How to Attend an Indian Funeral by Allison Williams

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

bal thackerary funeral procession

1) Dress appropriately,((1)) in Indian clothing if possible. This will be taken as a sign of respect.

2) In your daypack, carry a water bottle and sunscreen;((2)) Hindu rites can be long, and you may be standing in the sun for an extended time.

3) Wear comfortable shoes, too!((3))

4) Find a safe place to stand.((4)) Be aware of people around you.((5))

5) Observe local customs.((6))

6) Attempting to speak the local language can go a long way. Even a few key phrases will help you fit in.


इसेरोकनेके, मैंकमबख्तइतनीमेहनतसेआपचुटकीजाएगा

“Ruk SAA-le VAR-na mai IT-ni jor se CHIK-o-ti ka-TUN-gi tuj-HE”((7))



“AH-be ME-re PI-che jo bhi hath DI-a, HA-ta le JAL-di SE”((8))

7) When in doubt, take your cue from the actions of those around you.((9))


[1] The color of mourning is white. Not knowing you were going to a funeral, your violet Punjabi dress will have to do.
[2] Slip the baggie of your father’s ashes in your pocket. You promised him far places. Perhaps his grey, gritty, posthumous self will be less racist.
[3] In Mumbai there are 58,000 taxis, 71,550 buses and 246,458 auto-rickshaws. When the city reverently declares a bandh, or has that total shut-down imposed upon them by stick-wielding young men in shirts of Shiv Sena orange, none of them will run. Take a train to Dadar, then walk the eerie streets emptied of traffic, every shop’s steel door rolled down, every post and tree fluttering with orange bunting and Indian flags.
[4] The crowd of eleven lakh people (just over or under a million, depending on the political affiliation of those counting), will fill the seven-street intersection of Gadkari Chowk, every building and every tree decked with men and the biggest building decked with a five-story photo of Bal Thackeray. At this point, you will realize you are the only woman here alone, and the only white person. This is not a good time to refer to Thackeray as “the Hitler of India,” mention suicide bombers, or bring up the 1992 riots that killed Dev Patel’s mother in Slumdog Millionaire.
The men will push you forward and press against you in a way you are not quite sure is sexual harassment. If you wave your little green digital camera, it will be assumed you are a journalist. The police will beckon you through the human chain making an aisle through the crowd, allowing you to join the free-roaming reporters. Watch where their cameras point, and point your camera, too.
[5] Your father’s voice in your head says, “You look like a marshmallow in a bag of raisins.” Now, you are ashamed to think his thought, but grateful to hear his voice.
[6] The funeral truck, decked in flowers like a Rose Bowl float, will be pulled toward you by mourners hauling ropes tied to the bumper. When the crowd surges into the wake of the truck, flow with them. Ignore the grabbing hands reaching for your flesh in the folds of your salwar khameez. At least they aren’t treating you like a tourist.
When the truck reaches Shivaji Park and the body is unloaded, the crowd will surge again. You must stay upright. If you fall, you will be trampled. If you pass a policeman and are yanked back, do not panic. Politely unhitch the strap of your bag from his gun and step again into the mosh pit of sadness. You must stay upright. Your look of distress will be recognized by a man on the truck in mourning white. You will recognize him from the front page. When he jumps down gallantly to shield you with his body from the crowd, he will rub his dick on you with great vigor. Shame him.
[7]“Stop it, I will fucking pinch you so hard.”
[8] “Whoever this is, stop touching my ass.”
[9] Your whiteness will ease your path into the park. A wreath from the pile provided for mourners will ease your path toward the stage. And when you pause at the foot of the stairs, uncertain, Sonia Gandhi will turn to you with solemn eyes and reach back her hand.
Your host will receive a phone call from London. “Is your lodger a white lady in a violet Punjabi dress? She is even now on the television, touching the feet of Bal Thackeray.”
You will cross the stage like a dream, the sea of faces, the sea of orange, the flutter of flags replaced by the licking of flames. A son will walk around the pyre, a son who was on time for his father’s death, held his father’s hand at the bedside, lit his father’s fire.
You will wish you, too, had the power to stop a city, to cover it with streamers, to say, My father is dead. Mourn with me.
You will sit cross-legged on the grass, among the white sarees of the women’s section, and imagine that you are all mourning together, that Mumbai is mourning your father as well as their own.


allison williams in front of bookshelfAllison Williams has written about race, culture and comedy for NPR, CBC, The Christian Science Monitor and the New York Times. Her fiction has appeared in Crossed Genres, Smokelong Quarterly and Deep South; essays in The Drum and Brevity.

Allison freelances as The Unkind Editor and blogs at I Do Words. Find her on Twitter @GuerillaMemoir.

Home base is currently Dubai, where “The Pork Shop” is a separate, dimly lit room at the back of the supermarket. It’s like buying meat porn. (Author photo credit: Miko)


IMAGE: NewsWala



  44 comments for “How to Attend an Indian Funeral by Allison Williams

  1. Blown away by the creative form you used to tell the story, the way you used form. I agree with Lisie…the reversal of expectations really caught me. Love it.

  2. This is wonderful. Nicely written and peppered with the right amounts of subtle, tongue-in-cheek digs at the powers that be in Mumbai.

  3. Just gorgeous. I’ve missed reading your words and the beautiful talent you have of mixing detail with something much, much bigger and more universal.
    Thank you for sharing this with me 🙂

    Steph M. (Army of darkness member circa 2011)

    • And I am truly sorry about your father. What a beautiful way you put it; that you wished all of India was mourning with you. I’ve felt like that myself, once or twice, but never quite managed to make my point as succinctly. I think it’s because grief can be such a lonely thing and the person we lost in our eyes deserves the same treatment as the famous dead. It’s the whole, “stop all the clocks” phenomena which we all go through. Thank you again for sharing this.

      • Thanks Stephanie – I love the ‘stop all the clocks’ comparison – it’s such an incredible thing to see a whole city mourning for one guy, and to have that feeling of ‘wait, what about me?’

  4. Poignant and beautiful, and funny in the best, most irreverent ways. Allison, you got me at the end. We mourn our fathers. We mourn our own lateness, arriving after that most crucial moment.

  5. I love that you brought us right along with you. You showed us not only the events taking place physically, but the journey inside as well. Thank you for sharing so much of yourself, so authentic and beautiful.

    • Thank you! It was a very intense experience, I almost need to corral it in the footnotes to make it work on paper 🙂

  6. Written so authentically. After being in Bangalore for a semester, it felt like I had gone back-so real. And naturally, very skillfully written.

  7. “Perhaps his grey, gritty, posthumous self will be less racist.” Allison, this is such a kaleidoscopic blend of beauty, humor, pathos, love — you show us your father and yourself and this aspect of India with a deft handle on all the angles, both right there and watching from high above — well done.

    • Thank you so much – it’s funny how sometimes my dad’s worst qualities are what I remember the most, but they definitely helped make both him and me who we are…

  8. I enjoyed how you included your little side notes that you do all the time; “Ignore the grabbing hands reaching for your flesh in the folds of your salwar khameez. *At least they aren’t treating you like a tourist* .” It provides a well needed bit of comic relief. I love this piece and I learned so much about Indian customs. I would have never guessed that there funerals would be so different from ours. Congratulations on such a wonderful work of art!

    • Thanks, Shelby! It was a full-on experience that I’m glad I got to have, and definitely made me want to learn more about what a “normal” Indian funeral would be like.

  9. Such a beautiful way to write this story – I don’t usually like footnotes, but here, they add layers of meaning, holding the heart of the piece at a physical and emotional remove; not to choke the emotion off, but to hold it near, away from the crowd. Absolutely beautiful – masterful.

    • Thanks, Judy – it’s the first time I’ve played with that form, and I’m glad it’s working the way I hoped!

  10. I was pretty sure this was going to be an all-in-all humor piece but the grief at the end bowled me over with a punch in the gut.

    • Dola, thank you – I love twisting comedy and tragedy and I’m glad this one worked for you. (sorry about the punch)

  11. As someone originally from that country, I can safely vouch for your pretty good description of a typical funeral procession. Even (7) and (8). You reminded me of those catchy swear words I had forgotten, Allison!!

  12. When you say – You will wish you, too, had the power to stop a city, to cover it with streamers, to say, My father is dead. Mourn with me – I know exactly what you mean. Beautiful.

    • Rasana, thank you – I am so glad that part resonated for you. In a way, I was thinking of the girls who were arrested for posting on Facebook, but in reverse – not so much why should we shut down for one man, but why shouldn’t we shut down for all of our fathers.

  13. You have a great way of making me feel as if I’m right beside you, seeing exactly what you are seeing, feeling exactly what you are feeling when I read your pieces.

    • Thanks – I really appreciate that! It was a full-on experience, so I’m glad that comes through.

  14. “You will wish you, too, had the power to stop a city, to cover it with streamers, to say, My father is dead. Mourn with me.” Gorgeous.

Share a Comment