Saturday, March 3, 2012
It is the night of vigil. Long, unending and burdensome. Four of us have decided to take turns and sit up, watching over him. An earthen lamp lies towards his head, burning. Every half an hour or so, ghee will have to be poured into it, and its wick trimmed, to keep the flame alive. And every few hours, the ice slabs will have to be changed to prevent the body from putrefying. The days’ events have left everyone spinning around, circles of grief and exhaustion widening. Fighting rather hard to keep my eyes wide open, I’m wondering what it is that is being protected now. Only a few months ago, when I visited him the last time, I had found him particularly sullen and withdrawn. ‘Of late, he has become a little incommunicative,’ is how mother had put it, cryptically. Late into the night, he would sit up, poring over the account books, making calculations that none of us could ever figure out. During the day, he would simply make himself scarce, returning home only late in the evenings. Then too, rather than join the rest of us, he would prefer to park his cane-chair out in the garden in front of the house, and sit there for hours on end, his head buried among his hands. Very rarely would he lift his head up, and when he did, his eyes would shut involuntarily as head rolled over the back of his chair, reclining. Often, sitting in this posture, he used to stare vacantly at the summer sky, perhaps watching it change colours from orange to crimson to deep red, purple and then inky blue. Such were the moments when he didn’t want anyone, not even his granddaughters whom he loved to distraction, to disturb him. One day, finding him sitting in the garden by himself, I had walked across to him and said, “Something seems to be playing on your mind. Why don’t you share it? For all you know, it just might help.” He had looked at me as if I was a rank stranger, doubt and suspicion lurking in his eyes. And then, after what appeared to be a great effort, he spoke haltingly, “This is something you won’t understand...There comes a stage in life, when you have nothing to do…nothing to look back...or forward to....And that’s when you become what I have…a watchman.” Despite the evening shadows thickening around him, I had been able to detect a sudden flash of light in his weary eyes. Years ago, when Hemant was still a college student, he had made it a habit of returning home late. Every day, it was a new excuse, either an outing with the friends or an extra class or tuition or a game of tennis. Hemant had always been the most outgoing among us all. He spent as little time at home as he could. And when he didn’t have any genuine reason to be away from home, he often found reasons or rather manufactured them. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that he had had a particularly troubled childhood. He was born at a time when the family was recovering from the sudden death of one of the young sons in a tragic road accident. Rather than hail his birth as a return of the lost member, something, which, too, could have been done, everyone had begun to believe, for whatever reasons, that his was an inauspicious arrival. Whether or not there was any real basis for such a prejudice, Hemant had definitely grown up under the shadow of being ‘the accursed one,’ a sobriquet he had earned much before he was given a proper name. As a child, he used to be extremely violent, so much so, that the moment he was denied anything he demanded, he would start banging the doors. Once in school, he had lifted a stool to hit his class teacher who had pulled him up for wearing chappals and not his regular school shoes. And now in college, he had found other, more subtle ways of retaliation, returning home late being the most conspicuous of them all. It had become almost a daily affair. In winters, it used to be dark by eight in the evening. Everyday, around this time, father would position himself in the window, waiting for Hemant to return. Silhouetted against the dim light of the room, he would stand for hours together, his eyes searching desperately through the darkness. With the clock ticking away silently, he would start pacing up and down the room, occasionally peering out of the window. Once, while he waited, his anxiety mounting to a pitch, a police jeep had pulled outside the main gate. Two policemen got off the jeep and came towards the house, walking up the stairs. They hadn’t even laid their fingers upon the bell when he threw the door open. After making a few preliminary enquiries, they had told him how Hemant had been arrested on the charge of eve-teasing. Hemant had spent the night in the lock-up, and father had stayed wide-awake, worrying over his fate.
The thick ice slabs are beginning to melt, running into little rivulets across the floor. As the cold water hits against the skin of my soles, I’m startled. With ghee already dried up, the wick has burnt itself out, and is now giving off a foul smell. While pouring ghee in the earthen lamp, I look around, guiltily, wondering if anyone has seen the extinguishing of the lamp.
An oval-shaped lake lay at the bottom, with a thick, wooded forest surrounding it. Guarding the expanse of water stood tall tress of deodar and pine, lining up the hills receding from the view, ablaze in the summer sun. Only the tip of the frozen peaks was visible, peering from somewhere close to the sky. Sitting on the edge of the lake, I was casting pebbles into water, watching the ripples break into ever widening circles, dissolving into nothingness. Today, again, the postman had come and gone, without bringing us the money order we had long been waiting for. Only last night, the hotel manager had sent a word across that if we wanted to prolong our stay, we must deposit some more money as an advance. All our efforts to contact father on the phone had proved to be abortive. Each time, we called him up, it so happened that he wasn’t home. It was intriguing, this silence on his part, for he usually did make an effort to get in touch, every second day or so. But now for the past ten days, there had been no news from him. We had begun to worry, not so much for him as ourselves. The money was running out fast. And we were stranded here in this strange place, unable to pay the bills. Mother’s condition had only made the matters a shade worse. Of late, she had been complaining of acute acidity, which often brought on, rather unexpectedly, these sudden attacks of asthma, too. Unconcerned, Hemant would go off with his friends, either for a game of billiards or horse riding, leaving Anurag and me to manage the situation. The local doctor hadn’t been able to figure out what really was wrong with her but her condition was worsening by the day. That’s when I found myself, perhaps the first time ever, wondering if I shouldn’t have hastened to pick up a job and be financially independent. Though I had already finished my masters, I hadn’t shown any urgency in looking for a job. I had plans to continue my studies, go abroad and do a doctoral degree in literature. For someone who had chosen to live in the world of books, the demands of commerce and money appeared not only futile, but also demeaning. Now as I sat by the lake, casting pebbles into its depths, the futility of my dreams had suddenly been driven home to me. Finally the money order did arrive, but only after a fortnight or so. The very same day, Anurag and I decided to pack up the bags and leave. Though Hemant was in no mood to leave, wanting to spend another week or so, our immediate worry was that we should get mother home, somehow. The day we decided to leave, we weren’t sure if we were bound for Amritsar or elsewhere. During the journey, mother’s condition deteriorated, suddenly. Going to Amritsar would have meant a gruelling twelve hours or more. So midway across, we had got off our Amritsar-bound bus, and boarded the one heading towards Delhi, no more than seven hours away. Right through the journey, mother had kept groaning with pain, complaining of constant burning sensation in her stomach, and throwing up, intermittently. It was so bad that she couldn’t even digest a glass of plain water. It was just touch and go, something the doctors also confirmed later when she was hospitalised. They said, had there been a few hours’ delay in bringing her to the hospital, she probably wouldn’t have survived. Slipping out of her kidney, the stones had travelled close to her heart and now lay lodged there, threatening her.
Accompanied by friends, Hemant was walking through the forest. The soil under their feet was damp and slippery, as it had been raining incessantly through the night. Holding on to each other for support, they were walking rather gingerly, wading through a wild overgrowth, balancing their feet upon the rugged rocks that lay perilously jutting out. One wrong step and all of them would have gone hurtling through the abyss, below which stood the lake, its giant-sized mouth, gyrating. In a sudden burst of recklessness, quietly slipping his own hands out of his friends’, Hemant decided to press on ahead. He had developed this sudden desire to outstrip his friends, leaving them far behind. Holding on to the roots and the branches firmly, he advanced slowly, clearing his path through the dense forest. Soon enough, he was taking long strides, unmindful of the precipitous heights. Moving on ahead, he didn’t turn back even once to see how far behind he had left his friends. Now, he was enjoying the cool forest wind against his face; its chill had a certain solace about it. He had hardly walked a hundred yards or so, when his hand fell upon a mulberry bush. Unable to realise that if he hung on to it for support, it just might get uprooted a little too easily, he had done precisely that. And the very next moment, he was skidding off the hill, down towards the lake. Once or twice, he made a bid to clutch on to the wild bushes, but that didn’t stop his descent in anyway. The shoots kept slipping out of his hold, hastening his fall. That moment, when he had given up all hope of returning home alive, something of a miracle happened. He felt as though someone had suddenly got hold of his hands and was now pulling him up with great force. And the very next moment, his feet had landed upon a firm rock, jutting out. Suspended in mid-air, he had stood, waiting for the help to arrive, which came only after two hours or more. Having lost his track, his friends had branched off in a different direction, altogether. Echoing through the forest, all his cries for help had returned, crashing against him. Finally, on finding him stranded upon the rock, they had immediately lowered a rope for support. By the time he was hauled up, he was so exhausted that he nearly collapsed.
Hemant has been sitting by my side, for close to two hours now. But we haven’t exchanged a single word. Occasionally, he looks at me, as though rattled by a sudden pain, and then looks away. His hurtful look has always had an unsettling effect on me. Over the years, it has become familiar, but not any the less unnerving. It all started with that Diwali gift, lying frozen somewhere in the memory. Though we used to be rather hard up those days, grandfather would still insist on buying us gifts, howsoever small. Often while going out to buy them, he would go alone, refusing to take any one of us along. Somehow he had this feeling that, being a true patriarch he could always sense the needs of each and every member of the family, right from the eldest to the youngest. He had his own imperious manner of announcing these special gifts, too. In the evening, he would hold his private darbar to which we were all summoned, one by one, and given the prize. We had instructions from the father to accept whatever was given with gratitude and, certainly, without a demur. That year, he had decided to buy both Hemant and me, cloth material for the school dress, we had been demanding for some time. When I went in to collect my prize, he told me, conspiratorially, that I mustn’t show it to Hemant as mine was more expensive than his. Chafing at the injustice of it all, I had come away, wondering, if it was right on my part to become a party to the crime I had no intentions of committing. As soon as Hemant stepped out, holding his gift in hand, disappointment was all over his face. Before going in, he had already felt my cloth between his fingers and instinctively knew that his coarse-grained, rugged one was no match to mine, which not only had a soft feel but also a rich texture. That moment, he had looked up at me, accusingly, as though I had betrayed him in some way he hadn’t been able to explain. And now, it’s this feeling of hurt and betrayal that often shines through his eyes, especially when he looks at me, in his off-guarded moments. Across the years, his look hasn’t lost its power to disturb me.
Dawn is still a few hours away, and I can see Anurag walking in to relieve Hemant. He takes his position up against the wall, and sits with his legs folded up in the front, his head resting over his knees. He has lost that sparkle in the eyes he was born with. While expecting him, mother was confident that she wouldn’t beget another son, but rather proving to be third time lucky, be blessed with a daughter. Earlier on two occasions, she had prayed quite desperately for a daughter, but apparently, to no avail. Though she wasn’t much of a believer in idol worship, retiring to the puja room, she would often sit there for hours together, staring at the mischievous, kohl-lined eyes of Krishna, whose idol was the centrepiece. Anurag was born with large, impish eyes, and upturned, curvaceous eyelashes, almost feminine in their appeal, which sometimes misled people about his sex, when he was still an infant. As he grew up, he would chase mother in and out of the kitchen, run errands for her and even help her with cooking whenever he could. Food is something he loved to eat, and cooking is what gave him the utmost pleasure. Once as a teenager, he had surprised all of us with his doughnuts, which no one in the family knew the recipe of. His culinary skills were something the family often spoke of either with pride or with sarcasm or with both thrown in for good measure. He must have been around seven or eight when Biro, a young girl of twelve, was hired to work in the kitchen. Daughter of a former employee of the factory, she would spend most of her time playing with Hemant and Anurag. Occasionally, she was expected to give Anurag a good scrubbed bath as well, especially when mother would either be busy in the kitchen or in bed, recovering from a bad attack of asthma. One day, in summer, he wasn’t to be seen anywhere in the evenings. For quite sometime, it didn’t even occur to any of us that we ought to be looking for him. Everyone presumed that he must be out in the fields, playing and would eventually return on his own. But when he didn’t until eight, we had gone out, searching for him. Hemant had gone as far as the servant quarters, lined up against the boundary wall, right behind the factory, but no, Anurag was not there; he was nowhere. It’s only when the grandfather, quite accidentally, threw the door of the bathroom open that he had found Anurag, lying on the floor, face-down, tap still running. It was the first time, anyone of us woke up to this strange habit he had developed of falling off to sleep, on the bath-floor. It had triggered off all kinds of speculation, grandfather had even tried out his homeo remedies but nothing had really worked. Strangely, he got over this habit only a few years later, when Biro suddenly left the job on the plea that she was to get married. For months on end, this mysterious habit of Anurag had intrigued the family members, only to be forgotten when he grew up into a young boy. Now, years later, as he sits doubled up in a corner, eyeing the flame of the earthen lamp, it rises unsteadily, almost stealthily.
An interminable procession is pressing on ahead, spilling over into lanes and by-lanes, jostling for space in an overcrowded bazaar as though the juggernaut of Lord Jagannath is rolling out. It is as if each memory is desperate to get its firm hold over the sacred ropes, anxious to fall in line with the movement of the chariot, its huge wheels grinding, slowly but surely. And yet each memory is alone, facing only its own moments of truth or falsehood, fighting only for its own survival. So much gets crushed in this long journey, and so much more is left behind that often we wonder if the journey is really worth the effort put behind it. The ritualistic bath over, he is now being dressed up for the final procession. It has been decided that the official van carrying him will lead the way, private cars and scooters bringing up the rear. The route of the procession has already been worked out to avoid any last minute confusion. I wonder if he would have liked to go on his last journey the way we have planned it out for him. All his life, he had had this incurable distaste for the crowded places, something he had developed rather early on in life. He must have been around twenty-five, when, one evening, he went out on a drive with his friends. As a young man of ample means, it wasn’t unusual for him to be surrounded by a band of friends, who often lived it up at his expense. A spirit of gaiety and abandon was in the air. Huge crowds were milling around in the streets, crawling towards the Dusshera ground, eager to witness the annual ritual of ‘evil’ going up in flames at sunset. He was speeding away as he often did. Suddenly, at the crossing, while giving his Ford car a sharp turn, he had lost balance, swerved to the left and rammed into a family of three, walking on the pavement. The man and the wife had jumped to safety, but the child lay flattened on the pavement, her body spattered with blood. Suddenly, the crowd had split, as people lunged forward towards the victim. His friends had simply got off the car, and disappeared into the crowd. Too stunned to react, he had sat there, unmoved. While he was busy haggling with the police, someone had rushed the child to the hospital. That day, he had taken a vow never to step out of the house on a festival day, a vow he had kept all through his life. Over the years, he had developed this habit of avoiding the milling crowds everywhere, on the road, in the market place or even at home. But now, silent and inert, he’s leading his own procession.
Walking in through the fields, he is coming, in a white kurta-pyjama, a light brown shawl thrown across his shoulders, his head bowed in distress. Other men and women, all dressed in white, are bringing up the rear, a neat file stretching out. Leaving the cars parked outside the main gate, all of them are now zigzagging through a beaten track that runs diagonally across the field, dragging their feet wearily along. Shading off their faces with bare hands, they are trying to ward off the fury of a July sun beating down hard upon their heads. Though crackling with their own heat, the clouds are moving apace, waiting to burst at the first available opportunity. Standing on the steps of the house and seeing them approach, I wonder, why they haven’t hit the brick-lined road, skirting the vacant lot, choosing instead this short cut through the fields. It’s only when he comes closer do I find that during the past few weeks’ of his absence from home, he has grown thick salt-and-pepper stubble on his chin. As he is without his specs, it’s not too difficult for me to see that his face is already awash with tears. And the very next moment, walking up to me, he throws his arms around my tiny, eight-year old shoulders, and starts crying, inconsolably, almost like a child, repeating again and again, “Oh, Why did it have to happen? Why did God have to do ‘this’ to us?” Hearing his cries it feels as though I’m not his son, but his father, patting his back encouragingly with my tiny hands, which barely reach up to his shoulders. Now, looking back I wonder if Natchiketa can ever return from the Yamloka and talk to his father, Udalayaka about the great significance of death that he doesn’t quite understand himself.
Ever since he has returned from the cremation of Diwan uncle, father has been unusually distracted. More than his sister’s husband, Diwan uncle has been a friend and a confidante. It was their fascination for beautiful women that often made them sit up through the nights, talking animatedly. During his frequent visits to Amritsar, father and he would take off on a secret mission, all of a sudden in the evenings, leaving the family in a quandary. His sister had somehow convinced herself that her brother was the one responsible for leading her husband into adventures he could have very well done without. Unwilling to believe that her husband was a gullible fool she was quite willing to believe the worst about her own brother. How and when this bad faith developed between the two is something rather difficult to say. But all that has survived from the stories doing the rounds in the family circles is that once both of them had fought a pitched battle over this, so much so that they hadn’t spoken to each other, after that, for more than two years. And now after Diwan uncle’s premature death, when father occasionally slides back into deep depressions, I don’t quite know whether he is mourning the man he has shared his youth with or is mourning the passing away of his own youth. But each time it happens, a pall of gloom descends upon the house, his black moods flaring up into unexpected acts of violence. It was a Sunday morning. Father had repeatedly been telling Hemant to go into his room and study, but he just wouldn’t pay any attention. Suddenly, pulling a compass out of his geometry box, father had thrust it into Hemant’s thigh as he stood, trembling in a corner. Groaning with pain, he had doubled over. One afternoon, mother had stubbornly refused to serve hot chappatis to grandmother in her room, on the plea that she couldn’t handle both cooking and serving at the same time. Refusing to step down from the position she had already struck, grandmother, too, had preferred to go without food. In the evening, on his return from the factory, when the matter was reported to father, he had come charging at mother, intimidating her into a corner. That night, retreating into a dark corner of the storeroom, where I could always sit for hours together, unnoticed, I had cried my heart out. I don’t quite remember what it was that made me burst into muffled tears, the fate of my brother or the humiliation of my mother. All I do remember is that I had, secretly, held myself responsible for the entire situation. A few months’ prior to Diwan uncle’s sudden departure, I had begun to think more and more of death. So strong was this feeling that I often entertained this idea of putting an end to life in some unexpected, rather dramatic manner. The more I thought about it, more it appealed to my raw, untrained imagination. It wouldn’t be such a bad idea, after all, to put an abrupt end to life. One rash gesture held out the promise of eternal peace. What better solution could my childish mind come up with, a single stroke would have taken care of just about everything. All at once, it would have spared me the agony of having to witness father’s unending remorse, mother’s untold humiliation and brother’s bleeding wounds. At seven, if you’re ever compelled to think about death, you only think of it as a fragrant dream that hangs elusively over your private stink, waiting to snuff it out, saving it from spreading outwards. At seven, it appears to you that even if you were to think of death in relation to yourself, you could actually make it happen to someone else within the family. It is as if your secret thoughts have this mysterious power of being heard by God, who, in retaliation, immediately sends the messengers of Yama down upon the earth, to claim some member of the family everyone has so dearly loved. On Diwan uncle’s death, it was really strange how father had experienced all the grief, while I had been left reeling under loads and loads of guilt for having caused it, quite unwittingly.
Waves of grief and depression are rippling through the house, once again, now that having been consigned to the flames already, he has become indistinguishable from the elements. Gautam is distracted in much the same manner as father had been, several years ago. Being the youngest in the family, he definitely did get to spend with him, the longest spell anyone of us could claim to. He was the only one at home when father suddenly collapsed into a heap; and it was just yesterday morning. Bewildered, he had rushed him from one doctor to another, from one hospital to another, hoping that someone would be able to work the miracle; that someone would bring him back from the land of the dead. It was his incredulity, his total disbelief, his refusal to accept that the inevitable had happened; that we had found the hardest to manage. Even when the funeral bier was being prepared, he kept saying, “Don’t take him away. Do something if you can. No, he’s not dead. Don’t you see beads of sweat shining on his forehead? Now, how can that be, if he’s already dead? No, the doctors have made some mistake…” Unable to fantasise about death at thirty-five now, I’m at a loss to understand how my words can pierce through his pain, offering some diversion by way of consolation. Inconsolable, he walks into father’s room, bolting the door from inside. From across the door, only muffled sounds of his cries are occasionally heard. Positioned outside the door, as we wait for him to materialise, a distant memory knocks all of a sudden, and my heart starts thumping, ever so loudly. Once, father had had a tiff with his parents, something he had refused to talk to us about. In a fit of rage, he had simply locked himself inside the room, threatening to kill himself. Standing outside, I was imagining how, soon enough, a key would turn into his closet, throwing it open with a screech. And before I even get myself to react, he’d probably do the next possible thing he could, which was to lay his hands upon a six-bore, licensed gun he always kept in his personal closet and perhaps shoot himself dead. Having been a witness to this frightening scene a number of times in my childhood, I could’ve predicted its well-rehearsed quality, down to the last detail. The gun is still very much inside father’s closet. What if Gautam decides to execute the threat that father had never used as anything more than a pretext to let off his steam! And the next moment, I’m beating at the door, hard, urging Gautam to throw it open. Hemant and Anurag are also trying out whatever strategy they can, from mild persuasion to wild intimidation, but nothing seems to be working with him, right now. He appears to have crossed that frontier of grief, which makes grief what it is, a manageable human experience, something to be assuaged, and not entirely beyond the pale of redemption. For Gautam, who stands outside the range of mere human grief, it appears to have become the single most important reason for being alive, something that holds out a dangerous prospect of splitting his innards. After about two hours or more, when he finally does open the door, he appears relatively calm and composed. But in a bid to reach out across, the moment we inch close to him, violently jerking off our hold, he snarls flames of hatred blazing in his eyes, “O you bloody bastards. Get lost, I don’t want to see the faces of anyone of you. You’re the real murderers. You’ve killed my father. Yes, you’ve killed him.” Years later, today, once again, I can see that seven-year-old, lying curled up inside a dark storeroom, shedding silent tears, but this time round, I don’t hear his muffled screams, at all.
The factory siren has already been sounded, its shrillness crashing upon the ears. The workers are swirling around in a tizzy, switching off the machines, putting away the gunny sacks full of unused yarn, eager to wind up their night shift and rush back home. Lined up next to the supervisor, some are busy loading into the scales the yarn they have spun through the night, while others, having weighed it already, are heading towards the store room, where it would ultimately be deposited. Only after everything has been accounted for and the stock registers put in order would they be able to get the supervisor’s permission to leave. And now, filing up near the main gate, they are waiting for the timekeeper to punch their cards. Much before the next shift begins, in about half an hour or so, everyone would have left, including the supervisor. Chet Ram, the watchman, is pacing up and down the road, watching the workers shuffle towards the cycle-shed, eager that they clear off. For soon enough, he would pull the shutters down and proceed home, after having locked in the main gate. Sarup Singh, the other watchman, would soon be back on his morning duty, and it is for him to oversee the start of the next shift. Like other days, Chet Ram ambles across to the shutter, in a bid to pull it down, marking the end of the night shift. He has barely put his hand on the clasp, and is still preparing to pull it down when the shutter comes crashing upon his head. Lying flattened on the ground, he’s been reduced to a mangled heap of flesh, his screams buried under the weight of the shutter. It’s only when Sarup Singh comes, half an hour later that he discovers how Chet Ram died in an accident. Rushing off towards the kothi, he goes and informs the sahibs about it. If I were to say that this incident happened much before I was born, you’d probably begin to doubt the very credibility of the entire story. For instance, you’re bound to question how and in what manner did I really learn of this incident, if it’s not something I have either seen or heard. In whatever I have told you so far, I may have somehow succeeded in creating this impression that what you’re reading is not outside the range of things seen or heard, yet it doesn’t always happen so. After all, Natchiketa doesn’t always have to know the shashtras to be able to question the meanness of what his father regarded as an act of charity. Well, as far as this incident goes, all I can say is that it has been handed down from one generation of workers to another. By the time I grew up into a young lad, it had already passed into some kind of a folk-tale, which workers told each other in hushed tones, occasionally, over lunch. But one thing that they scrupulously avoided to mention was as to what really happened to Chet Ram’s family, perhaps because they didn’t know it, or could it be that they didn’t want to talk about it.
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