The skies were dark, gloomy and dismal the day Juliana D’Costa was called to be with the Lord. Jillybai as she was commonly and fearfully known was seventy nine years old and would have completed her 80th birthday in another months time. Now she would not only celebrate her big day with the angels in heaven but would also take with her some thoughts, beliefs and secrets that were known only to her. Whether they would be of any use to her up there was anybody?s guess.
She left behind on earth her only son Roberto, the apple of her razor-sharp eye and her daughter-in-law Millicent, the perpetual victim of her chronically caustic tongue. Her two grandchildren Ricardo and Renita were at school and had no idea that their grandmother had never woken up from her afternoon nap. Within no time news of Jillybai?s death spread to all corners of the neighbourhood. Valli the household servant was sent to the parish priest to inform him so that the bells could toll in final farewell.
Life had played many cruel jokes on Valli. He was an orphan with a deformed body and a dimwitted mind. He had been with the D’Costas since he was six years old and had borne the brunt of Jillybai’s frustrations and anger all his young life. She never tired of telling him that he was fashioned by the devil himself. Why just the other day she had beaten him and kept him starving for not bringing home the rat poison she had asked him to buy. He hated Jillybai with all his heart so it was not surprising that he skipped all the way to the church that day.
….He heard the sharp clunk of the empty bottle of rat poison as it hit the coffin and watched for a moment as it settled under a cloud of dust…..
By six the same evening Jillybai’s body was washed, ritually dressed up and placed in a coffin before the altar in the centre of the small hall. The chairs were placed in a semicircle around the coffin and everyone sat down to recite the series of rosaries that would go on well into the night. People drifted in, stood respectfully at the end of the coffin, fidgeted and left. No one had ever felt comfortable in Jillybai’s presence and today was no exception.
Her son Roberto stood at the doorway and watched his mother intently as if expecting her to get up and give instructions for her own funeral. She had always been good at giving instructions he thought. Ever since he could remember she had wielded an iron hand over his life and made all his decisions for him. In a way he suddenly felt lost without her. He heard the sound of muffled sobbing and realized it came from his wife. Millicent was a simple but good woman. Like everything else in his life his mother had chosen her for him and to this day he felt a sense of regret that he had not had the guts to stand up to his mother and marry the girl he had loved and consequently lost. He had chosen peace over love but had not had much peace since.
Millicent continued sobbing. Even though the end of her pallu covered her mouth, the tears flowing down her cheeks were ample proof that she was suitably mourning her mother-in-law. She was painfully aware of the probing eyes of her neighbours and wished with all her heart that she was somewhere else right now. When her mother-in-law was alive all the neighbours sympathized with her plight but now suddenly she felt she was surrounded by accusing eyes. She closed her eyes and gave in to the relief in her heart, at the same time feeling terribly guilty for doing so.
The children had come back from school but were too young to understand what was going on. Someone explained that vodlimai had gone to heaven and would not come back. Little Ricardo was puzzled. He had been told time and again how he would go to hell if he beat Renita. He had seen vodlimai thrashing Valli mercilessly many times and he could not understand how she had made it to heaven. On questioning aloud, he only got a sharp knock on his head from his father.
In his innocence Ricardo had hit the nail squarely on the head. Jillybai had been an awful person who had exercised her ruthless authority over all her family members. She never smiled or said a kind word to anyone. People sometimes said that her husband who was a kind soul had died only because he could not keep up with her superior arrogance and vicious temperament. Countless young girls and boys in the vicinity had been at the receiving end of her sharp, gossiping tongue. Many a character had been torn to bits and many a servant thrashed. No vendor ever dared to argue with her and when she came walking down the road with that familiar glowering face, people who knew what was good for them hastily got out of the way.
The funeral was at 4 p.m. sharp the following day and everyone listened to the priest as he intoned in a deadpan voice what a good woman Jillibai had been all her life. A couple of times he stumbled when he spoke of her virtues but he carried on nevertheless. After all who better than he knew that you couldn’t speak ill of the dead. Everyone heaved a collective sigh of relief when the coffin was finally lowered into the ground. At 79 years of age she had lived her life and it was time to go. One by one they put a handful of dirt into the grave and left.
No one noticed young Valli who hung back and was the last to leave. He scooped up a big handful of dirt, packed it tightly around the object in his hand and dropped it in the grave. He heard the sharp clunk of the empty bottle of rat poison as it hit the coffin and watched for a moment as it settled under a cloud of dust. Then deliberately he took a step back, turned and walked away. He never once looked back and when he reached half way home, he began to whistle. It was so long since he had done that and it felt so incredibly good.
Author: Mariann DSouza- Oman