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The Mourners

Harikrishna Kaul

Tarzan's sister-in-law sat before the chulha. She was out of breath with the effort of blowing into the damp firewood and cow-dung cakes, but they refused to kindle. The small kitchen was filled with smoke. Dakter asked her, "Where is he? Dead as a log as usual?"

The smoke from the wet firewood stung her eyes and the sight of Dakter standing before her infuriated her further. She wanted to pick up a smouldering stick from the chulha and with it, break every bone in his and his friend's body. On this bitterly cold morning why had he come to tempt her brother-in-law to go God knows where? But then she thought, why blame him - it was the fault of your own hen if she went to lay her eggs in somebody else's yard. He read the meaning in her silence and saying, "Still sleeping, no doubt," started going up the stairs. He could hear her grumbling, but being in a hurry, he did not stop to give her a piece of his mind.

"Get up you rogue. Pedro is finished," he declared as soon as he entered the room. Curled up like a bundle on the bed, Tarzan sat up at the news. He could not quite comprehend the meaning but knew that something was wrong. "Fellow's mother is dead," Dakter said, sitting down near the pillow. Tarzan stretched his arm to push the window open. An old blanket, torn in many places, was spread over the quilt and over it, his woollen pheran. The pillow was red chintz but without a cover and had been absorbing the grease from his hair for no one knew how long. On his right hand side lay a number of cut-outs of movie queens from film magazines and tabloids. On his left was a cigarette pack containing a half-smoked cold stub and two whole cigarettes.

"When?" he asked.

"Early morning today, they say." Dakter took out a cigarette from the packet and lit it from the embers in his kangri. "But I think the old woman must have kicked the bucket sometime during the night itself and the fellow would not have come to know till the morning. The rogue was on his own trip."

"How mean of him - on a trip without us!"

"I didn't know of it either. But I heard that there was a big do at Patwari's place. If I give you the guest list the earth will shake under your feet."

"Then the rascal is sunk. Which wretched fellow led him to that den? Five-rupee notes rich as it were, on the cards there day and night. Pass me a cigarette, will you?" Dakter gave him the other cigarette from the pack.

"Give me the kangri too." He handed it to him.

Tarzan lit the cigarette from the embers and drew the kangri under his quilt. "Now the rascal can live it up. His mother was the last check and she too has sailed off. Now he may as well sell his house and blow it up on cards ... who is to stop him?"

"Take my word for it-the house will go."

"Yes, but what do we do now?"

"Which son-in-law is there to take the old woman to the cremation ground? Get up and gird your loins."

"My loins are already girded. Come on, bring all the mothers and fathers who need my shoulders to cart them to their  cremation."

Tarzan left the bed, put on his pheran, wore a thick balaclava on his head to cover his ears, pulled out three pairs of socks from under the pillow and put them on. Handing the kangri to Dakter, he said, "Let's go, I'm ready."

"Hold on, will you. Let's finish the fag at least."

"Okay. Carry on. The old woman did not show any hurry while alive, why should she be in a hurry now?"

Tarzan picked up a kangri from the ledge and gave it a thorough shaking so that the ashes settled down at the bottom and the charcoal nuggets were thrown up. He asked Dakter for a live coal, put it among the nuggets in his kangri and, blowing upon it furiously, kindled a warm blaze.

"Won't you fill fresh charcoal in your kangri?"

"Forget it. It's better to ask the baker in the street to give me some from his oven. Why provoke taunts on the matter of a kangri-full of live coals early in the moming? What's the score?"

"Who cares."

"If they can take six wickcts in today's play, they might win."

"Like hell they will," Dakter made a gesture with his thumb, "As if this is the only match left for them to win! As if they have triumphed in all the others!"

They had walked out of the room when Dakter went back and returned with the half-smoked stub stuck behind his ear, "Why leave it?" he said to Tarzan.

Slowly they descended the stairs. Tarzan's sister-in-law stood watching them from her doorway. As they were leaving, she mumbled in her mixed Punjabi-Kashmiri, "What does he care? No sooner does the day dawn than he must saunter forth-a babu, no less, with his scents and oils! Stuffs his belly with mounds of rice but does he care where it comes from? Only I know or my fate knows!"

"Hey, when did your brother acquire this Punjabi pigeon?" Dakter asked Tarzan as they walked away.

"Come on, at least he's got a pigeon, whatever sort. As for us, we shall not get even this".

"Talk about yourself. As for me, I have a love affair going!" 

Tarzan looked him up and down and burst into laughter.

In the street, Tarzan had his kangri filled with hot, glowing mulberry  charcoals from the baker's, picked up three packs of cigarettes from the grocer on  credit and, pushing them down his Pheran pocket, said, "Now I am equipped to take the whole bloody town to its cremation-absolutely at your service!"

"Didn't you ask the baker the score?"

"His transistor batteries are exhausted." He took two cigarettes from the pack, gave one to Dakter and lit one for Himself. Dakter threw away the half-smoked stub.

"I had thought I would spend the whole day listening to the commentary. How could I expect this nuisance to turn up? Today of all days! Tell me, how soon can we be free?"

"One o'clock - maybe two."

"Shall we listen to the commentary or . . . " Tarzan remembered something and did not complete the sentence. Instead he asked, "Shall we go to this one?"

"Stupid!"

"The other one?"

"The same old headache."

"To this side of the river?"

"Who knows! It was released only yesterday."

"The other side?"

"Heard it's good."

"If we are free by one o'clock, we will go to see it, otherwise the commentary."

"I'll not sit in the third class this time."

Tarzan stared at him for a while and said, "Since when have you acquired a taste for balcony seats to watch a film?"

When Pedro realised that his mother had turned to clay, he did not weep or cry. He just went quietly to Pahelwan's house, who first informed Seth and then went to fetch the Brahmin priest. On the way he met Dakter's younger brother through whom he sent word to Dakter. Seth stuffed fifty-sixty rupees in his pocket and went to the store which stocked all the stuff needed for the rites at a Hindu funeral. It was only after all this had been done that Pedro started to wail loudly, calling out his dead mother's name. This brought a few neighbours, who formed a small gathering in the house.

Pedro had no relatives in town other than a cousin's husband from his mother's side. And he too lived at a distance of five or six miles. Pedro did not send a message to him. Even if he had, he would not have turned up, Pedro was certain. In fact, Pedro hated all his relatives, whether they lived in the town or the village. It was only his mother who had served as a bond between him and his relatives. Today that bond too was broken with her death. Now he was free - free in every way. He did not have to salute or bow before his relatives. He did not have to perform the ritual shraddha for his father every year. He did not need to return home every night. He could do exactly what he wanted. From now on he could be his own master-the master of his own house too.

Pahelwan arrived with the priest an hour later. One woman from the neighbourhood began to warm the water to give the corpse the ritual bath. Another swept a corner of the yard and smeared it with cow-dung paste to purify it for the performance of the last rites. The priest began. Pedro was shifting his sacred thread from the left to the right shoulder and back again according to the priest's instructions, when Dakter and Tarzan arrived. Tarzan went directly to Pedro and whispered in his ear, "Got any money?"

"Yes, yes I have."

"Swear upon this very mother?"

"I swear upon my mother. I do have money."

"That's all right then." He went and took his seat on an upturned mortar in a corner of the yard. When the corpse was being bathed, he got up and said to Pahelwan, "The old woman is selfish even after death. Look at her - she will have a warm bath herself but make poor Pedro take those icy dips in the river!"

After the bath a shroud was wrapped around the body and it was placed upon a plank of wood. Tarzan and Seth lifted it from the two front ends; the third at the back was shouldered by Dakter. Pahelwan was about to offer his shoulder for the fourth comer when Seth yelled, "Hey you mullah, don't you touch it! Our corpse will be polluted."

"Oh hell. If the old lady finds out that a Muslim shoulder carries her, she will leap out of the coffin," Tarzan said.

"Okay, give her a ride yourselves. But remember, it will only be a Muslim who prepares her pyre at the cremation ground. Come, come, my brothers-in-law, we are the ones who bring you into the world and again it is us who preside over your bodies while they turn into ashes-telling me, are you?"

Eventually a boy from the neighbourhood made the foursome and the last journey began. Pedro walked in front, carrying a basket containing all the material needed for the cremation rites. Next to him, wrapped in a thick blanket from head to toe, walked the priest. He had hated to leave home in this bitter cold and was thinking, "A doctor can refuse to attend, a lawyer can refuse to come, but curse our profession, which does not give the right of refusal! Besides, who knows if there will be anything to gain from this wretched fellow!"

Behind Pedro and the priest came Tarzan, Seth, Dakter and the boy, carrying the coffin. After them walked Pahelwan and a few others from the neighbourhood. The neighbours accompanied the funeral procession a short distance and then returned home.

Pedro walked straight ahead, carrying the funerary basket. At first he had thought that with his mother's death, he had been set free. But now it appeared that it had made him a homeless vagrant. The rope that had anchored him to the shore was broken and he was adrift in the flood of life. He would keep on drifting without any goal or safe shore as long as he lived. His mother used to curse him, heap abuse on him but occasionally did give him a blessing too. She would quarrel with him over the daily expenses nearly every day but at the end of the month it was she who gave him something, saved God knows how and when, for his cigarettes. Most of the time she sulked, angry with his ways, but sometimes she would hold him in her arms and give him a tight hug. From now onwards no one would mind his ways - no one to sulk nor to love him. As far as he was concerned, no other death need matter to him nor his own to anyone. He was alone in this journey - all alone, and the road was tough. Suddenly he looked back and the ground slipped from under his feet. He really was walking all alone, clutching the funerary basket. No one else was in sight - neither the priest nor the coffin nor even those who had held it aloft. What did it mean? Was he dreaming? Was this a trick played upon him by the Lord of Death? Eventually he caught sight of the priest lighting a cigarette at a shop in the distance and he breathed again. But where were the others? Had the earth swallowed them or the sky devoured them?

The priest, his cigarette lit, found him standing alone, frowning worriedly and said, "Listen, you. I don't know what is written in your fate. Those rakshashas must have slipped on the ice and dropped the body on the frozen ground. What has happened is very bad indeed."

In his heart Pedro also knew that he was ill-destined. The priest had not lied. But the riddle of their disappearance plagued his mind. How and where could they have vanished? Granted they might have slipped but would that bury them in the bowels of the earth?

The Brahmin mumbled a prayer in his faulty, ill-pronounced Sanskrit, "Oh Lord of Death, Shiva Shiva Shambhu, forgive me my transgressions!"

The lamp in Pedro's basket had been long extinguished. A streak of smoke rose from its blackened wick. Pedro was not only bewildered but quite frightened too.

Some more time passed and then he saw something - a faint outline resembling a coffin. He breathed a sigh of relief. At last his mother's coffin caught up with him. "Three have fallen!" Tarzan shouted as he came abreast. The priest's heart stopped. "Oh you demons! Did you let the corpse fall three times" ? God save us. Oh the Lord have mercy on me," he cried in horror.

"Oh no sir. Our lion Chandra has taken three wickets! Understand?"

"Shut up you rogue." Seth bit his lip trying to check his anger, "By the Holy Prophet, this is the limit."

Pahelwan explained to Pedro, "Listen you cursed fool! As we reached the Shahi Panwallah, it seemed as though a break had been applied to Tarzan's feet. The wretch stopped to listen to the commentary. We kept pleading with him to get a move on. The panwallah even went to the extent of laying his cap at his feet. When the people saw us listening to the commentary with the coffin, they began to curse us. But Tarzan's feet refused to budge. Finally the panwallah switched off his radio."

"Listen brothers. For the last seventy years this old lady never showed any urgency to reach her destination. So how does my ten minutes' delay matter now?" Tatzan defended himself.

"Tell him to hold his tongue!" Seth exploded, shaking with rage. "If he does not shut up, I'll throw the old woman down and run away from here."

The priest admonished Pedro, "Oh you rakshasa! Are you a man or a beast? I swear, this is the last time I ever ... but then why should you care?

Whose death need worry you?"

On reaching the cremation ground, Tarzan, Seth, Dakter and the boy lowered their burden to the ground. The Muslim contractor of cremations started building the pyre. Pedro awaited the priest's instructions.

Tarzan spoke up, "Did you hear this one'? This Dakter has a love affair going!" There were guffaws from all.

Pahelwan confronted Dakter, "Love? With whom?"

Tarzan intervened, "Hear the story from me. This fellow's "love" is going on with his boss's wife!" The boy from the neighborhood was slightly embarrassed.

"He does all their housework. Washes her saris and blouses. Presses clothes. Hey, do you get anything for your pains? Or is it for free?" 

"See this fist? It will break all the teeth in your mouth. She is my mother," Dakter said angrily.

"Why do you taunt him?" Pahelwan asked Tarzan. "Tell me, do you or do you not frequent your factory owner's house?

"My foot! Going to the house will not make me a manager. I have no desire to become a leader like you." And raising his voice so that everyone could hear, he continued, "Did you people hear this? This Pahelwan has given up his "leadery"!"

"Since when?" Dakter was surprised.

"Ever since the day the police arrested him while he was pasting pro-Pakistani posters on the city walls. Those who had entrusted him with the task spread the word that he was caught picking pockets."

Everyone laughed. A shadow of annoyance passed over Pahelwan's face for a moment.

"Get up and place the body on the pyre," the priest's words roused them and all the four stood up.

"We are ready," Tarzan said, "If you like, for you too!" But the priest did not hear him.

Flames were no longer rising from the pyre, just the glowing embers, crackling and disintegrating into ashes. Seth laid his hand on Pedro's shoulder, "Come, what is the use of staring at this heap?"

"Let's go." Pedro leaned on him and started walking way.

"Where is Tarzan?" he asked.

"Has he also bolted like the priest and the boy? But where could he have gone?" Dakter asked.

"I know," Pahelwan said, "the wretched fellow must be listening to the commentary somewhere. Can't tell the difference between mid-on and silly mid-on but must pretend to be an authority on cricket! He should not have let the community down like this."

"He certainly shouldn't have," Seth agreed.

They reached the boundary of the cremation ground. Pedro, Dakter and Seth had turned back to bow to the smouldering pyre when Pahelwan shouted, "Look! Who is that behind the chinar?"

"Oh, if it isn't our own Tarzan!" said Dakter. All the four walked back to him.

Tarzan sat against the chinar, stating at the still smoke still hanging in the air. Pedro took his hand and said, "Come along, yaar, what's there to wait for?" Tarzan drew Pedro to himself and hugging him, said, "You lit your mother's pyre today with your own hands, but I was too small at that time - just six or seven months old. I could not even do this." 

Both Tarzan and Pedro burst into tears. They cried bitterly. Dakter and Pahelwan did not know how to handle this new development. Dakter was ready to scold them but Pahelwan checked him with a gesture, "Let them be. That is what all of us need - a good cry."

 

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