“I don’t think he should go,” said Aunt M.
“He’s too small,” concurred Aunt B. “He’ll get upset and probably throw a tantrum. And you know Padre Lal doesn’t like having children at funerals.”
The boy said nothing. He sat in the darkest corner of the darkened room, his face revealing nothing of what he thought and felt. His father’s coffin lay in the next room, the lid fastened forever over the tired, wistful countenance of the man who had meant so much to the boy. Nobody else had mattered – neither uncles nor aunts nor the fond grandparents. Least of all the mother who was hundreds of miles away with another husband. He hadn’t seen her since he was four – that was just over five years ago – and he did not remember her very well.
The house was full of people – friends, relatives, neighbours. Some had tried to fuss over him but had been discouraged by his silence, the absence of tears. The more understanding of them had kept their distance.
Scattered words of condolence passed back and forth like dragonflies on the wind. “Such a tragedy!…” “Only forty…” “No one realised how serious it was…” “Devoted to the child…”
Tears in the rain
It seemed to the boy that everyone who mattered in the hill station was present. And for the first time they had the run of the house, for his father had not been a sociable man. Books, music, flowers, and his stamp collection had been his main preoccupations, apart from the boy.
A small hearse, drawn by a hill pony, was led in at the gate and several able-bodied men lifted the coffin and manoeuvred it into the carriage. The crowd drifted away. The cemetery was about a mile down the road and those who did not have cars would have to walk the distance.
The boy stared through a window at the small procession passing through the gate. He’d been forgotten for the moment – left in care of the servants, who were the only ones to stay behind. Outside it was misty. The mist had crept up the valley and settled like a damp towel on the face of the mountain. Everyone was wet although it hadn’t rained.
The boy waited until everyone had gone and then he left the room and went out on the veranda. The gardener, who had been sitting in a bed of nasturtiums, looked up and asked the boy if he needed anything. But the boy shook his head and retreated indoors. The gardener, looking aggrieved because of the damage done to the flower beds by the mourners, shambled off to his quarters.
The sahib’s death meant that he would be out of a job very soon. The house would pass into other hands. The boy would go to an orphanage. There weren’t many people who kept gardeners these days. In the kitchen, the cook was busy preparing the only big meal ever served in the house. All those relatives, and the padre too, would come back famished, ready for a sombre but nevertheless substantial meal. He, too, would be out of a job soon; but cooks were always in demand.
“God has need of your father”
The boy slipped out of the house by a back door and made his way into the lane through a gap in a thicket of dog roses. When he reached the main road, he could see the mourners wending their way round the hill to the cemetery. He followed at a distance.
It was the same road he had often taken with his father during their evening walks. The boy knew the name of almost every plant and wildflower that grew on the hillside. These, and various birds and insects, had been described and pointed out to him by his father.
Looking northwards, he could see the higher ranges of the Himalaya and the eternal snows. The graves in the cemetery were so laid out that if their incumbents did happen to rise one day, the first thing they would see would be the glint of the sun on those snow-covered peaks. Possibly the site had been chosen for the view. But to the boy it did not seem as if anyone would be able to thrust aside those massive tombstones and rise from their graves to enjoy the view. Their rest seemed as eternal as the snows. It would take an earthquake to burst those stones asunder and thrust the coffins up from the earth. The boy wondered why people hadn’t made it easier for the dead to rise. They were so securely entombed that it appeared as though no one really wanted them to get out.
“God has need of your father…” With those words a well-meaning missionary had tried to console him.
And had god, in the same way, laid claim to the thousands of men, women, and children who had been put to rest here in these neat and serried rows? What could he have wanted them for? Of what use are we to God when we are dead, wondered the boy.
‘I’ll get out somehow!’
The cemetery gate stood open but the boy leant against the old stone wall and stared down at the mourners as they shuffled about with the unease of a batsman about to face a very fast bowler. Only this bowler was invisible and would come up stealthily and from behind.
Padre Lal’s voice droned on through the funeral service and then the coffin was lowered – down, deep down. The boy was surprised at how far down it seemed to go! Was that other, better world down in the depths of the earth? How could anyone, even a Samson, push his way back to the surface again? Superman did it in comics but his father was a gentle soul who wouldn’t fight too hard against the earth and the grass and the roots of tiny trees. Or perhaps he’d grow into a tree and escape that way! “If ever I’m put away like this,” thought the boy, “I’ll get into the root of a plant and then I’ll become a flower and then maybe a bird will come and carry my seed away…I’ll get out somehow!”
A few more words from the padre and then some of those present threw handfuls of earth over the coffin before moving away.
Slowly, in twos and threes, the mourners departed. The mist swallowed them up. They did not see the boy behind the wall. They were getting hungry.
He stood there until they had all gone. Then he noticed that the gardeners or caretakers were filling in the grave. He did not know whether to go forward or not. He was a little afraid. And it was too late now. The grave was almost covered.
He turned and walked away from the cemetery. The road stretched ahead of him, empty, swathed in mist. He was alone. What had his father said to him once? “The strongest man in the world is he who stands alone.”
Well, he was alone, but at the moment he did not feel very strong.
For a moment he thought his father was beside him, that they were together on one of their long walks. Instinctively he put out his hand, expecting his father’s warm, comforting touch. But there was nothing there, nothing, no one…
He clenched his fists and pushed them deep down into his pockets. He lowered his head so that no one would see his tears. There were people in the mist but he did not want to go near them, for they had put his father away.
“He’ll find a way out,” the boy said fiercely to himself. “He’ll get out somehow!”
Excerpted with permission from Ways of Dying: Stories and Essays, Aleph Book Company.