Dabhad, Maharashtra, India, 1981
There are two times of day I love in the village. I wake early to the sounds of buckets rattling down the wells and cattle stirring just outside the room. Men already stand between the houses chatting, wrapped in blankets if there is a chill, their wives inside cook breakfast. And in the evening, as the heat of the day is beginning to break, the setting sun sends golden light through the soft haze from cooking fires and the dust from returning cattle. It has been like this a long time.
One morning Jaiswal, a young villager, asks me to take a look at his sick sister. We walk together to their home, one of the dwellings with a walled mud yard, cows on one side and various family rooms on another two sides built against the walls. His sister is in a small windowless back room, lying on a wooden charpoy in the dark. She is moaning, her breathing rasps. I feel the pulse in her thin wrist, it is racing insanely. I ask Jaiswal what medicine she is taking and he shows me a brown bottle of herbal cough syrup provided by the local Ayurvedic practitioner. Get a motor rickshaw, I tell Jaiswal, and take her immediately to a doctor or hospital in town. I am not forceful enough.
I catch the bus to the town on business and when I return late that afternoon, I am told immediately that she has died. I go to the home. Several women in the yard are holding a sari up to make a box-shaped screen while others inside wash the body. Water is trickling out of one side of the screen and slowly soaking into the packed mud and dung floor of the compound. Jaiswal had not heeded my warning.
That evening I walk with the procession through the village, the body held high on a litter and decorated with brightly coloured powder and flowers. A pile of wood and dung patties lies waiting in a corner of a field and after a brief ceremony the pyre is torched. Sudden flame, smoke. We do not wait longer, there is nothing to wait for. One person is left to watch the fire. I walk with the villagers back to their home, they are quiet and calm, perhaps they do not believe in tragedy.
On my way to another village the next day, I pass the spot, now just an area of black ash.