I awoke from deep sleep and glanced at the huge trees, the thick green canopy, that towered over me. As I struggled to my feet, my head reeled. Where on earth was I? Where were the others who had accompanied me into the Amazon Rain Forest, adventurers who had set out to seek their fortunes? I concealed a groan as I touched my head gingerly. My fingers came away, caked with blood. Obviously, I was the only survivor of a gang of about eight, and I had no idea where I was.
As I pulled myself along, holding on to the thick tree trunks for support, I heard a rustling behind me. I froze. Was that a wild animal behind the bushes waiting to leap out or a venomous reptile that would sling itself across my shoulder? Trembling, I held my breath as I peered into the undergrowth, my heart in my mouth.
Pairs of eyes glinted in the dark, staring back at me. Slowly, they emerged, three men with bare torsos, jute attire and black markings on their faces. We stared at one another as they pointed their spears at me.
I fell on my knees, terrified as I brought my palms together.
“Please don’t hurt me. I am David. American. I was in an accident.”
They gazed at me, eyes expressionless. The tallest one came closer. He touched my blue shirt, covered with dirt, his eyes wondering. The others looked on as he fingered the buttons that ran down my shirt.
Prodding me with his spear, he nudged me forward onto the tiny path that led into the forest. Obviously, they were in a hurry to take me somewhere. I prayed, hoping they were not going to hurt me. My threshold for pain had never been high.
We walked for about an hour. Suddenly, the trees gave way, revealing a clearing that had a large circle of huts. A whole tribe appeared to be sitting outside, occupied in various tasks. As we drew nearer, they stopped and stared, their eyes beady. Both the men and women were bare torso-ed. The women had strands of vibrant beads in various sizes that covered their chests. Some of them had longish strips of cloth tied across their bodies on which babies dangled.
As I stumbled, the women tittered. It was clear they had never seen anyone like me, in shirt and trousers. The men spoke in an unfamiliar dialect and some of the women rose and walked into their huts. They moved with an unconscious grace with not an iota of self-consciousness despite their skimpy clothing.
One woman came out with a gourd filled with cool water. I took it gratefully and drank the whole thing. It was then that I noticed a shallow pit behind one of the huts. As I watched, I could see some men working at it, using shovels to lift up the ashes still smouldering in it. By this time, I was exhausted, and I found my eyes closing.
When I awoke again, it was almost dusk. I had slept the afternoon away. As I watched, I saw some of the men lifting what appeared to be a body covered with a white sheet. Obviously, someone had died. They placed him on the same pit and set about cremating the body. The sparks flew about as the fire caught, turning into a blaze in no time. The fire crackled, hypnotic in its intensity.
Not having eaten anything, my stomach rumbled. By now, I could see gourds filled with some liquid in the men’s hands. They gulped it down greedily, waiting for the women to fill it up again. One of the women saw me staring at the gourd. She filled one up and brought it to me. She gestured to me.
It was a kind of soup, with oil floating on top. It tasted of fermented bananas, and left an aftertaste both sweet and salty. It had some grey residue that I could not figure out. However, I was so hungry that I finished it in almost one large swig. As the woman looked at me, I pointed to the soup and gestured. What was it made of? She pointed to a grove of plantain trees that grew beyond the huts and nodded. Plantain soup! I had never had that in my life, but hunger makes one do strange things.
A man brought a jute mat which he placed next to me.
“Sleep!” he gestured. I lay down on it as the stars shone overhead. As I was about to doze off, I saw the men going to the pit which had reduced to a smouldering heap, the body having turned to ashes. I watched, half asleep, when something caught my attention. The men were scraping the ashes out with shovels and filling a large vessel with it. They took the vessel towards the women. The next moment, I was up, wild and staring. I could not believe my eyes.
The women had placed several gourds in a row and the men were scooping the ashes into them. Another woman poured the plantain soup into the gourds, handing them to the others to drink.
I got up and retched, my innards aching with the effort. Had I just savoured a gourd full of human ashes in the form of soup? I retched and retched till I collapsed from sheer exhaustion.
Years later, I knew the truth about the Yanomami tribe that lived in the Amazon Forest and their funeral rituals. When a person passed away, they would cover his body in leaves for around a month. After that period, they would sing and dance, while collecting the bones for cremation.
Consuming a dead person’s ashes kept his spirit alive forever. The spirit could not rest in peace in the spirit world till the soup with their ashes had been consumed.
As for me, I could never rest in peace after that!
Postscript: The Yanomami Tribe practise endocannibalism in which they consume the bones of deceased relatives. The body is wrapped in leaves for about 30 to 35 days, during which insects eat away the soft tissue. Then the bones are collected and cremated. Finally, they are mixed with plantain soup and eaten by the entire community. This tradition is believed to strengthen the Yanomami community and keep the spirit of the departed person alive.
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