From a distance of 50 meters, I could see the crowd assembled outside my uncle's house, waiting for the ambulance van which was bringing his body from the hospital. Uncle’s sudden death was a deep shock to family and friends. Friendly, warm and charming he had been popular and loved among family and friends .Within hours of the news, people started assembling at our family house .I had taken, the first flight available from Mumbai, to be in time for the funeral. As I neared, I recognized quite a few faces: of relatives and friends – somber-faced and teary-eyed – shivering in the early hours of the December morning.
His close friend, Amin uncle was there – a big built man with a well-trimmed henna red beard, his face swollen and eyes red with weeping. He wiped his face, with the checkered sweat towel which he wore on his left shoulders and came towards me with a strong whiff of the Attar Jannat ul Firdaus, my uncle's favorite perfume.
"Sami. See how Javed has left us. I wish I had gone before him. "He broke into uncontrollable sobs.
I tried to comfort him, gently and sympathetically patting him on the shoulder.
"He was my favorite uncle. I also miss him. But what can one do? It is God's will. We can but pray for his soul to find everlasting peace."
"I don't know how I will be able to live without him." He spoke amidst loud sobs.
"Get hold of yourself, Amin uncle. We have a lot to do. Are all the preparations made for the funeral?"
“Yes and also for preparing the body for the funeral, just as he would have wanted it. I have got the coffin shroud from Mecca, soaked in the waters of Zam Zam and the perfumed sandalwood soaps, the jasmine and rose garlands to cover the body …."
"But when is the burial? It cannot be with the afternoon prayers. The family cemetery is an hour's ..." I broke off seeing the assemblage make way for the Ambulance. Minutes later the covered body was lowered, and Amin uncle rushed towards it as we stood silent, in stoic grief. He uncovered uncle's face and I could no longer hold back the tears. His face was fresh and pink, though ten hours had passed since he had succumbed to a massive heart attack. Despite being forty plus, his body was lean and supple –he was still handsome.
Amin uncle and some of the elderly relatives accompanied the body inside – to take it to the hamam (the large bathroom) and perform the ritual bath. Others moved over to the main sitting room for reciting the Quran.
Feeling tired and thirsty I took the side entrance, which the ladies used, to go to the backyard the kitchen and the ladies sitting room- unused since the death of Sakina Mami, uncle’s wife, a few years back.
But today, it had been opened, and some women- relatives, and wives of friends had assembled there. I made my way to the kitchen. I walked through the courtyard, eyes downcast, to avoid looking at the women. Suddenly a strong whiff of my uncle's favorite perfume hit my nostrils. Startled I looked up: it was a woman in a burqa, with only her eyes visible: large hazel eyes. So familiar. They reminded me of … I was certain that these eyes were Jamila’s! Yes, it was her! I had seen recognition in them, though just for a second. The next moment, she had turned back and walked to the women's sitting room.
I walked to the kitchen, quite taken aback at seeing her here after nearly seventeen years! Why had she come back?