Kasim said, “Ammosan, my father-in-law, was spotted first near my mother-in-law’s room. He was calling out, “Amina, I’m not dead, please open the door, once. I am hungry, thirsty, I want to see our children,” he was weeping and wailing non-stop.”
“Ammayi – that means your wife’s Umma. That is, the wife of your allegedly-deceased Ammosan, right?”
“Maybe she imagined it? She’s after all a widow who loved her husband deeply back then. Not surprising at all.”
“That’s what we too thought, saar. But I saw him too. He peeps from the jungle behind this house. His face looks as though he were crying. I get scared and throw large stones at him. Then he disappears into the wild.”
Phalgunan saar thought for a short while. He looked again and again at the dense verdure behind the house.
“It’s confirmed that he died in Dubai, isn’t it?”
“Yes, saar. Covid wreaked havoc in the Dubai Naif and other parts. So many Malayalis died. You must have read in the papers, saar.”
By then the tea and snacks had appeared in the drawing room. The policemen sat behind Phalgunan, somewhat subdued, and helped themselves to these awkwardly.
“What work was he doing in Dubai?” SI Phalgunan took a bite of the banana fritter and asked Kasim.
“Odd jobs. He did odd jobs there to support this family. Tell you the truth, this family is really the fruit of his self-sacrifice. There he didn’t even have a proper room – and that is why he caught the Covid virus. He’d come once in two years; only then would he get a new shirt for himself! It was only then that he got a decent shave! More than forty years without his family! It was an awful life there, saar. Then he turned sixty and did not renew his visa, and was about to return for good. That’s when Covid struck hard. The truth is that I feel terrible, having to do this. It is totally wrong to do this. His life was the very picture of sacrifice. He married an orphan without a paisa for dowry. His father was a freedom fighter, born in a prominent family – he left home for the freedom struggle at the age of eighteen. The British confiscated his house and properties. He believed firmly that all of it would be returned to him after Independence. But no! He was in and out of courts till the end of his life. Some crooked official had written a note claiming he was a citizen of Pakistan! Apparently, a technical error! He collapsed in the court and died. Isa was his only son; he fed the family washing dishes in a teashop. And he was not a clever chap, either.”
“Ayyo, so why are you stoning someone who worked so hard for his family? Why are you chasing him away?” Phalgunan looked unsettled.
“Saar, how to let someone who’s dead into the house?”
“Is the record of death correct?”
SI Phalgunan fiddled with a heavy electric torch, scanned the house and the premises carefully with a long look, and asked again, as if preparing for something big.
“Are the papers reporting the death in order?”
Kasim quickly stepped back into a room and came out with a neatly arranged bundle of papers.
“Yes, saar. Was buried somewhere in Dubai. No details about the site of the grave are available – but it was somewhere in the desert. His younger daughter’s husband was a witness.”
Phalgunan signalled to his men to search the premises. Then handing the bundle of papers back to Kasim, he said, “Yes, they seem correct. Attested by the Embassy.” He fixed a look on Kasim’s face, still flabbergasted, and asked, “Maybe it is a madman who resembles him?”
“No, saar, it is our Ammosan, Isa, for sure. He wept aloud when I aimed a stone at him.”
“That he had indeed died but wanted to live more. ‘I have never yet lived,’ he said. ‘This is my land.’ When I heard that, the rock I was about to hurl actually quivered.”
“I asked, ‘Your wife who saw you risen from the dead was terrified and has now taken ill – is feverish. Your children and grandchildren shrink in fear. Can’t you go away, live somewhere else?’ ‘This is my land, where else am I to live,’ he kept whispering for many minutes.
“I said, ‘However, those with you here are the living. Remember that. Why can’t the dead stay with the dead? If you ruin our peace, I’ll have to stone you! Please don’t make us do this evil deed.’ And saying that, shaken by a wave of emotion, I began to hurl stones at him. One of them hit his forehead, just above one eye, and wounded him. He began to bleed and held his face in unbearable pain … not sure if it was a cry or a grunt, but he disappeared into the wild again.”
Phalgunan could not help plunging deep into thought. Then he said, “Let me tell you straight up, Kasim. This is more of a human issue than a legal one. The living grabbed everything they could and have now abandoned him at the border of death, right?”
After a long sigh of guilt and helplessness, Kasim replied, “The MLA said that there is no legal issue here. The law is only for the living and their dependents. Saar, the law books say nothing of the dead. They should be buried. They are not citizens, they have no passport, no Aadhaar card, no voting rights. They have nothing, saar. That’s what the High Court lawyer also told us. At the least, the dead should be under the ground. The MLA agrees too. What is the point of destroying the peace of the living this way?”
“MLA” being a dirty word that was an occasional nuisance in the limits of his power, Phalgunan suppressed a yawn with the back of his hand.
The policemen were now back from the search.
“He isn’t anywhere there,” Phalgunan told Sameer. “Didn’t we see a firewood shed behind the house? Search carefully around there. Let the rest of the group search around for a second time.”
Suddenly, the growl of an animal enveloped the murkiness there. It had by then submerged the whole house like the inscrutable enigma of life after death. In the sky, a strange deep blue and an even more mysterious red smouldered. The beam of the torch moved frantically through the yard, twisting and turning, searching, for a long time. No one found Isa. The birds which were until then chirping and cooing, singly and together, fell silent, as though by a common decision. When that round of torch-light search was over, Phalgunan walked carefully towards the decrepit firewood shed on the western edge of the yard which was surrounded by uncannily wild thickets.
Opening the termite-eaten door that had no bolt, Constable Sameer entered the shed. He was confident because he held a torch that let out a powerful beam of light. He checked all the corners, and then focussed the beam on the firewood stacked there. The stack was nearly ten feet tall. He climbed up to take a look, helped by a colleague. Between the dilapidated roof and the stack of firewood, there was hardly any space for a man to sit. But he thought it wise to check there.
However, another truth is that a scent that seemed to be mediating between life and death had actually urged him to look there. His guess wasn’t wrong; in the sharply falling beam of torchlight, he looked up, stunned – Isa! A strange animal-like wretchedness mirrored in his eyeballs. The eyeballs gleamed with the desire to live, with the expectation of life. Isa had been sleeping there. His dirty clothes were even more dirty. The sunken cheeks, the protruding cheek bones, were like a desolate desert filled with thorn-bushes.
The silent exchanges of eternal time passed between them in the snap of a finger. Did Sameer spend more time than necessary there? Did he look too keenly? Suspecting something, Phalgunan called from below, “Is he up there?”
Sameer had no doubts whatsoever.
“No, saar, no one here.”
Excerpted with permission from the story “Isa”, from Do Not Go to the Jungle, Shihabuddin Poithumkadavu, translated from the Malayalam by J Devika, Eka.