The Undertaker’s Son

Someone wishing you “Good Morning” does not mean the morning is really a good one, especially, when the wish accompanies sad news. One of my neighbours wished me that day and passed on the news of the demise of Shambho. He had succumbed to a prolonged illness.

Shambho was my childhood friend. He joined us often when I and other children of the colony played together. Shambho was a strange friend to have. Our parents did not allow us to bring him into our houses; they warned us against touching him. He was the son of the undertaker who lived in the graveyard near our colony. His orthodox father did not send him to school. But, “orthodox” was actually an excuse used by the ‘learned’ upper class. The real reason is the social divide. Shambho assisted his father in all the cremation and burial ceremonies.

Like any other child of that age, he too was innocent and sentimental. He wore old dresses given away by colony dwellers and stylishly posed in front of the graveyard gate. In our game of Gods, he always played Lord Shankar, the divine destroyer. He smeared his forehead with ash to justify the magnificent form.

Now as grown-ups, we only met when fate made us bump into each other. A gesture with the eyes, a friendly smile or sometimes a word or two; was all we did to keep the friendship alive. The news of his demise brought forth the black and white images of our childhood and I decided to attend his last rites ceremony.

As I went into the graveyard, I noticed that it had not changed much since I last saw it. A strong sense of non-attachment to the worldly belongings beckons in the graveyard. All our mundane rush meets its end in the silence of this place. All our wishes, ambitions and deeds will one day either be burnt to ashes or lay buried deep under the ground.

A little walk through the tombstones took me to Shambho’s home, which was in comparison to ruins after an earthquake. A weak roof, cracked walls decked with layers of ash, termite infested doors and a ghastly darkness filled its interiors. Wrapped in whites, Shambho’s mortal form was laid in the courtyard. There was a peaceful silence on his lifeless face. Free from the bondages of time and space, he slept in ‘Chir Nidra’ (Endless Slumber).

I stood with some other people of the colony who were also waiting for the ceremony to begin. Looking at Shambho’s body awaiting the pyre, a trivial thought crossed my mind:

“Sometimes one has to wait even after he’s gone!”

Shambo’s family consisted of his wife, mother, two daughters and a son. The women folk were sitting silently in a corner, gazing at the dead body of their breadwinner. Strangely, their eyes were void of tears. The environment of graveyard had strangled their feelings to death, for they would have witnessed hundreds of such situations and perhaps, got used to it.

But Mahesh, the only son of Shambo, was not around. My eyes scanned the graveyard until I located him sitting alone on a tomb. The tomb, I recognized, was Shambo’s favourite place since childhood. He would often be spotted sitting there at nights. Occasionally, Mahesh joined him and they both would let the silence speak to them. Love, sometimes has a strange language.

Mahesh was, perhaps, missing his father very much. Being at the tomb, he would have felt as if he was in his father’s company.

Mahesh was fourteen years old and was a carbon copy of Shambho. His life was not much different from that of his father’s (as a child); But, Mahesh went to school. He too had to face the social barrier but he did not care much about that. His eyes shone with brilliance when he expressed his wish to become a doctor. He was the topper of the class and was an excellent orator. In his free time, he decorated the tombs with symbols of life using a piece of charcoal. It was his job to maintain the plants around the tombs. He watered them with patience and cleaned the tombstones as well. Mahesh thought differently in order to get away from this graveyard life. He did odd jobs like cleaning the drain of the colony, helping labourers with whatever he can and so on. His idea was that, such skill would ferry him out of this rotten cage. He was a desperate bird wanting to fly to freedom.

It gives me goose bumps when I think of lives like Shambho and Mahesh’s. Amidst the ruins, the hope for life survives.

There was a silent tiff going on in the hearts of Shambho’s family members that was delaying the cremation ceremony. A group of people whispered among themselves and one of them walked up to Mahesh. They had an exchange of disagreeing nods until Mahesh stood up in compromise and walked quietly into the house. The darkness of his home swallowed him for some time.

When I saw Mahesh coming out of his dark home, my heart sank. A pinching pain that no language could describe, invaded my feelings.

Wearing a thin, white dhoti and a black blanket hung over his left shoulder, He stood in the courtyard as if posing to the world, his new ‘avatar’. He held a bamboo stick in his hand that, till yesterday, belonged to his father. A turban on his head crowned him to be the new master of the graveyard. At the sight of it, the women of the family burst out into wails.

It was now that Shambo was really dead for them.

Mahesh would now carry forward the legacy of his family. One more generation will rot in the ruins of the graveyard.

But Mahesh acted with maturity. Like any other undertaker, he arranged the pyre and did all the jobs of an undertaker. Then, he laid his father’s body over the pyre and circled it thrice, holding a pitcher of water over his shoulder and broke it as directed by elders. He completed the duties of a son by lighting up the pyre. Doing so, he granted his father eternal freedom.

The pyre burnt brilliantly. It shone in Mahesh’s eyes, thereby reducing his dreams of freedom to ashes. The silent struggle had met its cold end. He had accepted it as his fate. Willingly or otherwise, I don’t know.

While returning home, the long said words of Shambho echoed through my memories.

“Dear Sir…after you die, your wife and women folk will only see you till the threshold of your house, your friends will only be there till the boundary of the pyre, and your son would lit the pyre and return without even turning back. After that, it is only me who will look after your safe travel to the greater world. Somebody should do this job. It’s the fate of our family and I accept it with grace.”

A tear escaped my eye and I wiped it quickly.

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