Saturday, 17 January 2015


                    The air that day was so dense with poignancy that the whole universe smelled like dry chrysanthemums. But I neither smelled nor sensed any of that melancholy, much of which was impending, during the indefinite period of time I spent outside Kumar’s door, deep in thought. During that time, staring at his closed door, I ventured to recreate memory by memory from a haze of vagueness the events of our friendship that had been muffled and eroded by time over the last 5 years. But it was a sad attempt at recapture, the past is just a dream and memory just a sense of reality we attribute to it. From the numerous conversations we had the only thing I remembered were a few phrases and some sour comments, form the many visits to this house only the taste of his green tea lingered somewhere in my head. Only two things stood out from this background of faint remembrance. The first was the longing both of us felt for India, our motherland. That insipid and rather forced patriotism that we both had while we were in India had turned into a feeling that permeated our every breath once we crossed her borders. The second was how little I knew about this man. I had never asked him about his past even though during many occasions I had given him long animated lectures about the lush, green beauty of Kerala and the taste of my mother’s cooking. Deep down I knew why I never asked him. I was afraid of a nostalgia more poignant than mine, memories merrier and food even tastier. It was important for my sanity that my reminiscent motherland remained the best and in Kumar’s memories I was afraid of finding one even better.

The door soon opened and a familiar bald head lined by white wispy hair on the side peered out. I was expecting a scream of surprise, a friendly hug, but I was met with sad eyes and a forced smile.
‘Ah Roy… Come on in’ he said.

He lead the way and I followed him perplexed and I noticed the sadness in the air, the walls duller, the lights darker, the furniture lifeless, the curtains heavy. We sat down on either side of the dining table where he had received me many times before, during much happier times. Times when the screech of chairs being pulled on the floor wouldn’t be noticed above the noisy laughter of friends. I noticed his eyes, red and covered by a lens of tears.

‘What happened? You done look so good’ I asked him.

He looked at me with those eyes and I felt dry gusts of great sadness on my face.
‘I got a phone call from Delhi… About 10 minutes back. My father died’ he said, his voice choking in between. 

Uneasiness in the worst of all human feelings, neither pain, regret nor sheer rage can hold a candle to the bitter concoction of unease that lodges somewhere between your stomach and heart and then refuses to come out. I was feeling it right then, boiling in my gullet. 
‘Sorry to hear that. Had he been ill for a long time?’
‘Yes’ he replied. His eyes were fixed on the palm of his hand.
‘How old was he?’, I asked, cursing in my mind the moment I choose to visit my old acquaintance, eager to run away from the situation after a few cliqued enquiries and words of consolation.
‘Sixty five’ he said, still staring at his clenched fist, I noticed something shining from inside it.
‘I’m sorry for your loss. What was his illness?’
He looked at me and then showed me what he was holding in his fist. It was a silver anklet, a simple one, a thread of silver with two hooks on either end, the type that adorned almost every female ankle in India.
‘This killed him’, he said to me. His voice weighed by remorse ‘I never told you about her…’
‘No, you never did’, I had no idea who he was referring to.
‘My sister’, he said, his eyes had left the room and were once again fixated on the silver thread in this hand, from his meditation of despair he spoke

 The village I was born was in one of the remote corners in India. While India had her tryst with destiny and winds of change swept through the country, my village was relatively untouched. We still lived a 100 years back, refusing to give in to the pressures of the time, stubbornly resisting change, choosing with callousness to live in the dark. But things beyond our power were at work all around the country, and change was trickling in at snail’s pace.A government school in the village was the first manifestation of this transformation.

But the stinking hierarchy of the caste system still ruled us, and my family was at the bottom of it. My father was a chandala, the keeper and the sole owner of the local cemetery, like his father before him, leading up to the time when one of my ancestors were given the forsaken job of burning corpses. My father did his duty, his dharma as he called it, with devotion and diligence. And by his submission to the system he condemned us to be the poorest of the poor, people considered to be equivalent to corpses.
My sister and I were born a year apart. My father wasn’t very happy with having a daughter but I like to think that he loved her in his own way when the thoughts about her future didn’t plague his simple mind. I, his elder son, was expected to be a chandala like him to take up the divine duties of our family. The duties which entailed disrespect and contempt from the whole village. My father wasn’t happy when social workers came to our hut to enroll us for the new school. He feared that education might put dreams of a different, better life in my head and he was sure that my sister had no use for books and letters since her future husband was probably going to be illiterate. But he let us go when they told him that we would be given free lunch every day at school, and lunch meant that the only thing he had to give us was water to drink before we slept at night.
School was painful. Equality and compassion existed only in the social science textbook and even that was denied to us as buying a book meant starving for a week. But me and my sister made do with what we had, we tried to study because deep down we had a feeling that it would be the way out of our miseries and also because alphabets and numbers were a welcome relief from corpses and pyres.
Soon my mother was pregnant again. The local seer saw in his inked leaf that it was a boy. My family rejoiced, my father even more. A son for him was someone who could continue his cursed existence, a sacrificial animal for the sake of vocational immortality.
Three months after the good news my mother had a miscarriage. My father was sad, but not devastated by the news. In those days of meagre medical care an infant dying before being born was a common thing among the poor. Almost everyone in my village had that sibling no one talked about, who was mentioned only in uncomfortable pauses that occurred during uncharted conversations about the past.

Six months later my mother was pregnant again. A boy, according to some random and mundane act that was supposed to tell the future. Seven months into it she gave birth to a stillborn. The distressful silences at my home was becoming louder and louder filled with cries of my unborn brothers.
It was during the third pregnancy that the Aghoris started visiting our cemetery. They were a few at first, taking the pilgrimage road to the Himalayas that passed through our village. I had never seen them before as my father never used to let them in to the cemetery fearing that they would violate unburned corpses for their rituals. But this time he let them in. When I saw them for the first time, their trishuls, their chillums, their hair in chaotic medusa like tangles, their mouth blackened by human flesh, their skin covered in ash, I felt inside a fear so ancient that it belonged to dark nights spent in lonely caves, listening to the howling of wolves and watching the occasional lightning illuminate the forest around in a moment of eerie brilliance, the fear of the shadow you see out there in that microsecond of illumination that you hope is that of a tree or a branch, that you hope is not of some beast lurking in the shadows waiting for the dark to make a carnal dash for your cave, a fear that was not from this millennium or the one before it.

But what made my fear worse was my father’s eyes. In them I didn’t see that same fear reflected but instead I saw a glimmer, which I later realized to be the twinkling of admiration, an acceptance of powers higher than hitherto unknown. He let them camp in our cemetery, brought them ashes for their rituals, unburnt femurs to make chillums. He used to go to the cemetery grounds late at night to meet them, something he never used to do before. And the following mornings I used to find mutilated corpses there. I preferred not to think about the signs.
Five months into the pregnancy my mother gave birth to a piece of flesh. It was after this that the skulls started appearing. In every house, hut, shack and palace in India there is a hallowed place that is somehow different from the desolation surrounding it. When me and Anarkali came back from school that day we found our father, legs crossed. In the corner of gods the pictures of Rama and Krishna were replaced by a solitary skull. My father was chanting something in a language that we did not understand, but each syllable of those mantras oozed so much evil that we could not stand there listening to it, we ran inside. I came out sometime after the chants ceased. My father was nowhere to be seen, the skull was still there and on its eerie whiteness there were two dots of blood red.

Within a few days there were so many skulls stacked, one over the other, in that corner that the rest of us began to wonder about their source. My father spent less and less time in the hut during mornings, he spent daylight talking to the aghoris, smoking from their chillums and lost in the primeval trance of their company. Nights he slept in the hut, perhaps he was yet to get used to the nocturnal activities of his new comrades.
My mother was pregnant once more and we all sensed that it would be different this time around. But nothing could have prepared against what was to come, not even the lunatic glimmer in my father’s eyes that heralded it.
I still remember that amavasi night. Amavasi nights, bathed in darkness were filled with the sounds of aghori chants. But we had learned to sleep through those sounds, though I now wish I hadn’t. Had I been awake I would have known that Anarkali was missing from the usual spot she slept, snuggled between me and our unborn brother. Had I been awake I would have noticed the cries of a 9 year old girl being consumed alive by the flames of a newly lit pyre amidst the aghori chants.
But I had slept and was woken up in the morning by whispers of my father. Through my half open eyes I saw him, both his hands covered in ash held over my mother’s pregnent belly in a solemn gesture, his lips moving to the syllables of some macabre black magic chant. The scene startled me out of my half slumber and I noticed that she was gone.
‘Where is Anarkali ?’  I asked.
My father looked at me, his face happier than it ever had been for the past few years, and said ‘Forget her, she is gone. What name should we give your brother?’
He stopped his narration, his eyes were bloodshot, and his face was glistening from a thin layer of sweat through which two solitary tears tumbled down each of his cheeks.
Me and my mother both knew what had happened. For two days we lived between my father and the aghoris, who were now practically living in our house, performing rituals for the birth of my brother. The school noticed our absence and sent someone to check on us. After the news got out the police soon followed. They found Anarkali’s charred remains from a pyre few hundred meters behind our hut. They took whatever was left of her to exhibit in charades of litigation between my father and the state. I think I foresaw this. For the previous night I found her pyre and from the bones, ashes and burnt pieces of cloth I found her silver anklet, the search was difficult due to the tears in my eyes.

‘My father’s mercy petition was rejected by the President a week ago. Today they hanged him’ he said

He fell silent, lost in a universe of sorrow at the nexus of which was the anklet he held in his hand. I knew I had to say something before his sorrow and my uneasiness devoured both of our sanity.
‘What do you think the Aghoris told your father?’ I asked him.
I had, in my crassness, touched upon the very question that had been plaguing him for years. He answered me with a voice not his own but of his memories.

‘In a country of a billion gods it was only natural that my father thought he had met one in the form of an aghori. A benevolent deity that would gift him another son and placate his misfortunes, for a nominal price. Perhaps he thought that at the last moment the skies would break open and god himself would stop him. But that didn’t happen, my sister was burned alive, no demiurge saved her.’

I realized that the answer was the reasoning he had been using for all these years to try and forgive his father, an uneducated man, floating between life and death halfway across the world.
Then in a tone laced with perfect lucidity, he added to his answer the phrase that he always used to defend failed philosophies and doomed schools of thought.
‘My father believed in many gods, and he thought he saw one. When you believe in a million miracles, probability dictates that you see at least one’.


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