Death17 mins 384 17 mins 384
The orphan living with the businessman Ravishankar’s family, in the big house at Ranikhet , had no blood-relatives left. One by one they had died. In her orphanage , too, there was no one she could call her own . But there was a boy – the businessman’ son – who was her life. His mother had been very ill for a long time after his birth, so this girl Anumeha had taken care of him . Anyone who takes care of someone else’s son becomes specially devoted: there are no rights, no social claims – nothing but ties of affection. Affection cannot prove itself with a legal document; nor does it wish to. All it can do is love with doubled intensity, because it owns so uncertainly. Anumeha poured her frustrated orphan’s love on to this boy, till one night she suddenly died. For some strange reason her heartbeat stopped. Everywhere else, Time continued; yet in this one, small, tender, loving heart its clock’s tick ceased.
Keeping the matter quiet, in case the police took notice, four employees of the businessman quickly carried off the body to be burnt. The cremation-ground at Ranikhet was a long way from human habitation. There was a room on the edge of a tank there, and next to it an immense banyan tree: nothing else at all on the wide open plain. Formerly a river had flowed here – the tank had been made by digging out part of the dried-up course of the river. The local people now regarded this tank as a sacred spring. The four men placed the corpse inside the room and sat down to wait for the wood for the pyre to arrive. The wait seemed so long that they grew restless: two of them went off to see why the firewood was so long coming, while the other two sat guarding the corpse. It was a dark monsoon night. The clouds were swollen; not a star could be seen in the sky. The two men sat silently in the dark room. One of them had matches and a candle, wrapped up in his pocket. They could not get the matches to light in the damp air, and the light they had brought with them had gone out as well. Five minutes seemed like an hour. They began inwardly to curse the two who had gone to trace the firewood – no doubt they were sitting comfortably somewhere having a smoke and chatting. They were soon convinced that this must be so. There was no sound anywhere – just the steady murmur of crickets and frogs round the tank. Suddenly the bed seemed to stir a little, as if the dead body had turned on to its side. Both the men began to shudder and mutter prayers.
Next moment a long sigh was heard: the two immediately fled outside and ran off towards the city. A couple of miles along the path they met their two companions returning with torches in their hands. They had actually just been for a smoke, and had found out nothing about the firewood. They claimed it was being chopped up now and would not be long coming. The other two then described what had happened in the room. They dismissed this as nonsense, and rebuked the other two angrily for deserting their post. The four of them swiftly returned to the room at the cremation-ground. When they went in, they found that the corpse had gone: the bed was empty. They stared at one another. Could jackals have made off with it? But even the garment that covered it had gone. Searching about outside the room they noticed in a patch of mud by the door some recent, small, woman’s footprints. The businessman , Ravishankar, was not a fool: to try to tell him a ghost-story would get them nowhere. After long discussion, the four decided they had best say simply that the cremation had taken place. When, towards dawn, the wood arrived at last, those who brought it were told that in view of the delay the job had already been done, using firewood stored in the room. They had no reason to doubt this.
A dead body was not a valuable object: why should anyone wish to steal it? It is well known that an apparently lifeless body can harbour dormant life which in time may bring the body back to life. Anumeha had not died: for some reason, her life-function had been suspended – that was all. When she regained consciousness, she saw dense darkness all around her. She realized that the place where she was lying was not her usual bedroom. She called out ‘Didi’ once, but no one in the dark room replied. She sat up in alarm, recalling her death-bed – that sudden pain in her chest, the choking for breath. The housemaid had been squatting in a corner of the room warming the milk on a stove – Viraag collapsed on to the bed, no longer able to stand. Gasping, she had called, ‘Didi, bring him to me – I think I’m dying.’ Then everything had gone black, as if an inkpot had been poured over a page of writing. Anumeha’s entire memory and consciousness, all the letters in her book of life, became at that moment indistinguishable. She had no recollection of whether– Viraag had called out ‘Anumeha’ for the last time, in his sweet loving voice; whether she had been given that final viaticum of love, to sustain her as she travelled from the world she knew, along Death’s strange and endless path. Her first feeling was that the land of death must be one of total darkness and desolation.
There was nothing to see there, nothing to hear, nothing to do except sit and wait, forever awake. Then she suddenly felt a chilly, rainy wind through an open door, and heard the croaking of monsoon frogs; and all her memories of the monsoon, from childhood right through her short life, rose in her mind. She felt the touch of the world again. There was a flash of lightning: for an instant the tank, the banyan tree, the vast plain and a distant row of trees showed themselves before her eyes. She remembered how she had sometimes bathed in the tank on sacred occasions; how seeing dead bodies in the cremation-ground there had made her aware of the awesomeness of death. Her immediate idea was that she should return home. But then she thought, ‘I’m not alive – they won’t take me back. It would be a curse on them. I am exiled from the land of the living – I am my own ghost.’ If that were not so, how had she come at dead of night from the safe inner quarters of house to this remote cremation-ground? But if her funeral rites had not yet been completed, then what had become of the people who should have burned her? She recalled her last moments before dying, in the well-lit Ravishankar’s residence; then, finding herself alone in this distant, deserted, dark cremation-ground, she again said to herself, ‘I no longer belong to the world of living people. I am fearsome, a bringer of evil; I am my own ghost.’
As this realization struck, all ties and conventions seemed to snap. It was as if she had weird power, boundless liberty – to go where she liked, do what she liked; and with the onset of this feeling she dashed out of the hut like a madwoman, like a gust of wind – ran out into the dark burning-ground with not the slightest shame, fear or worry in her mind. But her legs were tired as she walked, and her body began to weaken. The plain stretched on endlessly, with paddy-fields here and there and knee-deep pools of water. As dawn broke slowly. She now felt very afraid. She had no idea where she stood in the world, what her relation to living people would be. So long as she was in the wide open plain, in the burning-ground, in the darkness of the night, she remained fearless, as if in her own realm. Daylight and human habitation were what terrified her. Men fear ghosts, but ghosts fear men: they are two separate races, living on opposite sides of the river of death. Wandering around at night like a madwoman, with her mud-smeared clothes and weird demeanour, would have terrified anyone, and boys would probably have run away and thrown pebbles at her from a distance.
Fortunately, the first passer-by to see her in this condition was a gentleman. ‘Hi’ he said, approaching her, ‘you look as though you come from a good family: where are you going to, alone on the road like this?’ At first Anumeha did not reply, and merely stared blankly at him. She felt totally at a loss. That she was out in the world, that she looked well-born, that a passer-by was asking her questions – all this was beyond her grasp. The gentleman spoke again. ‘Come along, girl, I’ll take you home. Tell me where you live.’ Anumeha began to think. She could not imagine returning to her house, and she had no parental home; but then she remembered her closest friend Sophie. Although she had not seen her since childhood, they had sometimes exchanged letters. At times there had been an affectionate rivalry between them, with Anumeha asserting that nothing was greater than her love for Anumeha , while Sophie suggested that she was not responding sufficiently to her own affection. But neither doubted that if opportunity to meet arose again, neither would wish to lose sight of the other. ‘I’m going to the psychologist’s house at Alibagh,’ said Anumeha to the gentleman. He personally saw Anumeha to their house. The two friends were a little slow to recognize each other, but soon their eyes lit up as each saw a resemblance in the other. ‘Well I never,’ said . Sophie ‘I never thought that I would see you again.
But what brings you here? Anumeha was silent at first, then said, ‘Please, don’t ask me about anything. Give me a corner in your house, as a servant. I’ll work for you.’ ‘What an idea!’ said Sophie . ‘How can you be a servant? You’re my friend, you’re like –’ and so on. Then Shiraaz came into the room. Anumeha gazed at him for a moment, then slowly walked out, without covering her head or showing any other sign of modesty or respect. Afraid that Shiraaz would take offence at her friend’s behaviour, Anumeha made apologies to her. But so little explanation was necessary – indeed, Shiraaz accepted her so easily – that she felt uneasy. ? Anumeha joined her friend’s household, but she could not be intimate with her – Death stood between them. If one doubts or is conscious of oneself, one cannot unite with another. Sophie looked at Anumeha as if she was in a different, distant world. ‘They are people of the world,’ she felt, ‘with their loves and feelings and duties, and I am an empty shadow. They are in the land of the living, whereas I belong to Eternity.’ Women cannot bear mystery, for this reason: that poetry, heroism or learning can thrive on uncertainty but household arts cannot. Therefore women thrust aside what they don’t understand, maintaining no connection with it, or else they replace it with something they themselves have made – something more useful. If they cannot do either of these, they get angry. The more impenetrable Anumeha became, the more resentful Sophie became . Anumeha was terrified of herself. Yet she could not run away from herself. Those who are frightened of ghosts look backwards in terror – they are frightened of what they cannot see.
But Anumeha was terrified of her inner self – nothing outside frightened her. Thus, in the silence of midday, she would sit alone in her room and sometimes shout out loud; and in the evening, the sight of her shadow in the lamplight made her quiver all over. Everyone in the house was alarmed by her fear. Eventually, in the middle of the night, Anumeha came out of her bedroom, wailing; she came right up to the door of said Sophie’s room and cried, ‘ I beg you! Do not leave me alone!’ said Sophie was frightened. The kindly , Shiraaz with great effort, managed to calm Sophie down and settle her in. ‘I have no connection with people,’ said , looking solemnly at Sophie . Sophie was nonpulsed. ‘You may not have,’ she said irritably, ‘but we have. ‘Where is my house?’ said , Anumeha . ‘Hell!’ thought Sophie ‘What is the woman on about?’ ‘ I don’t know …’ said Kadambini slowly. ‘Am I of this world? All of you here smile, weep, possess things; I merely look on. You are human beings; I am a shadow. I do not understand why God has put me in your midst. I am worried that I’ll damage your happiness – I in turn cannot understand what my relation is to you. But since the Almighty has kept no other place for the likes of me, I shall wander round you and haunt you even if you cut me off.’ Her stare and the tone of her words were such that Sophie understood their import, even if she did not understand them literally and was unable to reply. She could not manage any more questions. Gloomy , she left the room. Shiraaz did not return from Ranikhet until nearly ten at night. The whole world seemed awash with torrential rain. With its thudding sound, it gave the impression that it would never end, that the night would never end. ‘What happened?’ asked Sophie . ‘It’s a long story,’ said Shiraaz . ‘I’ll tell you later.’ He took off his wet clothes, had something to eat and went to bed. He seemed very preoccupied. Sophie suppressed her curiosity all this while, but when she got into bed she asked, ‘What did you find out? Tell me.’ ‘You are certainly mistaken,’ said Shiraaz. Sophie was rather annoyed at this. Women do not make mistakes, or if they do men are wiser not to mention them; it is safest to let them pass without complaining. ‘In what way?’ asked Sophie heatedly. ‘The woman you have accepted into our house,’ said Shiraaz, ‘is not your friend Anumeha.’ Such a remark – especially from one’s husband – might reasonably cause offence. ‘So I don’t know my own friend?’ said Sophie . ‘I have to wait for you to identify her? What an absurd thing to say!’ replied Shiraaz that its absurdity or otherwise was not the point: proof was what counted.
There was no doubt whatsoever that Anumeha had died. ‘Listen,’ said Sophie ‘You’ve got into a complete muddle. Whatever you heard in whatever place you went to can’t be right. Who asked you to go anyway? If you had written a letter, everything would have been made clear.’ Distressed by his wife’s lack of confidence in his efficiency, Shiraaz started to explain all the proofs in detail – but to no avail. They went on arguing into the small hours. Shiraaz believed their guest had been deceiving his wife all this time. But neither was willing to admit defeat in the argument. Their voices rose higher and higher, and they forgot that Anumeha was lying in the next room. ‘It’s a terrible thing,’ said one voice. ‘I heard what happened with my own ears.’ ‘How can I accept that?’ shouted the other. ‘I can see her with my own eyes.’ Eventually Sophie said, ‘All right, tell me when that Anumeha died.’ She hoped, by finding a discrepancy with the date of one of that Anumeha’s letters, to prove that Shripati was wrong. But they worked out that the date given to Shiraaz was exactly one day before that Anumeha had come to their house. Sophie felt a racing in her heart at this, and Shiraaz too began to feel unnerved. Suddenly the door of their room blew open, and a damp wind put out their lamp. The darkness outside instantly filled their whole room from floor to ceiling. Anumeha came and stood right inside their room. It was half past two in the morning: the rain outside was relentless. ‘Friend,’ said that Anumeha, ‘I am your that Anumeha, but I am no longer alive. I am dead.’ Yogmaya was in terror; Shiraaz was speechless. ‘But other than being dead, what harm have I done to you? If I have no place in this world, or in the next world, then where shall I go?’ And again, in the rain and the night, as if to wake God from his sleep, she screamed, ‘Oh, tell me, where shall I go?’ Then, leaving the dumbfounded husband and wife in the dark house,
Anumeha fled in search of her place in or beyond the world. It is hard to say how that Anumeha returned to Ranikhet. She did not show herself to anyone at first: she spent the whole day, without food, in a ruined deserted temple. When evening came – early, as it does in the monsoon, and oppressively dark – and the villagers, fearing a storm, had retreated into their houses, that Anumeha emerged on to the road again. As she approached her house, her heart started to pound; but she pulled her heavy veil round her head , and the gate-keepers did not prevent her from entering. Meanwhile the rain had come on even harder, and the wind blew more fiercely. The mistress of the house – Ravishankar’s wife – was playing cards . The maid was in the kitchen, and viraag was lying in the bedroom, sleeping after a bout of fever. Anumeha entered the bedroom, without anyone noticing. It was impossible to say why she had returned that house – she herself did not know why – but she knew that she wanted to see him again. She gave no thought to where she would go after that, or what would happen to her. She saw, in the lamplight, the beautiful, frail boy lying asleep with his fists clenched. Her racing heart thirsted when she saw him: how she longed to clasp him to her heart one last time, to protect her from all misfortune! But then she thought, ‘Now that I am not here, who will love him? His Who will love him, as I did?’ The boy suddenly turned over and, half-asleep, said, ‘Anumeha, give me some water.’ ‘O my darling,’ she inwardly replied, ‘my treasure: you haven’t yet forgotten your Anumeha.’ At once she poured out some water from the pitcher and, raising him up against her chest, helped him to drink. While he remained half-asleep, he showed no surprise at taking water from his love as he had been used to doing.
But when Anumeha – fulfilling her longstanding desire – kissed him, and then laid him down again, he came out of his sleep and hugged her, asking, ‘Anumeha, did you die?’ ‘Yes, my darling,’ she said. ‘Have you come back to me? You won’t die again?’ Before she could reply an uproar broke out: a maid had come into the room with a bowl of soup in her hand, but had then screamed and fallen down in a faint. Hearing her scream, Ravishankar’s wife came running: she stiffened like wood when she was in the room, unable either to flee or utter a word. Seeing all this, the viraag himself took fright. ‘Anumeha, you must go,’ he said, wailing. Anumeha felt for the first time now that she had not died. The house, everything in it, the boy, his affection – they were all equally alive to her; there was no gulf intervening between her and them. When she had been in her friend’s house she had felt dead, felt that the person whom her friend had known had died. Ravishankar Babu himself came into the inner quarters.
Clasping his hands he begged, ‘Anumeha, it is not right of you to do this .Viraag is the only son in the family: why are you casting your eye on him? Are we strangers to you? Ever since you went, he has wasted away day by day; he has been constantly ill, calling out” Anumeha… Anumeha” day and night. Now that you have bid farewell to the world, please stop attaching yourself to him, please go away – we’ll perform your proper funerary rites.’ Anumeha could bear no more. She screamed out, ‘I did not die, I did not die, I tell you! How can I make you understand – I did not die! Can’t you see: I am alive.’ She seized the bell-metal bowl that had been dropped on the ground and dashed it against her brow: blood gushed out from the impact. ‘See here, I am alive!’ Sharadashankar stood like a statue; ill viraag whimpered for her. Crying out, ‘I did not die, I did not die, I did not die,’ Anumeha fled from the room and down the stairs, and threw herself into the tank in the inner courtyard of the house. Ravishankar heard, from the upper floor, a splashing sound. It went on raining all night, and it was still raining the next morning; even in the afternoon there was no let-up. Anumeha had proved, by dying, that she had not died.