Thursday 24 November 2022

Amar Agarwala, Short Story 2022 Second Prize

Flowers For Rev. Walter James

The setting sun had outlined the skies in hues of orange and streaks of crimson, it signalled the end of a long and typically hot summer afternoon. Yet, there was no respite from the heat which seemed to singe the city and its dwellers, who were scurrying homewards for some respite from the heat and grime. Somewhere in the maze of the late afternoon traffic, Samuel Conners was driving back home after a long day, he was tired after his umpteen marketing calls and he had to attend quite a few that day. His car did not have air-conditioning and the temperature within its confines was stifling, despite the fact that his glass windows were down, it made him sweat profusely. The traffic lights at the crossing of Mayo Road turned red, and Samuel halted his car near the zebra crossing, he cursed the traffic policeman under his breath. Anything that seemed to delay him from reaching his house seemed unwanted; all he wanted was to reach home, sit under the fan and stretch out his tired legs.

He desperately wished that there was no load-shedding at home, when he noticed a young boy standing near his window with a bunch of fresh blue and red gladiolas. The boy was hardly eight or maybe nine, reed-thin, bare-bodied and was wearing torn knickers. The flowers looked strangely tempting and the boy’s eyes gave the impression that he was hungry and in great need to sell his ware.

“Saheb, these flowers are freshly picked- just twenty rupees and you may have them.”

Samuel looked at the boy and then at the flowers, the lights did not show signs of changing as the heavy traffic on Chowringhee flowed endlessly. He shifted wearily in his seat and looked at the boys eyes, “Why twenty? These flowers cannot cost as much as you say,” he was just biding his time.

“Saheb, I have picked it from quite far and have walked almost five miles to come here. Besides… I have been standing in the sun for long and am tired and hungry. Alright, how much would you pay for them…?” so saying he thrust the flowers at Samuel’s face.

Samuel was not keen to buy, yet he thought it would be a nice idea to take a bunch home to Alicia – his wife, she would be happy. He knew she liked to put up fresh flowers in the vase standing atop the television set in the living room.

“Fine, I’ll pay you ten rupees,” so saying he waited for the boy’s response, who seemed restless and in deep thought.

“Saheb, please pay me fifteen rupees and they are yours. You see I have younger siblings, they are hungry too,” he was playing his last card and it was a sentimental one.

Samuel felt sorry for the boy, his vulnerability and large expressive eyes were anguished and pleading. Samuel, fished out his wallet and quickly paid up the sum and took the flowers. The boy’s eyes lit up with a smile and he quickly saluted his benefactor and sprinted across the road into the nearby Maidan. Just then the traffic lights turned green, as if it had taken cue that the exchange was complete. Samuel geared his car into motion and sped towards Shakespeare Sarani, when he should have turned into Park Street, where he lived – just off Park Lane.

Almost about twenty minutes of driving, he entered the deserted Allenby Road and came to halt beside the Bhowanipur Cemetery. Having parked, he got out, not before he had taken the bunch of gladiolas in his hands. The large iron gates of the entrance looked down at him obtrusively, and he stood a shade uncertain, peering into the murky world of dead. Dusk was rapidly gathering all around as he slowly walked into the precincts, and stood near the undertaker’s office, which was to his left. He was shocked at himself, for he had not the faintest of idea why he had come to the graveyard, nor any inkling of what he would do there. He had driven down in a daze as if some inner compulsion had brought him there and he knew not the cause behind it all, contemplating such thoughts he almost bumped into the old caretaker. He was a wrinkled old man, short, hunched with a creased weather worn face; he seemed to look at him with a hint of recognition in his withered eyes. Then without warning he said in a hoarse, crackling voice, “Son, you have come to put flowers on the grave of Rev.Walter James?”

“…Yes,” Samuel answered unsure why he said so. As if someone within had spoken the single syllable and he wondered that had he affirmed the negative, what would he say he was doing there. The old man looked at him with a hint of warmth and then said with a wry smile, “I suppose, you are not sure of where to find him…?” so saying he limped ahead along the cobblestone pathway gesturing him to follow. Samuel walked behind the old grave-keeper into the silence of the cemetery, rend occasionally by the shrill chirping of homebound birds, nesting in the trees which abounded there. After a walk of some hundred metres, they came to halt near a grave, which had a polished grey granite stone with the writings:

Reverend Walter James

Born: 5th November, 1879

Died: 7th September,1967

(May the Gods grant him eternal peace, love and joy, and bless his soul with their choicest blessings and all that he shared with his fellow men while on Earth. Amen!.)

Samuel stood stupefied near the grave, looking down at the headstone with a sense of awe and wonder. Slowly he bend down and put the gladiolas on the grave and closed his eyes in a little prayer. When he opened his eyes, the old grave-keeper was yet standing beside. Seemed he wanted to say something.

“Son, I have been here many years, and always on the seventh of September, like today, the Ikbalpur Methodist Church sends a beautiful bouquet of gladiolas for the Reverend on his death anniversary. I am told he served there until he passed away; and was quite fond of these flowers. There is very little security in this place, so often the flowers put on the graves are stolen by the neighbourhood boys, who are poor and steal out of compulsion.”

“But what do they do with them?” Samuel asked curiously.

“Sell them to passers-by at the road sides and even to shops, those who are looking for a cheap buy.”

“Not surprisingly, every year the flowers on Late Rev.James gets stolen but astonishingly they always and inevitably return here the same day – as it has today.”

Samuel looked at the ageing grave-keeper with look of disbelief and wonder, “What do you mean… ? Were these flowers stolen from his grave?”

“Oh yes! This morning, I was the one who had put them on the grave when the church’s emissary delivered them to me, early in the morning. I know this bunch of gladiolas too well,” he spoke with a faint luminance in his eyes.

“But I bought them at Park Street… a small boy on the streets sold them to me and I bought them for….,” Samuel was unsure of what to say next.

“I know… I know… you must have got them for someone special but you see the Reverend has his ways. He was a man of God, and little things which he was fond of, are his forever, specially when they are from the Lord himself,” so saying the grave-keeper gave an amused chuckle.

“To be honest, I did not even know why I came here…,” Samuel almost whispered.

“You bet… I know that and even that you had no idea who the Reverend was until I told you so.”


“Well! Young man, know that you have made the Revered very happy by returning his favoured flowers. You have been an emissary of God this evening. Do pray to the Reverend before you leave, he will bring your wishes true… ,”so saying the old man limped away with a wave of his hands, the growing darkness gradually engulfing his slight frame from sight.

Samuel stood for a long time, near the grave of Revered Walter James. Nothing like this had ever happened to him and he was speechless at the task he had done… without the faintest of inkling. Then he did what the grave-keeper had asked him to do, he bend down near the grave, crossed himself and prayed for his little boy, who was quite unwell and was running high fever since the past few days. Much later, when Samuel returned home, his wife was askance about his late coming and whereabouts; he had not even answered his cell-phone. Samuel was a little too disoriented in answering her, besides he was a trifle surprised that he was no longer feeling tired and weary. Just asked her how was Billy, their eight year old son, to which she answered that he had no fever since late that afternoon and had gone to play in the neighbour’s house with his friends. Samuel, closed his eyes momentarily and prayed to the Reverend, for having granted his wish… he even thanked the little boy who had sold him the flowers. Then he prayed for all of them, including the old grave-keeper, as the evening star shined bright through his window sill. Perhaps it bore omens from another world – the world of the un-dead; where a Godly man stood watchful over his grave, to correct the wrong doings of the living with his fathomless affections and blessings. For even though Rev.Walter James had long shed his cassock, he had not shed the responsibilities bestowed upon him by the Lord – to love his fellow-men and bless them from his final resting place. Where the gates of heaven stood ajar – to let mortals glimpse the beacon of light cascading from of the House of God.

The world of the un-dead reverberates with vibrant activities not easily understood by the living. Samuel Conners, felt the grace and blessings of Rev.Walter Jones, whom he did not know until that fateful day… it was a lesson he learnt as divinity answered his prayers in a fashion stranger than he ever imagined. There are times, when even an inert grave touches our lives in more ways than one – perhaps its God’s way of helping us to hold on to our faith, which flounders in the midst of countless responsibilities. When that happens, we get a fresh lease of life… and more amazing being that, it is often bestowed by those who no longer walk this earth, yet journey along the path of divinity – and we mortals are to merely follow their revered footsteps in our own infinite journey into Light...!

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