A Shirtless Man at a Graveyard

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A late October dull afternoon in a Murshidabad village.

Kalu dealer died. He fell from the roof and died. Hemorrhage for an hour and untimely death.  Villagers of all ages assembled in clean white dress to bury him at Ebadatnagar burial ground.

Kalu, aged fifty, partly bald, was a popular man. Black and lean, snub-nosed, a patient with high blood pressure and sugar suffered a stroke.  His original title was Biswas, Kalu Biswas. But people one day forgot his title, and he was commonly called a Kalu dealer. Kalu did not mind as he had a ration shop. Sometimes he was pained at the mutilation of his title. Next, he was willingly resigned to his fate.

“What will I do with ‘Biswas’? Is it going to pay me more? What’s wrong with ‘dealer’? I have a valid ration shop. Yes, I am a dealer. So people call me dealer,” Kalu reasonably argued, and was relieved from the anxiety of pain caused by the mutilation of his ancestors’ title. He rather used to wear it as a badge of honour, a marker of his high social status.

Kalu lay dead on a wooden charpoy at the centre of his yard, fenced with seasonal flowers, some fresh and others dry. He was ceremoniously bathed and covered with a coffin. Only his face was uncovered. The head is still bandaged, and his face was swollen. People of the neighbourhood, their hearts weary and heavy, faces grey and pale, were having a last look at dealer Kalu. They wailed in the name of almighty Allah, and they consoled the bereaved with thousand long drawn words. They offered them the courage and strength to brave the new world. Widow’s world! Fatherless world! A cheerless world!

Adjacent to Ebadatnagar burial ground, there was a primary school. The school had an open green square field. Because of Covid-19 it was closed. The field was empty, and knee-high thick durba (meadow) grass covered its surface.  Janaja (funeral) prayer would be held here. So villagers, Kalu’s relatives, friends and foes, crowded the ground. The cortege was placed at the centre of the field. Behind the hearse, four or five rows of mourners ritually stood for the final prayer for the dead. Dressed in white, head covered with a white skull cap or scarf, the crowd looked like pilgrims destined for a long, distant pilgrimage.

The sky was overcast. Accompanied by a mild wind, a dark nimbus cloud loomed over the prayer.  It suddenly began to drizzle. In ordinary times, villagers would have fled and taken shelter under a roof, shade, or even a tree. But it was Janaja time. Faces were mournful, sad, and solemn, with strong religious feelings. Nobody talked. Absolute silence covered the crowd. Noises of running vehicles, coughs and sneezes, and clearing throats were occasionally heard.  

Before prayer, a customary ritual of asking forgiveness from the crowd for the peace of the soul of the dead by Kalu’s son and brother was loudly and mournfully made. The mourners instantly forgave him for any loans or dues Kalu owed or any illness or wound Kalu made to anyone during his lifetime. The mourners immediately forgave him in unity.

Amid the drizzle, the village maulvi cried for prayer. Rains mingled with tears and sighs and glided through cleanly shaven, bearded cheeks. All were male; boys, young, aged. Women were not allowed to mourn at the cemetery. They were mourning at Kalu’s home.

The samaj to which Kalu belonged arranged a simple feast at an open space beside Kalu’s house. Two beautiful girls were serving the mourners from far and near. A tarp was cast over the head. Under it, plastic chairs and tables were set for the diners. At each table, there was a plastic jug for drinking water. Irrespective of the ebb and flow of the wailing, the feast continued from late morning to early sunset. Men, women and children were not relishing the tasteless food. They were merely stuffing empty stomachs, anyhow, it seemed.

Suddenly a lungi-clad, shirtless, bare-headed, lean, patched-eyed man, aged under fifty, appeared at the field from nowhere. He made some rounds around the crowd. Entirely invisible to the mourners, he checked and tried to read the contours of every sad face. And he smiled quizzically. Sometimes he looked at the rainy sky. Sometimes he threw his hands to the sky and beat his breast. No one spoke to him. No one looked at him. So he surveyed the faces of the mourners, the coffin, and the trees that fenced the ground and the surroundings. Occasionally he erratically brushed his head with both hands, killing a mosquito or fly pestering his wounded left leg.

The graveyard was vast and dotted with tall bamboo, neem, banana and shimul trees. At the base, weeds and creepers fought for space, and the fallen yellow leaves were the only witness to this unending violence. There was a chicken farm fenced with jute sticks in between the school field where Janaja prayer was being held and the burial ground where the dead would soon be buried. A foul smell filled the air around it.  

Four bearers, Kalu’s brother and son and two close neighbours carried the cortege, and they were assisted by a couple of mourners too. The mourning procession was passing haltingly, the bearers were leading from the front, and the sobered crowd silently followed them. As the earth got slippery, they carefully, cautiously, silently stepped towards the grave just dug a while ago. The aroma of fresh soil still lingered in the air.

The rain had just stopped for a while, and streaks of afternoon faint glow cast an ethereal spell on the burial ground. Everything looked eerie and unnatural: the gravediggers, the mourners, the trees, the weeds, the sky, the farm.  

“Where is the shirtless fellow?” I murmured, and my eyes rolled around the grave and the gatherers- The aged, the young, the children I came across, but nowhere he was seen. Then I slowed the movement of my eyes and carefully studied the crowd again. Alas! He was nowhere. 

Again the sky went dull. It began to drizzle. The mourners patiently stood in the queue. A few gentlemen unfurled umbrellas and the rest stood in the rain, wiping foreheads and faces, and they appeared to be fools in the eyes of the umbrella bearers. They were sad, the air was dull, and the birds forgot to sing. Not even crows cawed, or sparrows darted the gloomy sky. No wildflowers swayed, either.

I had, however, an advantage. The graveyard, the village, and the villagers were unknown to me. So nobody cared; no eyes spread light on me. And indeed, in my life, there would hardly be a chance for my feet to touch the earth of this burial place. So the bonding between me and the graveyard would occupy a permanent niche in my imaginary landscape. In reality, I might never revisit the cemetery. This thought made me sad. And soon, I found a kind of kindred kinship with the shirtless man. He was invisible to the eyes of the crowd as I was.  No mourners asked my name. No mourners asked my whereabouts. Their whispers sighs, and sorrows were whirling around their familial boundary.

Then I saw the shirtless man at a far northern end of the graveyard. He was murmuring and looked sheepish. He collected a fistful of wet leaves and slowly spread them over a sunken grave covered with weeds and twigs. Now he was brushing his eyes, his head; now he was smiling comically. A couple of bamboos had made an arch over the grave. Rains from the foliage were dripping on it. The man did not care. Drenched, he was humming and wailing for the dead buried here. No brick structure or bamboo fence was made around this particular grave.  It lay neglected and free, enjoying the freedom of air, earth, and sky.

“Has he lost his mother?” drawing the attention of a nearby lanky man, I asked.

“Who?” he looked astonished.

“The shirtless man mourning at the corner of the graveyard,” I pointed at the corner with my right hand.

“Who says this? O, Allah! Who can say this? It’s profane, a sin to claim a living woman dead! Allah won’t forgive you. Tauba, tauba! ” the man looked wounded and searched me with his small eyes, from head to feet, looking confused and upset.

“What’s wrong with him, then?” I put.

“O, evil man, his mother is well, and she is living by binding thousand biris a day. Her eyes are sharp, and hands adept in stitching biris. Her hair is black as tar, and teeth all white as snow. The man is her only child. She has lost her husband when the boy is only two. Snake bite and her man dead. The fatherless boy has day by day grown up to a muscular mason and had gone to Kerala. After two years he had come back home, built a house by the riverside, and married a sundoori (beautiful) girl, a red rose. Huge feast was thrown, and we happily dined and blessed the couple for marital bliss. Then one day…” he spat and brushed his lips with the gamacha (napkin) loosely hanging around his long creased neck. His shaven face looked reddish.

“Wait, my turn has come. I don’t want to miss chance to pay last tribute to Kalu. During lockdown he helped us. He distributed us whatever he had at his godown—rice, pulse, wheat, suagar, kerosene. He was a good man who always stood by the side of his poor neighbours. We are shocked at his sudden death. But who can violate dictates of Allah!” he haltingly ran towards the mound of Kalu’s grave.  

I have already paid tribute to the departed. I was waiting for my good friend, who was unfolding the story of the shirtless man. I looked sideways and saw the people, mournful, sad, and bereft of worldly affairs and daily pursuits. All were thinking of Kalu’s fate, and perhaps they were, as maulvi saheb had just reminded us in his final sermon of our final destination, our grave, koborer ajab (punishment at grave). The crowd seemed to have lost zeal for life. Their talks, gestures, and movements had suddenly lost earthly connection. They looked thoughtful about their end day. “We all would have to face Kalu’s day, and our final restroom would be our grave.” Such thoughts they were contemplating. The trees stood dumb. The birds stopped singing, and even the winds ceased to blow. Only rains were merciful.

The shirtless man did not move from the corner. He did not pay tribute to Kalu. He was only murmuring and moaning there.  And here, the ritual of paying homage to Kalu by offering a fistful of earth over his coffin went on in tandem. The queue was too long. Some fresh people are still coming and joining with the mourners for Kalu.

My good friend, meanwhile, had appeared. His hands were smeared with fresh mud, and he was rubbing hands, apparently to make them tidy. He was at peace with himself.

“After the marriage…” I alluded to the thread where he left.

“O, yes, the man was happy with his fragrant rose. And there were peacefully living at the new house he built by the side of the river. His wife was pregnant, oh, I have forgot to tell you. They were ready to welcome the new member. His mother stitched a couple of kathas for the expected baby. She was restless to squeeze the butter skin of the baby. In quiet afternoon she would carry the baby taking her to her breast and show her hens, ducks, birds, butterflies, cattle. She would twitch her cheeks, smile at her toothless gums.  The man brought fruits and fish from market. He would take care of her pregnant wife. At night he would stroke her swollen belly and the baby wriggled like goldfish at an aquarium. She felt proud and she took utmost care and would routinely follow its movement.  If movement was less she looked thoughtful, became apprehensive. Those days were harder.”

The man removed his skull cap, brushed his face with the end of gamacha, brushed his muddy slippers against the wet brownish bamboo leaves and began, “Then his wife during delivery died at Berhampore General Hospital. Doctors could not save the mother either. Mother and the baby died. And they were buried at the same grave. The man turned mad, and visited the grave, earlier days, at each day. Ten years is long time, you know. Time is a great healer. That robust man turns now into a dry bone. Still he visits the grave. He does not put earth to anyone’s grave. He only reads the faces of the mourners and seeks shelter at his wife’s grave where mother and her baby are at eternal sleep.” My good friend wiped the corners of his eyes, and his voice choked.

“What can be done? All is in Allah’s hand. And Allah is most merciful,” I sympathized and took his hand.  

“From that day he does not wear shirt or anything else on his upper body part,” my good friend claimed while smiling like a waning moon, “and with every death his sorrows get resurrected, and he rushes to the corner, and wails for his lost rose and her bud.”

(The story first appeared in the anthology ENGLIT, ed. by Hemanta Pramanik. Later it was included in my short story collection, Aakhir and Other Stories, Authorspress, 2022. pp. 32-39.)

To buy the book, click here.

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I write because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, said George Orwell. As a writer, I never kowtow to the whims and dictates of the sacred godmen or godwomen, the political bigots and hypocrites, dealers of laymen, the dishonest and self-serving intellectuals, traders of religions, the betrayers of ‘other’ Indians who eke out a living by their sweat, who are living in fear for being lynched for this and that.

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