Watching the lines move across the monitor with baited breath, as his lungs were giving way to the ether – the breath of the soul that is breathed with every man’s last – his sons and daughter gathered around the hospital bed. Nasser was returning from Colombo. They held his hands, pinching his skin, hoping for a response. His granddaughter rubbed his feet. “Appa!”, they called out to him, only to echo within the room.
The doctor had told them it could go either way. “He could be gone soon, or recover overnight”. They had considered acquiring an oxygen concentrator to fuel his now redundant lungs. The family outside was under the impression that a recovery could be expected. But as November drew to a close, the colours began to run off the patient’s face.
Naoshaad, his only son-in-law, watched unsure if it were time to bring his hands together. His oldest son, Farooki, had the same thoughts run through his head. At this point there were no signs of consciousness, only a body holding on to existence. Nasser was on his way back to the hospital when suddenly his father drew a deep breath, the redness returning to his cherub face. A breath of relief, as heavy hearts sighed for the return of his vitals.
At 6.45, Nasser had returned. All four brothers and their one sister assembled around their father, about to be orphaned by fate and old age. His vitals began to drop again, as the mood sank into a deep melancholy. Mostly so for Malik whose face could hide no emotion. In that way he was like his mother, in perpetual consternation.
At 9.14, he breathed. A soul known to tens of thousands, across generations, breathed its cosmic breath. As the oxygen left his body, the ether entered the soul. No one heard the sound that would become his existence. A ringing, as though a horn were blown to awaken his spirit. A spirit hardened by discipline and over three decades of social service. A selfish spirit that engaged in selfless service to his people, and not his family.
To the thousands that heard the rumours, his passing had already taken place. Within hours, every bus and train coming into the eastern province were filled with relatives and well-wishers. The last day of November was declared a day of mourning. Every shop, bank and business were closed, as an entire village came to a halt in order to begin their pilgrimage to pay respect.
“Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!”, the subahu azhan rang through the streets of Sammanthurai. It was then announced that Mohammed Ali Ahamed Abdul Majeed, former Minister and Member of Parliament for thirty four years, had merged into the ether. His body was taken to the Abdul Majeed Town Hall soon after, as the thousands would make their way to see the face of their forefather. For hours on end the crowd would not for a moment thin out.
At Asar there was a congregation of nearly three thousand men at the tsunami burial ground, preparing to pray and ask dua for the sanctity of his soul. Thousands prostrated upon the ground where thousands more had been buried. The thaay and thahapan of Sammanthurai chose to rest with the lost children of his abode.
Farooki, Malik, Nasser, Lafir and even Naoshaad stood with all the closest of kin to receive salaams from everyone present. Their hands tired as their lips moved in synchronous movement with those who mourned. Women watched in the distance, often raising their own hands to wipe the stray tears that would become on their own.
On returning to Colombo, I was asked to attend a dinner at uncle Nasser’s. They spoke of my grandfather, reliving those last moments where the weight of eighty five years were held in the balance. Someone made mention of a Malayali saastra he had consulted twenty odd years ago. They spoke of a little book in which his fate was written. I inquired as to where I would find it, to be told it may still be in my grandfather’s cupboard drawers. Impatient, I pulled out every drawer, flipping through photo albums, playing cards, socks and sarongs, in search of the ola leaf.
In the moment at which my fingers made prints on the stained leaves of the ola, it occured to me that I could not read the script in which it had been written. There before me were the alien scribbles of an extra-sensory perception. Eyes closed I guided my fingers over the pages, as though it were some psychic braille. I breathed, tasting the ether, as the breath of an ancient washed over my lips.