Notes From a Pyre, by Amal Singh


Terra – 2198 AD

Baba lay slumped on his desk, his pen dangling from his parchment hands. His grey hair lay in knotted clumps over the notebook, his tongue sticking slightly outwards, almost licking the page he was writing on. His last scribble was his own name, Parikshit Mehta, with the ‘a’ trailing off, ending in an ink trail, his last act a death-flourish of his own signature. His eyes stared at the wall clock lifelessly. In them, I could see the glint of midnight, as the second hand struck twelve.

Two shiny metal orbs hung over him, watchers of his passing.

Since I was the one who had found him, it fell on me to declare to the adults. But my scream was throttled in my own lungs. He was so peaceful, almost like he was sleeping. Because he would often fall asleep on his desk while writing about his other-planetary escapades, acidic drool falling on his paper. I would often be the one reminding him to wake up and use a fresh page. But he would deny.

“It’s a marker of my dedication,” he would say often, wiping his chin. “When this is chronicled later in books, they would also speak of the chronicler and his various whimsies.”

The day I found him, I was supposed to bring him his favorite mithai, a ghevar, ghee dripping brown and white honeycomb sweet. I was still holding the plate with two ghevars, eager to share them with him, eager to listen to tales of the planet Ul-Maresk, of the Kohravan and the Veristi, the Horen, and the Schlebs. He had told me he was writing about death, and the forms it took in other lands. In fact, he had told this to the entire household. Maa and Papa had squirmed and frowned at the mention of death. They forbade me to visit Baba’s room and spend too much time with him, fearing my mind would be plagued by visions he put in them. Fearing I wasn’t ready for such morbid talk. Dadi was indifferent, knitting a sweater with the Hindi initial ‘प’ on it, mumbling about how she had lost a daughter in childbirth, and how it doesn’t matter when one learns of death. It only matters how they deal with it.

And so when I saw my Baba lying on his desk, I carefully slid out his notebook from underneath his hands and hid it inside my school bag. Then I ran out of his room, screaming.

A brief account of the funerary practices of the Horen. Notes taken on 346 PCE, as the two suns drown out the sky with their alternating brightness.

I met the chieftain of the Horen tribe on a midmorning so bright it hurt to look at the sky, and my skin prickled with sweat. As a Terran ambassador on a planet which fell under the jurisdiction of Hotec-Terra-Maresk Alliance, it was my duty to meet the natives on their own terms. The Chief’s skin was glassy and translucent, and his eyes were beads of darkness. He wore a thin fabric, almost like an oversized T-shirt that came to his knees, and he spoke in high groans and low rumbles. The language of the Horen was easy to understand but tough to master. Their entire existence revolved around the tenets of altruism, and so their language evolved, too. For our words of “daan” and “giving,” they had entire phrases, which, when loosely translated, meant, “The light in our twin heart is all yours to see.”

The openness of their physical bodies mirrored the openness of their minds, too. When a Horen was happy with you, their translucent skin gleamed at the center, the meeting point of their actual two hearts, one throbbing in glee, the other in gratitude.

That midmorning, however, I saw only grey, both in the Chieftain’s eyes and in his glassy skin.

“We are in mourning today, Parikshit Mehta of Terra,” said the Chieftain. “Alaarn-Eeba gave his everything to everything, and now he must rest.”

Translated, it meant that their friend had no more to give to his brethren.

I followed the Chieftain over a low hill, which overlooked a crater. Its sloping walls were rippled with black and red, both colors meeting at the roughly circular center in a symphony of more colors. Alaarn-Eeba’s body was being carried by two other Horens. Here, unlike the Terrans, the lifeless body didn’t carry the weight of death. The soul had already gone, and thus the body itself was feather-light.

We soon arrived at the edge of the crater, as the two Horens carved out the twin hearts from inside the body of Alaarn-Eeba.

“He has given what wasn’t his, and now his light is gone,” said the Chieftain. “Now, we close our eyes, because the darkness is not ours to see.”

I did as I was told and murmured a prayer under my breath, silently. When I opened, the twin hearts of Alaarn-Eeba lay severed on the floor of the crater, twin no more. The crater had swallowed the hearts whole.

“Did Alaarn-Eeba have a dying wish?” I asked the Chieftain. “Is there a concept of a dying wish in the Horen death-lore?”

“Why would he wish for anything, when he gave his everything?” The Chieftain’s response made all sense, and no sense at all, but I welcomed it.

Terra – 2198 AD

For three hours, his body lay inside the looking-glass dome.

The house reeked of a smoky sweet pungency of incense. Father had bought a bad brand, not fit for funerals, and the priest was giving him an earful about how he could be so irresponsible at his own father’s passing. My father could only nod, clutching nervously the bunch of sticks he was supposed to light and keep near the windowsill. I took them from him, to ease his misery, and the sticks slid off easily from his hands, like water. He didn’t look at me, but the priest did, with mournful eyes.

I excused myself. Baba’s room was within my reach, but its entrance was clogged by two weeping men. I wanted to taste the ghevar. A lingering, too-sweet taste of the panchamrit was on my tongue, hard to just wash off with water. The freshly prepared holy drink was being passed to the mourners in small plastic cups. In an earlier death in the family, ginger chai was served first. But a family elder had deemed it inappropriate. For them, chai meant leisure, and smacked of fun and good times, and no one was supposed to have a good time at a funeral. The same elder, a perennially frowning aunt of my mother, was now beating her chest in deep anguish, a manner of grieving which was suited for the widow. But the widow, my grandmother, sat wearing her white sari, blank-eyed, looking at the slightly smiling corpse of her husband.

Then, suddenly, there was too much activity around me. The priest was declaring that the time had come. Hurriedly, the dome was lifted by my father and my uncles. More wails were heard all around. The two men shifted their weight, unsure of what to do, then joined my uncles. My path was clear.

I went to Baba’s room and grabbed the two ghevars. One, I ate on the spot, the sweet, juicy fat of ghee and saffron-caramel mixed with the breadiness of the base immediately engulfing me with delight. I wished Baba could have eaten that, before he passed. It was homemade, and not from a halvai.

As the commotion outside subsided, and the wails stopped, I could hear a chant from the priest. I pocketed the last ghevar, and went out to see the adults.

A brief account of the funerary practices of the Veristi. Notes taken on 371 PCE. Dawn.

What can I write about the Veristi that hasn’t already been chronicled by better men before me? Professor Trevor Chang once said that a species is a product of their surroundings, and there’s no better testament to the fact than the Veristi. Sharp, pincer-edged limbs with diamond-shaped hollows for speaking and seeing the world, their thin and short form a result of the brutal gravitational pull and ever-stormy climate. The Veristi live short but eventful lives, and as such, their language has evolved to be succinct, to the point.

The Veristi don’t waste time, because they don’t have much to begin with.

Twenty five Ul-Maresk years later—which were only three years on Terra—I arrived on the planet, yet again, for a different cause. While the Horen had agreed to my diplomatic pleas, and given us a fair share of the minerals they excavated from the blasted plains of the ever-rich planet, I came to the Veristi only to prove a colleague of mine wrong. She was adamant that the Veristi were a brutal race, but I begged to differ. One only needs to look at how a race “buries their dead”—figuratively speaking—to learn how empathetic they truly are.

The two suns of Ul-Maresk were distant in the sky, when I met a Veristi couple, conjoined, their chitinous bodies gleaming, their short bio-metallic form almost kissing the ground. They spoke in clips and short bursts, throaty gasps, and a keening sound at the end for punctuation of their sentences.

“We don’t have dead Veristi to show you, but we can tell you what we do.”

And the Veristi couple told me that when one of them died, five Veristi formed a circle around the departed. With their sharp limbs they pinched and hacked at the body, until it was nothing more than a husk upon the dying earth. It was only a small mercy that their sentences were short, because I didn’t need to know in painful detail that they eventually reconstituted their own dead.

Perhaps my colleague was right, after all.

While the Veristi couple was not in the least interested in giving me the reason behind such a heinous act, my view was changed when I met a lone Veristi traveller who wanted to venture out into the low-gravitational fields, just to see what it would do to him. I posed him the same question I had asked the couple.

“Don’t you think what you do to your dead is barbaric? Why not just bury them, or burn them?”

He let out a hoarse sound, steam rushing out of a kettle. It was a laugh. Then he said, “No, actually it’s poetic, don’t you see? Your ways…still give back to the earth. But our entire lives are defined by gravity. It’s like the earth keeps pulling us relentlessly downwards. We are shaped by it, always in her mercy. In reconstituting and consuming our dead, we tell a quiet ‘fuck you’ to the earth. No ashes to ashes, no dust to dust.”

I was taken aback by how cruelly right he was.

Terra – 2198 AD

I went with the adults to the edge of the ghaat. Murky water drenched the stone steps, washing over so many torn petals of dahlias and marigold flowers. Smoke-colored tendrils of torn clothing lay draped on the ground. Ashes of so many pyres scattered and formed eddies against the wind. Cleanliness and purity were the tenets around which the entire funeral practice revolved, and yet the site was draped in muck of the dead and the cries of the living.

Baba was put atop a bier, the toes of his feet tied in a knot with a dhaga. The pundit said something about feeding him his last meal, and as a symbolic gesture, a paan was thrust inside his mouth. This was my chance, and I took it. I knelt beside his body and placed the ghevar in between the paan.

“Aakash, what are you doing?”

“Baba wanted ghevar,” I said, confidently. “I am giving him ghevar.”

My father looked around as if asking permission, hopelessly clutching on to a thread, wondering what was the right thing to do. But I had already done the right thing, hadn’t I? Wasn’t it right to give to the dead what they had wanted in their last moments?

Even though Baba was diabetic, he could never let go of his sweet tooth. It was just not in his nature to be held down by constraints. So I told my father that Baba had asked me to bring him ghevar. How he had always asked me to bring laddoos from the kitchen. How every day after dinner, and before taking his medicines, he would call me to his room, and tell me his tales from the time he flew to another planet and met with their people, all the time nibbling on pieces of kaju-katli I had smuggled for him.

I thought I was telling the truth, and sharing my memories of Baba. But in my tale, my father only saw one thing. That I was a culprit somehow, who had snatched his Papa from him earlier than it was deemed by the universe.

A brief account of the funerary practices of the Kohravan, 382 PCE. Midnight.

The Kohravan weren’t natives to Ul-Maresk, but instead settlers, haunted refugees fleeing a war. Their home planet was devastated in an interspecies conflict that had ballooned into nuclear proportions. But nuclear on their planet meant much worse than nuclear on ours, due to the presence of three extra plutonium isotopes, two of them extremely highly fissile. When I was meeting the Horen a few decades back, the Kohravan were looking upon a decayed planet from inside their generation ships. But in the time since, they had made five peaceful colonies on Ul-Maresk and entered into a treaty with none other than the Horen, who were already a famously charitable species.

When I met the Raaza of the Kohravan, he was wearing a garland of small, hexagonal metal slivers, interlinked by a golden chain, clinking against his bodysuit. The Raaza’s secretaries, two women, one man, were also wearing something similar. I bowed low and mimicked a greeting to the Raaza, and he bowed back, treating me as an equal. Then I posed them the question I had asked the Chieftain of the Horen and the Visteri couple.

“They call you the Chronicler of the Dead,” said the Raaza, with a hint of amusement in his voice.

“I’m merely a man of words, endlessly fascinated,” I said.

The Raaza played with the metallic trinkets on his neck. Lamps flickered around the cold room, casting mammoth shadows on the wall. The Kohravan shadows looked almost human, but mine looked like a puny rat caught in the midst of hungry felines. But there was no reason for me to be afraid of the Kohravan, despite their hefty build and turquoise skin.

“Our ancestors are always with us,” said the Raaza. “The dead… They never leave us, not really.”

“Can you elaborate?”

The Raaza tapped the metallic sliver on his neck. A dull, emerald glow emanated from the metal, and soon consumed its grey entirety. Then, a pale hologram shot out from the metal and hovered in front of me. The hunched figure of a Kohravan woman, holding a walking stick.

“My grandmother. Her memories are eternally with me, informing me, giving sage advice when I am faced with conflict. And so is my father, and his father before him, who fought the last war on my home-planet.” The Kohravan tapped the other slivers, slowly, and more green light filled the room, more ancestors, until the wavy echoes of the past made it impossible for me to see the face of the Raaza.

“I am sorry I can’t show you the Ceremony,” he said. “We don’t exactly have the dead handy right now.”

“They are always with you,” I said, in a low voice. “What happens to their bodies, then?”

“We are much like you when it comes to that,” he said. “We burn them.”

Terra – 2216 AD

How much blame can one really ascribe to an eleven-year-old child who was trying his best? After Baba passed, my father didn’t speak to me for days. My mother told me to atone for my sins, wash away my misdeed of indirectly bringing about Baba’s death, by sitting in front of holy fire and chanting. And I did all those things, and more, until my parents were convinced that I was indeed pure. I couldn’t keep on saying that a fatty and caramelly sweet was what my Baba really wanted when he was mere seconds away from the aneurysm that took his life. To an eleven-year-old, those words sounded innocent. Because at that time, it seemed the only plausible thing.

Years later, in hindsight, I realized how juvenile my act of thrusting a ghevar inside his dead lips was. But even more childish was the behavior of my parents. When faced with death, one is capable of great mercy, but also great horror.

For the longest time, Papa kept Baba’s incomplete works away from me, parroting his old adage of how Baba’s negative thoughts and his lifework would rot my brain. I couldn’t blame him; he had lost a dear cousin to suicide, and in his own way, he wanted to keep all manner of media related to death away from me.

But when Dadi passed away, Papa softened. He wept, hugging her body as his tears soaked the red sari she was draped in. When we both returned to our homes after the kriya-karam, he wept again in my arms like a little child. I couldn’t remember a time when I was consoled by him, not ever. But as his face shook against my arms like a child, and his chest heaved and let out airy sputters and hitches, I’d become the father.

After that day, I didn’t hear a word raised against my choices. I had the stubborn blood of my Baba running in me, too. So, when I took up interplanetary diplomacy, Papa stayed quiet, knowing full well the course I would take. Maa fed me laddoos and sweet yogurt the day I was to fly out to Hotec-Terra-Maresk Collegium.

Three years later, I passed with flying colors. During that time, an exchange program between Ul-Maresk and Terra was all the rage, and for the first time in thirty years, scholars were encouraged to visit the vast sister planet, mingle with their species, and learn about their ways.

While enrolling myself for the exchange program, my hands trembled, and I wished I had the Kohravan metal-garland around my neck. That way, I would live with the eternal wisdom of my Baba, the Chronicler, and he would tell me the right thing to do, always. But of course, I was to forge my own path.

“Do you really know what Baba wanted, son?” My father asked me an hour before my departure. I had packed my bags, and was tying my shoelaces. I looked at him and shook my head. Any thought of sweets was as far from my mind as the planet I was supposed to visit. My father cut a lonely figure in that moment, looking like a man fallen from pride.

Then he gave me Baba’s notebook.

“It was never documented, not properly,” he said, his voice a cracked whisper. “The Collegium reached out to me a few years ago. I feel… I feel now might be the right time. I feel you should be the one to do it. Whatever needs to be done.”

I opened the notebook to the page Baba was filling in longhand before his head had dropped. The trail of ink his pen had left was still there, a final marker reminding me again of the moment of his passing, an incomplete account of the funerary practices of the native species of Ul-Maresk, the Schlebs.

Baba didn’t leave any will. He wasn’t a man of wills. His will was his words, and his words were his way.

A brief account of the funerary practices of the Schlebs. 571 PCE. Midmorning.

The sky was a dull shade of saffron with streaks of azure. The twin suns burned bright upon my arrival. The Horen were rejoicing when I entered their colony with two of my friends. Being the second natives of Ul-Maresk, only the Horen knew about the Schleb and the path to their colony. As I walked ahead confidently, my friends fell behind me, probably apprehensive about disturbing the cheerful proceedings of the Horen. I allayed their fears, and encouraged them to keep walking. I knew the Horen wouldn’t mind our arrival in the least.

And they didn’t. They welcomed us with open arms, gave us our food, and made us partners in their glee, their twin hearts glowing turquoise in the center. The Chieftain, who introduced himself as Tarin-Azala, mistook me for my Baba. An inadvertent smile cracked on my face, then I told him my name. He went quiet, and, for a brief moment, the cheer ceased. His translucent skin went entirely grey, and the space between his two hearts glowed pink, the color of grief for the Horen. That told me all that was necessary. My Baba was much loved here.

Before he gave me the instructions to the Violet Orchard, the strongkeep of the Schleb, the Chieftain presented me with the fruit of their tribe.

“We had waited for Parikshit to give him what we give to our oneness. But you are his oneness, and you must accept it. Eat it on your journey back; it brings good luck.”

The fruit was snug inside a ceramic box. I kept the box inside a compartment of my bodysuit before entering the coordinates of the Schleb colony on my wrist-panel. I bid goodbye to my colleagues, who, as per Collegium rules, were supposed to spend at least a couple of days with the Horen.

I had imagined the Violet Orchard to be a metaphor for a colorful metropolis, but I was pleasantly surprised that the colony was indeed an expansive orchard, nothing more, nothing less. The trees were bone-white, their branches reaching upwards like an outstretched finger. The grass beneath my feet was the color of ripe aubergines, and the smell in the air was both sweet and slightly putrid. In an earlier documentation of the Schleb, my Baba had mentioned that the smell was of sulfur and copper compounds. In the same documentation, Baba had said that the Schleb had the ability to spring surprises on you.

I heard sounds. Flutter of leaves, rush of the sea. I made my way through the orchard and found a group of Schlebs, their form eerily similar to the trees. Two Schlebs detached from the crowd and went to their respective “trees,” their forms coalescing, becoming one with it. Even as they did so, three more Schlebs joined the crowd, detaching from their tree-homes.

One of them turned and looked at me with their bulbous, oceanic eyes.

“Chronicler,” they said. “You come again.”

Everyone knew Baba, even the natives. The tendrils of his influence stretched further than I had imagined. It pained me to tell them about his death yet again. It pained me to tell them that I wasn’t who they thought to be.

“I am his grandson, Aakash Mehta, from Terra. I am completing his account, and for that, I must once again ask the impossible of you. I must, once again, like my grandfather before me, know the nature of the Schleban death and your practices.”

“You are looking at it,” they said, flailing their rocky white hands.

“What do you mean?”

The Schleb individual showed me. And I understood now what I already had seen.

For them, the orchard and the trees were part of a whole. A Schleb was born from the white tree and went back to it, having lived their life. There was no ceremony, there was no occasion to mark both birth and death. There was just one circle of being and not-being. When the tree became one with the body of the Schleb, there was a waiting period of two days before another Schleb was spawned from the same spot.

An entire cycle of rebirth, within one microcosm.

The Orchard was their world, the Orchard their pyre, the Orchard their graveyard.

“You seem satisfied,” they said, as their oceanic eyes went black, suddenly. It marked the end of a conversation as they deemed it to be. I was satisfied. But I also felt very small against the vastness of the universe. A black dot, inside a pale blue dot.

I nodded at the Schleb and retraced my steps, back outside the Violet Orchard, and back to the Horen Tribe, where my colleagues were waiting for me. I completed Baba’s work and presented it to the Collegium while I spent a week with the Horen. During that week, I saw birth and death, rejoicing and grief.

One day, the Chieftain took me for a mourning, like his predecessor had taken Baba. When I closed my eyes at the edge of the crater, I imagined the Horen clawing out the twin-hearts of their deceased and burying them deep underground. I imagined the Veristi who I would meet, the Kohravan who were fledgling. No, I didn’t match it with Baba’s documentation. To do so would be to besmirch his work and his trust. Baba had already given his everything to everything, and now he must rest.

When I bid goodbye to the Horen, I opened the ceramic box and took out the fruit. I broke it into two halves and gave one to the Chieftain, who looked at it curiously, then understood. In his own language, I conveyed, “Your offering is mine, but it’s yours, too. For good luck.” He ate it, and smiled at me, in his own way.

I tasted the fruit. It tasted milky-sweet, much like ghevar.

Amal Singh is an author and editor from Mumbai, India. His short fiction has appeared and is forthcoming in venues such as F&SF, Clarkesworld, Interzone, among others, and has been longlisted for the BSFA Award. His epic-fantasy audio drama is currently streaming on Audible. He also co-edits Tasavvur, a short fiction magazine aimed to elevate new voices in South Asian speculative fiction.

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