pulled tightly around him as much for the brisk morning air as for the chill of anguish, his knees bent under the weight of his burden.
Baba Singh had watched his father leave town, unable to follow.
Lal returned the next morning with family. Aunts, uncles, and cousins made the pilgrimage from Harpind to Amarpur, holding aloft the two bodies, now cleansed and purified, arranged on a pyre. In a procession down Suraj Road, wearing the white color of mourning, Lal somberly led the way to the hotel. They set Harpreet and the baby down in the lobby to pray over them. They spread out on the floor like newborn puppies, wailing, blinded by heartache, snuggling against one another for comfort.
When the priests arrived for the prayer, Lal had refused to allow them into the hotel as would have been customary, forcing everyone to seek solace from God in the temple. “God cannot enter here,” he told the priests. “Take Him elsewhere.” And when the family left for the gurdwara, Lal did not go with them.
The entryway of Amarpur’s gurdwara was littered with chappals and shoes. Baba Singh hesitated, not wanting to enter. He looked up at the building, at the small golden dome above the door, a Sikh flag draped beneath on which was printed the image of a circular disc and two swords crossed beneath, like Yashji’s swords. Finally, about to kick off his own sandals, he was stopped by two of his cousins who had come from Harpind.
“Do not go in there,” one of them said. “Come with us.” It was Ishwar, faithful and always serious. He was Baba Singh’s age, but he looked older now.
“Just come,” said the other, Tejinder with the missing front tooth. He looked different, too.
Baba Singh followed them around the side of the building toward the back where Ranjit was already waiting for them. The muffled sound of prayer came from inside as the priest read from the holy book. They could hear people crying.
“What are we doing here?” Baba Singh asked.
“Ask them,” Ranjit said.
Ishwar shrugged. “Too much crying inside, don’t you think so? It is better here.” He suddenly grinned. “We have not seen you both in ages. I was just thinking, do you remember when Tejinder fell after running from that ghost in the cotton field.”
“Oi!” Tejinder pointed at Baba Singh, pressing his tongue through the gap in his teeth. “You were the one making those noises.”
Ranjit smiled. “You should have seen how scared you were.”
Baba Singh also smiled. “Bebeji was so mad when she found out. Apparently, Sharan Uncle heard me, too, and ran off for a day thinking he was cursed.”
“Bebe was only pretending anger,” Ranjit said. “She was trying not to laugh.”
“Your mother was good that way,” Ishwar replied, leaving them all silent.
The last time Baba Singh saw his mother, Lal was pushing her pyre into the Ravi River. She was a white, undulating sheet of curves, angles, and shadows, the shape of a baby at her breast. And then his father set fire to her with a torch, and she was consumed by flames. Baba Singh watched her speed away with the current, dusk changing the light into tongued streaks of pink and orange.
In the silence at the hotel, after their family had returned to Harpind, the smell of death crept under the door from the room where Harpreet died. In the confusion and grief, no one had gone to clear it out and wash it down. Lal now ignored it. He took his opium pipe and retreated to his own room, the one he had once shared with his wife. The children were made queasy by the odor and looked desperately to Ranjit. Baba Singh would never know how his brother was able to do it, how he gathered the sheets in a single sweep of his arms, how he bunched up the white material caked with blood and rushed them outside to bury next to the dead dog.
The smell also permeated the porous wood of the furniture, so Ranjit flipped the two charpoys on their sides and dragged them down the