A Funeral of National Importance
On the way back from the funeral of the Chief Incumbent of Bambalapitiya Maha Maya Viharaya, she asked the driver to stop at her favourite handloom saree shop. She ordered all the white sarees in the shop because she did not know which person of national importance might die in the coming month; she couldn’t possibly appear on national media in the same white saree over and over again.
Thankfully, a few weeks later, the Governor of the Capital Bank of Sri Lanka was killed by an accident and she was thrilled. As soon as she heard the news, she left all her files stacked up on the table and quickly got herself driven to his house because she really wanted to be there for his family in this time of need, giving instructions on organizing a funeral of national importance through her recent experience of being in a dozen State Funeral Committees.
A funeral was in the air and she felt the true funeral spirit. She showed them where the body should be placed and from which direction the people who would want to pay respect should come. Although at first the family wondered who she was, despite how responsible and relevant she looked, they later learned that this new Director General of Sri Lanka Rugatha Corporation (the official media for this event), only had their best interests at heart. She told them about the large number of Buddhist monks who would come to the house to pay respect to the body, pointing to the need of a large sofa with a white cloth laid over it. She saw that the photos and mirrors in the house were covered and the large wooden windows were open. She went to the son of the deceased and told him that there should be a table for all the awards his father had received because that was the highlight of a funeral. Then she stood in the middle of the living room and explained the roles she had played in other funerals of national importance. She made a sad but tired face when she said that although it was only March, this was the seventh important funeral she had to attend and see to, this year. However, it was difficult to run here and there in a Kandyan saree, and she was very tired in a few minutes. Though she almost slipped twice, once while helping a few men carry a cupboard, and once as she jumped up to see if someone tall could see the dust on the book shelf, she never really fell down and she was thankful. Since everyone was looking at her and up to her, it would have been such an embarrassment to fall down. She was sitting adjusting the headpiece of her saree when a servant came to her with a cup of tea. She looked up at everyone in the house looking at her, some with respect, some with wonder, some waiting for the next instruction and some waiting for her to just leave, and stood up.
“My driver needs tea as well, but you know what, let me take care of that” she said out loud.
A second later, everyone was looking at the Director General walking to the kitchen, pouring half of her cup to another and coming back with two cups in hand. It was a small congested house in Colombo Seven with a very small living room. So everyone moved back and forth and gave her space to walk towards the driver, who was dazed, wondering if this is the same Director General who usually cannot even open the car door herself.
After having tea, she went to the wife of the deceased. The wife, though grieving, was holding up quite well. She was discussing a possible Funeral Director with her daughter when the Director General came and sat close to her.
“How are you?” she asked.
“Alright,” the wife said with a forcefully drawn smile “so much to do, I’m trying not to miss anything.”
The Director General gave her a sympathetic smile and tilted her head to the left. Then she held the wife’s hand and said, “I know this is very very difficult for you, I understand this is the worst thing that can happen to a family, I mean it’s your husband who is dead! If it was you who is dead, it would have been kind of alright, but this is the father, the breadwinner, the backbone of the family!” she sighed. “And your children have lives of their own so you are the one who will feel this loss the most. You have to face life alone now. You will be lonely and sad, but, you have to be strong.” As she finished, the wife started bursting into tears which later turned into a ceaseless weep. Then the children hugged the mother and started crying. The Director General slowly walked towards the door with a satisfied face – her head, still tilted to the left. And as the driver drove her away from the funeral home, half of the people had joined the collective weep. Her work here was done.
* * *
The next day, she wanted to wear a light coloured saree because she had to go to the funeral home after work. Since she expected to meet a lot of people from various walks of life, and she had her standards to maintain, she picked a rich-looking saree. No saree can look rich without a shining headpiece, she thought. So she wore the cream coloured one with a gold design in the headpiece. When she went to the funeral home, she took her crew with her. There, she pointed to the places which had be caught in the shoot – the award table, the certificate wall, the huge couch with a lot of Buddhist monks and the sofa with a few Cabinet Ministers. When the fall of her saree almost caught fire as she slinked out of the living room too close to the oil lamp by the body, she was startled. After that, she did not wander, but sat on the sofa next to the wife, nodding to everyone who entered through the main door. But she did not want to waste time just sitting there. So, she started guessing the prices of the sarees people at the funeral were wearing. She could not believe that the Chairman of The British Bank in Colombo chose to wear such a cheap saree to an event of national importance. She was sure it had nothing to do with money, she was the Chairman of a bank after all. And was it even a saree what that woman from that government thing which prepares the National Budget wearing? It looked more like a curtain from Yapahuwa period. Faded, rusted and almost torn. So stingy, she thought. Talk about National Budget.
On the way home, as she closed her eyes, she fell asleep within seconds. The car carefully drove her away from the traffic of Colombo. She dreamed that her saree was on fire. The pure white saree she was wearing was turning black; the blazing flames of the fire were crackling up the headpiece. As she touched her chest, she felt the saree jacket heating up and gradually turning brown. She was trying to put out the fire with pirith water from a little plastic bottle (which was one of the hundred thousand bottles chanted eighteen thousand times by the best monks in Colombo), but it only made the fiery flames that were roaring, come towards her face like a bat out of hell, shredding down smoldering irregular pieces of the hem one by one. In the air, soot had gathered into a cloud and had started singing. Then she saw a fireball dancer, a classic one from the Kandy perahera coming towards her, rhythmically swiveling a ring of fireballs to the melody of the soot cloud. She started to swing to the melody herself, but she suddenly saw that her feet were showing because the burnt pieces of the saree were falling to the ground. She almost had a fit; she could not show her bare feet to the world. Tensed, she looked around; the fireball dancer was getting closer. She saw a puddle in the middle of the road and quickly jumped into it. And her feet got stuck. Her heart was beating fast. The soot cloud was singing too loud and the fireball dancer was too close. She kept her hands on the ground and gained force to pull her feet, but her hands got glued to the lava on the ground. She could not breathe. The melody of the soot cloud was now deafening and it was burning. Suddenly, a crimson fireball came towards her face and she woke up. She was in Kadawatha.
* * *
It was the day of the funeral. She came to the funeral home quite early in the morning. She had worn one of her new white sarees and everything; but not too high heels because she had a lot of walking to do. She was all ready to bid farewell to a man of national importance. First, she made calls to make sure the small small segments of the funeral were broadcast in her channel time to time. And when she discovered that they had done no special segment about the Governor, she demanded they immediately do a documentary about the service of this brave man who steered the economy of the country in the right direction. It was alright that they didn’t get the titles of some Reports he had written right, or, a few names of the Committees he had chaired, as long as they ran the feature before the funeral ceremony started. She also asked the designers to make a television banner just for him, with a few white frangipanis on the side and everything; and perhaps, play in the background Mala ira basina sande yaame, the classic song about death sung by Amaradeva. After all they were the official media for this event.
The State Funeral Committee had organized this prestigious event beautifully. She was proud she was a part of it. The body was brought from the funeral home to the cemetery in a procession of about thirty vehicles, under a canopy of sepalika flowers. There was a huge gok kola thorana at the entrance of the cemetery in the form of an arch. The either sides of the path that led from the thorana to the pavilion, were decorated with white gerberas, carnations and fern. The coffin was kept in the pavilion on a red carpet. Orchid petals were sprinkled on the coffin from time to time and the instrumental version of Mala ira basina sande yaame was played via loudspeakers. Drones were sent up to take shots of the bank-shaped funeral pyre. She could not expect anything less. A person of national importance was dead.
She gave the signal to start the programme. As the best announcer of her channel came to the podium to begin, someone from the crowd started weeping aloud. It was a man. A middle aged man in a white shirt and a yellow sarong.
“Aneeey Yasalalakathissa! Aiyoooo! Yasalalakathissa!” he wept in a shrill high-pitched voice, calling out the Governor’s name.
The Monks, the Politicians, the Government Officials, the Academics, the Bankers, the family, all looked around in panic.
The weeping man slowly meandered towards the coffin and sat on the floor, sobbing. He never ever imagined the Governor would leave him this soon, he cried. Just as the wife and the children of the Governor were trying to get a better look at the man, another from the crowd started weeping aloud. This time it was a woman. Now who will tell her funny stories, the weeping woman asked from the coffin, wiping her snot off with her shoulders.
‘Did you hire these people?’ A member of the State Funeral Committee whispered to the Director General.
‘Hire?’ She was confused, ‘what?’.
‘Aren’t they hired mourners from Negombo?’ he whispered back to her.
But the next second when the weeping woman said aloud how she would miss the way the Governor used English when scolding people at his workplace, the entire funeral crowd knew they were not hired mourners from Negombo. ‘Idiots…bloody idiots’ as the weeping woman imitated the Governor through tears, the staff of the Capital Bank of Sri Lanka looked at each other in bewilderment. They really did not know what to do.
‘Yasalalakathissaaaa’ cried the weeping man again, emphasizing what a loss this is for the country. The Governor just knew so much, he said. Through his wail, when he said how the Governor asked them not to believe a word the media said about the pandemic, the Director General of Sri Lanka Rugatha Corporation was stupefied. In a millisecond she dashed towards her crew and made sure the event was not being broadcast live. She gave the signal to start the programme and asked the sound operators to amplify the sound of the compere’s microphone. She was sure that the nineteen to the dozen talk of her announcer would take care of this situation. In a few minutes, things were settled and she felt as if the monsoon season was over. From there onwards, the programme flowed with no interruption. During the ninth speech, she looked at the family. The wife was staring at the far away sky with swollen eyes. The daughter was looking down, clutching a handout about the service of the Governor distributed at the funeral. She ordered someone to give the family some Smak mixed fruit drinks. After all the fourteen speeches were given, the wife had to deliver the vote of thanks. She foresaw that the wife was not in a good condition to speak which is why she asked her announcer to deliver it for her. The wife started crying convulsively as the announcer started delivering the vote of thanks and she was proud she saw that coming. And when the Minister of Finance came towards the family with the Official Message of Condolence from the President, she saw that the family did not want to look at the cameras, but the event was then going live and this was expensive air time.
A few minutes before the end of the programme, she hovered around the bank-shaped pyre once to make sure everything was alright. Since it had rained the previous night, the ground was a little muddy. She was thankful only one member of the State Funeral Committee was with her to see her slipping slightly and bumping her head against a wooden plank used to support the pyre. She pretended she didn’t even feel it but she literally saw half a dozen zodiacs in that clear bright sky. Once the programme eventually came to an end, when everyone was pushing everyone, trying to gather around the pyre, she made sure they did not get to the family. But in a second there was a barrier of men with cameras around the pyre. She looked calmly at the way a man in a white sarong came towards the family, twirling a stick with a fireball up and down. He then handed over the stick to Governor’s son. She watched the pyre being lit by the son. And in a few minutes, the entire pyre was in flames. Irregular white pieces of clothes were falling to the ground one by one. An important man was burning. A man. A father. Father. And she was twelve years again. The girl who helplessly watched her father burning. Unable to get even a little close. Burnt. Burnt by the State? He was brave, they said. That was the thought that always entered her mind every time she saw a burning pyre. Is being brave more important than being alive? He was a respectable man, they said. That was the thought which always followed the first one. Respect. She felt it was the most selfish word in the world. Is burning on the side of the road as respectable as a funeral of national importance? She did not know.
It was hot, almost as if burning. And she could not stand the noise of the soot; it was louder than the loudspeakers. The State Funeral Committee had arranged a helicopter to shower chrysanthemum petals on the pyre over the flames. She looked up and then around. Amidst the heavy showers of white chrysanthemum petals, behind the flashes of the cameras, through the thick barrier of people speaking of the greatness of the respectable man who is dead, she saw his daughter, helplessly watching her father burning. Unable to get even a little close. Annoyed, she rushed towards the men with cameras.
Ciara is currently reading for her MA in English Studies with a special focus on language and culture, and is employed as Assistant Director (Literature & Publications) at the Department of Cultural Affairs, Sri Lanka. Her debut short story collection ‘The Red Brick Wall’ (manuscript) is at the moment shortlisted for the Gratiaen Prize 2020, the most coveted award given for Sri Lankan writing in English.