There was no sound more revolting or hateful to the ears than that voice which plucked me rudely from my garden of dreams.
I was under the bower of the giant banyan with Seppy. Of all our numerous hideouts in the forest, this was her favourite. But in that instant, when Buchia’s hideous falsetto impinged on my consciousness, she was gone.
A wretched fatigue hugged every inch of my body like a lover. On my threadbare mattress, I clung to traces of remembered sweetness, longing for more sleep, but knew it would be denied me… The flimsy front door of my tenement was being slammed and rattled with an ugly insistence. Presently, the odious shrieking came again:
“Two minutes is all I’m giving you! Not out by then, straightaway I’m dialling Coyaji’s number. And so much the better if he’s mad for being woken at this hour… I’ll tell him everything: fucking corpses have begun to stink, mourners are congregating, but your chief khandhia’s still in bed, pissed out of his skull.”
Abusive harangue, the crunch of footsteps on gravel… both receded.
Oh fuck you Buchia, you aren’t paying for our drinks, are you? No time for a sip of water, let alone a tumbler of booze.
Rustom and Bomi would have given anything for a quick stopover last night – all of us deadbeat after walking those six miles to Laal Baag and back with a stiff more corpulent than most – but even simple-minded louts like us know better than to leave a corpse unattended on the pavement while guzzling at an illicit den. So, we hit upon a compromise: resting one end of the bier against a compound wall, Fali’s brainwave this, Bomi ran in and purchased a bottle. Snugly secured between the corpse’s stout legs for the remainder of our jaunt, it had to be pried out with some force once we deposited the body in the washroom of the allotted funeral cottage.
Now how is that any of your business, bloody Buchia? Those damn biers we lug around – solid iron – each weighs nearly eighty pounds! And all corpses aren’t emaciated by death, let me tell you. Some positively swell, growing more flaccid by the minute. Besides, how else, I ask you this, how else are the best of us to keep up this carrion work, this constant consanguinity with corpses, without taking a drop or two? The smell of sickness and pus endures; the reek of extinction never leaves the nostril.
Good sport that he is, Fardoon waited until I had knocked back my share of the booze before joining me for the arduous job of washing the man mountain. Fardoon doesn’t drink.
It’s a job that takes courage and strength, believe you me – rubbing the dead man’s forehead, his chest, palms and the soles of his feet with strong-smelling bull’s urine, anointing every orifice of the body with it before dressing him up again in fresh muslins and knotting the sacred thread around his waist.
All the while making sure the pile of faggots on the censer breathes easy and the oil lamp stays alive through the night; all this, before we retire ourselves well past midnight. So what’s your fuckin’ fuss about, you bastard of a Buchia?
One side of my head was throbbing, raw; felt a bit of a corpse myself. Then my eyes lit on the wall clock: twenty past six already!
Early morning silence punctuated by a tittering of birds soothed my nerves, but the muscles still ached… Outside the wire-meshed window, a sprig of pale orange bougainvillea swayed slightly. As I climbed out of bed, the rays of a fledgling sun touched the treetops lightly with a golden brush. The sky was deep blue and softly luminous, without a speck of cloud. Had I really woken up from dreaming? Or was this a dream I was waking to?
How beautiful and peaceful is this place – much of the time, at least – where the faithful consign their dead to the vultures in a final act of charity, their bones pulverised by the sun, then washed away… subsumed in the elements.
I grew up not far from here. When I was still a child, I may have been brought along by my parents to attend a funeral or two; but it was only much later I began to see this as my garden, my own private forest: an enchanted place in which I was free to roam, marvelling at leisure at the shapes, smells and colours of nature, the magnificent trees, birds, bushes and all that rocky wilderness.
Near the hill’s summit brood the squat towers – three in number – their jaws open to the sky, allowing birds of prey to descend and eat their fill, then fly up once more, unhindered. Surrounded on every side by a town that grows more noisy and populated by the day, this estate is so vast and secluded that no syllable of human voice or activity grates upon its timbre of peace. Though death is its precise reason for existence, in this garden, life – overwhelmingly – is the victor.
I first set eyes on my Sepideh in the forest on the hill.
Even the most fleeting remembrance of Seppy can bring tears to my eyes – so evanescent her presence, so brief our togetherness.
This was her home, in a more literal sense than I realized when I first saw her. I had caught glimpses of her before – wandering through overgrown banyan vines, running, once, at breathtaking speed after a peacock through tall grass. I didn’t know then she considered animals her dearest friends. She fed as many as she could every day, often by her own hand: wild squirrels, pheasants, pye-dogs, stray cats, as though they were her personal pets.
The first time I approached her she was stooped to the ground placing a small bowl of milk in a clearing. “Who’s that for?” I asked, as she straightened herself. She was shy and only smiled without meeting my eyes; but after a moment answered: “A snake. A big grass snake who comes and drinks it all up, whenever I have any to spare.” Lovely as the breeze wafting through the trees, just as light and feathery, she seemed to me a gawky, yet beautiful child of nature, completely at home in these woods in which I befriended her, and later, became her lover. Seven years have passed since then…
Excerpted with permission from Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer, Cyrus Mistry, Aleph Book Company.
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