Leeya Mehta
The Towers of Silence

High on the hill,
beneath a fern sky of speckled spores
there is a place I long to describe
in a language I do not know.

The passing of each
beloved one into the rocks and
ivory heart of the pit
in that solitary place is not a passage
we will accept for ourselves, mother, you and I.
Nor did your father, who chose that box of fire,
only fire.

But the thought that we could all
rest together in the sepia shadow of a pit
drilled into the centre of the core—
that is not an empty wish, for after all,
where will our children go to find us?
Will they have to slice through the shifting sky like
searching for me and you and your father:
ashes choking the sea?

How we thought your father’s
singed remains would be reduced
to one biscuit box, but saw instead
a suitcase of black static residue and
small pieces of bone and how you coughed—
wreaths of minute
grey dust rose through the chimney of Chandanvadi
into the soundless glare of that June day.

It is good, mother,
to have a resting place for family,
a spot to mourn the passing of the centuries and
that which we are;
to remember.

But there are places
that I long to describe
in a language I do not know.
And the Towers, by our not being in them,
that is our sacrifice.

Until the time my Spanish is not worthy of anything but mimicry, I will have to describe this place in words I can create especially for the Towers.

If you are an outsider, not one of us, you would be interested to know what happens when we die. Most of my people, if we have been blessed by our exclusive priests in our special temples, in a language, Avesta, which is dead, if we haven’t made the mistake of marrying a man who is one of you, will be prayed upon and carried up the hill on a cherished path, up two stairs or three, through a door and onto a cement bed at the edge of a precipice. The birds do their job (eating us), if there are enough of them, and our antibiotics do not make them immediately sick; and our bones are swept into the pit. The men who provide this service are poor, lower caste and dedicated, they are born to this profession—body carriers, body sweepers, maintenance engineers of the Towers of Silence.

Why Spanish? It is a knowledge that there are words that can describe this place better than the ones I already know. Silent spectacles of words that form like clouds and beat thunderous drums with brocade batons.

Shadows in a garden of ochre thread
Vitiligo branches which echo
The brown whispers of a festering pea-hen
Hay fields, grass grown yellow from the start.

The English description of this hill is so still, so deathly quiet.

Spanish would somehow make it eloquent,
the Hill that drips with human dead.
More distant than Hindi, Urdu, Gujarati, Marathi. These are too
close and yet impassive to my touch.

This is no English green, where graveyards rise, like fresh,
dew kissed soldiers in the valley of life.
No Tintern Abbey, roof collapsed,
not even a river here, blue and sweet.

This is one landscape
too burnt for English words,
there is no poetry
in the English sounds
nor richness in their beats.
Why look at this that escapes onto the page—
           there is a place high on a hill, surrounded by a malignancy of skyscrapers.
No rhythm there.
So there must be some other tongue to say—
this is a place I long to describe
in a language I do not know.

Note: Dakhmeh, or the Towers of Silence, are the traditional burial structures of the Zoroastrian people who are originally from Persia, or present day Iran. The Parsees came to India as refugees hundreds of years ago and continue these burial traditions even today. A few families choose not to follow this tradition, and incinerate their dead in an electric crematorium or Chandanvadi.