A while ago I inherited an enormous box of letters that my wife’s grandfather wrote to her grandmother while he was away during WW2 in India. Here is one of those letters. This one is slightly graphic so I will put it under the fold. All grammar and spelling is left as it was in the letter.
Calcutta, India, 15 April 1945
Tour In Calcutta
I’m making a copy of this for Mom and one for “G” so I won’t have to write twice. I hope it’s alright with you. It was two oclock this afternoon when we finally got aboard the truck to go on tour. We were to go to three places but I shall tell you of only one of the places we went. Well it might have been interesting to some people but not to me. It was a palace. Now a palace is suppose to be very big and expensive, well this one wasn’t. It was a two story building with a large collection of junk in it. Mostly statues and pictures.
In order for you to understand the next place I’m going to tell you about you will have to know a little about the religion of the Hindus. They believe in God just as we do, no I take that back, Jesus is not in their religion but they do have a God, a Heaven and a Hell. Now when a Hindu dies they all seem to suppose that he (or she) will go Up. It seems that the trip is long and therefore they give the dead body food just before he is sent on his way. He leaves this earth by the medium of burning him up, which releases his soul or by throwing him into a holy river (all most all the rivers in India are considered Holy) which has the same effect.
The truck pulled up along side of a high wall, already we could smell the odor of burning flesh, which is very sickening. I went in through a doorway and found myself inside of a large courtyard. There in front of me and a little to my right was a large pile of burning wood and right in the middle of it was a partly consumed body of a man, at this point I was tempted to walk out but my curiosity got the better of me so I stayed. A dead and very stiff Indian had just been brought in and the ritual of feeding him for his coming journey was about to start. A plate with food on it was near his head which had been uncovered by now and was not too pleasant to look upon. His mouth was partly open as were his eyes. I’d say he’d been dead for a day or so. There were no signs of decomposition except in his eyes which were a ghastly blue in color with no pupil in evidence. I was not more than four feet from his head and could watch the proceedings which has just begun. Into his mouth they poured some kind of powdered grain and also some water from the Holy river nearby, the water was sprinkled on his head and over the shroud which covered all but the head. Into his right hand a banana was placed and into the left some more grain. Rice was sprinkled onto his face and hair with alternate sprinkling of the Holy water not unlike a Christian baptism. The feeding over with he was placed upon a pile of dry logs and twigs which had been placed there while the feeding was going on. One man carried the legs, the other held him in the back of the head, the body being so stiff so as not to bend when the picked him up and placed him on the ghats. After they got him on top of it, they piled more logs over him, almost obscuring my view of the body.
Shall I go on or am I boring you? A torch was then applied to the bottom of the pile. Once the heat started affecting the body it was hard to keep from believing that the body was actually dead. It writhed and squirmed almost as if in mortal anguish. It takes three or four hours for the fire to completely consume the body but since there were several of them burning I saw the process in its various stages, none of them being pleasant.
All the while that this was going on I saw no-one mourning for the deceased.
There was one body there that seemed to have been dead longer than the rest and it gave the place a peculiar odor. After the fire gets through with its work there are only a few small pieces of bone left and if there is any meat left over the buzzards (of which India has plenty) eat it. The ground is covered with the ashes of thousands of cremated Hindus and lays there as a fine white dust. The atmosphere is not at all like one finds in the Crematories in the States. But rather like a disposal plant for refuse. At least that is the way the place struck me.
I left just as they were putting the torch to another body. I hope this has proved interesting to you. I wouldn’t have missed the trip for anything but you’ll never find me going to the Burning Ghats again. I’ll have enough trouble keeping from having nightmares about this tour.
It’s late and I’m tired but I wanted to get this off tonight yet. I missed you as usual. Goodnight for now. I love you dearest, your “C”.
4 thoughts on “Random Letter From Treasure Trove”
Wow … that must have been an eyeopener for an innocent lad from Madison!
He was from Chicago. Still…
I saw a series of photographs taken by an Indian man revealing one aspect of “burial” practices in India. Those corpses that are placed into rivers often wash up on shore, where feral dogs eat them. The scenes are not for the fainthearted. I imagine burial by cremation would be chosen by the majority if the families can afford it.
My father was stationed in WW2 in Assam, which is in NE India. He was a weatherman for the planes that flew supplies over the Hump, a.k.a. the Himalayas, to China. India- warts and all- fascinated him. We saw his India slides many, many times. I recall one of the “biggest tree in the world,” a banyan tree with many roots and branches. My father counted himself fortunate to have gone to India twice after his time in the Army. On one trip back he snapped a photo of Indira Gandhi.
I do not recall hearing anything about funeral practices from my father.
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