The most poignant moment, one which was also revolutionary, was former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s daughter Namita Bhattacharya performing the last rites. It was revolutionary because a custom imposed by male dominant society for centuries dictates that women are not even allowed to enter the cremation ground, let alone perform the last rites.
It’s not the first time though. Many have done this before, but somewhere it struck a chord this time.
This took me 10 years back. My father was active and unwilling to let his diabetes slow him down. But often, life has different plans and one can’t always fight to win. He had to be shifted to hospital. I had just joined a new place at work, and balancing hospital visits and going to work wasn’t easy. My brother was younger and busy with his work, but chipped in as much as he could. But being the eldest child meant I had to do more and take charge. It had to end one day. Dad couldn’t survive the complications which acute diabetes brought along.
My fight began after this. I felt strongly about one issue. I wanted to be a part of his last journey. I wanted to travel with him one last time. As kids, we would wait for a weekend because joining Baba on his drives to the market was a source of joy. It was something we loved to do and would never want to give it up. After his death, I didn’t want to give up on this ride. My relatives objected. Even the priest said this would not give him peace, that I couldn’t do this and defy Hindu customs.
My Baba had brought me up to be fiercely independent. He taught me that a career should be the most important thing to me and that I should make my own decisions.
As relatives argued, I knew I was doing the right thing. I had to be with him. So I walked in with his mortal remains and into the cremation ground at Delhi’s Lodhi Road crematorium.
I still remember those frowning faces. It’s not easy when everyone makes you feel unwanted. The priests took over and the rituals began. Then came the time for ‘mukhagni’ or the final rites. In front of me was my Baba who put me to sleep and, no matter how busy he was, would make it a point to pat me. Here he was, lying in front of me senseless. Gone. I patted his forehead. The priest said time was running out to light the pyre. My brother and I took the lit wood, and I decided that I had to pat him to rest. I lit the pyre. How could I not complete his journey? How could I not make my own decision and do what my Baba taught me? That in the end you have to do what you have to do. I couldn’t have let my dad leave this world alone. I had to be a part of his final journey.