I don’t see American-style obituaries in the paper here in Pune, so I thought it would be good to write one for Baba (see below). I knew a lot of his history from our conversations over the years, but I nevertheless found myself quite often surprised as I talked to those friends and family members who have known him for decades. He made quite an impression on most people that he met, and for many, their first impression wasn’t their last. He had a very stern and serious exterior, and he could indeed be stern and serious. Just ask his children. But those weren’t his defining characteristics. One of his sons told me that despite getting his share of lectures and punishments over the years, he only remembers Baba now with a smile on his face and happiness in his heart.
Baba’s funeral was both similar and different to the American funerals I’ve attended. In Islam, the tradition is to bury the body as soon as possible. And so, within a few hours of his death, Baba’s body was brought back to his home for a viewing. The body was placed very specifically, with the direction of Mecca determining its position. After some time, a man from the nearby mosque came to wash the body.
The washing is done strictly according to ritual, and the male family members and friends participate – mostly in helping to handle the body so it can be thoroughly cleansed. Once washed (the ritual took about an hour), the body is wrapped and viewed by family and friends one last time before its taken to the mosque.
At the mosque, the usual prayer was said inside, and then a special funeral prayer was said outside, in front of the body. From the mosque, the body (which is not in a casket, but rather strapped to a metal frame) was taken to the cemetery – carried by the 100 or so people present, in a “rolling” fashion.
You’d start at the front of the frame and slowly move back as others took your place in the front. Once you were bumped off the back, you’d go back around to the front and start the process over again. So at any given time, there were approximately 10 people carrying the frame, but the people were constantly changing, so everyone got a chance, and no one got exhausted (it was approximately 100 degrees outside).
Baba’s grave is a beautiful spot, under a shady tree. Not too far from his son, Imran, who died last year. While the body is not buried in a casket, it is wrapped in wicker and an impromptu box is built around the body within the grave with pieces of wood. We, the family and friends present, pushed the dirt into the grave after a final prayer from the imam, and marked the grave with stones.
The same day, some relatives who live in Saudi Arabia had a prayer said for Baba at the Kabbah, Islam’s holiest site.
It’s been about two weeks now, and it still feels quite empty without Baba around. The family mourns, of course, but the house is full of joyful remembering as well. There’s no hesitation in talking about Baba, or telling funny stories, or asking questions (and Zak’s been full of questions!) – no sense that one should walk on eggshells when the topic of Baba’s death arises.
I married Baba’s oldest daughter before he and I even met in person – so he had every reason to be skeptical. But he was never anything but warm and welcoming to me, and on our first visit to India, eleven years ago, I was instantly made to feel part of the family. On our next visit, my mother came with us, and I think she felt the same way.
And while he’s certainly gone too soon, I’m so thankful that Sophia, Eli and Zak got to spend a significant amount of quality time with him. And that they’ll have stories of their own to tell when the family is together and talking about Baba.