Statutory warning: There are no ghosts in this story. But I met a man who wanted to take me to the edge of my known world.
“We call it a grain of sand
But it calls itself neither grain nor sand” – Wislawa Szymborska
Twelve years ago a morning, I was scouring the city in my bike for a potential prey. My deadline was fast coming; I must submit a story for the column, ‘Face in the Crowd,’ in the Hindu, in a couple of days.
I had a travel piece two weeks ago, I had a cover story on Vasthusasthra a week ago, but I knew I could not sit on those laurels. Moreover my friend and editor, the tall and formidable VG Muralikrishnan (Murali Gopy, the actor-scriptwriter who was in charge of the Hindu Metro then) would not let reporters turn lazy.
I mustn’t disappoint him. I mustn’t disappoint my reader.
As I thread through the roads under a scorching sun, my eyes were roving around to pick a unique story. And the ride, like every other pilgrimage in life, ended beside a cremation ground.
Chami, 78, looked every bit his age.
Dark and short-statured, Chami could spray out fine red droplets of betel juice whenever he spoke. I took a step back and said: “You are going to be interviewed for the Hindu.” I sounded like an agent announcing to his customer that he had won a lottery ticket.
“So what! Should I go and hang myself?” He asked.
I winced as I had only seen men turning ecstatic the moment I announced they were going to figure in a newspaper. I changed my tack.
“Heard that you have been the caretaker in this burial ground for the last 60 years. Who took you into this job?”
“My achchan(father)!!!” he said.
Achchan!!! I cursed myself for asking that question. ‘Achchan’ with that double-decker consonant in the middle exploded point blank; I took another step back wiping droplets of betel juice liberally sprayed on to my face. Then I asked whether he liked his work.
”What do you mean?”
“Have you ever felt that you should be elsewhere than tending the dead?”
“When are you going to stop this crap and beat off from here?” He asked.
Chami was reluctant to speak. He wanted me to buzz off. I would not at any cost.
Finally as there were no more dead bodies coming, and no signs of them spotted (he told me later that the presence of a lone sparrow in a turmeric tree foreboded the arrival of a dead body) he settled on a precipice – still chewing and sucking on the last crumbs of betel leaves he wiggled out from the unexplored cavities in his mouth – and began to open himself up bit by bit. He was more soliloquizing than talking to a reporter.
Never loved, never married, never jilted, Chami had never felt the need of a woman for the last 78 years.
“Pft! I have not enough money to buy my chokkan! I live here, at night sleeping under this sky, maybe by the side of a pyre in this ground. The fire gives me some warmth.”
“Aren’t you afraid!!!” I asked, peering over his shoulder at the dark and spooky ground dotted with tall trees. I couldn’t digest the image of a man sleeping near a pyre when a human body would be gutting down into ashes. Forget the stench but… He shook his head. “With chokkan in me, I am not afraid of anything in the world,” he said. I looked at his dull, yellow eyes for a moment and asked: “What is chokkan?”
He drew out a bottle from his hip and pushed it towards me. “Want to try?” No, I blenched; I spotted a ring of tobacco stain at the mouth of the pint bottle, half filled with some clear liquid.
“You don’t believe in ghosts?”
“Bullshit! Never seen them in my life.” He took another sip of the chokkan. I should not have reminded him about the drink.
“So, is there nothing to be afraid of sleeping in a cremation ground?”
“Nothing to be afraid! You won’t survive a night, son! Have you seen Maadan? Marutha? Vadayakshi?”
“No! They are only in tales. Do they exist?”
“This place,” he turned and pointed to the ground, “this place is teeming with them. At night they come down from trees one by one.” I looked around sceptically and moved a little closer to him.
“But you just told me there are no ghosts!”
“There are no ghosts, but the beings I told you now are more dangerous than your bloody ghosts. Your blood will curdle the moment you see the face of one at night.”
“Have you seen them?”
He looked at me fiercely for a moment, then shut his eyes, turned his head away, and resumed chewing – first vigorously then gradually got calmed down to a meditative rhythm.
One night long ago he saw from his sister’s home a group of men carrying a body into the cremation ground. Chami must be quick, or else, those people could bury the body themselves in order to save on his commission. Chami, quick, quick quick! Chami grabbed a pickaxe, screamed to his bedridden father that he got work, dashed after the men who had now vanished into the night inside the cremation ground!
There was only one entrance. Inside the ground, Chami stopped, gasped for breath and looked around to detect motion. Chami was alone!
He lit a torch that hardly penetrated the thick woolly night which had now begun to gang upon him like black hyenas from all sides. “I could still hear men crying.” In the darkness people sobbed, whined, sniveled, complained and shuffled uneasily. Still they would refuse to answer Chami, nor would they reflect the light Chami showered on them. “I learned what I was against, in a flash. A chilliness grew in the pit of my stomach and I fell down losing my consciousness. Two hours later I got up and crawled back home.”
Chami was too much into the world of the dead than the living. He was still stuck in a world with Prem Nazir and Sheela. The only Mammootty he knew was the one who came to help him cremate the bodies for a while. “Bah, he was a useless hand!” With Mammootty reduced to a caretaker’s ‘useless’ help, I didn’t have the courage to press for Mohanlal.
Never figured in a voter’s list his entire life, his approach to vote-begging politicians was clinical and business-like.
Once a politician came to him with a request to help him in an election. It was the chokkan who answered through the betel-stained lips of Chami: “Don’t worry. I will help you one day. I promise you, man. I will help you when your time comes.” He was in one of his least sarcastic moods when he said that.
The politician made a hasty retreat with his face turned paper-white.
After an hour’s chat with Chami I found myself running into a barren patch, there were hardly any common topics we could discuss. An uneasy silence grew between us. Chamy at 78 had no ambitions. What could he want after all! More dead bodies! More money! What for! He had no spite for the world; he had no interest in it either. He woke up every morning and sat in one corner of the cremation ground, chewing on betel leaves lethargically until his messenger bird – that lonely sparrow – in a turmeric tree senses death at a distance.
If it chirped, a body would come followed by his usual quota of chokkan. Chami lived on a simple equation during the day:
But with sundown, the equation would get a bit complicated with a few more entrants to Chami’s life.
Every night, Chami would be geared up with his Chokkan to fight another night-long battle against a fleet of ethereal beings – Marutha, Vadayakshi, Maadan – who would climb down one by one from the tall trees inside the cremation ground. “It’s a battle of nerves every night. They look out for a sign of weakness in me. I look out for a way to sleep amidst the clamor.”
There was silence. He turned to me to see whether what he just uttered had dissolved into me to the last insoluble grain.
“You don’t believe me, I know. Tell me. Do you want to see them? Have you got the courage? Could you spend one night with me on the ground?” I looked into his eyes; Chami was dead serious. He wanted to take me deep into his dark world.
One night in the cremation ground with Chami would make the ultimate story, I knew. I read his eyes for yet another minute and saw eerie shapes taking life in them.
I shook my head mechanically.
Every time a child says, ‘I don’t believe in fairies,’ there is a fairy somewhere that falls down dead – JM Barrie