When I Had Lunch At A Buddhist Funeral Confusing It For A Restaurant.
More than the monuments or the weather, it is the nature of the people that define a place for most. A few months ago I was volunteering at a small school in a village named Tikjuk in West Sikkim.
I had just started embracing the rustic life in the mountains and had a lovable bonding going with the locals. Surrounded by a set of spiritual people in that area I was getting to know a lot about the Buddhist way of life. The principles of Karma (actions) and Vipaka (fruit or result as its reaction) were so deeply embedded in their nature that a city dweller like me naturally developed a liking towards them. You get every kind of people everywhere, but it is this cultural setting of a given place that gives you a collective positive feeling about its dwellers. Probably that is why we have so many contrasting opinions about the people of Delhi or Mumbai, but only one thing to say about the people of Sikkim, they are not just beautiful but also beautiful being people.
This belief in the connection between a spiritual culture and its people was strengthened with an unforgettably embarrassing situation I found myself in. I had missed breakfast that day and I was very hungry. As soon as the school bell rang for the lunch break, I ended the class and ran downhill to the only canteen in the village for the elusive roti-sabzi fare. Only to find it closed with the cook’s father-in-law sitting in front of its closed-door, musing in the silence of the afternoon.
“Didi went to her daughter’s school in the neighbouring village sirji. She made me some Thupka and left!” Informed Didi’s father-in-law whose retirement plan involved spending the entire day contemplating his life and talking to passersby.
“Arey sirji, is there any other eatery in the village by any chance?” I asked.
“Go to upper Tikjuk, we have two beer shops and there’s an eatery adjacent to them. Don’t take the long road, take the shortcut from behind the school.”
A small village with no doctor or an ATM has two beer shops. One of those several amusing characteristics of the mountain life.
I thanked the old man and hit the shortcut that seemed to have taken shape by cattle exodus. Surprisingly, I reached the backside of row houses in the upper village in no time. Walking through the houses backyards looking for an opening to the main road to my right, I spotted a marquee under which several people were having lunch. (Eureka!) This pandal was in an open space in front of a multi-storied house-like structure that had a kitchen set up in its hall. I went inside and saw more people having lunch on separate chairs. It didn’t look like a usual eatery or a restaurant but more like a sophisticated, hygienic version of the Bandi eateries, we have in Hyderabad.
As I gazed through the rooms cluelessly trying to see if there was any waiter or someplace to sit and order, someone asked me from behind, “What do you want?” Without even looking at the voice that spoke to me, I said, “Well, food.” The man very politely pointed me at the hall in the centre and told, “Yes food, it’s here, lots of it.” And there it was. A buffet. It looked delicious and healthy. My mind was already racing with the thoughts that even though this place might be a little more expensive than the canteen I will come here at least twice every week for this sumptuous food.
Every lady behind the table offered and served me the noodles, rice, butter, salad, daal, a couple of sabzi with a smile and care that one might show to her own child. As I turned to look for a chair to sit and eat, I saw the girl behind me in the queue giving me a suspicious look. I thought it must have been because they were not used to seeing outsiders very often and didn’t smell anything unusual but only the spicy aromas filling that room.
I sat on a chair beside the porch and soon after another person joined me taking the chair in front of a window that opened to the pandal laden front yard. At this point, the man who had asked me about what I wanted was preparing some paneer kadhai and asked if I would like to have it. I again thought it might cost me more, but I was seeing paneer after a long time and accepted the offerings gleefully. He poured the entire dish he prepared in my plate and smiled. It was delicious. I couldn’t help but ask the person sitting beside me, “What is this place exactly? Is it a canteen, hotel, restaurant or some lodge? There’s no name outside. Amazing food man.”
The man stopped chewing as if soaking what he heard and looked in the window where another person was standing. I heard him muttering something about me to this guy in the window, but the food had kept me so engrossed that I wasn’t even waiting for his reply. I noticed the girl who looked at me suspiciously was looking at me awestruck and so was the woman sitting beside her. Soon my question had travelled across the room to the people preparing the food I was eating. The kind gentleman who offered me paneer looked at me and in a very stoic tone said, “ This is not a hotel… my grandmother died yesterday, it is her funerals lunch day.”
My brain hanged in that, ‘Oh’, and couldn’t process the exact reaction to eating at a funeral thinking it was a restaurant. Sometimes working on a creative project on your computer it tends to hang due to an overload of commands from the user. I was embarrassed, awkwardly and with a choked throat denying to swallow another morsel. I couldn’t figure if I should walk off profusely apologizing or apologize, eat and then leave or what.
Suddenly there was a fit of laughter from the girl and a few others in the room. That sound of laughter and the smiling faces brought me back into the present to don a smile on my face as well. Situations are never as bad or as good as we think after all. “I am sorry, I don’t want to waste the food so I’ll just finish this quickly.” More than anybody else that was a self-consolation. Sensing my discomfort, the man whose granny’s funeral it was came to me and told me to not worry about it, and asked if I would like to have some chai with it. I saw another hand offering me water. One big advantage of awkward situations is that it helps break the ice. I explained I was new to the village and volunteering as a teacher at the local school while apologizing for my ignorance. As one would expect, the family did not mind it but in fact, thanked me to have joined them even though by mistake.
I went straight down to the old man to share the incidence. “Laa!” He laughed at my plight before telling me how it was considered a good sign if a stranger graces the funeral lunch. He told me the rituals after death was more expensive than marriages in Buddhism in this part of the world. For in Buddhism it is believed that existence is suffering. And it is experienced the most when one’s soul leaves the body. Hence, the after death rituals are conducted in such a manner that the soul that is leaving the body to take a re-birth (Buddhism has a strong belief in re-birth) is kept in a positive environment. It is to add to the person’s good karma that food is offered to people. A life lived in good karma will take a rebirth in a noble family and one that has bad karma attached to it might take a rebirth in the most undesirable forms of nature.
It was surreal to hear these spiritual implications of a ceremony that I became a part of unknowingly. There are many things in the universe that are beyond human rationale. What looks like a night to the human eye looks like a day to the owl and vice versa. Keeping an open mind to the old man talking about the soul, karma and re-birth made me realise how lucky we are as humans to even come close to a realization of spirituality where we can infer the meaning of the universe beyond objectivity. Probably the only factor that differentiates us from other animals.
This is one the many journal entries in my physical diary and I’m putting it up online for the very first time. A small step to letting my thoughts reach more people. If you like it, your claps will give me the much needed encouragement to bring more stories out. Thank you for reading!