The Curse of Tradition
There had been a death in the family. The Sharma household was mourning and being Hindus, they were preparing themselves for a series of rituals. They put up an extravagant display of rituals on all occasions, and death is not an exception.
The Sharmas were a prosperous family. They were learned, wealthy and respected. Thus, it was not surprising that most of its members were scattered all across India and the world. But apart from the common blood that ran in their veins, what bound them together was their ancestral village - Raaspura. This was where their ancestors had been for centuries, and this was the place they considered their 'family home’. Thus when the patriarch of the family died, the funeral was held in Raaspura and the entire family turned up from all over the world to take part in the thirteen day mourning period.
Rajesh, a recently retired member of the family, had relocated to the village after having spent his career living and working all across the country. He said he found Raaspura peaceful and had thus shifted into the house his father had built in the 1960s in a part of the large Sharma campus. He lived with his wife and they, along with his uncle, were now the only people who lived on the campus. The rest had moved out into the cities.
Rajesh lived a solitary life. He was short, fat and was often found inebriated. People said he had a bad temper, though he had shown numerous times that he was capable of great generosity. Yet somehow he always found himself in the middle of family feuds. He was not the most liked person, but death brings families together. Sorrow is the glue which binds people together; it gives them a purpose, unlike joy, which gives people a sense of abandon.
The Sharmas had gathered in the village within days of the patriarch passing away. They were sad and it was hectic. But it was also an opportunity to meet those who they hardly saw. Despite being a period of mourning, this was also an occasion for a family reunion. They shared their grief in the hope that it would eventually melt away.
Some shared their grief; others forgot it in the hustle and bustle of activities. Soon the pain of the loss began to subside. The Sharmas threw themselves into organising the rituals which were to take place. Hindus have numerous rituals for each occasion, and they’re all equally complex and elaborate. None of the Sharmas truly knew what was to be done. Everyone had their own take on how the intricate details of the rituals were to be carried out. And if that was not enough, the 'pandit' - the priest who performed the rituals - was fussy.
Among the many rituals which were to be carried out, there was one which caused great trouble - the men had to shave their heads. As is the case, a bald head is hardly desirable. Most men abhor the idea of losing their hair. For the young it is a symbol of their youth, and for the old, it is a reminder that they are not that old after all. It was unpleasant, unless you were a traditional and devout Hindu. The significance of this exercise lay in the belief that by shedding your hair, you shed the past in order to make a new beginning. You had to do it; regardless of whether you liked or understood the rationale. As with all rituals, it was more for the society than for yourself. It was not enough to mourn, you had to show that you were mourning. You had to prove it. As if joy could only be proven with laughter, and sorrow only with tears.
So all the men in the Sharma household had their heads shaved - except one. Rajesh had refused. He decided to have his hair trimmed instead. This did not go down well with some people, especially the elderly in the family who considered themselves to be the guardians of tradition. They scoffed at Rajesh for his pettiness. They attacked him for what they felt was his insouciance.
One day, the family and some neighbours had gathered in the courtyard to watch the pandit perform his rituals. Rajesh walked in after a while and there was a palpable sense of unease among the people sat there. Sniggers went through the crowd as he came. Some ignored him; others made polite conversation, trying hard to hide their contempt for him. Rajesh felt unwelcome, but it was his family after all. He had to maintain the solemnity of the occasion. He grabbed a chair and began to lower himself on it. Just as he was about to sit, one of its legs snapped, dragging Rajesh down on the ground with a thud. There was an immediate rush to pick him up. Some faces showed concern; others thought it served him well.
"That had to happen. He’s brought it upon him", whispered one. It was a quiet comment, not intended to be heard by all but it achieved its desired effect and led to some giggling. Rajesh felt embarrassed and insulted.
Days passed and the mourning period was in its last phase. One of the final acts was to host a meal for the entire village. People of all backgrounds turned up to eat in the memory of the deceased. It was a charitable thing to do and people often looked forward to this event.
The courtyard was beaming with people. They sat on the floor. It was a sultry evening but no one was complaining. They were used to it and besides they had no other option than to accept it. The food was soon served and everyone ate to their heart’s content.
Word had gone around the village of Rajesh’s churlishness. Rajesh had not expected this barrage of hatred which had come his way. What to him was a trivial matter had become the gossip of the village.
The night went on and more and more people flocked to the ceremonial dinner. All members of the family were present - except one. Rajesh was not to be seen. No one complained. They would rather that he kept away than be present and cause further trouble. Nevertheless, it was Rajesh’s uncle who had passed away. He had to be there. And he did come in the end - though when he turned up, his head was shaved.