Thursday 1 September 2016

Short Story 2016 Third Prize Debasish Mishra

The Cremator

Normally, a man started to weaken as he approached towards the eighties. Teeth succumbed. Hair greyed or disappeared. The skin, with wrinkles everywhere, flapped like a silken cloth. Bones became vulnerable like glass. Fragility prevailed. However, out of all exceptions, Hari was, probably, the most prominent one. Excepting the grey hue of his hairy-head and the sparsely scattered snowy hair on his chest, which looked like ageless creepers, he was quite a young man. His dark lusty muscles were enough to induce a shudder, even in the college-goers. He was a benefactor not only for his village Jangar but also for many of the surrounding villages. When anyone around him died, he undertook the responsibility of cremation in return of a few rupees. He did not arrange for the wood and the other necessaries that were demanded as per rituals and traditions. He had nothing to do with the priestly activities, which boasted of purging the dead and repelling the evil spirits with jargonized intonations. In fact, he only supervised the cremation; the melting of the corpse to a totally different avatar, crackling at times with terrifying noises, flaring a few sparks out of nowhere, and breaking into fragments under the all-encompassing fire. After the fire was lit – preferably by the eldest son of the deceased – his task was to prod the fire with a wooden log, moving the woods towards the intensity of the fire, or shoving the upper half of the body that rebelliously rose after some time of burning, until the corpse dismantled and transformed to a deadly spectacle. Quite rightly, he was regarded as the cremator.

He lived in a small hut situated in the vicinity of the crematorium, the large patch of unoccupied land towards the fringes of Jangar. In order to pass his time, he had formed a little garden of flowers and vegetables just adjacent to his hut. Roses, tulips and lilies of several colours – red, lilac, yellow and white – bloomed in unison singing eulogies of the majesty of beauty. A few creepers of ivy gourds – that grew on their own like the bushes that circled his circumference – climbed the walls of his hut, like reptiles. As many as ten banana trees stood firmly on one side of the garden like persons in a queue. A few plants of tomato, onion and brinjal were cultivated behind the banana leaves.  Almost a hundred metres away, opposite of the crematorium, there was a temporary pond that brimmed in the rainy season. When the pond was at spate, it harboured a host of frogs, whose croaking along with the whirring of the crickets stabbed the silence of the hut at night. After years of patient hearing, Hari had discovered a soothing melody in the voice of those emotional creatures as if he understood their language. His faculties of hearing had reduced abysmally over the years, yet the sounds reached him impeccably. The rainy season was his favourite. In addition to the solace that he elicited in rainy nights, there were other reasons too. The soft drizzle over the banana-leaves produced a spectacle of joy. The drops atop the leaves sparkled like gems and Hari exulted like a child just to see the drops falling, glistening, like bounties from heaven. He wished to see the glitter throughout his life, incessantly. A few insolent kids – bare bodied and frail - from the nearby villages roared and frolicked near the pond. They would sit in the bank in the quest of a rare fish as though they were professional anglers. They never found one. Hari often screamed at them, scared of the fact that someone could easily drown in the turbulent waters. He believed that children had little idea about the transience and importance of life. He had seen a thousand dead bodies of children who died premature deaths due to diseases, accidents and, often, ignorance. In the summer, the pond dried completely and the cracks became visible like a pencil-sketch, akin to the cracks in the walls of the hut of the old man. The frogs and their songs disappeared to oblivion. However, adults and incipient adults (either from Jangar or from the nearby villages) often visited the place with a bottle of liquor or a few cigarettes or both. There was an old man, a tad younger to Hari, who illicitly sold liquor in the village. He charged double the price but his presence did away with the inconvenience of travelling all the way to the nearby town for a mere bottle of wine. The villagers preferred his service unless they had some unavoidable errands in the town or had someone coming from the town to their village.      

More often, Hari slept outside, occasionally watching the funeral pyres as they illuminated and smouldered endlessly, finally making space for other bodies. He was often woken by the melancholic chants of “Ram naam satya hai” by a host of men clad in white, who carried the corpse in a bamboo-bier, draped with flowers. He never displayed an ounce of reluctance, no matter what the time was, no issue how his health was! He involved himself with unmatched fervour – hiding his fever or the trifling indisposition if that ever existed. He had no sign of fear. Some people believed that he conversed with ghosts in the night. Some also opined that he was an exponent of black magic.  Maybe, that is why he had a very few visitors unless his service was utmost necessary. In other words, only a death in the family reminded the villagers of Hari. However, there was unanimous agreement that he was extremely fearless and courageous.

He was reminded of several anecdotes while the corpses crumbled to ashes. He had seen the decay of generations in his naked eyes. For instance, he had torched the zamindar, his brothers, his cousins, his father, his uncles and his grandfather. Unfortunately, the lineage ended with the demise of the middle-aged Zamindar who had no heir to succeed him.
The people of Jangar and the nearby villages could hardly forget that eventful day when the dead body of the ex-MLA was jauntily set ablaze with the help of the old man's experience. It was raining relentlessly. The body anointed with pure ghee was placed at the pile of imported sandalwood. No one had expected the fire to cope up and stand against the heavy downpour. But Hari had other intentions. He had mastered the art of burning corpses and the inclement weather was hardly a challenge for him. He tactfully cloaked one side of the funeral with a tent-like-structure and allowed the fire to gain momentum with plenty of kerosene oil. He, in fact, invented the tent-like-structure with the use of fireproof and waterproof cloth. Subsequently, he shifted the tent-like-structure to the other directions and the fire grew in intensity. The onlookers, mostly VIPs, standing under white umbrellas, stared at him with awe and wonder. Even the memory of that unforgettable night instigated a smile in the cheeks of Hari.
Whenever the son of the dead MLA visited the village, he made it a habit to get a packet of tobacco for Hari. Hari was often seen in his antique cot – placing a pinch of tobacco in his right palm and rubbing it gently with his left thumb, making it ready to be gulped. He was alive for mainly two reasons, according to him – the irreplaceable service that he provided and tobacco.
A tiny schoolchild, frail and fragile like a raw bamboo, once visited the old man while he was usually sitting in his string cot, chewing tobacco, and witnessing the beautiful birds and butterflies. 
“Why have you come here? Your parents will kill you if they find you in my place.”
Hari had a very few visitors. Most of the visitors would approach him for his service of cremation. Hence, he was scandalized to see the child in his place, that was located at a fair distance from the village.
“I need your help.”
Startled, Hari asked, “My help?”
As per his belief, he was only meant to help the dead. For a moment, Hari thought that the child might have lost either of his parents.
“My teacher has asked me to write an essay on ‘Life and death’”, the child stuttered.
Hari laughed and said, “There are many educated men in our village. You can seek their advice. How can I help you?”
“You are the cremator. You have seen a thousand deaths. Nobody can dictate a better essay than you.”

The chest of the old man swelled with pride. A curve prevailed over his lips.
“What is your name, by the way?” he asked.
“Raju”, the child returned, licking his fingers.
“Nice name. I had a friend named Raju who died a few years ago”, the old man reflected.
“Please help me in my essay”, the child pestered.
The old man cogitated on the crematorium, that was bleak and blank like the skies above.
“Life is a journey and death is the end. But who knows! They say there is life after death too. I think that death is just an aberration. A speed-breaker. A reality we do not know. But ignorance is not non-existence.”
The little kid was flummoxed by the philosophies delineated by the old man. Even a middle-aged man would have been puzzled at the tenets preached by him.
The boy – in a bid to drag the topic to understandable terms – asked, “You were born before independence. You must have done the cremation of some freedom-fighter.”
Hari contemplated on his garden, displaying a radiant smile.
“Yeah, I have torched some luminaries who lost their lives during the freedom struggle. Interestingly, I have even burnt the corpses of some policemen, though clandestinely, to help our brothers in their cause.”
The smile widened as Hari’s mind meandered through the vistas of the past.
After some time, the child left for his village, Wekhuli, leaving Hari with his delectable pastime of watching the birds and butterflies. The birds crooned mellifluously. The butterflies – black, yellow and some black ones neatly specked with yellow dots – hovered over the flowers and the garden, bidding adieu to the setting sun.

A few days later, the child – befriended by another child of almost the same age – visited the abandoned hut of Hari.
“He is my cousin, Monu. He has come to our house on a vacation. When I told him about you, he was curious to meet you”, the boy narrated with a gaping mouth.
The other boy, Monu, smiled coyly from behind.
Looking at the excitement of the boys, Hari thought, “I was never a watchable object. These kids have made me an animal of the zoo. An object of the circus.”
Catering to their childish demands, Hari exhibited a smile and asked, “Where do you live, Monu?”
Raju, with his loquaciousness, answered, “He lives in Mumbai”.
Hari, for a moment, thought that the child was either dumb or an excessively shy fellow because the question was thrown at him and not on Raju.
Breaking the scepticism of Hari, Monu, the boy from Mumbai, said, “My father drives an auto-rickshaw in Mumbai. The traffic there is awful. My father has narrowly missed many accidents by a whisker. But accidents occur abundantly. If you come to Mumbai, you will get a lot many corpses to burn everyday.”

Hari laughed at the suggestion as if it were a joke.
He was also happy for the fact that Monu spoke many sentences uninterruptedly.
“I have lived all my life in Jangar. Mumbai is far away. I have not been to Srabanpur. To be candid, I am happy here. This place suits me. The hut, the garden with flowers and vegetables, that field which becomes a pond during the rains and homes the frogs, the birds and butterflies, the crematorium, and the corpses that I burn, are my own. I have a deep sense of ownership on all these things. Leaving them will be a death for me!”

The boys stared at him, unblinkingly, unable to decipher the degree of his nostalgia.
The philosopher in Hari possibly bored them. After answering to their queries, that moved from the freedom struggle to the cremation of the MLA, Hari asked them to leave. He never wanted the kids to stay with him till the sunset. Wekhuli was a couple of kilometres away and the kids had to reach home early to evade the ire of their parents.

Hari was slowly becoming fond of Raju’s company. The frequency of the visits increased over the period of time. It so happened that every afternoon, Raju arrived at Hari’s place, after returning from school, and accompanied the old man in viewing the birds and butterflies. He watered the plants in the garden with clinical attention, allowing the old man to take rest. He lambasted the old man for his inveterate habit of consuming tobacco and the latter promised to give up the addiction, someday. On some occasions, he brought mangoes for the old man. These were mostly stolen from the backyard of the school. Hari castigated him, initially refusing to accept them, but finally gave up to the diffidence of the little kid. He often bestowed the child with flowers and vegetables. For all these years, Hari was lonely in the abandoned place. He sought solace in the birds, the butterflies, the frogs and the other inanimate things. For the first time, he was close to a human being. The influx of Raju to his life generated a strange kind of happiness that he was not aware of, since his birth. He understood the importance of human presence, the necessity of a family. Despite the differences of age, he regarded the child as his friend. His best friend.

Hari enjoyed a sense of ownership over Raju. He even went to the extent of slapping the boy on his cheeks on one occasion when the tender boy was attempting to annihilate a beehive located just outside the fence of his hut. Raju responded with tears but he did not utter a word of objection.
“The bees will attack you. That is one thing. Most importantly, their homes will be destroyed. How will you react when your own home is obliterated?”

Raju had no answer to the inquisition. He realized that he was at fault. However, the old man hugged him with his lusty muscles and apologized for his anger. Raju promised not to repeat his insolence.
Meanwhile, the favourite season of Hari arrived with the advent of the monsoons. The earth was embellished like a bride with the chandelier of lush verdure all around. Some drops shone over the leaves. Some trickled from them. Together, they added aesthetics to the panorama of beauty.
Raju was not seen for a week or more. Initially, Hari believed that the relentless rains that accentuated in the afternoon might have hindered the arrival of his little friend.
“He must be returning to his home directly from the school. How can he come to me during heavy downpour?” he thought.

He sought solace in the beauty of the aura, amidst the myriad worms and insects (that cropped up exclusively during the rains), the familiar birds, butterflies, and the mellifluous frogs. After all, these were the sources of ecstasy, long before he met Raju.
Days passed. The impact of the rains somewhat dwindled. It had been a month since he last saw his little friend. Unable to contain his impatience, he ventured into Wekhuli, which was a different spectacle of what he had conjectured. Colourful houses had replaced the old-modelled-clay-clad huts that he had seen a long time ago. He did not remember when he last saw the place. He never had the urge to visit this village. Things essential for a living were available to him in his solitary world. If necessary, he travelled to the main market of Jangar that was half a kilometre away from the crematorium.

There was a big playground in the centre of the village. It was a wasteland with unwanted trees and bushes at some point of time. People were scared of it as it sheltered a variety of venomous snakes. However, time triggered the unexpected transitions.
“Even the crematorium will become a colony of the new generation someday”, he thought. 
He beckoned a kid from the playground and asked him about Raju.
“He is ill. He is suffering from fever since a month”, the kid replied.
“Where do they live?” he quizzed.
The boy pointed his finger to a house at a fair distance and said, “That one”.
Hari ambled as per the direction of the little boy to the house in red.
He stood outside the door. Before he could knock the door, he was pulled back by a strange kind of hesitation.

“What will his parents say? I belong to the world of the dead. Even my shadow is considered to be inauspicious by them.”
Restraining himself, he decided to return.
However, his desire to see Raju was intense.
He, therefore, surreptitiously glanced through the window at the bed where poor Raju was lying like an inanimate object.
“Get well soon, my friend! I am missing you”, he whispered, before returning to his world.
A couple of weeks passed and there was no news on Raju. The rains intensified once again. The croaking of the frogs escalated with every passing night. On one such night, while Hari was attuned to their passionate songs, he was interrupted by fervent knocks at the door.
“Perhaps someone has left this world. Oh God!" He said to himself.
A visitor in the night to his hut was, unmistakably, a member or a delegate from the family of the bereaved.

When Hari opened the door, he saw a throng of sinewy men, each with a lantern in hand, standing on the other side. A few of them carried umbrellas. The others, vulnerably exposed to the relentless rains, stood helplessly while the faint light of the lanterns fell on their faces and manifested the dripping of the raindrops, one by one, from their wet and dishevelled hairs.
“What happened? Who has expired?” Hari asked with utter dismay.

He could surmise that something was wrong. This was not a usual death. Such a throng was only expected in connection to the demise of an influential personality like a Zamindar or a MLA.
“The one you had plotted for”, a man from within the mob grunted loudly, pointing to a corpse that was laid amid an array of wooden logs in the crematorium. A few tearful faces, clad in white, circled the pyre, while the priest was carrying on his intonations.

“What?” Hari asked in surprise.
“Your black magic has yielded fruits. Raju is dead”, someone mumbled. A moment later, a man from within the crowd broke down and lost his senses. The others rushed him into the hut. He was Raju’s father.

The earth below the feet of Hari quaked for a moment. A lightning flashed in the skies in consistence with the tempestuous interior of the cremator. His heart skipped a beat or two.
“What are you saying?” the old man asked, in a tone gravid with angst, shock and disbelief, refusing to believe his ears. It seemed as though the tears were held back in the brink of his eyes.
Another man returned, “Some people had seen the kid in your hut on myriad occasions. The village folk saw even your entry to the village in search of Raju. You cannot deny the fact that Raju was a victim of your black magic”.

Abuses were hurled in unison.
“Why did you kill the small boy? What harm did he cause to you?” another irate villager asked.
“Black magic! What are you saying? I loved Raju. He was like my son”, Hari averred, as his voice started to smart, his eyes glistened like stars.
“How did you know him?” someone quizzed.

“He had first come to my place to seek my help for his essay. Then, he came after some days on his own. I never invited him. Gradually, I was fond of his company. The visits increased. He watered my plants, nourished my garden and heard my stories… And then when he did not come for a month or so, I went to the village to see what had happened!”
The irksome mob paid no heed to his explanation.
“So you will guide the children of our village for their studies. What will the teachers like me do then?” an angry man, with thick glasses, cried tersely.

Before Hari could respond, they dragged him to the outside as the skies continued to pour relentlessly. Someone punched him on his face and he fell on the ground. The angry men beat him mercilessly with wooden sticks. Some of them kicked him vigorously. Some pounded him with lusty blows. A thin stream of blood emanated from a corner of his head. Hari was helpless. He did not retaliate. But the venom of the villagers was uncompromising. After an hour of brutal assault, they went away. The rains had subsided and the corpse of Raju was set ablaze with plenty of kerosene fuelling the fire. Strange! The villagers so easily did a task for which, Hari thought, he was indispensable.

He crawled towards the crematorium with dying intensity, inching ahead with all his force, leaving behind a trail of red all along his path. The frogs from the nearby pond croaked again. But this time, their songs sounded like an elegy. A requiem.

“This might be a punishment for Raju’s attempt to destroy the beehive”, Hari pondered.
He had lost ample blood in the commotion. The stream of blood refused to stop. It flew endlessly… as though it was destined to end with the last trickle. Hari believed that he would never see the morning. He would never meet those birds and butterflies again!
After reaching the crematorium, he sat prostrate, with his knee kissing his chin, and wistfully stared at the funeral pyre, while the hundred memories of Raju flashed before his eyes. He was occupied by a strange mix of sorrow and regret.

The next day, the hut of Hari was torched by the villagers. The garden of beautiful flowers and vegetables was obliterated. The birds and butterflies were displaced. But the villagers did not find him. In fact, they never found him again! Some believed that he left the place. Some thought that the old man had succumbed to the injuries and was therefore buried somewhere with the fear of the MLA’s son who happened to be a loyal partisan of the old man. Some people also conjectured that his apparition was seen near the pond in the dead of the night exclusively in the rainy season, relishing the songs of the frogs.  In fact, the disappearance of the cremator became a mystery, a mystery that was never unravelled!

An year later, Monu, who had been to the village on a vacation, came to the abandoned area with a group of his friends. He pointed a finger at the debris and said to them like a professional guide, “There lived the cremator!”

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