A never-ending funeral march
Looping itself around the cluster of hijal trees, a hairthin line ran parallel to the riverbank, cutting across the ground. Inside it were a few derelict huts, an empty field, a few date palms and the grave of Mallika’s younger sister, Mala. This was where the river’s fury was directed. For a month it had been raging wrathfully, all bristled up. The monsoon rain had an intoxicating effect. Like a wild bull, it raised its horns and charged in all directions, biting off anything that came in its way, be it trees or cultivated fields.
Ignoring the large-scale erosion of the riverbanks, Mallika, the elder sister, had buried Mala under the hijal tree. She did not know that a prostitute was not entitled to a burial or a janana. She had an altercation with the undertaker outside the door of the dissection room, after the post-mortem was over and the surgeon who had conducted the autopsy left. She might have been a prostitute or a woman who slept with 12 different people, but Mala’s body, as Mallika, the garments factory worker, insisted, wasn’t an unclaimed one after all. Why then would she be dispatched to the morgue? And made to rot, huddled with 10 other bodies? And then, if what the undertaker said was true, one day, by the divine grace of Anjuman, she would find a place in an unknown grave. How would Mallika, begotten of the same mother’s womb, live with that?
Between such logic, Mallika, intermittently, supplied emotion. The droning sound of her sobs sent fissures through the undertaker’s heavy stupor (he was drunk up to the gills) in the numbing afternoon. Perhaps that’s what worked. The fog receded. A bright sunbeam fell on the undertaker’s head, dazzlingly. The preliminary altercations over, he didn’t say much any more. After all, it was just one body, he thought, and that too a prostitute’s. Normally one’s folks did not acknowledge any tie in such cases. Sister or whatever she was, here was one who had, at least, come to claim the body. What did he care whether she tied bricks to the neck of the body and pushed it in the middle of the river or dropped it in the city’s garbage dump? On the other hand, even if Anjuman picked up this one, that
would be right at the end, after the last rites of a whole lot of rotting, decomposing offal had been performed. And what mattered most was that he wouldn’t be making a penny by way of cuts.
The undertaker made a round of the morgue, spilling over with flesh and blood, and agreed to comply with Mallika’s request. Then he, with a few of his cohorts, using a thick cord, the sort used to sew up gunny bags, stitched up Mala’s body. Bucketfuls of water were splashed on it to wash it clean and the unbleached sari brought by her sister was wrapped around the frame. The marks of incision, arising from either side of her uncovered shoulders, joined each other right on top of the cleavage, like a necklace. Mallika, not in her dreams but wide awake in the dissection room reeking of a foul smell – the sort that burnt bird hide gives out – could see a locket hanging there. There was blood in the corner of her mouth but the lips seemed to have been coloured with a lipstick. The false mole on her chin made the dead girl look even more beautiful.
Mala had fallen in love with make-up right from the stage when she had started to crawl. When she was just six months old, Mallika remembers how she would brush a little tablet of red lac-dye on Mala’s lips to make her stop crying. How she would chortle even as her eyes held back the tears.
Those days belonged to another era and a lost world, where they were happy, once upon a time. When their parents died, the two girls left the village and came to the city, putting themselves up in a city house. Mallika found a job as a helper in the garments factory. She would go out to work at eight in the morning, and, when working overtime, would return only at ten in the night. Mala would stay up till her breadwinner of a sister came home, dozing off sitting in front of the wick lamp, but not going to sleep. She didn’t cry when she burnt her hands, trying to strain the water from boiled rice. Once Mallika had beaten her black and blue after she had, secretly, put on some lipstick. A lumpy sigh shook through the centre of her navel, coming up like a dogged fleet of mosquitoes, moving from wall to wall of the stuffy dissection room. It hampered the undertaker’s work. But Mallika’s drone didn’t seem to end.
By the time one had gone through the thousand and one formalities of the hospital, it had got late. Mallika received Mala’s anointed body and climbed on to the van. In the dark night of rain, the van, its bell tinkling, moved towards the darkest graveyard in the city. What if this road never ended, wondered Mallika. She was meeting her sister after five years, and this was the first time she was taking her out. She had never showed her around the city, never took her on a rickshaw ride. Not that she never thought of doing it, but where was the time? Besides, money was a constraint. Her sister had left home, lured by a make-up box. She became a whore. Mallika, when she got the news, ran to the four-point crossing to bring her back. Her companion took cover for the moment. But sis herself was adamant. The girl who never said a word when she would be beaten black and blue, raised the black make-up box, trying to hit her elder sister in the head. Quite a crowd had accumulated at the four-point crossing to watch the scene.
Mala never came back.
Now it was Mallika who accompanied her sister on the van, in the night of storm and rain. And indeed, the road they had taken did not seem to end. Mallika did not quite figure out if this ever-extending road would take them to heaven or straight to hell. The oil in the lantern held in her hands burnt out. But still, like a nocturnal animal, she carried her sister’s corpse from one cemetery to the next in the darkness of the night.
Just three and a half feet of earth
Inside the tiled hut of an office room at the entrance of the first cemetery that Mallika had stopped the van for the first time, a man wearing a round cap sat, hitting at the mosquitoes. There were hundreds of them flocking around his black robe. Insects of all kinds banged their heads against the bulb in one corner of the room. “I don’t care if it’s the body of a governor, a king, a minister or a millionaire,” the man said, very clearly, as he finished off a few more. Mosquitoes, that is. “No one will be buried here at night.” But when he saw that the girl, her body taut under the wet clothes, was still standing at the door, his blood-smeared hands felt numb. He asked Mallika to get the doctor’s certificate during the day and somehow managed to make her leave. It took the man in the black robe a little time before he could restart the job of destroying mosquitoes.
That night, it rained in the first hour, the moon appeared in the sky in the second and in the last there was a rumbling of clouds. But even as the strange game between clouds, the rain and the moonbeams were played out every hour, Mallika got the same answer from every cemetery she went to. The vanwallah’– was restless. After all, it wasn’t as if he was driving the Tazia on Muharram Day, that he would be required to move all across the city through the night. He began an unholy conspiracy. When Mallika visited the office of each cemetery, swishing his wet clothes, the man walked into the dark hole of the adjacent mosques, ostensibly to light a fag. And that’s how, before the night was over, the news that the body in question was that of a whore spread from cemetery to cemetery, like wild fire. In the morning, despite the doctor’s certificate, the van could not go anywhere near the cemeteries. Mallika could see huge crowds in front of the gates from a distance. The people wore caps on their heads and carried an array of weapons in their hands. They were, Mallika realised very clearly indeed now that it was day, ready to break their heads, serve a prison term if necessary but determined not to allow three and half feet of burial space for the dead girl who had been a whore.
Two strangers in the caravan
Now out of the city, Mallika let the van go and hired a bullock cart. She lay down Mala’s body on the wooden board, with great care, and then climbed on to the cart and sat, opening an umbrella to cover her sister’s body. Now one could tie a stone around the corpse’s neck and sink it into the river. If one was unable to do it personally, going to the nearby villages to try and persuade people to do it was the only option left. That’s what Mallika did.
Slicing through the intense silence of the village, the bullock cart screeched and sobbed as it went ahead. Now they were five in all, including the two bullocks. Mallika felt slightly more reassured, now that the team had grown in numbers, even if the two new members were naïve creatures. Besides she knew that in villages like these, although it was not uncommon to have one’s residential house occupied by others, it wasn’t too difficult to find space to bury the dead. When her parents died within two days of each other, leaving behind two little girls, they did not have a single food grain in the house, let alone money. But when they heard the news of the deaths, the villagers seemed to arrive in droves, flying in. The sisters didn’t realise from where the shroud, a fresh bar of soap, raw bamboo sticks, perfume and benzene were sourced.
The feeling of horror that had tightened up inside Mallika, now relaxed itself slightly. Beyond the fields of paddy was a row of huts where people lived. As soon as the fivemember team reached there, Mallika wouldn’t need to do a thing. The villagers, so what if they were strangers, would come running to lift Mala in their arms. Seeing that a three-day old corpse was still above the ground and not under it, they would be cursing the educated people in the city, blaming it on their breeding. In the meantime, two able-bodied men would be sent to the nearest market to get incense sticks, perfume and the shroud. This time Mallika did have some money. She would pay for these things, even if she had to force it on them. The eldest woman in the village would lay four banana trees side by side, put up a mosquito net, and wash Mala under it. Then the janaja would be read. A silent procession of mourners, bearing the coffin on their shoulders, would slowly proceed towards the graveyard. Mallika would howl and scream in the receding courtyard. She would scream so loud that it would shake up God’s mirror, sending out a plaint, demanding to know why her sister was murdered in her sleep – something she has not been able to do in the last three days, having to run between police stations, hospitals and graveyards.
Suddenly Mallika started crying.
The sound of her loud wails reached the village. Crowds – young-old, men-women – came running like a swarm of locusts at the bullock cart that carried a corpse. They wanted to find out who among them had been visited by ill luck. There was no house in the village that did not have a member or two living in the city. They removed the shroud and stumbled over Mala’s face. In the midst of the tremendous pushing and nudging, the bullocks started to bellow. The cart-driver flew off his seat. Mallika was being crushed between people. The pushing and the wailing went on till all the people in the village were convinced that the dead-body did not belong to any of their own folk and neither to anybody they knew. And then the villagers shifted their attention from the corpse to the others. Well, a bullock cart would have bullocks and a driver, but who was that woman with the corpse? Why had she entered an unknown village with the body of a murdered woman? The men in the village started interrogating Mallika.
Hearing that Mallika wanted to bury the corpse in their village, they became even more apprehensive. As it is, it was difficult coping with the tyranny of the police when there was the odd murder in the village – even birds deserted the place at such times – and now a woman had arrived from nowhere with a corpse. What kind of a childish whim was this that she should want to bury it here? Besides the apprehension, there were sparks of suspicion on their faces. They enquired about and were told Mallika’s father’s name, her postal address etc. But that place was a long way off. These people had, never in their lives and that of their father’s, heard of such absurd names. Mallika told them the truth about where she lived and what she did in the city nearby, but did not reveal that Mala was a prostitute. They did not – so generous of them – want to know the story behind the murder and Mallika too said nothing. She said there were so many people in the city that it was difficult to find a place to rest one’s head in. People lived in railway stations, on the roads, so where was the place to bury the dead?
The villagers were taken in. A sense of compassion for the city people welled up in some of them. Because in the village, even those who couldn’t grow enough to sustain themselves round the year were entitled to a burial space – near the outhouse, beside ponds. And for those who did not have a house of their own, there would be a public plot of land, reserved for burial with due ceremony. The villagers agreed to find a place for Mallika’s sister in the community burial ground, but they would send two people to the city to for more information.
It was time for the Friday prayers. The chant of Azaan could be heard. The men of the village sent off two people to the city before joining the prayer mass at the mosque. The women went back to work after they had had a look at the corpse’s face. Only the children remained, keeping an eye on Mallika and her team.
The cart-driver had had a long and arduous day. His glance must have fallen on the usher of ill luck when he stepped out to work in the morning. The very first passenger of his was a dead person, and now the business of getting her buried was causing all the trouble. When did he think he was going to get out of this mess? Sitting under the shade of the mango tree, the driver kept thinking, resting his cheek against a hand. With a cue from Mallika, he started harnessing the bullocks to the cart. Mala was lying on the bamboo platform just as before. Mallika climbed up and sat beside her, umbrella in hand. The cart started moving even before the kids became fully aware of it. The bullocks had not had a very good time in this village. They had been pushed without reason. Now they started to gallop fast, like horses, leaving the children behind.
Make-up man, magic box and a young woman
On the second night, the make-up man who worked in the brothel joined the caravan. He was one among the people – pimp, grocer, shop-owner, prostitutes and the Madam of the brothel – whom the police had picked up for interrogation after Mala’s murder. Since his release from police custody, the man went looking for Mala’s body in hospitals, graveyards and elsewhere like a man possessed. Two days later, he could see the bullock cart, like a small piece of meteor, rushing towards him like a streak of light, cutting across the dark breast of the village. The man was forty, blind in one eye. And besides, he would constantly snivel. Looking at the huge black make-up box in his hand, anybody would think that he was a great physician or a magician who could make the impossible happen – revive dead men.
Mallika had a start when she saw the man’s blind eye. Three days had passed, and her sister had not been buried yet. Was this the custodian of graveyards, blind in the right eye then? Had he, not finding the dead-body where it ought to have been, come this far to ask for an explanation? Frightened, she moved a little to make room for him on the platform. And the guy, to her utter surprise, started whining as soon as he was up on board.
The bullock cart moved towards the river. They could hear the deep thumping sound of the land breaking off along the river from a distance. Mallika wondered what kind of a danger awaited them in that venue of fearful devastation. The man, she knew now, was not the custodian of graveyards, in fact, he was no one to this cruel world. There was no saying that he wouldn’t be useful, she thought.
Throughout the journey the make-up man had tears rolling down his lone eye. “She was my sister, my mother. Now I am an orphan.” Mallika had tears in her eyes for the second time since afternoon. So there was a mother’s heart inside the body of the small, little, self-centred girl, after all. Why, she hadn’t known that in the twelve years that she brought her up.
“You wouldn’t believe it sister,” said the chap, suddenly catching hold of Mallika’s hand. “You see I was not married. Sometimes he would call me a provider. I was the husband and she my wife.” In other times, Mallika would have yanked off the make-up man’s hand and given him a sound dressing down. She would have, like the closed eyelid on his blind eye, shut his mouth forever. But now, to her, the man was like a long-lost relative, her only sympathiser. And what mattered more than all else was that this was the first time someone was mourning the dead three days after she had died. Mallika joined him in his lament, crying in sync with his tune.
With a little indulgence from Mallika, the memories start running this way and that inside the make-up man’s heart, and then stumble and fall out of his lips. “I taught her how to tie a brassiere.” Stretching out his palm, he curled in his fingers like an eagle’s beak, “Tight, pointed brassieres, like this,” he said. Did Mala turn a little in the darkness?
In the last five years, the man had applied colour on her lips and cheeks. He had tied her hair into a bun and taught her to stick artificial flowers in it: “This are the places to plant these in, that’s how you do it.” He had told her, repeatedly, how to wear the sari loosely, with one’s breasts outside the cover, and send out a ripple across one’s waistline when one was standing. Mallika could almost see her adolescent sister turning into a full-blooded young woman, as the make-up man went on. She forgot that the body lying in front of her – whose foul smell was difficult to ward off despite the half a dozen incense sticks burning away – the body that would be buried beside the river in a few hours, was that of her dead sister, Mala.
…You break one to build another
Mallika went back home after three days. Only three days in between and her room, bed and the furniture appeared unfamiliar to her. She felt as if these weren’t hers but someone else’s. Despite being extremely tired, Mallika was unable to sleep at night. It seemed as if she had hidden her sister under the earth, so that the villagers and the lathi-wielding guards employed at the cemeteries did not find her. There was no witness to or evidence of the act. Not even the man who had groomed Mala for five years, helping her to come into her own – the make-up man in whose colourful descriptions her sister was still alive. As soon as they reached the riverbank, Mallika made him leave with his make-up box, along with the bullock cart and its driver. The man did not get to know that the beautiful woman he had sculpted – the girl whose janaja was left unperformed and whose body was not covered by a shroud – had not floated away in the river, draped in her sister’s sari. She was lying in a grave under the hijal tree. Strangely enough, within an hour, small hijal flowers began to drop all over the grave to cover it like a pink blanket. The next day Mallika did not go to the garments factory. She left her rented room in the city and took shelter in a derelict hut near Mala’s grave, beside the river. Now her only occupation was to guard her sister.
Five years back when Mala left home, Mallika was busy, looking for means to earn a living. Now she was rid of these concerns. Journeying through the harsh terrains of the world with her sister’s corpse, Mallika had forgotten about hunger and lost sleep. Now, standing in the middle of the raging river, the rattling riverbank and the tearing gusts of wind, Mallika could well think of herself as one who did not belong to this world. Mala and she were the residents of a momentary island, the one that the river had claimed by marking out the boundaries. The difference being that one of them lived under the earth’s surface in the island and the other above it.
Although she knew how rivers built and destroyed the land as a matter of routine, Mallika couldn’t see the hazy line of alluvial soil across the river, even once. Sitting in the middle of collapsing riverbanks she began picking up the hijal flowers from the ground, stringing those into a garland which was long, like an elegy. Mallika and Mala had all the time in the world.
Translated by Chitralekha Basu