It has never been easy to die a Hindu, when you have to contend with your near and dear ones trying to force Ganga jal down your gullet. When you are croaking your last, that bit of holy water often provides the final choke. Funny, though, how no one seems to care, even though everyone somewhat educated must know how easily fluid can be diverted from the gullet to the windpipe. And does it help that these days the holy aqua is quite polluted, with a coliform count that would do the municipal sewers proud? The ancients placed the burning ghats astride rivers, little realising that they (the water bodies) would one day serve as the carriers of varied effluents, rather inappropriate for the final departure.
But there are graver issues pending, as long as we are into death and dying. I am referring to the fact that the receding forests of South Asia and the import of exotic flora have together managed to irrevocably change the way in which we are cremated. Sadly, the structural dynamics of the funeral pyre is no more what it was in Vedic times, and later. It has all to do with eucalyptus.
The Australian species, beloved of the cuddly koala, migrated to these northern latitudes. over the course of the 20th century, to take over where the local oaks, rhododendrons, sal and seeshums left off. Accused of all kinds of ills, including those associated with monoculture and water-guzzling, the eucalyptus nevertheless thrived and multiplied. Its best selling point being that it grew quick, even if the wood was soft and useless for most purposes. But the one use it did find as a source of cheap wood, was for cremations.
In the old days, when there were fewer people and more woodlands, you could enter the forest and emerge with hardwood logs that then were split to be ready for the pyre. When thus divided, the rounded logs made triangular cross-sections. These were piled on top of each other, and the waiting body placed on top. The fire would be lit, and as the conflagration took hold there was little to be done other than tend the fire. The wood burned white and furious, and the pyre generally collapsed into itself.
Now, study the eucalyptus pyre. Mostly chopped in their prime, the logs that make it to the ghats are not large enough to split. The funeral pyre is now built similarly, except that instead of the triangular cross-sections of the individual components, you now have rounded logs. Completely unstable, as anyone will tell you.
The cremations now require a quicker wit of the dom or, as the case may be, the ghat brahman. From the word go, and the lighting of the match, it is a fight of the laws of equilibrium against the forces of disequilibrium. As the fire eats into the structure, the logs will want to roll off, and the body upstairs lurches this Aft way and that. It is all that the dom can do to keep ill. top and centered as everything threatens to unravel in a rush of rolling logs.
There is something to be said for human adaptability. The biggest proof of this ability to countenance extremes is how, unlike the shocked disbelief of, say, Christian friends, who cannot imagine how you can sit there and watch calmly as your relation or friend is reduced to ashes, it is very much possible. (You could similarly respond how you cannot imagine being locked under a lid, and slipped claustrophobically into the ground, and how watching the ashes-to-ashes transformation has a much better finality than a burial. You go away knowing you have not buried someone, but rather released the soul to join the ozone hole over the Deccan.) Back to the theme at hand. While human adaptability has over historical time allowed us to watch our relations burn, this process has suddenly had unexpected drama injected into it with the arrival of the unstable eucalyptus funeral pyre. The next hour or two (depending on the girth of the deceased, the dampness of the wood, the ambient temperature, and the amount of ghew the family can afford for the pyre) will be a battle between man and the elements. The sprightly tender of the funeral pyre will work hard to make a dignified exit possible, without any spill or side avalanche or, heavens forbid, a complete structural failure. Mostly, he will succeed.
It is then time to go home, and wait nervously for the next time you will be called to the ghats. It is quite unnerving, really. Please pass the Ganga jal.