By: Niranjana Naveen
It was quarter past one when I got off the bus from work. Working the late-hour shift was one of the only few benefits my insomnia bestowed on me. I started on my long walk home from the bus stop, the sound of my footsteps rudely slicing through the deathly silence of the village. I had heard on the radio that electricity supply provision was rapidly growing in the city, and it would soon reach the outskirts as well. All that was good but me, I had already grown accustomed to the darkness and didn’t need my flashlight anymore to navigate my way in the village.
I crossed the paddy fields filled with chirping crickets and the occasional bellows of the frogs. But oddly enough, everything was oddly still tonight as if in anticipation of something; or someone. Even the moon, who used to cast a faint light for the long shadows to saunter, had discreetly crept behind the clouds. All of these were not entirely unfamiliar, and wouldn’t have come to my notice, if not for the odd feeling that crept up in my chest and despite my efforts, stayed unwilling to go away. I quickened my pace.
I had turned around the corner of the paved road and was now separated from my home by only the neighbours’ yard when I saw it. In the thick black night, there in the distance stood a flame, alive and breathing, as just another creature of the dark. It’s tongues flickered silently on the wooden logs on which it stood; vehemently spitting puffs of smoke into the midnight air. I stood there in awe and confoundment when suddenly it came to me. It was the funeral pyre of my neighbour’s late mother. Of course, I had visited there to offer my condolences the day before. I walked on.
I reckon my attention was still on the thought of death by the fact that I did not hear the snapping of twigs under feet behind me. A cold hand gently pressed on my shoulder, and I swivelled around, suddenly aware of my environment. The familiar face of the local grocer greeted me. He had seen me pass by his house without so much as a hay torch and got worried.
‘Why don’t you borrow my flashlight?’ he offers. ‘Oh, that’s alright. I know these roads like the back of my hand.’
‘I know you do. But it’s still good to be safe. Especially since the funeral pyre is still ablaze.’
His words linger in the air, and I get what he’s hinting at: the pyre goddess might be out on her savages.
This was local lore in and around the villages here. The ‘Pyre Goddess’ was regarded to be a divine entity of death who appears at night to feast on the corpses in their funeral pyres. She is supposedly, a variant form of the Hindu goddess Kali and according to tradition, is given an offering on the days of the rites. Despite being a deity, she is feared due to her association with death. It was widely regarded that an encounter with the goddess during one of her “feasts” is a portent of one’s death. Due to this very reason, the village folk choose to remain indoors at night, particularly when a funeral pyre is still burning.
Now I wasn’t all that superstitious myself. So, I had previously done some digging regarding the same and same and found a reasonable explanation regarding this popular belief. I found that this legend was popularised to prevent people from lingering around the funeral pyres so that the bodies of the deceased were not displaced in any way. Also, numerous dangerous air pollutants, such as particulate matter, sulphur dioxide and heavy metals, are produced during the cremation of a body. These contaminants may have detrimental impacts on human health.
They say fear is one of the most primal of the human emotions. By planting fear in one’s head, one can be controlled as if on a leash. It goes for most legends and superstitions and the same can be said for this one.
I convince this well-wisher of mine, that I would be perfectly safe, thanked him for his concern and continued my way. He wished me goodnight and went back to his home the other way.
I was relieved when the warmth of the fire would subside the chill of the night air for a moment at least. The fire still glowed brightly as I passed it. But right after I did so, my mind couldn’t shake off the feeling that the flames were taking form as I saw from the corner of my eye. I swallowed. I did not dare to look back or stop walking until I reached the safety of my home.