If you’ve been to a Hindu funeral, you won’t forget the burning.
The ceremony is its own dread ritual, but when it comes to the commitment of that body to the fire, you will remember it. You will see the smoke rising from the body you once knew when its muscles were working and its heart was pumping, when it issued curses and sighs and farts and hunger growls. You will take the ashes of that body into your body; you will feel the heat even if you are feet away from the pyre. You will go home with the trace elements of that body that once fed and dressed and sheltered you, under your tongue and fingernails, in the roots of your hair, in the backs of your eyes.
I attended a Hindu burning when I was nine, long before I read “The Saddhu of Couva”, which you can read here at PoemHunter. Every time I turn to this poem, I cannot do so without the scent, the heat, the nearness of that first burning.
What is ready for the pyre in “The Saddhu of Couva” has long been cremated. The speaker, who looks out onto the canefields, sees rows of tradition razed before him. He longs to depart a life long made untenable for him by the advent of electric light. His faith in his gods is undiminished, but he fears the conduit has been cut – that labourers and hunters are slicing and caging the deities who were once bundled in white muslin, indentured from India’s belly. The world has wrought a great weariness in our saddhu; he senses his reincarnation might be upon him, imagines at every moment how effortless it might be to take flight.
Gaiutra Bahadur, author of the groundbreaking, kala pani traversing Coolie Woman (University of Chicago Press, 2013) reports the significance of this day in history on her blog: “… one hundred years ago, the system of semi-forced labor that scattered 1.2 million Indians to plantation colonies across the globe was suspended.” It is a good day to think of the list of indentures my ancestors wore in their lives, about the stories we have from workers, the stories that will never be accessible. The saddhu of Walcott’s poem would have known dark water. For him, Couva wasn’t a travesty once the fields could still ring out in the praise songs of Bengal, once “behind Ramlochan Repairs there was Uttar Pradesh”.
Without that – with the holy hosts consigned to monkey cage and subject to snake cutlass – well, what’s a poor saddhu to do? Better to perch on the lip of a dying cane field in dry season, spread your wings and ascend, sloughing off the tedium of any human body’s station, be he labourer, lover or wise man.
I confess my own doubts over Walcott’s saddhu. I have known Hindu holy men in Trinidad, and very little would prompt me to sit at their feet. I’ve learned never to trust a self-appointed elder, but I don’t need to trust him to taste the burnt ash of his misery, or to feel the itch in his fingers that long to sprout into a wingspan. I need put no faith in him as a narrative instrument to touch the shape of his disenchantment with the island spinning itself into a new monster under his bare feet.
I think of the transformation within “The Saddhu of Couva” as less of a sea change, and more of a cane comeuppance. The speaker knows all too well that cane is a cruel revelation, that his own “old age is a conflagration / as fierce as the cane fires of crop time.” His life has been steeped in either too many words, as those he uttered on the Couva Village Council, as those offered from the pulpits of an ineffective government — or else too quiet, his voice drowned in loudspeaker din.
A product of his time who has also succumbed to the ruination of it, I still reach for Walcott’s saddhu because he understands the importance of folding neatly the self you never quite were, packing it in with the cost of so many other indentures, and raising high your moulting wings.