Fear8 mins 636 8 mins 636
Standing close to the arched gate of the graveyard I wait for my husband to show up. He is running late. The sun is about to set, and a dim candescent bulb attached to a thin wire at the center of the arch comes to life. In a mosque not too far from where I am standing a muazzin gives the call for the evening prayer. The tea stall to my left is the only place with some activity. Most other shops in the vicinity wear a deserted and forlorn look. I see white clad men walk towards the mosque carrying their own prayer rug.
This is how it has been since the mosques opened after the lockdown. People carry their own rugs and maintain distance while praying; no longer do the shoulder touch as they ideally should in congregational prayers. Most people wear masks and make the ablution at home, rather than at the ablution basin in the masjid. Armed with the humble arsenal against the deadly disease people try to attain a semblance of normalcy in lives thrown helter-skelter by the pandemic. Two of my acquaintances, a rather young couple, killed by corona, lie buried in this very graveyard. I do not know their specific location inside the graveyard but suddenly feel incredibly close to them. In the eye of my mind, I see them laughing and talking at the dinner table we had shared at a wedding a year ago; a dangling earring, the nicely pressed crease of his tuxedo.
I recite some small surahs (Quranic chapters) and send it on them, imagining them as they would now be - wrapped in white shrouds, in an advanced stage of decomposition. The brick boundary wall of the graveyard is accentuated by a wire mesh. Put up on the mesh between the living and the dead is an advertisement of a local hotel; a titillating picture of biryani on the front its indifferent bare back towards the graveyard; the relentless business of life extending up till the periphery of death. Why is there a mesh I wonder, who would want to trespass among the dead anyways? Then it occurs to me that it must be to keep people from throwing garbage inside. In a congested, space crunched world it is only the dead that won’t object to the encroachment of their space; the living here scramble for every square inch and keep scrambling till they end up on the other side of the graveyard wall.
Familiarity must have blunted the edges of the profound inevitability for the fruit vendor, just a few meters from my spot sells his customers rotten fruits by deftly placing them under the good ones. He seems oblivious to the prospects of been held accountable in the next world for his deeds in this one. If I were I to die now, I wonder what my grave would be like? Will it be bright and spacious – a window of heaven bringing me a cool and pleasant breeze or will I be made to sustain with poisonous snakes and scorpions. It’s a scary thought, but with death lurking in every nook and cranny, not a far-fetched one. The other day I heard a podcast about how the pandemic has affected people’s psyche; how the virus has caused distressed even among those it has not yet touched. Fear of sickness and death accentuated by loss of livelihood has pushed people over the brink. Suicide rates have shot up in the metropolis. Last week we read a newspaper report about eight suicides in a single day in one area.
One of the men found hanging by the ceiling fan in the bedroom of his posh apartment had been a college mate of my husband. In his suicide note he had mentioned a rejected project proposal and a massive bank loan. Although I had never even heard of him before, the news of his death broke my heart. I looked up his profile on Facebook. In his display picture were two beautiful kids – now scarred for life. Standing before the graveyard, anxiously waiting for my husband to show up I make dua for his deceased collegemate, invoking the Creator to forgive him and make life bearable for the little ones in the picture, same age as my children. It has turned dark. The night curfew shall commence in two hours from now.
Although it makes no sense, people have no option but to abide by the timings prescribed by the government and viciously implemented by the police. Shopkeepers are starting to pull down the shutters and leave for their homes. At the tea shop too the crowd has thinned and its owner has started to wrap up. In a few minutes from now the only company I shall have will be of the dead men and women in their graves. I consider getting myself a cup of tea to calm my nerves, then decide that it is not worth risking the infection. I do not have my phone with me, and my thoughts start to run berserk – their metamorphosis, a thing beyond my control. What could have possibly held back my husband for so long? I have seen videos of people standing fine one moment, down and dead the next moment. Could my husband also have dropped dead on his way to pick me?
I shake my head as if to physically get rid of the idea that a part of my brain is still capable of recognizing as ridiculous. The tea seller finally pulls down his shutter and almost simultaneously the candescent bulb at the entrance of the graveyard flickers and dies. It’s a night of the waning moon and now the light from the tea shop and the graveyard bulb gone its almost pitch dark. There isn’t a living creature in sight, no vehicles, no way farers, not even a cat or a dog. I do not believe in ghosts and spirits but now I can see shadows move about between the graves. The dead don’t go about partying, they sleep in their graves to be woken up on the final day, I assure myself. Not a good time for logic it turns out; my brain continues to play tricks. In addition to seeing shadows, I start to hear voices – of people whispering to each other, their conversation incomprehensible but audible. I look to my right and left, straining my eyes in the dark but see no one. Fear takes me in its vast inescapable embrace then tightens its grip around my chest
. I am unable to breathe. I tear away my mask and fall to my knees, tightly shutting my eyes and placing my hands over my ears. I take a few deep breathes, the way my therapist taught me long ago then open my eyes. They have become somewhat accustomed to the dark and I can make out silhouettes of trees and shrubs between the graves. The shadows are gone and there are no more whisperings, but the debilitating fear is still rampant in my mind. There is just one to conquer such monsters. I get up and walk across the dark deserted street right through the graveyard arch. There I take a right turn and placing myself between two old graves I let the graveyard’s morbid air caress my face and ruffle my hair. Each cell of my body still seized with fear I stare into the graveyard’s dark depth. Were a shadow to appear from those depths right now, I would look it in the eye rather than run away. No shadow appears, no dead whisper in my ears and fear starts to lose its grip on my mind. I see the headlights of an approaching car. My husband is finally here, and I am greatly relieved to see him alive and in one piece.
‘I am extremely sorry to keep you waiting in a place like this,’ he says as soon as I jump in beside him.
‘What took you so long?’ I ask.
‘Had to shift Irfan to hospital. Too many formalities there. I was constantly worried for you,’ he says.
‘What does Irfan need hospitalization for?’ I ask.
‘Look, I am very sorry’ says my husband looking as if he would cry, ‘Irfan has symptoms of Covid, high fever, no taste, no smell.’
Irfan my husband’s friend had dinner with us at our home just two days ago. Inviting Irfan over had been my husband’s idea, while I had been dead set against letting anyone come into our house from outside. We had squabbled over the issue for more than half an hour and at last I had conceded defeat just to put an end to the matter. That day Irfan had picked up the kids, sat on our sofa and dining chair and talked to us from less than three feet. In a nutshell all of us had been thoroughly exposed to the virus Irfan must have been shedding forty-eight hours ago. The revelation ought to have been catastrophic for me. Ever since the start of the pandemic my demons had been working overtime to present me with the most dreadful scenarios. I had mentally run through the possibility of dying a painful death gasping for breath; I had imagined a scenario where my husband and I both would be dead, and our children wouldn’t know what to do with our rotting bodies. I had also imagined how it would be to run pillar to post with my terribly affected children and not being able to procure oxygen to save their lives.
‘What do we do now?’ asks my husband apologetically.
‘We do what is done. We self-quarantine and stay on the alert for any symptoms of the virus,’ I say.
‘I am scared, aren’t you?’ he says.
‘No,’ I say
‘How come?’ he asks
‘For too long I have let fear thrive on my insecurities like a parasite. It isn’t going to alter the course of events in a positive direction, and I am not going to entertain it anymore,’ I say calmly.
‘You timid little thing, what has come over you? You don’t sound like yourself at all,’ he says amused and curious but visibly relaxed at my reaction.
‘Who knows what might have come over me. I have just had a walk in a lonely graveyard, on a dark deserted road under a moonless sky,’ I say smiling wickedly, and see color drain from his face.