and I would recall that trip and laugh. We took my cousin from our home town with us to help us with our journey, train travel was the best option at that time. It was night, there were people sitting on top of the carriages, quite common in India. Suddenly, we saw flames reflected on the train banks from the top, smoke started coming in through the windows. Even though the train was still moving, people were jumping off the train left right and centre, I was wondering if we would have to jump as well, petrified that we would get burnt alive. My cousin decided to go and see what was happening. We were so worried but then he came back laughing and said it was nothing, somebody had a mattress on top which somehow caught fire, the emergency chain was pulled and the train stopped. The man with the mattress was pulled off the top and they managed to put the fire out giving him a severe ticking off and a good few slaps for causing such chaos. The people, my cousin told us, who had jumped off were ones without tickets, scared that officials would have caught them. We could not stop laughing after that, the whole carriage was laughing and we resumed our journey.
This time I only travelled once on the train, I think we had all become somewhat neurotic and over cautious with age, anxious about rail travel, will it be too dirty, what kind of people will be on the train, surely the toilets would be horrendous, even though we had booked first class air-conditioned. Up to that point we had been using Air transport everywhere, I wondered if it was because we could now afford to use it or that we thought ourselves too posh to travel on the train now.
Trains and platforms have a particular smell in India, as soon as I walked on to the platform it evoked memories from the last trip. People frying and cooking food, sweaty, skinny porters lug about baggage that reminded me of ants carrying ten times their body weight, drain smells overflow with pungent stinks, there are hawkers selling anything from books to baby clothes. Feral dogs roam in packs barking across platforms marking territories, crowds suddenly appear from nowhere when a train is about to depart and somehow slide themselves into impossible spaces in the carriage or on top. As the atmosphere and smells hit me it brought back thoughts of us all laughing at the fire incident.
This time as we climbed aboard our first class compartment, it felt so different. There was none of the chaos of the previous journey in the second class carriage. Amazingly, I missed that chaos. I felt secluded, our neurotic ideas had actually cut us off from the real India, the chaos, the madness, the fun that we had all loved so much. Was this because we were now different or was it because our adventurous spirited mum was not with us? Maybe this journey she had made me take was her way of bringing me back to India. My thoughts jumbled and spilled into my notebook.
Finally we arrived in Hardwar, a town very near to where the sacred Ganges river starts its journey. Its force is powerful and cold there as its source is the melted snows of the Himalayas. I thought back to where we had carried out the final rituals for my father. It had been a quiet ceremony, the priest chanting in Sanskrit as the river gushed and danced on its merry way.
We had arranged for a priest to meet us at our hotel and together we tried to find the same spot but the whole shape of the town had changed, the river banks were all more built up now. We found a quiet spot which looked about the same. I sat on the rivers edge holding my mother’s ashes feeling overwhelmed. Both happy that I had managed to bring her thousands of miles as per her wishes and sad that perhaps this was not the exact spot. I consoled myself thinking that after twenty-seven years even mum would not have remembered.
The priest rattled out the Sanskrit prayers fast and furiously as if it were peak season for souls to lay to rest that day, and my mum’s soul needed to get to the gates of heaven before the crush. His drumming tone seemed so distant to me as I stared at the thundering river. As I had done for my father, I stood knee deep in the freezing water, pouring my mothers ashes into the river, they clouded and merged with it, vanishing into the river’s life giving force. I felt that she was at peace in this sacred place. Finally, I realised why my mother had expressed for her ashes to merge with the Ganges and why she had made the journey for my father, I felt that they were both at peace now.
I have never seen myself as a particularly religious or spiritual person but being there connected me with my father and mother. My journey too was complete, my mother had managed to bring back my precious memories and added new ones for me to treasure. Back at home as I unpacked at the bottom of my bag I found the anti-bacterial gel that I had completely forgotten to use.