A death in India

Priestcraft & usurers

Sat Pal is an office assistant in the school where I work here in India. He has an eighth-grade education and limited intelligence. When his brother died two weeks ago, we all knew how difficult his life would now become. As the oldest man in his extended family, he makes most of the major decisions and bears whatever financial burdens occur. As his employer, I am often involved in his family crises. This one was no exception.

His brother had been ill for some time before death and a doctor friend and I had helped Sat Pal get medical care for him. Jai Prakash was improving rapidly when his in-laws arrived on the scene and insisted on taking him to another doctor and starting a whole new treatment. His condition then deteriorated until, now desperate, Sat Pal again appealed to me for help. I was irritated (doctor shopping is an old pattern of Sat Pal’s), but called my friend again who arranged a new round of ultrasounds, x-rays, and drug therapy. Jai Prakash was finally admitted to the hospital but by then it was too late. In spite of the doctor’s best efforts, he died just two days later.

I was out of town when it happened, and by the time I returned, the funeral was over. Sat Pal was then busy arranging the ceremonies that mark the end of the thirteen-day mourning period. Here in India, because of the hot climate and the scarcity of embalming, the body is cremated within twenty-four hours of death. Funerals are simple and inexpensive, since there is no time to make elaborate arrangements. By day thirteen, however, the vultures have moved in.

When I met Sat Pal to express my condolences, he was not only grief-stricken at the loss of his brother, but also distracted with worry about how to meet the new expenses of the thirteen-day ceremonies. “He died at such a dangerous time, didi,” he told me. “Now the expenses will be double or triple!”

The Hindu priest to whom Sat Pal had gone to get instructions for the rituals had told him that Jai Prakash’s death had occurred at a most inauspicious time. “Panchma laga hai,” he said, meaning that unless Sat Pal followed his orders precisely, four more people in the family would die as well. Then Sat Pal showed me the list of things he had to buy: a bed, a set of sheets, a rug, a pair of shoes, five meters of cloth, various kitchen utensils, clarified butter, almonds, flowers, and wood from a mango tree. In addition, five family members would have to travel to the holy city of Haridwar, on the banks of the Ganges, an hour and a half away, to conduct the ceremonies. There, they would also have to provide a meal for eleven other Hindu priests. The total bill would come to at least 5,000 rupees, almost double Sat Pal’s monthly income.

He had borrowed heavily to pay for Jai Prakash’s treatment, and the funeral expenses had put him further into debt. He was also newly responsible for his niece and nephew, as Jai Prakash’s young widow, just twenty-two years old, had announced her plans to return to her parents (presumably to remarry), leaving the children with Sat Pal. And now he was expected to purchase his brother’s salvation and his family’s safety by shopping for the priest.

Many of us took turns trying to reason with him. We pointed out that the priests only tried such stunts with people like him: when my husband’s father died, no one had even mentioned beds, cloth, or carpets. It is only with poor, uneducated people, those who can ill afford any extra expenses, that such callous games are played. We told Sat Pal that a God so unkind as to take five people from one family would hardly be appeased by gifts made to a ravenous priest. Sat Pal listened carefully to everything we said, agreed, then shook his head in resignation: “What can I do? This is what the priest told me.”

It is not a new tactic for making money. Unscrupulous people in every culture take advantage of families made weak and vulnerable by grief. Jessica Mitford made her name with The American Way of Death, an exposé of the funeral industry in the United States which detailed the lengths to which undertakers would go to lure mourners to spend on caskets, cemetery plots, and other funeral necessities.

In the end, Sat Pal did as the priest told him to do. Some of the money he borrowed from me; the rest, no doubt, came from the local usurer, who charges a modest 110 percent. Now Sat Pal has a bigger debt than ever, plus two more children to bring up. And the meek shall inherit the earth. end

Published in the 2003-08-15 issue: 

Jo McGowan, a longtime contributor to Commonweal, writes from Dehradun, India.

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