She clutches her shawadi to her bosom, cradling it as if it were the most precious thing she has.
“Thangachi..”, I gently call her.
She doesn’t respond. I see her hands tighten around her shawadi with clenched fists that show her knuckles white. She rocks herself, I’m not sure if she is comforting herself or her shawadi. This necklace was what was placed on her by her husband on her wedding night, while she sat as a bride, beautiful and demure. A beautiful gold shawadi, with tiny white stones that sparkled in an intricate design. She had treasured it all her life, carefully screwing on the top plate that holds the stones to the base when she went out anywhere. At other times she only wore the base which was attached to the chain. She never took it off. Not even when she bathed or slept. That was until that fateful day seven months ago, when her husband died.
My poor baby sister Raheema, my thangachi, she is still so young, so beautiful, but looking so frail and vulnerable. These last seven months since her husband died has wrought such a change in her. She isn’t herself anymore. Always talkative, joking, laughing, and so full of life. Now she sits as if the life in her has drained away.
“Thangachi..”, I gently stroke her hair and she looks up at me. Her eyes are vacant, expressionless. She mumbles something, incoherent. I draw a chair and sit close to her. She is crying now, softly, still mumbling, rocking, holding her shawadi to her chest. I wrap my arms around her, feeling her warm body shudder against mine. Oh my dearest darling Raheema, what can I do to ease your pain? I have failed you my little one. I, your Dhatha, who has always been protective over you, doted on you and wanted you to always smile, I couldn’t do anything to stop them from cremating your dear husband, who also had been a brother to me, a brother I never had.
I remember that fateful day. He had been so full of life, when he had declared that he was going to cut the branch of that mango tree which loomed over your roof. That call you made, and your hysterical screams and sobs on the phone I can never forget. The terrible news that he fell, and was rushed by your neighbors to hospital, lifeless, already dead. I had rushed to hospital to find you there too. You cried into my shoulder, inconsolable, while I stood in shock, not knowing what to say, frozen. Your son, my darling Shaheem, stood there trying his best to silently console you, wet eyed, trying to make you sit.
Everything else is a blur. A host of faces, known, unknown, family, friends, strangers. I don’t know or remember, if they were hospital staff or relatives of other patients. A blur. Words. Faces. Words. Soothing, advising. Suggestions, advice. Ideas. Comfort. Someone gave me a little prayer book which I clutched in my hand while more words poured all over me. Raheema still holding me and crying.
That day rolled to the next. We had been brought to Raheema’s home. My cousins and my husband, and my male relatives were in hospital, trying to bring Wazeer home. We had to wash him and shroud him, and take him to the mosque. The final prayer had to be done, to be buried in the burial ground by the side of the mosque. As soon as possible, people say before 24 hours.
But it didn’t happen. In a daze, these cousins were telling us that they couldn’t bring him home for one last time. They can’t wash him. They can’t shroud him. Worse, they can’t pray the janaza prayers and lower him to the grave that had been prepared at the burial ground. But the most painful and shocking words were that he was to be cremated. Why? He had been such a pious man. A good man, our Wazeer. A good husband to my Raheema, a doting father to Shaheem. He had Corona, they said. How could it have been? He was so healthy, so full of life, no sign of a cough or cold. He had only fallen off that tree. Corona? His test had come positive they said. No one was shown that report. Our family had pleaded and begged to repeat the test, to be met with only a refusal.
They had asked us to sign those papers to cremate him. Our neighbours told us it is ok. They wanted us to sign, and collect the ashes and bury at the mosque. Those people in the hospital had wanted money. 50,000 rupees to cremate, for the coffin and all, and then 8,000 for the ashes. Money. We would have paid double that, or even four times that. We could afford it. But not for his ashes. We would pay that or anything for our Wazeer, to bury him the way we have known, the way he have been taught to always do. Some told us we should not pay. But our neighbours said we should, so we at least get his ashes, so we can have a place we know where his ashes rest. They said an important Mufthy too had said we could.
We signed. We paid. We buried his ashes. Our neighbours comforted us. Then a barrage of praise, comfort and blame. Rained on us for weeks. We grew numb to what others told us eventually. All that mattered to us, me, was my Raheema and Shaheem.
I had seen Raheema withdraw and wither these past months. She seemed to move further from me every day. Buried in her own world, her laughter cremated, there was only the ashes that were her eyes, emotionless, grey. I would often find her clutching her shawadi, the shawadi she had hoped to give her grand daughter some day. But Shameem is only a child yet. Who knows how long my Raheema would have to wait to see that day. Shameem, seventeen, was still in school. I sighed. I turn towards the kitchen. It was time to make lunch for Raheema and Shameem. Raheema rarely did anything now, only stared vacantly most of the time. As I move away from Raheema, she clutches my shawl. I stop, my heart pounding with joy. This is unusual. She had never acted this way for a long time. I turn towards her and look into her eyes.
But instead of empty eyes, there is fear today. She tugs my shawl and grips my wrist. Terrified, she whispers.. “Shameem, Samuel Mudalali took him in his car..”
Samuel Mudalali? What would he want with our Shameem? He was feared by many in the village, and people only whispered bad things about him. He was rich, we never knew how he amassed so much wealth these past few years. He was a businessman everyone saluted, and whispered behind his back. He was a close friend of a politician in the big city who people said was up to no good.
“Thangachi, tell me, where is Shameem now?”
I could hardly hear what she said, she was whispering. But I heard her!
“His golayas take him in the night. I’m scared Dhatha. Look under his bed. They gave him a gun.”
Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect World Forum for Sri Lankan Muslims (wfslm.org) point-of-view.