Shishir 2018, Short Stories -Rashmi Agrawal



The Right to Pyre

By Rashmi Agrawal


Mansi sat cross-legged on a swing in the veranda with Charu’s head resting on her left leg. While her seemingly undeterred eyes surveyed a list in her hands in the most businesslike manner, her heart ached with every drop of tears that her sister shed and that soaked her crumpled dress. Her condition was no different after all.


But, to the relatives, she only came across as heartless due to the absence of tears. They bothered not to look beyond the surface. The turmoil within was of no concern to them.

A lot of them arrived as soon as the words reached them early this morning. Each one of them had a word of consolation to offer, but not enough obligation to help the bereaved family. Their numbers dwindled quickly over the next couple of hours until the house was empty, save for the close few.


Vicky, however, was not one of them. Settled in Germany and married to a local woman, it would not be surprising if he were yet to receive the news.


Suddenly the landline buzzed and Mansi watched as Kamlesh Chacha quietly nodded and mumbled something into the phone.


“Mansi, it was Vicky’s wife. I am not sure if he boarded the flight. It was not clear and his wife—I didn’t understand her properly and then she disconnected,” Chacha panted out in his usual manner, struggling to talk coherently. “He will be terribly tired after the long journey if at all he reaches on time, and he is not seasoned anymore to bear the rituals.”


The last few words of Chacha were feeble, but they struck quite painfully. She could barely contain her disgust at the insinuating tone of her uncle. She continued to pat Charu’s head instead.


“Tomorrow will be too late, Chacha, if he does not reach on time today.” Mansi stood up, shifting Charu’s head to the backrest of the swing. “We cannot leave Papa for one more day here. It is not good to keep him at home. Let us see what Panditjee suggests.”


Mansi went inside the house and told Panditjee the issue of Vicky’s unpredictable arrival time.


“Hari Om! Then in his absence Mansi beta, your Chacha should light the funeral pyre.”


Panditjee had the solution ready as he had known the family for a decade now. He was also charging heavily for the cremation of Mansi’s father who expired last night after a cardiac arrest. The unforeseen incident left no room for the young woman to shed tears; she always weighed responsibilities over sentiments.


The complications of the rituals and the arduous task of informing relatives and acquaintances kept her tied up these past hours.


Chacha will not go to the cemetery, he has asthma troubles and then he… Mansi thought and stared at him.


Kamlesh Chacha was clearly ignoring Panditje eat the moment. Asthma aside, the bigger reason for him not performing the ceremony was the rift running between the two brothers for a long time. His estrangement from his elder sibling was the aftermath of property division. He never let it go, not even now at the mourning time.


He got himself busy talking to Mr. Pratap Singh, Mansi’s father-in-law-to-be. Mansi did not like Chacha’s deliberate ignorance. But, this was certainly not the minute to express resentment.


“Only God will save the demised soul who has no lineage to do the funeral and arrange a path to heaven. Hari Om! How will he attain moksha?” Panditjee shrugged his shoulders and sprinkled around a handful of holy water from his stoup, his aversion visible in the carelessly splattered drops flying over Mansi.


His remarks pierced her heart, and she longed for her only brother.


Mansi left the hall and got herself occupied looking after the arrangements and attending to the people in the house. Her eyes were swollen not from the mourning they deserved, but from a sleepless night and the worry of bidding a proper farewell to her dad. She could only wait for her elder brother to arrive.


Thinking of Vicky, the series of events from last year ran through her mind. The family had not been aware of his nuptials until the previous year. It was during a video call that he announced it out of the blue after making several attempts to steer away from his family’s incessant request to visit India. Afterward, their father suffered his first stroke.


Albeit it had been a mild one, Mansi still insisted for his early retirement. Her job as a banker was enough to sustain the household. Her Papa was always an admirer of Mansi, and he respected her advice.


“Did brother get his will done legally? Vicky will come and ask for the lion’s share. That rascal who never showed his face for a decade…” Chacha spat out viciously. He never received the respect similar to his brother’s in the kin, nor did he inherit any bungalow like him. All he got was just a small flat. Apart from a stark variance in their nature, Chacha’s inclination towards defalcation was another reason for this skewed property division.


“Will? I mean… at this moment, Chacha? And Vicky has not been gone away for a decade, but only five years,” Mansi said feebly, her hands busy in chores. She failed to bring curtness in her voice.


“Ugh, aren’t th-these people just… just enjoying the situation Mansi?” Charu chocked out angrily amidst the inconsolable sobs.


“Shh shh, you should not… everyone is trying to help. Let us not spoil Papa’s name with any meaningless talk.”


“Mansi, don’t be a fool! You call this help, huh? He is talking about the property division… It is gross.”

Charu was correct, Mansi knew, but she still signaled for her to keep mum.


“Mansi, where is Pankaj?” Chacha asked, seemingly ignorant of what Charu had insinuated just now.


Mansi obediently searched around the house, but he was nowhere to be found; his cell phone was unanswered too. She looked questioningly at Mr. Singh.


“He will come soon, Mansi beta.” He quickly replied and turned to Kamlesh Chacha, “What is the immediate need of Pankaj, Mr. Sharma?”

“Pankaj is Mansi’s fiancée, so he is like a son to her father. He can complete the rituals and light the pyre. We should talk to Panditjee on this.” Chacha replied within a beat, a hope of gaining approval clearly embedded in his expressions.


Charu and Mansi were stunned at the bizarre suggestion.


“If Panditjee agrees, Pankaj can perform it. Oh, yes… yes! This is a good idea.” His father puffed up his chest and nodded.


“But why not Mansi? After all, she nursed Papa in his sickness and fulfilled the family responsibilities,” Charu objected immediately, her gaze turned towards Mr. Singh, disapproving his seemingly uninvited decision.


“Hari Om! This is against our culture. Do you even realize how nasty your thought is?” Panditjee snapped back and touched his Jneu.


“Charu, have you lost your wits? You are insulting the traditions!” Chacha hissed at his niece.


“Traditions will rot my father until his estranged son comes! Is that fine by you all, huh? Is this not nihilistic? Nobody knows of his arrival time. Tell me. I am asking you, Panditjee… Chacha…” Charuwords trailed off when she saw her sister’s fiancée arrive.


“Pankaj, look what these people are telling. That you will fire Papa’s body! Why not Mansi? She is better than Vicky, who has not shown himself for the past five years. Tell them this is wrong.” Charu pulled him by an arm into the center of the living room.


“This girl is talking sordid, against tradition. A degree in engineering has not given her the right knowledge. How will the deceased man get moksha? Mansi, society will shun you because of this mindless girl,” Mr. Singh warned them.


“Mansi, let Pankaj do the ritual.” Chacha came near his niece and glanced at her fiancée. His intent was to be amicable with him, a preamble to get the bungalow to his name after their wedding.


Charu, who had always proved to be a convention-defying daughter of a science professor, said in a loud voice, “We won’t allow for this to happen. Such customs are baseless where a daughter can’t light her father’s body over the pyre. This is nothing but repressive male psyche…”


“Mansiii!” Mr. Singh shouted. “Control this girl. Take her inside. We Kshatriyas do not give so much freedom to girls in decisions.”


Mansi was stunned at the declaration of misogyny. She moved towards her sister at once and wrapped an arm around her sister’s shoulders. Charu nostrils were flared up. She always ridiculed the traditions if they tarnished women. Her father had shared her views and used to discuss these topics with her.


Mansi looked at Pankaj for some support. He, however, broke the eye contact with her and ignored Charu’s bewildered expressions as well. He lowered his gaze instead and chose to absorb the situation silently. His reaction irked both the sisters.


“Mansi, I agreed for your alliance with Pankaj, for the love marriage, thinking you would bring good legacy, being a Brahmin. But I am disappointed today. This modern Charu,” Mr. Singh raised his voice with more conviction when his son did not deny his implications, “She crossed every limit of a decent woman.”


“The only idea of womanhood is to carry the legacy? Egregious! My sister took Papa’s care for the last five years and ran the house as a son. Isn’t she the one who fostered Papa like my mother in his illness? What reason gives superiority to any male over Mansi to fire his pyre?”


“Shuttt upppp!” Mr. Singh shrieked.


The unrelenting argument drained the last ounce of energy Charu summoned to defend her sister’s pride. She sank into the nearest couch. Her eyes pooled up once again.

“But what disaster will I bring if I would light the pyre, Panditjee?”


Hands folded in request and looking at her father-in-law-to-be, Mansi urged, “Let mercy be on my family, Uncle. Vicky will light a rotting pyre if we wait for him. This is the 21st century and I am not the first girl to be doing the final ceremony.”


“Hari Om! Bad omen! This age is apocalyptic. Your family will burn in hell. God save the deceased Brahmin. Terrible disaster!” The dramatic claims by the family priest seemed to know no limits.


“Bad omen? This is a patriarchal society, which worships Goddesses but ostracizes women because of blind traditions. Papa never followed such anarchy,” Charu blurted back.

Mansi tried to control her scattered thoughts. She needed a solution to this problem.


Suddenly Kamlesh Chachawas possessed, and he kicked a vase in anger. Charu jumped out of the couch when the shattered pieces flew towards her. Chacha stomped a few steps back and forth and then teetered, unsure of his own actions.


The fight took an ugly turn when the exchange of maligning words amidst Chacha, Charu, and Mr. Singh grew more than verbal. Exploiting the uproar, Mr. Singh held Charu’s hand and dragged her to the door. Disheveled, Charu made unsuccessful attempts to get free.



Everyone turned their attention to Mansi.


“Leave her! Leave my sister alone. This is my home, and I will take the decisions,” She held her palm out as she spoke. That, along with her raised voice, stunned everyone in the room. No one had ever heard her thunderous tone before.


“Whoever wants to engage in the ceremony can come with us to the cemetery. I will light the fire to Papa’s pyre and Charu will accompany me.”


“Mansiii! I cannot tolerate my father’s insult,” Pankaj talked for the first time.


“Neither will I. I am saving the last ounce of my father’s grace during his final departure. If you want to join as a spectator, you can. I would appreciate your company, after all, we are entering into a wedlock soon.”


Pankaj never saw this fiery Mansi earlier.


“You insolent girl,” Mr. Singh stopped his raised hand in mid-air from slapping Mansi. “Forget the wedding. I won’t let it happen in my life. Either Pankaj will do the ceremony or he will walk away from this marriage.”


“So be it. I choose the latter.” Turning towards the priest, Mansi asked, “Panditjee, will you lead the ritual? I know a few other priests who would only charge half of what you do and will perform the ceremony on my terms.”


Panditjee brought out the calendar from his worn satchel and became active.


Mansi’s slicing answer to Mr. Singh shook Pankaj. He murmured something to his father who left in disgust while he stood cemented.


The torch was lit up, bright and fierce in the diminishing daylight. Mansi encircled the pyre carrying the stoup in her left hand. At the end of third round, Vicky gave the torch to Mansi—the true heir of their father. His timely arrival did not deter her from her decision. After evoking the fire in the body, Mansi surrendered to the flood of all her repressed emotions and collapsed to the ground, crying incessantly.


After embracing both the siblings together and crying her heart out once more, Mansi settled herself near the pyre on the rough earth and watched the fire subduing itself to ashes. Panditjee conveyed the next rituals for the mourning period of thirteen days while she sat there.


“Panditjee, wait,” Mansi stopped him.


“These—please return them to Mr. Singh and tell him that I won’t need them anymore. In fact, they don’t suit me.” She removed the thick yellow bangles and handed over to the mediator of the two families.


“Pankaj is here, why don’t you give it to him directly?” Panditjee bowed and took his leave.


Mansi walked towards Pankaj who stood afar, silent and indecisive. He pleaded, “Forgive me please, will you?”


“Love is always deep, but I guess we did not reach the right depth yet to stick together. The road of love is long; it is bumpy. We are not meant for this journey together.” Handing the heirloom bangles to him, Mansi added, “Till we meet again…”


Mansi left the cemetery with her dignity held high and heart free of any conventional bondage. The shrinking light of the pyre gave an aura to her reducing silhouette.


A software engineer and a storyteller by passion, Rashmi writes stories to not just rest her imagination, but give them wings too. Besides writing short stories, Rashmi enjoys gardening and cooking. She is also a brand ambassador for, an international mobile writing platform.




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