Cold compels us to go for tea alfresco, out in the restaurant’s lawn where empty deckchairs snooze in the morning sun. I would have preferred rain. Rain and death go nicely together. Ash-pit skies. Clouds swollen with dead sleet. The symbolism of a cold, indifferent sky moved to cry over your grief.
No one’s dead, thank God. Not this bright Saturday, when we can bask in the sun after days of dreary wet weather. Still, we are here to talk about a sombre subject, Haroon Sarab Diyal and I. One wishes the clouds had stayed, if only in reverence of his feelings.
Death. This business of passing on to the beyond. It is not easy for anyone, death isn’t. But imagine the dead deprived of burial, if you are a Muslim? Or denied the rites of passage to afterlife through cremation, if you are a Hindu?
Imagine an eternity of lost spirits, caught in purgatory?
Diyal pours me some green tea. He holds the cup clasped in both hands, perhaps to warm them.
“The rites at the funeral pyre and the scattering of ashes to water bring purification necessary for the dead to enter the afterlife,” he says. He points towards the river at my back where the Indus flows dark and quiet, muddied by the recent rains. “Ideally, there should be cremation pyres along a river.”
There are two here in Nizampur where a bridge on the Indus connects Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to Punjab. We leave the main road to go down a narrow unpaved one, squelchy with mud and cattle manure, crossing an abattoir and scattered houses along the way. The air stinks of animal dung.
I expect funeral pyres in the open — an impression lingering from Bollywood films. What we arrive at are two separate buildings, sparkling new and done in garish colour. Gold khandas, symbols of Sikh faith, affixed to green gates, locked.
Diyal knocks at the door. No one comes to open the door.
Hindus from all over KP and Fata — that has no cremation sites — bring their dead to cremate here so they can pour the ashes in Indus. But only those who can afford it, do so. There are crematoria elsewhere, at Mardan, Kohat and deep in the Tirah valley in Fata. And rivers at Attock, D.I. Khan, Nowshehra.
The distances to towns with pyres are considerable, depending on where one lives. Often, the pyres are situated amid crowded settlements, creating concern about safety and inconvenience to locals due to smoke from bodies. While the fire burns and cools down, families have to stay at the pyres for three days of rites, away from home. The ashes have to be taken over long distances to rivers elsewhere, making cremation cumbersome. It is far more convenient to bury the dead, instead.
“It is the poor that suffer; the rich take their ashes to Ganga (the Ganges) in India,” says Diyal. (Would he rather I mention him here as Haroon, his Muslim name? Members of religious minorities often take a Muslim name to enable them to become fellow citizens of the majority, if not equals.) “This place is so far from everywhere. Even for the Hindus in Nowshera, bringing their dead here in absence of funeral transport facilities is a costly affair.”
Javaid Bhatti is nearly blind, cataracts like white half-moons eclipsing the blacks of his eyes. Rotund and calm like a Chinese sage, he speaks quietly as he takes us down the dirt path to a graveyard, holding on to Diyal’s hand for support.
This graveyard at Nowshehra, astride a bushy ride along the River Kabul, was where Hindus burnt their dead before Partition. The land, roughly about two kanals, is Hindu property, says Diyal. Among the plain, unmarked earth graves is one with a concrete burial vault, the resting place of Hina Sweet, a Christian.
In absence of Shamshaan Ghats for cremation, the Hindus have been burying their dead in “collective graveyards” among Muslims and Christians. In places — like here in Nowshera or Mandi Bahauddin — they have allowed Christians to bury dead on Hindu burial grounds. The act done in “good faith” has led to bad blood among religious communities, producing different claimants to graveyards over time.
In 2005, Lajwanti, a member of the Nowshera District Council, allotted this graveyard to Christians, who now claim it as their own. But to Hindus, this burial site is sacrosanct historically, and also because it falls along the River Kabul. They want to build a funeral pyre here.
In the meantime, to avoid conflict with the Christians, they take their dead for burial in the mountains.
In other places, for example in Karachi and Badin, they have had their dead dug up and left out in the open by Muslims who don’t want them in their graveyards. In this quest for funeral pyres, Bhoro Bheel, a member of the low caste Hindu Bheel community whose body was disinterred from a Muslim graveyard in Badin in 2013, is as much a presence as Bhagwan is.
“If we don’t get our sanskar (cremation), we are like animals left adrift to die,” says Bhatti.
The temple compound at Bhikat Ganj, Mardan, is alive with squeals of children playing. Several houses open into the courtyard. Men sit on string beds out in the open, chatting. Women peek out of the doors to speak to each other. The Hindu community here is one big family.
Pundit Ashok Lal and members of his community are here from Kohat and Hangu, to participate in prayers for a relative who died recently. He says the “root” of dharam (religion) is sanskar. “How can I be Hindu all my life and not in death?”
The idea of death, as hard as it is on emotions, is complicated by notions of faith and spirituality if the dead are not prepared for afterlife. And the guilt that comes with it: “Distances between funeral pyres and rivers often lead to questions if sanskar was done properly because of lack of arrangements and accommodation at cremation sites,” says Lal.
Others question their own identity. They ask, says Lateef Kumar from Hangu, “How are we Hindu if we bury your dead instead of cremating it?”
So they brand their dead with a red hot coin to achieve a semblance of sanskar. And they bury them one atop another in collective graveyards so crowded that the dead cry out for space.
Published in Dawn January 10th, 2017