Jogi made a living by singing bajans (religious songs) at funeral processions. He was sought after for his emotional and loud voice particularly when intoxicated after a few alcoholic drinks before the start of the procession.
Every time I heard Jogi’s loud voice singing the bajans, I would run outside our house to watch funeral processions. Jogi was dark skinned and lean with a long beard, always wore shades of orange-yellow loose clothes even when he was not singing bajans at funerals. His voice was unique with high pitch notes that that make him recognizable from a distance. Jogi became a habitual drinker of aruk; an alcoholic drink brewed from toddy tree sap. At the beginning of the funeral procession, relatives of the deceased would offer a few drinks of aruk to Jogi to evoke emotions in him. When he was not signing bajans at the funerals, he would stay home fully drunk with arak and practice signing new bajans. On occasions, tears would roll from his eyes while singing funeral bajans, not from the sadness of the event but from his heavy drinking. Bare footed and walking slowly in front of the procession, Jogi, the one-man band, played dolak (a small Indian drum) to synchronize his singing. Funeral processions at times would come to a halt for a few minutes at major street crossings to allow Jogi to sing a bajan to its completion or a band to play a tune to the end. People tired of walking in the procession would drink a cold soda at a roadside kiosk and rejoin the funeral procession. On occasion, soda wallahs (people that carry sodas in a hand held wooden crates) make brisk business by following the procession all the way to cremation grounds to sell sodas to the mourners.
The Hindu cremation site in our town is located between a Christian cemetery and Muslin burial ground. Behind the Hindu cremation grounds was a Catholic school known for its academic excellence. Only Hindus are allowed to cremate their deceased at the cremation grounds.
Ultimately, all Hindus irrespective of castes, whether rich or poor would receive equal treatment on the funeral pyre. During monsoon season, rains could interrupt the cremation process leaving the bodies too wet to burn briskly, and the smoke from the intermittent pyre with odors of roasting human flesh would engulf the surrounding area including the classrooms at the neighboring catholic school. The people around the cremation grounds were accustomed to the odors emanating from the funeral pyres.
Most funeral processions in our town would pass by our house located at a corner of a four-road junction and one of the roads directly leads to the cremation grounds, within a short distance. The location of our house facilitated me to watch scores of funeral procession while growing up though my mother always discouraged me from it.
The merchant caste among Hindus carry their dead in a decorated casket on wheels to the cremation grounds, whereas other Hindus carry their dead on a bamboo frame. The entire body of the deceased except the face and feet is covered with a white cloth and garlands of flowers over it. If the deceased were a woman, the face is decorated with yellow turmeric paste and red powder on the forehead.
Deceased widows do not receive this treatment. The children or the close relatives would carry the body tied to a bamboo frame to the cremation grounds followed by a procession of people, near and dear to the deceased. The length of a funeral procession is an indicator of the popularity and social standing of the deceased. If the deceased were well known in the society, a large procession of people from all walks of life would follow all the way to funeral grounds. Either a funeral band, Jogi or a group of singers would lead the funeral procession, followed by the eldest son or a close relative with a brass plate filled with flowers and coins to throw a few of these on the body several times during the journey to the cremation grounds. Low life beggars would follow the procession to pick up coins that fall on to the ground. These beggars generally gather at the house of the deceased before the procession starts to get close to the bamboo frame carrying the body and position themselves to catch coins. During the procession, these beggars would constantly fight among themselves to catch the coins in the air just like spectators at base- ball stadium trying to catch a flying ball.
The women folk including the wife and daughters of the deceased generally do not participate in the funeral procession nor attend the funeral but women from certain castes would participate. If a funeral procession takes place on Wednesdays, a live fowl is tied hanging from the bamboo frame, and the bird is donated to one of the beggars on reaching the cremation grounds. Some Hindus practice this custom with a belief that an unaccompanied body cremated on Wednesdays would result in another death in the family of the deceased. Therefore, a fowl (an inexpensive life to accompany the dead) was sacrificed to prevent possible death in the family.
Some funeral processions were more elaborate than others. Generally, a Brahmin’s (priest caste) funeral procession is simple with the eldest son carrying smoldering fire in an earthen pot in front of the procession. The burning coal is used to set fire to the firewood placed on the body for cremation. A fowl is not used nor coins are thrown. In funeral processions of other Hindu castes, people sing bajans (religious songs) or some times live musical band accompanying the procession plays sorrowful tunes.
“Kamsaale,” a caste known for making jewelry follows a peculiar custom of carrying their dead. The deceased is placed in a sitting position in a small tent-like structure built with fine white cloth over bamboo frame. A funeral procession of a “kamsalee” can be recognized from a far distance for its unique drumbeat that is characteristic of that particular caste. The drummer is generally a “mangali’ or a person belonging to the barber caste. As a youngster, I was fascinated to watch a funeral procession of a deceased “kamsaale” for the drumbeat and the dead person in a sitting position. Sometimes, the deceased’s head would move back and forth as the body was carried in the sitting position. On occasions, I dreamt of funeral processions particularly if the dead were very young or a “kamsaale.”
On the pavement in front of a well-known restaurant located on the main road in our town priests who officiate final rites would gather from early morning for customers; namely relatives of deceased, to perform the funeral rites according to Hindu custom. These priests occupy a position at the bottom of the social ladder among the Brahmins. The priests squabble among themselves to grab the customers (like car salesmen).
Unfortunately I had to visit the designated location to find a priest to provide funeral rites for a deceased relative. The priests crowded around me like vendors in a daily open market trying to grab a customer. There was this old priest who immediately recognized me and jumped in front pushing the others away.
“What a misfortune, god couldn’t be more cruel to take away a kind and generous person like your father,” lamented the old priest.
While I was trying to tell him that it wasn’t my father who died but somebody in our extended family, the old man started sobbing holding my shoulder and pulled me away from his competitors. The business of officiating funeral rites is a competitive business. Unless the deceased is a top national figure or a celebrity, the deceased is cremated within a few hours due to lack of decent morgue facilities. For a fee, the priest would chant a few verses from the Hindu scriptures at the beginning of the funeral procession at the deceased home and again before the pyre is lit at the cremation grounds. The priest will not touch the dead body.
Shunned by the people of other castes in the society, people in charge of cremation grounds with the responsibility of placing fire wood on the body and complete the cremation process formed their own caste, a special caste. This allowed them to feel secure among themselves, free from discrimination from others.
In Hindu society, the only position that is incorruptible is that of an undertaker at the cremation grounds. From whom could he take bribes? Certainly not from the dead. According to Hindu mythology, King Harishchandra accepts an appointment as an under taker at the cremation grounds as a last resort to support himself rather than succumb to telling lies to overcome difficult situations, a testimony that the job of an under taker is incorruptible though considered menial and pushed to the bottom of social standing.