Earlier they used to shoo him off. But now they are afraid of him. People are scared to meet his eyes. Just a few months back one fainted when he stared at him and signaled the man in his mid-thirties to come near him. It gave him a small pleasure, it always does when he notices people becoming conscious of themselves noticing him.
He is considered a tantrik, the most mysterious and scary sanyasins ever. He frequently overhears people talking about him in hushed tones … that in moonless nights he sits on corpses and performs strange rituals.
They bring food for him, mainly fruits, and country-liquor. And cigarettes, bidis. He doesn't have shortage of food. He eats the fruits, chucks the excess to the cows, goats or the occasional monkeys. Every morning they queue up in front of him. They are not afraid of him, but he could feel that even these animals don’t want to mingle with him much. They eat their share and leave silently.
He drinks the liquor, smokes the bidis or cigarettes and slips behind the bushes again, remaining motionless, like a corpse. At night his eyes shine like the jackals that emerge like devils from their hiding places in the hope of getting some share of the charred remains of the bodies. He watches them growling while devouring the burnt flesh.
They get to know when there will be an opportunity. The poor always end up half-burnt. Logs are costly, not everybody can afford them. The bearers leave the body when the inadequate amount of logs finishes off halfway. The jackals have made a pact with the dogs here. Both of the species devour the flesh without disturbing each other. As if they are also afraid of the phosphorescent burning eyes following them from the bushes.
He himself can feel the faint light emanating from his eyes in the darkness. He can now see clear in the darkness. But he is not sure where from this quality developed. He doesn't think anymore. It is. That's it.
People outside think he also devours the flesh. Some claim to have seen him in the act, he overheard several times.
But he had tried once. He didn't like the burnt smell. Instead, he settled for the offerings to the dead. He is now habituated with the fruits and homemade food that they bring for the tantrik at the crematorium. They, mortally afraid of him, keep it at a distance, most of the time at the stairs of the Kaali temple. A few brave hearts sometimes venture out to locate him. It’s a vast jungle out here and they don’t know anything of its mysteries. Even they don't come near him. When he gets bored he creeps near them through bushes, silently, like a hungry cat. The bravehearts get a shock of their lives noticing a pair of bright eyes fixed at them with a deep penetrating spell.
Everyone knows he commands ghosts. A millions of them! They run for their lives while he slides back to his usual place.
He understands he is famous, or infamous. Both are same. Strange is life. It gives you things when you are over it. He watches everything without any emotion. He watches his fame too with his burning eyes. He watches people's fear and distant respect for him with a no-feeling.
Detachment is not the word. Detachment too needs mind. He doesn't have a mind. He watches everything like a living corpse.
He slithered forward now, frowned, stared hard through the bush. The woman looks relatively young. Her head is red with vermilion, sign that she was loved by her woman friends. They do it for married woman. More you love, more vermilion you put on the head of the dead woman. The heaven's gate opens seeing the strength of the dutiful, pious wife.
What is heaven?
He had trouble guessing the age of the woman, must be less than fifty. How old is he? How many years have passed here? That day he counted he has seen twenty Kaali pujas here.
He came here at thirty. He must be fifty now. This woman looks almost his age. Young, before her time. His eyes followed the crowd bearing her cot.
They crossed the bush where he was hiding. Some whispered spotting him. He could see the rest of the group became alert at his mention, like a whisper of death went through everyone's earshot. Like a cold shiver flew down the spines. He fixed his stare harder at the body.
He tried hard to examine the woman's body. No use. They are carrying her cot high on their shoulders. He has to stand up to see. He doesn't do that. They will be really afraid seeing him. They may even drop the body and run away. Once it happened like that. He waited patiently for them to lower the body near the pyre. There will be usual funeral rituals by the brahmin while he would get his chance to examine her well.
The jackals won't have luck today. These people are rich. They will ensure the full body is burnt. They can buy the whole lot of logs piled up with the undertaker, enough to ash fifty of them.
They lowered the body on the ground. He slithered through the bushes nearer to the pyre. It's a strange curiosity that has arisen in him. It has never happened. He wants to see the face.
Finally! He could clearly see her face.
Like a witness, he watched something in him rising. Slowly, lazily, like a giant beast waking up from a long hibernation. He watched as his mind started rising up from its sleep. It was uncomfortable.
He watched to his horror that he was no more a corpse. He felt a sharp pain in his heart, something long forgotten. His voice cried out in anguish … it was difficult for him to speak, he didn't speak for years. It came out all jumbled, almost like gibberish. Only he could hear the sound of his mind rising steadily, first jumbled and then getting clearer … Suroma! Suroma!
A lump of sadness gurgled up from his entrails and choked his throat. He tried to spit it out, but couldn’t. He couldn't put out any sound, his voicebox won’t oblige. The body has simply forgotten to speak. A faint whine steadily rose … like an insect nibbling on his heart and tearing it apart very delicately, softly. Inside his heart cried … Suroma! Suroma!
Glimpses of the days left behind flashed past his dull, gray, tired eyes.
They snatched her from him. The world moves round by snatching. It gives the world immense pleasure in snatching someone's due. It's an ego trip, a mission to be achieved.
And once a mission is achieved, you toss the loot in some corner. Or sometimes discard it with other junk. The loser's precious is winner's junk.
He loved her, she loved him too. But they were not meant to be together, not when this rich man's son had his eyes on Suroma.
He couldn't stop Suroma's marriage. She pleaded him to take her away … anywhere. But he was simply not prepared. The future was shrouded in darkness, the present was not satisfactory either. He was jobless, like millions others of his age. Government jobs were not easy to come by too and he was not confident in his abilities to land one.
He last saw Suroma near the village hand pump where women used to gather in the evening to fill up drinking water and share juicy scandals.
Suroma forgot filling her pot seeing him. She fixed her almond-shaped deep eyes on him, it was full of plea. She was requesting him to just give a reassuring signal, that he is there for her. The plea in her eyes soon turned into disbelief and then into disgust at his indifference. There was hatred by the time he turned his head.
She got married a fortnight after that.
The loss hit him on her wedding night. As sehnai started playing those joyous tunes of union, his heart tore apart … as if someone was pushing a steely blue knife slowly in his heart with a ruthless sureness. He curled up on his bed in pain at the merciless penetration of his sadness. Grief was paralysing him and as the night passed his numbness increased. Finally when the cuckoo cooed at the nearby neem tree, he burst out in a loud laughter, banged his head against the wall, got bloodied in the process and ran away from his home.
Later, he pondered over his running away several times when he sat lonely, with a bellyful of meal given to him by a kind Samaritan, or a charity house for destitute. How easy it is to drop the concerns of a future. How easy it was for him to run away with Suroma. Something, somewhere would have been arranged. This universe arranges for everyone, it has to, otherwise the world will collapse.
Only if he believed in the existence more than he believed in his abilities. Each time he thought, the pain took grip on his soul, till he stopped thinking about it altogether.
He doesn't remember how he reached his guru. After many years of wondering, he was done with the world. He was not even interested in death. He was not for spirituality, but deep down he must have wanted to get something at least that will help him continue breathing.
That's how he came here, twenty years back. Now he doesn't want to go back. He is not interested in getting divine knowledge from his guru. He is at peace here, watching people reduced to ashes, patiently waiting for his turn.
He shook up from his thoughts of the past. They are now putting Suroma on the pyre. He suddenly stood up to watch her for the last time, before it all ends up in ash and dust. The party halted in adjusting the logs, they were visibly shaken.
The husband, yes, that bald, fat guy with gold chains and thick gold amulets must be the husband, looked at him with frightened eyes. His reputation must have reached the man already. Standing near him was a boy of twenty or so – in all white, wearing a dhoti. He must be Suroma's son. In the whole lot here, only he seemed silent, introspecting, so absorbed in his grief that he didn’t need to care about the fearsome evil tantrik of this place.
He fixed his eyes now on the boy. He could have been his own son. The tantrik’s eyes were kind now.
His attention was snapped when he saw the husband turning his back on Suroma's body in a show of utter disrespect, folding his hand towards the tantrik of the crematorium, praying, trying to please him.
Before the husband could say anything the tantrik hid behind the bush again. He was now sad. He could not be a watcher anymore. A thousand feelings crossed his mind, his eyes moistened, tears rolled down his rugged dry face and disappeared into the bushes on his face. He didn’t even care to ponder where these emotions were hiding for so many years, he just let him be. His body vibrated in anguish, it was painful, a shame that he wanted to kill but couldn’t. He let himself be controlled by these strange forces in his body. He didn’t want to watch anymore, but participate.
The husband is not sad at all at Suroma’s death, it doesn’t affect him at all. There was no love then. How did you live Suroma? What made you breathe if you did not find love? Nobody ever loved you, except me. Did I? Oh! Are we not all islands, do we really love anyone in this world except ourselves? A feeling of helplessness gripped him as the world darkened around him.
They lit the pyre, as if they are in a hurry. As if they don’t want Suroma to linger on here for any moment longer, as if she was a nightmare that they want to get rid off immediately. All signs should be obliterated from the face of this world that there was a life who lived, breathed in this world. Now the breathing has stopped, the world must move on discarding the useless.
She was an island, he is an island. Everyone is an island.
One island was set on fire while other islands watched surrounding it, without even giving a thought they could be the next. Ah! Vanity!
Suroma, I would have taken great care of you! I would have hid my face in your hair and fall asleep … I would have celebrated your beautiful eyes, fig-lips, touched you with all my tenderness. I would have preserved the oil on your shining skin for posterity, I would have hold your hand and close my eyes, dreaming of a far off land.
He lied down on the ground. Lost in his blankness, he heard the family members discussing material issues, very much tied to this earth, immediate priorities. Suroma was not the subject. By the time they go home, she will be forgotten completely.
As he watched the leftover charcoals, the ones they could not collect to throw in the river, a strange desire rose in his mind. A long forgotten desire. He was scared of it, but he was under a spell. He lit the cigarette through a dry leaf from the charcoals.