The Hundredth Shade Of Death
The Hundredth Shade Of Death16 mins 22.6K 16 mins 22.6K
The Hundredth Shade of Death
I was surprised. I could see everything around me, clear as day, even without my spectacles on. I watched the surgeon keep the blood stained instrument noiselessly on a tray and say, “Poor old man. I don’t think he has any family. Nobody came to…”
I looked at my body lying on the bed and could not help but ponder over the fact that I was indeed too old and dilapidated to live another day. Moreover, I had no one to stay alive for. I had never married anyone, and hence I never had the fortune of watching my children learn to walk, or my grandchildren play with my moustache. To be honest, I had always tried to imagine how it felt to be called a dad.
I was never chained to anything or anyone, and hence in death I found the same freedom as I had found in life. But somehow I missed something. Maybe because there was nobody by my death bed, crying, or nobody waiting outside the OT praying furiously for good news. I was alone in this world. And now that I was dead, it suddenly mattered.
I was walking through the corridor when I noticed the ghastly figure of a woman sitting on a bench, staring at me. Her appearance was a living nightmare, but her face was extraordinarily beautiful. She had something in her eyes that assured me to move closer. Nobody seemed to notice her anyway. She smiled placidly and asked me to sit down by her side. I knew in my heart, though technically it had stopped beating minutes ago, that she was the one who would take me to the ‘other side’.
I sat down by her side and smiled back. For the first time I felt I could ‘smell’ serenity.
She kept staring at me for quite some time and said, “How was life?”
I shook my head and laughed. I did not have siblings, relatives or anyone that I could put under the word ‘family’. I did not even have a pet! So, that was a question I had no answer to, but nonetheless I said, “Life was beautiful. Lonely, yes, but I won’t complain. I had my share of happiness.”
The woman sighed. “I wonder how ‘living’ feels like…. how it feels to make mistakes…. to be noticed by people, to be loved, to be hurt.”
I watched her sagacious eyes get filled with a weird shade of regret. We, humans, always tried to imagine what it would be like in the afterlife, and how exactly it would feel like to be dead, and here she was, wishing for a life she was never destined to taste. I asked her who she was, and she softly replied, “I am Death. The one everybody fears and hates.” I felt sorry for her, and I still would have felt so even if she had had the face of a demon. She stood up and said, “Let’s go for a walk.”
I was so full of questions myself, but noticed she was in no haste. She did this all day long, I thought. I was sure I would be taken to the Gates of Heaven for the good man I was, but when she opened the door for me, all I saw was the street outside the hospital. Cars, skyscrapers, kids cycling at dangerous speeds, candy vendor… it was all the same. People who had sold themselves to the corporate world were seen screaming at the poor cab drivers for being a couple of minutes late. The sky above looked beautiful. Today the clouds had no intention of blocking the sun.
I turned back. “This is it? What do I do now?”
She smiled. “Everybody gets surprised at this point. You have a journey waiting for you, Christopher. But before that you are granted one last day on Earth. Everybody gets this chance.”
“But why?” I asked. I had never been more puzzled.
“You will understand. You can do whatever you want, Christopher. Generally people choose to pay their families a visit. They watch their cared ones cry. However painful it might sound, it surely makes them realise that their existence had meant so much, to so many people.”
“But I have nobody!”
She smiled again. Her hair was playing in the wind against the sun, and she looked like a deity you could fall in love with. Her voice, soaked in compassion, whispered, “You have more than you think you do, Christopher. This one day is granted for a reason.”
“I will find you tomorrow morning.”
The woman vaporised right before my eyes. I stood there, dumbstruck. I had not expected this. I turned back and faced the city I had shared my eighty years with. After a few minutes I started walking towards my home. I did not know where else to go. When I reached my doorstep, I was surprised to notice a young boy sitting under the mango tree, smoking a cigarette. I was furious at the sight, but I knew he would not be able to hear me even if I shouted. I chose to look the other way. I ran my fingers on the meticulously carved floral designs on the door. Really, who would possibly miss me? Will the calling-bell miss my finger? I laughed at the silly thought.
Through the window I tried to have a look at my favourite armchair. It would surely miss rocking to the tunes of classic music from the old gramophone.
After a few minutes of ambling around in my garden, I decided to take one last stroll through the streets. I passed by women who were finding it tough to select a readable book from the vendor who was selling books at half their prices. I struggled to fight the irresistible urge to pick a book up. But the fact that I would not be able to complete one made me sad. I kept walking through the crowd without the need to jostle through them. Nobody could see me. It was just like every day.
When I reached the café, I paused. There he was. Timothy. The old man I had first met and befriended in this café. We had promised each other that the first one to die would keep a place in the ‘other world’ for the next one. How I wished I could tell him there was no such place. He was sipping at his coffee, staring blankly at the empty couch facing him. He was alone. And he was missing his friend. Indeed he was still unaware of his friend’s death, for it had hardly been half an hour. The woman was right. The sight of Timothy staring at the empty couch made me feel special. I was someone to somebody. I knew he could find another friend. He was excellent at his jokes. I smiled and waved a final goodbye knowing that he would not see it. Before I left, I noticed the small placard that displayed the rates. The particular variant of coffee, which was my regular, had just got insanely costlier.
I kept on walking. On my way an ambulance siren tore the sky apart as it rushed towards the hospital. Maybe another job for the woman, I wondered. I kept walking on and on, and what made me happy was that my legs were not aching anymore. I visited a few other known people, and while some of them had somehow collected the news of my departure, they seemed quite unaffected. I did not blame them. I never shared strong ties with anyone. The more I searched for people who would possibly be missing me, the more I realised how hollow my life had been. I decided to pay Caroline, my niece, a visit, but in my heart I knew that she would hardly care to attend my funeral, because we had not talked or seen each other in the last ten years. Not that I did not love her…no…she was a darling, a most singular woman, but I got the vibe that she did not like me, for some reasons. Maybe the source of this poison in her mind was her father…my brother, I mean. He had always hated me and had considered me to be ‘mother’s favourite’, and never gave me the chance to explain that the bigger ice-cream was always kept for him, and not for me, and I was always happy about it. I sighed, but I did not feel relaxed. Perks of being dead, I supposed.
So I was left with Timothy. He really did not count, I guess. He loved my company, but he would soon find a friend, a confidante, in someone else. I hoped so, at least. But I wanted something else. I wanted to hear someone wipe a tear before my photograph and say ‘I miss you’, or drop the phone after hearing the news of my death.
I laughed again. I spent my whole life talking to birds and trees, and now that I was dead, I realised I needed people too.
It was evening. I was sitting on my bench in the park where I used to watch kids grow into men, and men fall in love. Here, I watched the sun go down, and the game of hues in the sky made my fingers crave for a paintbrush. As dusk veiled the entire park, the lamps flooded the area with the bright white light, and suddenly a few kisses got uncomfortable. I chortled. It was cold. I wished I could have some coffee.
Suddenly my eyes fell upon the dog lying at my feet. Like a lightning bolt it hit me. I almost cried out, “Bill?” The dog did not move an inch. He used to come here, every evening, and I always had a small packet of biscuits for him. It had all started one evening, almost a year ago, when I was sleeping on my bench, and Bill came to wake me up. I realised it was his way of warning me that it was about to rain, and that I should leave. I looked into his eyes and found more compassion than in any human's eyes could possibly show, and I used to whispered to him, “Good Boy.” Maybe he understood exactly what I had said, because the next day he was there again, barking softly, looking at me with expectations in his eyes. I had a few biscuits left in my pocket, which I had decided to share. That was the day I had called him ‘Bill’. And in a week’s time, Bill’s physique improved, proving that even a few biscuits could bring about miraculous health changes in a street dog. At least his ribs were not protruding anymore.
Today I saw Bill, and I knew his ribs would protrude once again. Nobody noticed him. I felt sorry. I wished I could run my fingers behind his ears, the particular spot that tickled him. For the first time in the whole ‘granted’ day, I felt real pain. I hoped that Bill would sniff my soul and look at me, the way he did every day. I looked to my left, and then to my right. I found no one with a heart benevolent enough to even throw a little something at Bill. The only things they threw were empty wrappers. I realised this was how it was going to be, from now on. Bill would come here, every evening and wait for the kind old man who brought him biscuits for no reason. I was perhaps the only deviation in the meaning of ‘humans’ Bill had known. And now all he could do was wait, with unfaltering surety that I would return to tickle his ears.
I stood up and decided to leave. I could not watch this dog spend all night near my bench, in the cold. And that very moment, I realised something. Just like the dog, there were many others who must have waited for me. My garden… my rose plants maybe? They did not get watered today, did they? No. Just because they could not make a display of emotion, I failed to realise that even they could wait for me. In all these years, I had never forgotten to water them… I had nurtured them with my wrinkled hands, watched them grow into one of the most beautiful forms of life, and now people will walk over them, kids will play cricket and football and what not, and the ball will land into my garden more frequently than ever, with no one to yell back at them. No… they must have cried out for me. I did not listen. I could not.
Now I knew. I was not happy being dead. I wanted to live. Just for them. Worse, I was aware of the truth that I was all they had. But I could try nothing. I was dead and gone. I do not even care to know whether anyone was going to give me a proper burial.
The woman was right.
I had more than I thought I did. And now, it mattered the most.
I went back to the hospital. I waited all night under one lonesome tree. I stood there for hours, and all I could think of was Bill and my roses, and perhaps all those little things that had given me invaluable company when I had chosen not to entangle myself into human relations in my life. They had been by my side. They were the reason why my empty life was not so empty. As the first teardrop after death trickled down my weary eyes, I heard someone whisper in my ears, “They were the reason you had no regrets.”
Like every fallen person, even the sun finally chose to rise. It brought along with it renewed hope, and the montage of clouds reminded me that hope had never been of one same colour. I heard footsteps, and I knew it was time to look back. I looked back, and saw her. She was smiling.
“Are you done?”
I could not look into her eyes, for some reason. I shook my head and said, “I don’t want to leave.” But then again I realised nobody does.
The deity smiled again and sat down by my side. The black feathers on her back seemed to burn into thick smoke.
“Tell me, Christopher.”
“There’s nothing to say! I mean… that poor dog will keep waiting forever! And my roses will…eventually die… and who knows? I had even feed some pigeons a couple of times! Am I…am I over-reacting? Maybe because I had no one else, so I am considering…”
The woman placed her hand on mine, and the touch told me that death was kinder than life. “You found your love in your life. You just needed to believe that. But you know what, Christopher? There are a hundred shades of death. You must have read them in poems, or seen their interpretations in television. But I’m here to tell you that you haven’t seen them all. Let me show you the hundredth one.”
She walked by my side, her hand still holding mine. When we reached the park, I was so depressed to see Bill still waiting. He had probably fallen asleep. I did not want to watch any more of it. I begged her to leave, but she insisted on staying. “You cannot leave without seeing the complete picture, Christopher.”
We waited by the small wooden boundary. Nobody cared to sit on the bench. I wondered if I was the last old man on earth. I did not know what we were waiting for.
Maybe she wanted me to watch my dog, my friend, starve to death waiting for me. But the next moment I whispered to myself, “No. She isn’t cruel.” A few minutes later, I noticed a little girl in an extremely adorable school uniform climb up on the bench. She was probably waiting for her van. I looked back and saw the board of the school on the other side of the road. I watched her swing her thin legs and hum a tune. But the next thing I saw got me hooked. She looked at the dog lying down almost lifelessly. She climbed down the high bench and sat down on the ground. Her little fingers slowly ran all over Bill’s head, and as they reached the back of his ear, he jerked up. The girl, instead of being scared, laughed out loudly, and the toothless laugh was the best thing I had ever seen. She pulled Bill’s head to her lap. She had no fear of soiling her skirt. She brushed her hand all over Bill, and he seemed to have been longing for that kind of warmth. She opened her water bottle and made Bill drink some of it. And then she opened her tiffin and pulled a piece of bread out. It had jam on it. Bill had never looked more excited. He finished it faster than I could blink. The girl kept on laughing. She called him Tommy. There was no ‘Bill’ now. There was ‘Tommy’. I was so relieved that I could run to the kid, lift her up in my arms and say her ‘Thank you’ a hundred times. The girl thought of something; maybe how happy her mother would be seeing that her daughter had finished her tiffin. She pulled out another half-eaten bread.
I turned to the woman. She was staring at me intently. I smiled, nodded and said, “I am sure bread and jam is better than biscuits.”
She then took me to my home. Now I was sure I was going to see something good here, too. I had found immense faith in her. I knew it was only her name that was cruel. She was just the opposite. When we reached the destination, I saw the same boy smoking under the tree. Perhaps he had the idea that the huge tree at the end of
my garden was the best place to hide and smoke secretly, avoiding known eyes. I waited patiently. When he was about to leave, he looked at my rose plants and walked towards them. He took out his phone and took a few pictures. He even plucked one, maybe for someone special. My eyes beamed with pride. But then he looked at my house. He must have got the news that the owner had died. He slowly walked towards the gate. But something stopped him. I had no idea youth had place for this much of compassion in their hearts. I had lost hope over this generation, but now I wanted to believe everything. He walked back to the small well and picked up the already filled bucket. I smiled, and believed I had seen what I had come to see.
Finally she took me to the café where I found a jovial Timothy sitting before an old woman. His hand gestures indicated he was saying one of his witty jokes again, and the woman, as conspicuously as it could have possibly been, was having a great time. I had always had faith in Timothy’s skills. The last thing I had wanted was to see the old friend drown into the rigmaroles of melancholy just because of me. And yes, neither of them cared to notice the sudden hike in coffee rates.
The women's radiant visage almost whispered in my ears, “See? I told you.” I looked at her and suddenly ran out of words. “I don’t know how to thank you. This one day was… was…”
I smiled. “Yes. Necessary.’’
“Indeed. So Christopher, I ask you again. How was life?””
I knew I had the same answer in my mind. But this time, I believed in the words that were about to emanate. I took a deep breath and said, “Generous.”
She inched closer to me and said, “Now I can say that you, Christopher, have lived a life, and now it has come to an end. You see, you don’t die when you heart stops. You die only after you find your solace.”
She was right. She had to be. She opened her arms wide, and the embrace that would take me to the world, as described by bards amidst whimsical rhymes, summoned me through the most serene melody. I had to answer the call. Life had seen me enough. Now it was death’s turn.