Terang bulan menggali ubi,
Ubi digali berkarung-karung;
Tuan di awan saya di bumi,
Berkirim surat di mulut burung.
Under the full moon we dig for tubers,
We dig enough to fill many sacks;
You are in the sky and I am on earth,
Our letters will be carried in the beaks of birds.
Death, A Crow
A crow swoops in, picks at my lunch plate then sits on the rafters and eyes me.
I imagine bugs and dung with crow breath, deliberate on whether to bin my food, or offer it whole to the crow, like we did, when my father-in-law passed away. The rituals in Malaysia are diasporic, any change measured as loss, guarded fiercely by matriarchs unlettered in the Vedas they staunchly defend. It was an excess of offerings, of dishes loved by the deceased, Chinese Man Fun from Fusion, Fish and Chips from The Ship, Red Wine and Om Tanni; nothing loved in life left out in death. Women woke at four to cook over hot stoves producing kochur saag, koi maacher jhal, labra, mushuri dal, mutton, fried fish of four kinds, shops were scoured from Brickfields to Taman Tun for the vines of the pumpkin. Still the widow insisted on more, yet another dish to be fried and curried, any feast too meager to satiate the loss of a companion of sixty years.
If a crow feeds on the food it is the return of the soul, don’t look back at the riverbank, let the departed feast once more on earthly morsels, in any form.
Mourners returned to food piled on trestle tables, ate under the weight of a gourmand no longer there; so much food destined for waste, as much of life is, bones and flesh to river silt.
I, the rebel, wanted no part of this, no ritualism made possible by the labor of tired women to feed mere animals. I had work to do.
But now, many days after my father-in-law’s ashes are immersed in Benares, countries away from where he took a last breath, a crow sits silently tasting my food, daring me to eat. And I eat it all, every last morsel, going back for seconds; this delicious meal of dal with sajna, potato-peas with rice, which Daddy would have relished. I do not offer the crow my tasted food but he watches while I eat: then flies up, and away, on the applause of wings.
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Dipika Mukherjee is a writer and sociolinguist. Her debut novel, Thunder Demons (Gyaana 2011), was long-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize. She also won the Platform Flash Fiction competition in April 2009. She has edited two anthologies of Southeast Asian short stories: Silverfish New Writing 6 (2006) and The Merlion and Hibiscus (2002) and her first poetry chapbook, The Palimpsest of Exile, was published by Rubicon Press in 2009. Her short stories and poems have appeared in publications around the world and have been widely anthologized. She is a contributing editor to Jaggery (a South Asian Diasporic arts and literature Journal) and curates an Asian/American Reading Series for the Literary Guild, Chicago.