Monday, February 29, 2016

Funeral in Saigon

Outside my gate

I heard the funeral procession go by in the morning, just before the sun tore holes in the canopy of clouds and punctured us all with its searing gold rods of light. I didn’t know the person who died and I wasn’t supposed to. I had only moved to the neighborhood five days ago and knew not one thing beyond my four mint-colored walls. Only when the music and the voices breached my pale green box did I become aware of the outside world’s existence. 

That night there was music to signal the end of a three-day mourning period. The sounds of a brass band seeped through my thick curtains and when I went outside I found that the band was right down the alley beside my house. I  watched from a distance, standing near a graffiti-embellished tree. 

Apparently in Vietnam,  when a person dies a band of musicians is hired to play traditional funeral music for two days. The deceased person’s sons, daughters, and daughters-in-law  wear sheer white tunics and veils. The tunics cover the whole body, like giant bridal veils, though they reminded me more of the white burqas I saw in Pakistan. The deceased person’s other family members wear mourning turbans, which are pieces of white clothes tied around the head like a bandanna. Most people were wearing these. 

When I felt that I was lingering too long I began walking around the back alleys. I looked up at the purple Saigon sky and could make out the dim lights of Orion. So stars are visible in the city after all, I thought. The images I absorbed walking through that  alley after dark  still haunt me. Those stoic concrete walls, lit up in white light, with sky-purple draperies overheard, and the faint sound of funeral music wafting through the air, potent as a smell.  A woman eating a bowl of noodles in her kitchen, her silhouette framed by the edges of a glass-less window. Maybe these were the impressions Graham Greene had when he wrote about Saigon. Though they look different in the twenty-first century, they still exist.

- January 15, 2015

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