by Mukta Singh-Zocchi

By the third and final round along the smoldering pit her taffeta wrap was filled with several articles: clothes, pieces of gold, flowers, even food – commissions from the gathered people she was to take to their loved ones in the other world. The letters she had tucked in her blouse. Her clothes were impregnated with butter they had poured on her for quick incineration.

She saw her neighbors and friends of many years come up, tears in their eyes, holding nothing in their hands, bearing just a heavy heart. She mellowed and one by one embraced them in a final farewell. Aslam too was in the group.

“Forgive me,” he cried softly and with brimming eyes extended the pot of butter he had brought for her.

“Not now, Aslam,” she said tenderly.

She started to dance. Round and round she spun to the quickening beats of the drum. Like the famous Nur Bai of Delhi she danced, enchanting many in the crowd. She stopped and with her back to the pit, raised her hands to the heavens: “There is just one virtue in this world and that is love.”

She fixed her eyes on Aslam.

“I am ready now!”

The priests advanced and shoved the corpse of her husband into the pit, bright flames engulfing it in a moment. They moved towards her. Aslam, mesmerized, proceeded to pour his offering of butter on his departing lover. She stood still. In a confluence of motions, as Aslam approached her, she folded her arms around him, the priests pushing her backwards into the burning pit, she dragging the unfortunate lover along with her.

A sudden hush descended on the crowd as they watched the flaming pit.

Through the shadows, they heard her screams. Attired in fiery clothes she was dancing still. She held him and he rolled.

“Love can never die,” she sang and pulled him back in a grand sweep. The pot he still held burst into flames and he dropped it. His hair burnt first, then his clothes. He pleaded and she smiled and brought him close to her. His eyes widened as his flesh caught fire. He flapped and kicked. Then a flame curved around his nose and lips and pushed inside his mouth. He let out a ghastly yelp and caved in. It was over.

A gentle wind blew the smoke over the water. Love can never die, lingered in the ears of the stunned crowd. For a long time they stood still, watching in silence the smoldering pyre illuminate the ghat.