Bhushan Cabin was a stone’s throw away from the burning ghat. A small, dingy eatery with the walls in dire need of a fresh coat of paint. He cleverly dressed them up with calendars of almost all the leading gods and goddesses to remind his customers of the supremacy of fate and faith. From a more practical point, they could also consult these glossy pages to fix the date of shradhh ceremony.
It closed late at night and opened early in the morning to cater to the maximum number of those who came to cremate the dead. The menu should have been strictly vegetarian but Bhushan, the wise hotelier well past his prime, knew that a large number of people came only to accompany, as friends and neighbours, and they would prefer eggs and fish items. The family that lost a dear one was plunged in grief and eating was not a priority with the surviving members. So his clientele largely comprised the mourning lot that arrived in droves just to show up, to discharge their social obligations. And for them he wrote on a blackboard placed right in front of the entrance the main attractions like fish curry and egg curry along with the rates.
Respectably called Bhushanda, he was in this business for more than thirty years, and he had never compromised on the quality of food prepared though he knew there was no merit in building a reputation because people would not bring their families all the way to this gloomy part of the riverside to enjoy a meal that was available in almost every street corner in the city. Yet he remained steady in his commitment to quality, to a large extent guided by the fact that Keshto Baba, an undertaker from the crematorium, always ate at his eatery and he threatened to seek revenge the day Bhushanda died.
“Remember, the dead have to pass through my hands. There is no escape. Treat me well and you get a decent farewell from this world,” the undertaker said with authority while looking at the fish-bone.
Thus attacked, Bhushanda ordered the assistant to serve him more fish. If, after polishing it off, he did not burp, he would resume his outburst, “Bhushan, your staff don’t serve plateful. I’ll break their skulls into tiny pieces and perform black magic that would keep their spirits trapped.”
This scared not only Bhushanda but also the serving staff who rectified their ways. In all these years they had become aware of the special relationship the fearful Keshto Baba shared with Bhushanda. Now they were generous in serving him food till he had eaten satisfactorily. The necklace of small human skulls and the red vermillion mark used to stir fear in their minds but now they made fun of the thick, long jute-like mass of uncut hair he had preserved, suggesting new shampoos and hair care products endorsed by heroines to untangle the nest.
Keshto Baba was given credit facility, an exception to the rule. His dues were written in a separate book. He never paid the full amount due. Every March he closed the account by paying just half, or the amount he felt like paying. Bhushanda waived the rest. There was no point in arguing with him. Bhushanda visualized the day his dead body would lie in front of Keshto Baba waiting for his kind attention. The cumulative effect of this goodness, he expected, would be displayed by Keshto Baba. That was also, he believed, a sort of investment.
Staying near to the burning ghat, Bhushanda always felt close to death. He knew his last journey depended on this food-loving undertaker and his hotel staff who formed his small family ever since he had disowned his only son for marrying a non-Hindu and stripped him of the right to cremate his father. Instead, he had chosen the young Tapan, a fat teenager to perform his last rites. He had also clarified this matter with Keshto Baba who had no objection so long as the young boy took good care of his dietary needs.
All the four employees were with him for several years now and he had a very low attrition rate at the workplace. Every year he hiked their pay and also gave incentives for good work. Bhushanda lived in a small house just behind the eatery and the gate was linked to the cabin. One boy slept in his house and the others made beds of the tables in the cabin, keeping all the fans switched on at night to ward off mosquitoes. Bhushanda, out of consideration for they stayed holed up in the blast furnace like kitchen the whole day, did not object to the high electricity bill every month. He knew whatever he had would be of no use, as these people who served him would ultimately carry on in his absence.
In consultation with a lawyer he had made a will in which the hotel would be equally owned by them after his death, run as a co-operative unit, though this fact was shared with Keshto Baba and not his employees who he feared might get excited and kill him in his sleep or poison his food one night just to grab the property at the earliest. Stories of crime and murder, how sons and daughters killed their parents for wealth and property were common. That is why he never read any newspaper.
Sometimes in the evening, he ventured to meet his friend in the crematorium, who was busy with his ruthless job. The scene of grief – children and women hysterical – was very unbearable. It touched his heart, and he wondered why God is so unkind to children when they need their parents. With a heavy heart he returned, poring over the mysteries of life and death. If only people realised the ultimate end they would not indulge in sinful acts. Such a walk always had a sobering effect and he felt like prescribing it to all. The impact of visiting the burning ghat, standing at a distance and observing the flames leaping out of the pyre while the family stood watching the process of everything getting reduced to ashes was an enlightening one. In his life he had consigned to flames his wife more than a decade ago and his father when he was barely fifteen. He could not remember his mother’s face as he was very young then.
Such humbling experiences had made him judicious and he made arrangements for his own funeral. It would be an insult if the staff had to bear the cost. He knew they would be not so generous. Therefore he kept aside a substantial amount of money for his cremation every year, and advised his staff not to be miserly when it came to spending on his shradhh. Use sandalwood, desi ghee, feed Brahmins with pure vegetarian food and give them good clothes, also to the poor and beggars. To make this a grand affair, the reserve fund was pegged at fifteen thousand rupees. The staff felt bad when he spoke in so direct a manner of his own death and busied himself in chalking out the plans.
The young Tapan predicted that his owner would live for another fifty years, a flattery that did not please him as much as their willingness and solemn promise to do as he had directed. When they promised to be true to the word, Bhushanda said they would also get rewarded by Keshto Baba but stopped short of revealing how, though they were curious to know the benefit in store. As he dilated his pupils, they did not press for an answer. In addition, he extracted a promise that Keshto Baba would continue to enjoy hearty meals and he would not be coerced to pay money. Many seemed to be unhappy with this rider, as Keshto Baba ate half the fish cooked in a day! He felt happy that the estrangement from his wayward son would not affect his departure from this world.
Late one night, when Keshto Baba came to the cabin and ordered plain rice and lentils, Bhushanda was slightly surprised. The man who never ate vegetarian stuff was today opting for simple food. On being insisted he opened up and narrated a woeful tale though it was well past midnight. Downing the shutters, they all sat huddled and listened in rapt attention to what Keshto Baba had been so affected by, a man sapped of all emotions in all these years, having incinerated several thousand pyres. There was definitely something so severe that even a hardened man like him was jolted.
A family of four was mowed down in an attack. Only the nine-year old girl escaped unhurt. The girl could barely understand what was happening. She was tired of cremating her entire family.
“Such a setback at such a young age. What has the goddess saved her for?” Keshto Baba wondered.
“Her wailings ring in my ears. Those who came with her quickly dispersed and she sat in a corner with the ashes, refusing to let go of her dear ones. The girl’s face was so innocent, so painful to see. I have not been moved so much in my life despite doing such a brutal job for years.”
Keshto Baba did not feel like eating after this narration. He asked Tapan to feed the stray dogs. Tears welled up in their eyes and they wanted to know where the girl was. To that he could not provide any satisfactory answer.
“Lost in the crowded world perhaps,” he said.
“The little girl went away and you stood watching,” Bhushanda complained, “you could have at least had the sense to let any orphanage know. There are so many.”
Keshto Baba remained quiet, not taking any offence for the first time. He also felt he should have done something for the poor girl.
Local residents of the area had planned a trip to Haridwar. Many young men, women, kids and senior citizens went on this holy tour for a fortnight. Earlier Bhushan had declined to join the group in the fear of suffering loss in his business. He changed his mind now, and approached the organiser to enrol him as well. He shared the travel plans with Keshto Baba, who asked him to bring a bottle of Ganga jal and a small lingam of Lord Shiva. Bhushanda urged Keshto Baba to regularly visit his cabin and take account of the proceedings every night. He urged him once again to leave everything to God. Before leaving, Bhushanda kept in his custody a small box containing some papers and recent photographs that would stay safe with him. As he would have to take care of himself, he carried a small suitcase to travel light. Tapan offered to accompany him but he said he would prefer to go alone. He warned them to behave properly with customers and serve them well, also advised them to keep the cash under lock and key.
Fifteen days were not over but the journey was over. Bhushanda did not arrive. Those who returned on the tenth day came to the cabin to deliver a bottle of Ganga jal, a lingam and the urn containing his ashes.
The staff broke into tears to hear of this tragedy. The organiser briefly explained there was no way to inform them here, as Bhushanda had suffered a major heart attack and died in Rishikesh. Last rites were performed there as they were not allowed to travel with the dead body. Neither Tapan nor any other member could say whether Bhushanda had a family of his own. This quest took them to Keshto Baba who could provide the necessary answers.
Tapan rushed with the urn to the burning ghat to inform Keshto Baba of Bhushanda’s return.
“He has come,” he said, forwarding the urn. Seeing the form Bhushanda had taken Keshto Baba was shocked. It was betrayal since he believed he alone had the right to cremate his dear friend here, the right snatched by fate, depriving him of the chance to settle all scores. Presenting all the other belongings before him, the other members asked about rituals, his family background. He collapsed on the floor, unable to answer any of their questions. They went away suggesting that the cabin would remain closed for some days and they would perform the rites as they had promised their employer. The larger question was what would now happen to the cabin, though the occasion was not suitable to raise it.
Keshto Baba had seen, in the brief period, stars of a bright future sparkling in their greedy eyes, a feeling of success they had tried to drain out with tears. This could be made out with ease. Keshto Baba was a master in identifying fake grief, having seen many sons and daughters shed crocodile tears when they actually felt happy within, and to inherit all that their parents had left behind.
Losing interest in all duties, Keshto Baba let his juniors do the chores without any interference or guidance, while he sat in a corner, brooding over what to do. The loss of his friend was difficult to bear, but he had to complete an important task. He sat in front of the idol of the goddess, cried, and sought divine help. The box his dear friend had given him had to be seen. He opened it to find, among other articles, some photographs and letters in which he explained his strained relationship with his son, when he married a widow with two small kids whose husband had died fighting insurgents in Kashmir.
Keshto Baba examined the photographs by bringing them closer to the flickering lamp. One face looked familiar. He paused. Then he remembered the face of the little girl who sat alone on the steps leading to the river, weeping inconsolably, not willing to immerse the ashes of her dear ones.
Devraj Singh Kalsi works as a senior copywriter in Kolkata. His short stories and articles have been published in Deccan Herald, The Assam Tribune, Tehelka, The Pioneer, Thedelhiwallah.com, Openroadreview.com, and The Statesman. Apart from writing, he loves world cinema and Bollywood flicks. He is currently working on a novel.