Ijaz turned his head. A man was sitting at the other end of the park bench, watching him. A labourer from the look of him. About as aam an aadmi as you could get. Rubber slippers. T-shirt. A torn pair of pants. He was looking longingly at the joint in Ijaz’s hand. The world had expanded into a wonderful generous place. Ijaz held out his joint. The man took a long drag and handed it back.
“What is your name?”
The man looked seriously at him. “My name is Death.”
Ijaz hacked and choked as the smoke went down the wrong way. “Seriously, man? Your parents named you Death?”
The man looked at him with a steady gaze. “My name is Death.”
Ijaz loved it. He had hit pay dirt. He could see his headline already “An Interview with Death”. This man needed investigating.
“So if I meet you, I die?”
“Not unless your time has come,” said Death, taking a long drag. He looked at Ijaz critically. “You smoke too much. Drink. You will have less time than most.”
“Tell me something my father hasn’t already nagged me to death about,” said Ijaz.
“Look at me,” said Death. “I keep myself healthy.” Indeed, Death looked very healthy. His strong arms bulged under the T-shirt he wore. He was short and stocky, but powerful looking. At his feet sat a black mongrel.
“Is that your dog?” asked Ijaz.
“What is he called?”
Ijaz had a tough time stifling the giggles that fell out of him. He had met Death and Dog. Oh man. What a trip this was turning out to be. The dog rolled over, tongue lolling, and Death rubbed his stomach. He obviously loved his dog.
“So, did you become death or were you always this way?” Ijaz rolled a new joint while Death considered the question.
“When I was young I didn’t understand what I was. I was fascinated with life.”
“So you were normal as a kid?” asked Ijaz.
“Oh yes. I was just an ordinary child,” said Death. “I lived in a village in Uttar Pradesh. My father owned three mango groves.”
Ijaz almost choked on his giggles. He was an aam aadmi after all.
“I was ordinary. Very ordinary,” said Death “Then I had an accident. I nearly drowned in the village pond. After that I knew I had to find a way to live forever.”
“And you did?” asked Ijaz, fascinated.
“Oh yes,” said the man, still serious. “When I last counted I had five thousand, two hundred and sixteen years to live.”
A man who not only thought he was Death, but had found the secret to immortal life. Shit. He was going to ace this assignment.
“So what’s the secret?”
Death looked at him and a sly smile crossed his face. “I don’t think I can tell you that.”
“Come on, man!” protested Ijaz. “We shared a joint. We’re practically brothers. What if I promise never to tell anyone?”
“Never ever?” said Death.
“Never,” said Ijaz, crossing his fingers. Death slid closer on the bench and lowered his voice.
“I started small,” said Death. “With flies. Flies live only a few days. I caught them and I fed them to a spider. A spider lives about a month. The spider I fed to a sparrow.”
“Let me guess,” said Ijaz. “A sparrow lives a year?”
“About that much,” said Death. “I fed the sparrow to a cat. A cat lives about twelve years. So that made it thirteen years one month and three days.”
“Give or take a day,” said Ijaz, enjoying this.
“Then I found a dog.”
“Fourteen years straight away,” said Ijaz.
“Yes,” said Death. “You understand.”
“Not really,” said Ijaz. “What did you do with the dog?”
“I had to make him nice and hungry. I kept him locked up for a week so that he would eat anything. Then I fed him the cat.”
“Twenty-seven years one month and three days,” said Ijaz, enjoying the tale. “So who did you feed the dog to?”
“I ate it,” said Death sitting back with an air of triumph.
“You ate it?” exclaimed Ijaz. “You ate a dog?”
“Yes,” said Death. He lovingly pulled at the ears of his black dog. “I regret eating that dog now. I didn’t know then how much dogs could love. But this dog loves the most. There is a special reason for why he loves me so much. Isn’t there, Dog?” The man looked lovingly at his mongrel.
Ijaz interrupted him. “Is this for real? You really ate a dog?”
“Yes,” said Death. “Unfortunately I got caught. My family were Brahmins. My mother didn’t even allow eggs into the house. They were horrified. There was an uproar in the community. My father threw me out of the house. He forbade me to ever come back.”
“Oh man, that is so sick,” said Ijaz. “You ate a dog. Then what happened?”
Death gestured to the untidy city that rose in a noisy tangle around them. “I came to Delhi and I struggled to live. I was a fourteen-year-old boy on his own in the world. I starved. I struggled. People beat me. They did things to me...”
He ran out of words and sat silent for a moment. “Every single day I thought I was going to die. And I didn’t want to die.”
He turned to Ijaz. “I did not want to die. But I would have. The city would have killed me.”
“Yeah. This fucking city is a killer,” said Ijaz. His stomach abruptly rumbled. “All this dope has made me hungry,” said Ijaz. “Let’s get something to eat before you tell me the rest.”
“Do we have anything more to smoke?”
“Yes. Enough for two more joints,” said Ijaz.
“This is good stuff,” said Death. He knew his dope. They walked over to the tea stall where samosas were being fried in a giant wok. The tea stall and the dusty park were both under the shadow of a flyover. Further down, the flyover ended abruptly in mid-air, the funds having run out before the construction did.
“Do you need to eat?” asked Ijaz. “After all, you are Death.”
“Oh yes,” said Death. “The body has to be maintained.”
They bought samosas and jalebis, then strolled to the end of the flyover. The road degenerated into rubble. They found a spot that overlooked the nullah that flowed down one side of the road. Here there was no traffic, and it was quiet and deserted.
“So,” said Ijaz, licking sticky jalebi syrup from his fingers. “What are the advantages of being Death? I can see the disadvantages. Must be very difficult to get a girl.”
“No, love is not easy. But you see, love is the opposite of death.”
“You’re getting all philosophical on me, man,” said Ijaz.
The man paused in his eating. “My mother always hated me. She thought I was odd. Strange. She called me a curse. Love could have made me something else. Lack of love made me Death.”
“What about god, man? Isn’t life and death and all this shit in his hands?” said Ijaz.
“Death is the ultimate god,” said the man. “All the gods bow before him.”
Excerpted with permission from Dark Tales: Ghost Stories from India, Venita Coelho, Penguin Books.
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