I paid to the auto rickshaw driver and scampered into the crematorium ground. One out of the four biers – two, still on shoulders and two, placed on the roofed embankments, I meant to pay homage to.
‘Don’t lie. You just want to register your presence here. Social obligation.’ My conscience reproved.
Supinely, I indulged in recognizing the acquaintances among the four groups. Scanning the crowd, I identified my next door neighbour, Mehta, from his bald head and sauntered by, slowly making my way up to him.
‘Hello Mehta sahab. They got late?’
‘Usual…Slackness of alive ones…we disown a person as soon as he breathes his last. Nobody wants to keep a corpse waiting.’ Mehta prated, sanctimoniously.
I nodded. ‘How did she die?’
He looked around and shoved me aside, out of the herd.
‘They say she slipped from the top staircase but all know that their greed for dowry killed her,’ he whispered. My wife had similar doubts when she had told me about the death over telephone.
‘Shocking. I saw her in the morning when I was going to the office. Lovely lady,’ I said.
My eyes were fixed on Poonam’s body, being put on an embankment for last rites. From the corners of my eyes, I saw Mehta gawking at me. Quick introspection confirmed that he may have found my words inappropriate. I made amends immediately, ‘I mean she was social and kind.’
He averted to look at Poonam’s soulless body. His eyes claimed what my tongue had slipped. I had noticed men of all ages furtively and amorously glancing at the prepossessing lady. I was no exception. All pined for her but the one who got her didn’t value her.
Poonam’s husband and three others lifted the bier and started walking away for the ablution of the body. We followed, knowing that they would remove the shroud off her face and we would have a chance to see her beautiful face for one last time.
Sprinklers poured the holy Ganga water on her body. The Gayatri Mantra was played. We stood hand folded while our hearts twitched. None of us wanted to waste any moment out of those last five minutes before that face would turn into smoke.
The body was taken to the cremation platform. Relatives and the priest hastily made the pier of wood and Poonam’s body was placed on it.
Just then, a man, young and bony, wearing filthy clothes with dishevelled hair and beard, jostled the people around the pier. He was about to spread the red sari he was carrying, over Poonam’s body when Praveen held his hand.
‘Hey stop it! Who are you?’ He pushed him without waiting for the reply. The man was still trying to reach the pier. His ruffled hair fallen over his timid innocent eyes starved my curiosity for reading his eyes. Studying and rectifying human behaviour was my profession. I saw straws, dirt and thread sticking to his beard. Dirt made lines and wrinkles on his face and hands.
‘Don’t stop him,’ asserted the priest, suggestively.
‘We don’t have time,’ snapped Praveen. It seemed unintentional slip of tongue from him. To cover up the folly, he bawled, ‘Who is he? Why a slovenly stranger as he is, should touch my Poonam?’
As if the man was deaf, he still forwarded towards the pier. People tried to stop him. Praveen advanced, slapped him and hustled him down.
The man stopped, making no further effort to climb up. However, he gaped at the pier unceasingly with hungry eyes. I wanted to interfere to favour him but desisted.
‘You shouldn’t have stopped him. Nobody stops him from offering that red sari. He does it every time a young woman is brought for cremation,’ acquainted the priest.
‘Shouldn’t it be our prerogative who we allow? And this beggar is a complete stranger,’ said Praveen’s father.
‘Something untoward happens if he is forbidden,’ warned the priest.
‘Absurd. You please carry on with your job’
The priest darted at the clan and uttered, ‘Bring more wood.’
The body was covered half when a Police constable, a young man and an older man reached there. The Policeman asked, ‘Is it Poonam’s body?’
Few, not standing on the platform, confirmed.
‘Stop it.’ He jumped up on the platform and removed two-three logs from the body. A Sub-Inspector and two more constables had also reached there. Praveen and his father were standing like goats who had assumed that their slaughtering was imminent. Many in the gathering celebrated silently. Glances were exchanged. Few were toiling to appear surprised. Some had the smirk in eyes that was leaking through lips, despite efforts.
‘Who is her husband?’ asked the senior Policeman.
Indifferent relatives pointed fingers towards Praveen. His father placed a hand on his shoulder.
‘What was the hurry that you didn’t let her parents and brother reach for her cremation?
‘We are taking the body for autopsy. Everybody, get down,’ declared one of the constables.
I saw the beggar unfolding the sari. He climbed up the platform and spread it on Poonam’s body quickly. Folding hands and bowing to the corpse, he glanced at Praveen and smiled. Victory gleamed in his eyes.
‘Hey moron, didn’t you understand?’ the constable screamed and rapped the birch on his buttocks. The man pulled the red sari back and ran away.
My eyes followed him until he deposited himself on a bench afar and started folding the sari.
An ambulance had reached. Poonam’s body was lodged in it. Two of the constables went with it. Other two took hold of Praveen and his father and took them away.
‘I told you,’ Mehta whined. I nodded, carelessly, still noticing the activities of the ‘red sari’ man. Mumbling and whispering, people had started walking out. I fell out of the herd and went to the priest.
Finding me near him, the priest spoke, ‘See, I had warned them something ominous would happen if they stopped him!’
I grimaced and pouted to endorse his claim.
‘Who is he?’ I asked.
I pointed towards the man, sitting solemnly on the bench and mumbling to himself.
‘Yes, the man who came to offer the red sari.’
‘People here call him Lalu. He doesn’t speak to anybody. Nobody knows who he is… where he has come from… why he does so! Every time a young woman is brought, he spreads the same sari over the body and collects it back afterwards. He washes the sari every night. If he is stopped, something unpropitious happens.’
The priest walked away to another waiting body.
My feet had stuck to the ground as my eyes did more research about the man.
Hope in the hopelessness of this man clicked most with me. Why he did so? What did he get by doing so? Questions were etching in me, making me restless.I decided to talk to the Director and bring the man to IHBAS (Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences) for treatment.
After getting a nod from my senior, I sought permission from the authorities at Nigam Bodh Ghat for transiting the man to the hospital.
They didn’t have any objection. Some priests who he trusted persuaded him to go with me.
At IHBAS, I got him shaved and cleaned up. He was given the hospital garb.
He looked different. Only thing that had not changed was the red sari he didn’t part with. I was curious to know the reason behind his Obsessive Compulsive Behaviour. However, I was aware that I could not rush. I would need to give him time and win his trust.
He would sit on the bench of the hospital garden for hours, mumbling to himself. I would send for him to sit with him for lunch. Whenever I had time, I would go and sit adjacent to him on the bench to hear what he muttered. I studied his expression and his gestures.
Fourth day, I saw him writing on the soil with a pebble. I could not read it, but now I knew he could write. Next day, I asked the ward boy to keep a sketch book and a pencil on the bench before the man went there.
The idea worked. He had sketched face of a woman. Clearly, it wasn’t the case of memory loss. After lunch, when I sat with him I asked him who she was.
He didn’t speak. I toiled hard to make him utter something. I wrote different alphabets, pronounced hundreds of names to him and examined the expression in his eyes. Nothing helped.
Night was sleepless. I was impatient to get a clue about him.
In Metro, while coming to the hospital, a woman had given her cell-phone to her infant child. Whenever she snatched the phone back, the child would cry. Noticing it, an idea impinged on me.
Reaching hospital, I started looking for him. He was watering the plants. The sketch book and the red sari were lying on the bench he used to sit.
I asked a boy to tear off the sketch he had made.
Squalling viciously, he hurled a brick at the boy, ran up to him, grabbed his neck and darted clouts on his face. We understood ‘Pankhudi’ out of his obscure screaming. We flung the boy free, off his hold.
We sat to analyse his behaviour and concluded that he was distraught about the sense of threat and potential injury to this woman he called Pankhudi.
I sent a junior to Nigam Bodh Ghat to find information about Pankhudi.
First day, he returned empty-handed. His wounds were not recent.
Second day, my aid found that one Pankhudi Tyagi, daughter of Rituraj Tyagi, age-20 years, had been cremated some four years ago. He brought along the address given in the records. It was a medico-legal case as the woman had committed suicide.
Concerned Police station told Pankhudi’s husband had blamed her family for killing her and Pankhudi’s family blamed her husband. Though the police doubted that it was an honour killing, they didn’t find enough evidence against her family and closed the case assuming that she had indeed committed suicide.
It was apparent that the man whom I had brought to the hospital was Pankhudi’s husband.
A panel of doctors sat for discussion regarding his mental health. Most of the doctors maintained that his was not the case of mental illness and recommended counselling. To ascertain whether he needed a neurologist or not, we decided to conduct his brain analysis.
Brain analysis ruled out any neurological disorder. After intense discussion, the panel concluded that his was a psychotic disorder – a hallucination or might be mild schizophrenia. Our major challenge was to make him speak which would help us to know what was going inside him.
I met the investigating officer of Pankhudi’s case and asked him to elaborate the scene of her death. My idea was to re-enact the scene. I was sure that it would help us to make him speak.
‘I found the girl hanging from the fan with a red sari.’ The I.O. spoke. I gawked at him in surprise as if somebody had taken the veil off the face of a dead whom I knew and didn’t expect to have died. It took me minutes to come back to senses.
‘What happened?’ The I.O. asked, thinking I was a maniac. People think psychiatrists as lunatics too.
‘Nothing. Do you have any photograph of her husband?’
‘I have no doubt that the man we have, is Pankhudi’s husband. Do you know he used to spread a red sari on young women brought for cremation?’
He shook his head admitting ignorance.
A staff nurse played Pankhudi.
We chose staff’s rest room. The boys helped the nurse getting ready in position to hang herself to the fan with a red sari and came out. We closed ourselves in the adjacent room. He was pushed towards the room.
On seeing the nurse, he began screaming frantically. ‘Pankhudi…Pankhudi…not again…save her.’ He ran to the girl and lifted her on her legs. ‘No..No…Pankhudi.’
I, along with two ward-boys entered and helped the nurse.
I wreathed my arms around him and turned him opposite so that he could not see the nurse.
‘Let’s have a drink and a good cry?’ He stared at me, confused. I understood the uncertainty in his eyes.
I didn’t hold back. ‘Then, let’s talk about the death of Pankhudi.’
His glare turned intense. ‘Your Pankhudi,’ I said.
‘Why are you doing this?’
‘I want to make you the man you once were.’
‘I can’t…without Pankhudi!’
‘Nobody can bring her back…and she wouldn’t be happy to see you like this.’ I pleaded.
‘When your partner who meant life to you leaves, it is like being caught in a bomb blast. You are dazed and disoriented. And when it happens suddenly and spontaneously, it leaves you shattered. That happened suddenly but I don’t want it to pass quickly. I want to live that pain.’ He spoke as if he was a few light years away from me.
‘Why did she kill herself?’ I nudged.
‘She was killed.’ he retorted with aggression and gaped at me. I shuddered.
‘The day was Karva Chauth. I had bought her this red sari,’ he squeezed the sari in his hands. ‘The police informed me of her death and asked me to reach home. Hearing that she was no more, I underwent a sense of unreality. I was completely numb.’
‘Who reported the suicide?’
‘Her father had reported to the police. They killed her.’
‘Why would they kill her?’
‘They were opposed to our relationship. We married without their consent, hoping that time would calm their anger. I belong to Kushwah community who are considered as most backward class in Haryana. They were Tyagi, Brahmins of Uttar Pradesh, They were high cast but their minds were too shrunken to hold humanity over cast.’
‘Do you remember you spread this sari over the corpse of every woman brought dead in the cremation ground?’
‘I don’t know. I stayed at the Ghat after Pankhudi’s cremation. I never went out of that place since her death. Pankhudi wanted to wear this sari that evening. She wanted to look like a bride. Because we had married at a temple in plain clothes, her wish of dressing up and wearing all rudiments as a bride were unfulfilled. I bought her everything she wanted, yet she departed insatiate. Maybe, her unredeemed desire was deep-seated in me. Maybe, I thought it would bring solace to her.’
‘Now, would you do it again?’
‘Is there any harm in it?’
His counter query caught me in a jinx. I thought for a moment before shaking my head in negative.
‘Few people in this world will fear from your sanity and the same people will fear for your insanity. Did I harm anybody when people thought I was insane?’
I didn’t answer.
‘I know. I didn’t. People at cremation ground loved me. They took care of me. They accepted me without questions and without inquiries. They are better human beings than the people I lived with. The world outside is indifferent, cruel and selfish.’
‘You say that because they let you do what you did?’
‘They understood my feelings behind doing that. The world outside suspects vested interests behind every action of others. If they don’t find any, they think the person is retarded. Such is the world we live in.’
I shrunk within and avoided eye contact with him.
‘I would not thank you for making me the man I once was, as you said a little while ago,’ he said, squeezing my shoulder to drag my eyes back towards him. ‘I always was the same person. Just that I was weary of the world I lived in. We don’t want to be just human beings. We love the small, ill-founded classes and segments we have shut ourselves down into. The cremation ground is a far better place. Every cadaver is given the same treatment there. Every corpse is respected.’ He gasped, ‘Live there for a day. You would know answers to all the why’s, bobbling in your head.’
He walked away.
Shame-faced and guilt-ridden, my eyes didn’t follow him. I was the part of the same world he was whining about. I knew he was true. Only thing was, I haven’t, yet, lost a loved one, as he did.