It is difficult for me to say whether she actually knocked on the door or it only appeared that she had. I got out of bed, quickly put on my clothes, opened the door, and went out. She was standing right there. She didn’t say a word, nor did I ask any questions. The situation had already moved beyond the point of conversation. Everything was clear and evident now. I had prepared myself for this since the previous evening. I gestured with my head and followed her to the small room where a lamp was lit. In its dim light, I saw that Băb’s lifeless body had been brought down from the bed and placed on the floor. His eyes were closed. But his mouth, kept tightly shut for so many years, was now open. I felt the urge to do or say something, but I could neither act nor come up with any appropriate words.
Suddenly a thought occurred to me, and I said to her: “We should place the lamp near Băb’s pillow.” Considering that this was, perhaps, the right thing to do at a time like this, she did as I suggested. “His mouth is open,” she declared. “Why shouldn’t it be? He must have finally opened his mouth to utter what we have been waiting to hear all these years – the matter that he never found the courage to speak of,” I said, expressing what I believed. She disagreed, “No, that is not what it is. Băb is waiting for them. He will not close his mouth until they come and give him the final sip of water.” I had not considered that this could be a possible reason for Băb’s open mouth, but I latched on to that thought.
Actually, I was looking for an excuse to get out of there. I left her alone with the corpse in that dingy room, and went to give the news of Băb’s death to those people who, according to her, he was waiting for with his mouth wide open. All the roads seemed deserted in the dark, there was not a soul in sight, not even a glimpse of the trees that line the roads. It was as if the cold and darkness had devoured everything. The stray dogs too, the ones that roamed through the streets all day, seemed to have vanished. It was so cold that water from the dripping taps along the road had frozen into icicles. I was glad I had not cried upon seeing Băb’s dead body. Had I wept, my tears would have turned into icicles too, blurring my vision. Because I hadn’t wept, my vision was clear and sharp. It pierced through the veil of darkness, looked past the doors and windows, and revealed naked, sleeping bodies lying comfortably in soft, warm beds. To sleep without a care in cosy beds, not worrying about death, is the greatest luxury one can wish for.
At that time, I wondered what had deprived me of this pleasure…and realised that it was my own doing. I had volunteered to inform the people about Băb’s death. Or rather, I had created an excuse to run away from the dead body with its mouth open in that dimly lit room. I was familiar with the house to which I was going to deliver the news; it was at the far end of the road. But after taking only a few strides, I was confused. The road I knew to be straight had branched into two. What should I do? Which road should I take? Eventually, I decided like anyone in my situation would have. I resolved to take the one on the right first. If it led me to my destination, I was there. Otherwise, I would turn back and take the one on the left. This plan would obviously take more time, but it is better to arrive late than never. But there was more to it: long roads are easier to traverse than long nights. Wandering the roads might somehow bring this night to an end.
The man of the house, his wife and their son were all pleased to see me, their happiness evident in their radiant smiles. But my mouth was shut and my face distorted. Their living room was brightly lit. The heat inside had turned it into a hammam. I felt as if I had found the light and warmth I had craved for so long. A large portrait of Băb hung on one of the walls. As soon as I looked at it, the man said, “Whoever comes here turns to Băb’s portrait first and bows in front of it before sitting down.” But I sat down against a pillow without making any such gesture. Soon, his wife entered with tea and sweets. It seemed improper to eat at such a sombre moment. But she insisted I take some in Băb’s name, “You cannot refuse.”
“Whatever I am and whatever I have – my house, my wife, my son – I owe it all to Băb. We owe him our very existence,” said the man. He held the plate of sweets in his hand and forced me to take one while he put a big piece in his own mouth. It felt like I was sipping poison, not tea. I didn’t know how to broach the sad news of Băb’s death.
How could I deliver the devastating news that would bring gloom to a happy family? Appropriate or not, a messenger has to deliver the news. Done with the tea, I got up quietly and turned Băb’s portrait around to face the wall. “Băb has left us; this is a terrible blow,” I said, in order to explain what I had just done. “Băb does not abandon people. He comes himself to lift those who have fallen, no matter where he is.” The man smiled as he turned Băb’s picture around again. Unable to restrain myself, I announced, “Băb is dead!”
The man grew angry. He grabbed me by my throat and shouted, “You bearer of bad news! Don’t utter these inauspicious words in front of me! I will kill you!” I ran out of there as quickly as I could, but I felt as if he was chasing me. “Have you come back alone?” She sprang up when she saw me. I went straight to the room and stood beside the body. “Did they get the news?” she asked. I didn’t say anything. I had started to feel suffocated again when I entered. I wanted to grab her hand, pull her to my room and free her from the sight of that withered body in that dimly lit room. Secure in our cosy bed, we would stay there until the foul smell from that insect-ridden, rotting body would carry the news of its death to the whole world. This is what I would have liked to do. But at that moment, there was nobody in that icy, dark, dingy room other than the two of us. And yes, between us was a frozen, withered body with its eyes shut and its mouth open.
Excerpted with permission from “The News” in For Now, It Is Night: Stories, Hari Krishna Kaul, translated from the Kashmiri by Kalpana Raina, Tanveer Ajsi, Gowhar Fazili, Gowhar Yaqoob, HarperCollins India.