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February 23, 2014

death and a coconut

When I enter the living room, it smells like death. There's weathered, papery, yellow skin and eyes that betray what no one wants to say: this man is dying.

Die he did. The next time I see his wife, it is at the temple. She's wearing white (the traditional funeral colour) and is somber. We sit cross-legged on the floor, me and a temple full of local people. The funeral director doubles as a musician, and they play a tabla and other instruments. People sing from hymnals, and when there is a break between songs people come and go, pausing before they leave for a small bow to the gods. But what distracts me the most are the coconuts.

Coconuts and pineapples are spread on a table, to be offered to the gods at the front of the temple. Each coconut is topped with some sort of sweet, and specially arranged. All I can think is, "What do coconuts have to do with dying? With souls and life and death?"

These questions distract me until I see my dear friend at the front of the temple, nearest to the multiple deities. The girl with red nail polish, a ready laugh, a sweet smile and five hundred scooter-accident scars from vivacious living. The girl who tickles me and can always round up a crowd for a party. But today she's different, sober, dressed in white, and holds a gift for the god. She has a white strip of cloth around her face, to keep her breath from defiling god. She seems to me a world away from the girl I knew before this moment.

We sit in the temple for nearly an hour, and I'm left alone with my thoughts, because I can't understand the local language and only catch pieces via translation. And ultimately, I can only think one thing: if I'm right, they're all wrong. This whole temple full. This whole neighbourhood full. Almost this whole city full. 

The thought is staggering. 

The musician/religious leader is talking: "Between ages 25 and 50 is your real life. That's the time when you need to do good karma. Do good. Do good." 

When she has the chance, my friend tells us with quiet joy: Grandpa did good. He went fresh. He was clean. Just before he died, he asked to do a worship service to the god. And, she adds with extra zeal, his soul left through his eyes. Our mutual friend fills in some blanks for me: It's one of the best ways to go. If his eyes were open when he died, it's a good sign.

But inside, I know it's a resounding gong, a clanging cymbal, the stuff of earth:

Birdseed for pigeons.
Water and washing.
Open eyes.
Good deeds.

This is earthly, flighty, featherweight.
We need something heavenly, enduring, eternal.

Coconuts may feed a physical body. Water may wash a physical body.
But what can feed and cleanse our spirits?

I wouldn't trust a coconut. 

A certain gravitas comes across me again as I type these sentences. And I told God, help me write this, because people should know. Because, if we're right, they're all wrong. It's simple logic. 

If we believe that, every one of us should be acting. 
If we don't believe that, then are we pretending to believe the rest?

If there's only one way, there's only one way.
If there are more ways,
then "we are of all people most to be pitied."
Because we're giving up "houses, or brothers, or sisters, or mother, or father, or children, or land" for this one way, one truth, one life.

There are millions of people believing in the power of a coconut, a bit of water, a fast, open eyes, a stack of good deeds done during middle age. If you read this, you can't say you didn't know. I don't like to be pushy, but this I will push: what are you doing about it? I push it with myself too: what am I doing about it?

We live in a new part of the city, and they in the old. Sometimes I wonder, how do we bridge the gap? Their roots in this culture are deep. They're offering pineapples to deities in the way their forefathers did, but have 3G in their back pockets. Tradition, family and roots call them loudly, but so does the internet, the bigger outside world, and new conversations.

Watching the world go by from the back of my friend's scooter, I am dodging cows and tucking in my limbs. She shows me a roadside vendor selling wooden stretchers used for cremation. Next, she indicates a man with a fortune-telling parrot. I wonder: how do we start to have new conversations? I try to love and ask good questions, even on the back of a weaving scooter, because I believe that real Love calls loudly, louder than roots or traditions or old stories. And real Love is what everyone is ultimately looking for.

We keep asking questions, keep opening conversations.
until they hear, death will be appeased with a coconut. 
And I don't know about you, but I wouldn't trust a coconut.

 "I hold the keys of Hades and of death..." 
"I am the door."
"Knock, and it will be opened to you." 

But "how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?"

Photo credits to my friends M+C.


  1. Julie, very tender and thought provoking. You're right - if we're right then they are wrong. May we have eyes to see, hearts to love, and passion to share. Thank you. npsh