Robert Desjarlais: Thirst

Thirst
Written by Robert Desjarlais

I watched as they prepared the corpse for its immolation. I watched as they set the body on fire. The nephew with the video camera stepped about, filming the events. He knelt on the ground, angling for a better shot. He looked like he was gathering different scenes for a documentary, cinema verité. I followed suit. I asked Temba if he could check with someone in the family, to make sure it was acceptable that I take photographs. He did so. I walked to where the lamas were, caught the eye of a man close to me, held up my camera, and said, “Photo kichne, thik cha?” The man nodded his head yes. I took photographs of family members performing prostrations, of two men arranging the corpse, and of the body settled on the pyre. No one seemed to mind.

I did not know who the immediate mourners were. Nogapu pointed out the widow. She was seated alongside other women, by the temple, looking on, her body settled on a stone slab at the base of the temple.

The afternoon sun bore down on us in a cloudless sky. Many of the mourners and their guests were trying to find shade by the temple. Women placed their shawls on the tops of their heads to screen the sun’s heat. I finished the purified water I had in a plastic bottle. I began to feel dehydrated. The tourist’s dilemma: no drinkable water. I did not see any place nearby to get some. I looked toward the river, lax in its movement, trash lining sadly its banks, and spied a set of shops past the bridge that spanned it. It would take a good twenty minutes to reach the shops and walk back from there, and I did not want to miss out on any of the burning. I considered asking someone to get some bottled water for me, an older boy or two, but I hesitated to impose on anyone.

I went thirsty. My throat clamped tight. I felt a cold coming on. The sun was unrelenting. There was work to do. The body, set on the pyre, sat like a king on a throne.

Most people left once the fire was lit. Women and men climbed into the buses, trucks, and cars, and left for Boudhanath on dusty roads. Temba asked me if I wanted to go with them, back to the home of the deceased. “I’d like to stay, if that’s okay,” I told him. “I want to see what happens, and then go back when the lamas do.”

Temba boarded a bus. Nogabu stayed. Remaining at the site were the lamas, their assistants, and a few others, like us. Few words were exchanged. We looked on. We grew pensive, watching the flames, the assistants plying their ladles.

Ashes swirled, soaking the air with a cloudy whiteness. The smoke hit us when the winds shifted. I moved places to get away from the funk. Clumps of soot lay in my mouth. I felt thirsty. I watched the pyre. This was the ash of a dead man.

The flames seared the man’s clothes and the cloth covering the face. An arrangement of form was coming undone. The cloth melted smooth against the face. His face looked out at us. The head gleamed face-like at times, his human features, eyes, sockets, nose, mouth, jaw, cheek bones. In other moments it was less than a face, a bundle of features. A body’s structures were shifting in ways I had never seen or imagined. The face was shorn of its protections, the man’s demeanor, his garb and schemas, this man who was a husband and father, a child once.

The rites added on through the afternoon. The sun sloped over the canopy where the lamas sat. The midday heat broke. Children from the neighborhood idled on the margins, watching what we were doing.

The fires ate into the wood beneath the body. They touched the body itself. My photographs marked this passage. The assistants took the katha scarves, soaked in oil, and tossed them on the fire. Flames burst up, a wealth of combustion. Black, grainy death.

Smoke silted the air. Pieces dropped from the fire’s bulk. Those tending the flames pushed these embers back into the burning mass. The body shifted from corpse to person, back to corpse. The body was turning into something else, eroding to nothing at all, collapsing into flames. Part of the crown slipped from the head.

The body was not a lifeless corpse, not fully alone. The face looked as though its owner was aware of what was happening. It looked resigned to its fate, bemused. The face was passive, inert, with no glint of sensation. Oil juiced into flame which burnt wood, grains, grass, cloth, and flesh of and beyond the world of the living.

We stood and watched. The body appeared to have consciousness to it, as though the dead man sensed he was being eliminated by fire. I identified with the corpse’s plight. I did not want to do that too much, though. There was no awareness in the body to speak of. I wavered between distance and identification. I was conferring consciousness onto something unaware of its surroundings. That’s me some day, I thought. That’s everyone else here, too. The ends of a life.

I stayed on, throat parched. The lamas had dedicated the offerings to the fire. The body had blistered into embers. The men wrapped their texts in cloth and put them into cloth bags. They packed up the cymbals and conch shells. They walked away from the cremation site and boarded a bus. Someone must have stayed on and tended to the smoldering fire. I went back with Nogapu, hands clasping his shoulders, half off the motorcycle. I strained to balance. We stopped at a small bazaar on Ring Road to get some water. We drank, liquids cooling our throats.

Once home, I told Pemba Dolma and her mother-in-law what had occurred during the cremation. I answered their questions as best I could, who was there and who was not. I went to bed and fell into a fugue of a sleep. Choppy images flitted through the dark. A man’s arms reached toward me, vaguely.

I woke up late coming back to the world. Thick with a cold and a runny nose, I went through bundles of tissues that day. I wasn’t sure of a good way to dispose of them. Constant swipes with the back of my hand made the tip of my nose raw. I managed, groggily, to write up notes on the previous day’s events, on my laptop. I saved all the words on my hard drive and made a back-up file on a diskette. “It’s the face I remember most,” I typed out, fingers soft against the keypad.

I nursed myself the rest of the day. In the evening I joined the family as they watched television in the main room of the house. I rifled through the white tissues in my hand. We took in CNN World News. Video replays of tall, tall buildings, collapsing in a foreign city, filled the screen.

“Do people live in those buildings?” asked Ani, Pemba’s mother-in-law.

“No, not so much,” I said. “But a lot of people worked there. And many of them didn’t get out in time.”

I labored to blow my nose.

Ani set her eyes upon me.

“You see,” she said. “You went to the cremation, and you stayed there. Because of the impurity you’re sick now.”

I nodded my head. Ro dhip. Corpse impurity. The dark, staining contaminants of the burning body had debilitated me, was her comment. I had no means to argue with her.

It took a week to recover from the cold.

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