The landline was the first one to wail. It had last spoken a few years back, of that old grandma, in a far-away village, who could still recall those 7 digits of her nephew’s home phone. The grandma could no longer call from where she was now, and yet the landline broke its silence once again that morning.
It was the mother who picked it up. Soon, her body dropped to the floor and she gave a loud, painful shriek... one that would reverberate and haunt the neighborhood for a long long time....
It was really a chilly morning in November, made colder by the news that circulated from door to door and cell phone to cell phone. A cutting breeze swept through the streets, passing the dead Autumn leaves from one to the other. The air was thick with gloom. Clouds hung low with dark despair, shedding their tears in between on the somber occasion.
The dogs howled and bayed as I passed the front gate of the house, along with the other neighbors.
It was a large gathering. Some white clothed, some white-faced. There must not be enough room inside for everyone, for some stood chatting in the veranda. Chairs were brought in by the neighbors from their houses, on which the elderly sat. People were pouring in, cousins, uncles, aunts, distant relatives, friends who skipped college, neighbors, Departmental store uncle, Grocery store owner, the postmaster, all had come to pay their respect to the deceased. I could recognize some of the faces from the photographs he had shown me some time back. He really did have a buffet of family members. It was an impressive array of faces they had put on display now, at his death.
Indeed it was grave and tragic that had pulled up such a huge crowd. Tragic... for it was death by accident, and grave... because the boy was just 19.
I overheard his father’s brother detailing the postmaster about what had happened. “The boy had apparently left for college on his bike... so happy and cheerful he was, his mother says...”
‘Happy and cheerful...’, well, he was always hyperventilating while talking about college. Though he could not get admission to the one he desired, it did not dampen his spirits in any way. He was always among the toppers of his batch, and an all-round performer. He was so enthralled the day his band won the youth festival. He would refuse to take off that gold medal for a full week, after winning the inter-college badminton tournament. I remember him reading that story a 100 times to me, which won the regional level competition. No doubt he would have been beaming from side to side while riding for college.
“And then,” the uncle continued, “just as he approached the New Market Intersection, a speeding truck rammed... it just rammed into my son, and he died on the spot.” I thought I heard his voice break at the end there, but he just paused a little and normally went on, “Some say he moved before his light was green; some say it was the truck that broke the signal. The matter is not yet cleared up. The Police have the driver in custody,” the uncle broke off for a moment and said, “Though we know how these youngsters drive these days, don’t we?”
The postmaster nodded fervently with heavy sighs, asking God to grant peace to his soul.
As I stepped inside now, I saw a whole mass of people packed closely together. The sofas and the big table had been left alone to grieve in a corner. When we were younger, we had always thought how much more space would be available for cricket, had all that furniture been put aside. Well, there it was now, about 50 sat around on the field, with the body kept on the pitch. It was an interesting assembly, the closer the people sat to the body, the more bitterly were they crying. I squeezed myself in between the strongly perfumed cousin and her well dressed mother.
The body was fully covered with white sheet. The face bore a lot of bruises, so was only shown to the new arrivals, and then covered again. The face that was so well known- in school, around the college, on social networking platforms- a symbol of pride for the family and the relations, now lay, hidden behind a thin stretch of fabric- too ugly... too unnerving for anyone to rest their eyes on.
It was eerily quiet, save for a sob here, or a snivel there. I was silently observing and analyzing the faces around.
Just near the wounded boy, was his mother, looking ever so pale.... so worn out.... exhausted off her own tears. She could not sit still, so she drooped upon the silently sobbing father by her side. It was 4 hours since the accident. I think the tears might have dried up by now for she wasn’t crying. She just stared blankly, numbly at her only child who lay dead before her. She had always made sure that he should pick up all the good hobbies, trust all the loyal people, question all the right questions, and be kind to all good and bad. She had dreamed so much about him scaling the greatest of heights; that he would marry one day, have kids. And she would relive her son’s childhood in them, watching them grow, while she hobbled towards her own end. His Dad had given into his plea to buy him that guitar, to play his heart out; gifted him a camera to capture the world and the best racket to smash his opponents.
But now he was lying in front, reduced to a lean, broken, lifeless, huddle of flesh and bones... and nothing more...
The parents were an utter mess. He would tell me all about what they did for him, how much they cared for him, and just how much he wanted to ‘return their pay-check’, as he would say. He really loved them, really did... but could never express it. I’m sure if he knew it were to end like this, he would have opened up a little more, hugged a tad tighter, thanked more often, and loved a more selfless love.
For me, I could not speak; was at a loss of words, cold and quiet. We had been in touch since a long time. He would discuss about all his schedules and plans for the day, the next week, a full month, and the next 5 years. I knew him well enough to say that he was an embodiment of potential, brimmed with passion and vigor- a boy who wanted to rule the world.
A billionth fraction of that land was where he was fallen... asleep. It wasn’t just a 19 year old that got crushed today, a lot more did... and not a soul in the room had any idea...
It was time now to take the body to the funeral grounds. There was a slight delay, because his mother’s sister was still on the way from the city. He would have liked the delay, for sure, not for the aunt though, but for that girl in the English Honors batch. That’s how he referred her, when he told me about their first conversation. “How lively! How beautiful! Oh, those eyes!!...” He would go on and on... They had known each other for about a month, and he felt now might be the right time. He had thought that he would recite that poem he had written the first day he saw her, and he would do that today, after college.
Well, I don’t even think if she’s got the news yet.
As the wait prolonged, people were getting a bit restless. There were phones vibrating, an occasional ring or two, and the uncle would be like, “Yes, it’ll just take another hour. I’ll join you guys at the office by 2.” The cousin next to me was texting about being bored to some “Hunny”, and was coaxing him to pick her up from the funeral grounds itself. Her mother opened up the front cam of her cell, and checked if her veil covered her head properly. Good, they could not notice me, peering into their phones.
The aunt had arrived. The head priest began mumbling prayers, while the mother was held by 2-3 people to help her in case she’d swoon again. People were glancing from one to another. And if they exchanged looks at chance, they would quickly shut their eyes and put on a serious face. It was quite an intriguing sight.
By the time they had mounted him on a wooden stretcher, people had already begun a procession towards the nearest crematorium. It was half a mile from the house, so they decided to go on foot. We used to go to those dead grounds at night when we were kids. We would call our friends, joined our hands together and tried to contact the souls and spirits of those who had left us, by calling out their names.... Well, it wasn’t that childish after all.....
2 able bodied cousins and 2 burly friends carried the light-weight frame on their shoulders. And thus began the Last Journey of the boy. For someone who wanted to explore foreign land, travel the globe, half a mile seemed a heavy bargain. One of the morticians lead the crowd, shouting the name of God. “Rest in Peace”, “Have mercy, O Lord”, people would repeat after him like a parrot, looking into their cell phones or attending urgent calls in between.
Rest assured, it wasn’t the same world, the same society, I had known all these years, that I saw today. It was remarkably different. I knew most of the people would forget the whole affair in an hour or so. Some might take a few days. But the only people who would have to live with an eternal void would be the parents. Their only son... their young prince was being carried away on his wooden chariot to conquer the land of no return. Indeed it was the longest and most burdensome journey for them. For others, part of an unsocial society of nuclear bombs and nuclear families; no matter how proud they were of his talents, or how many times they rang up when he was sick, it was just a matter of hours.
No, it wasn’t the same world I had lived in up until yesterday.
We reached the crematorium. Morticians had already set the woods upon which the body was to be placed. The cold had alleviated a bit, thanks to the sun peeping through the clouds. Gusts of wind, however, continued to sough and sigh through the region. It was all very quiet now, save for the stifled moaning and choking of the mother.
Amidst the huge congregation, the body was put carefully on the wooden logs and covered by a multitude of white cotton sheets. Perhaps because it was late in November; and also he had thin clothing on.
Just then a puff of wind swept across and fumbled through those sheets, as if counting them. But then, the left foot of the boy lay exposed. People were forced to look away, for it showed crimson red blood, half-dried all over his foot, or whatever remained of it. The toes were missing or disfigured and it was a terrible sight altogether. The people working on the sheets hastily covered it again. Maybe God didn’t accept unpackaged stuff too.
Woods were piled up over the fragile body as well, but it would not hurt now. Oil was put all over him, but he would not whine. A fire was set by the father who’d jump at his pettiest of wounds, but he would not protest. Pain, suffering, anguish... he was way over all of them. He was just.... burning, that is, to say, for the people around. For me, indeed, it was a lot more.
He was really close to me. While others saw just an assemblage of talent and youth, I saw.... a flame... much much brighter and fierier than the fire... that now engulfed him. As the blazing tips of the fire now rose higher and higher in the cold breeze, I saw.... the smoldering of a future. No! It wasn’t just a body or skin or bones, it was a whole world, a generation that went into the fire along with. Who knows, what changes, what inspirations, what great stories, he had in store for the times to come. But at the moment, he was.... burning. He wanted to leave his mark on the world.... the same world that had now shrunk him to ash and dust. His will to love... love a total stranger... and be loved... Oh, that poor heart... had just begun to pace.... and now it hangs alone in the thick air, vaporized from the heat.
And the society, the people.... well, why would they care.... they didn’t know any of it anyway. For them, it was just a poor young boy, who met with an accident... a boy who was.... burning.
Eventually, people began to take their leave. They hugged the parents goodbye and hurried off on their respective wheels. The morticians had been paid for the day, and they scampered off for lunch too. The parents bore a look of daze and confusion, not knowing where to go now. Transparent as I was now, to the opaqueness of this world, even I didn’t know where to go from here.
The parents left too, supported by their brothers and sisters, who had stayed behind. I was left there, all alone. I watched the dead and dry, reddish-orange leaves float by. I wondered if there was an end to their journey, or if they would just pass on from one street to another.
The sun was out now and was shyly shining through the haze. The wind had dropped quite a bit. The dust had settled... for good. Dust... it was all that had left.
Or was it?
The fire was slowly fading out as I walked out of the dead house. I crossed the busy road just outside it, not bothering about the vehicles.; went straight towards the colony park and settled down on a corner bench.
My left foot.... aahhh..... it had been hurting for a while now.... No doubt, it had been a crippling day....
I glanced around for a moment. And just as I rested my eyes on my foot... there it was...
Crimson red blood.... half dried....
And yes, they weren’t there....
The last two toes.