Story: Afterlife

By: Emon NC.

family_painting

It meandered diagonally across the surface of the glass, from the top right corner, to the left corner below. Neharika thought it was a stain, caused by the water leakage on the roof above. But a closer look and a casual wipe revealed that the glass had cracked. And the dust that had settled on the crack gave it a stain like feel.

She had noticed it a few days ago during one of those mornings when her husband and her two children would be fast asleep and she would have the house along with its placid silence all to herself. On the living room side of the wooden partition, that separates the room from the kitchen Neharika had hung pictures of her family and that of her husband’s family. Although it was her family that took up the maximum space.

Many mornings she would stare at them feeling nostalgic about her childhood. The careless life she had lived and the possibilities that beckoned her. Her life was hers and she didn’t have to share it with anyone. Now however it was different story. Neharika and her life of possibilities had taken a back seat and her limited role as mother and wife were more important.

At one corner of the partition, was the framed photograph of her diseased grandmother. Her wrinkled yet agile face was almost synonymous with her childhood. With her mother being forever ill and her father posted elsewhere she and her brother were brought up by her.

Aita they would lovingly call her and rush to her arms. She was a short fragile looking women, a little bent at her waist, and always munching betel nut. As far as Neharika could remember she always saw her wearing white.

Neharika balances herself on a chair and carefully removed the photograph. Her fingers could feel the layers of dirt that had gathered at its back. She placed it on the center table and wiped it with a moist piece of cloth. The damage was more than she had imagined. The crack was much larger and the wooden frame seemed to be coming off at a few places. She stood staring at the picture for a moment and then cursed the boy from the neighborhood, who a few month ago , banged against the partition in his enthusiasm to imitate some TV super hero.

She looked beneath the glass to see if the photograph was stained. Not stained, but the sides have yellowed and some random spots have appeared here and there. She went to the kitchen and returned with a large polythene bag. She slipped the photograph into it. She would get it repaired when she goes to the market today to buy a dupatta, to match with her new salawar suit.

******

It came out of nowhere……… the pain. Stuck Radhika in the lower abdomen forcing to fold her hands over her stomach and slightly bent herself, in an attempt to ease the discomfort. But it wasn’t working. It seemed she would need help. She looked at her husband sitting beside her. He was oblivious to her condition and totally engrossed in what the priest was saying with a coffin laid in front of him.

This was the first, time Radhika had come to a Christian funeral. She had seen it on Television, in few of those Hollywood movies, that her brother in law and some of her cousins would watch. She was always left in awe by the sublime grandness of the whole affair. People dressed in neatly pressed suit and gowns, assembled in churches with enormous vaulted ceiling where multi hued stained glasses spilled a brilliant array of colored light all over. The coffin with shiny golden knobs would be richly decorated with exotic flowers. And the priest would make eloquent speeches in which everyone seemed to be finding solace.

Though the scale was nothing compared to what she had expected, but seeing a funeral in real was no doubt exciting for her. The church was much smaller and the arrangement modest. The windows and the doors, didn’t have the majestic quality, that Radhika had seen on TV. But still, she was enjoying it.

This enjoyment however dimmed when she saw the grief stricken faces of their neighbor. They lost their only daughter to an accident. She tried not to think of them and instead admire the novel surroundings.

It was a nice way of praying she thought. Not many rules and rituals. People were so relaxed. God forbid if there was a death in her house she could only imagine what all things she had to do. Even having a simple puja, like the one they had last week required days of preparation.

And here, her neighbors, daughter- in -law was sitting comfortably watching the ceremony. Radhika felt jealous for her good luck. She wished the next time she was born, she would be born a Christian. Immediately however the pangs of religious blasphemy gripped Radhika, and she murmured a short prayer for this irreligious and immoral thought.

The coffin was brought in. The girl lay peacefully amidst flowers. She was dressed in a blue skirt, but her face had paled. Radhika stared into the girls closed eyelids, she looked so alive she thought, as though she was in deep slumber. Radhika was about to walk away from the coffin when the pain again stuck her. She tried to ignored it and walked with her husband towards their seat.

But the pain kept on growing. It took an excruciating intensity, forcing Radhika to ask her husband for help. Her husband however, seemed annoyed and scowling his face asked Radhika to take a walk outside the church.

The signs of cross standing erect from the ground as thought they were the vigilant guard, of the dead below, against the bleak backdrop of the overcast sky, sent a slight tremor of fear through Radhika. The initial excitement of being in a funeral seemed to be waning off. The thought of being surrounded by the dead unsettled her. The pain was becoming unbearable, but at the same time she could feel another agony overshadowing her heart.

**********

I should have moved the pawn first instead of the knight thought Balabhadra Chaudhury, as he looked at the chess board from last night game. Dressed in a neatly pressed white kurta pajama, he was waiting in the door way of the living room for his walking stick to be brought to him. Outside the sun shone with a ruthless intensity, hinting at a hot and an extremely humid day. In normal circumstance Balabhadra Chaudhury would never venture out in a day like this. His health wouldn’t permit him. But today was different.

He looked again at the chess board that lay undisturbed from the last nights play. It has been his instruction to all in the house, that the board under no circumstance should be cleaned removed or disturbed. His game with Chandan Chaliha sometimes went on for days or even weeks together. Yesterday’s game was however a surprise. It finished in no time. Hardly twenty minutes and Balabhadra Chaudhury found his queen being checkmate by Chandan Chaliha’s pawn.

Chandan Chaliha wrinkled faced glowed with a smile as Balabhadra tried to comprehend what went wrong. Removing his thick frame glasses Chandan said. “ Don’t worry, it happens sometime..Lets start another game” But Balabhadra was in no mood for another round. He waved his hand in a dismissing gesture. He won’t move to another game without knowing what went wrong in this.

Chandan Chaliha sat back and began to cough incessantly. The maid rushed in with a glass of water. Balabhadra, without raising his head asked “What did the doctor said?”. Chandan replied “What will he say …my time has come….and I will die very soon”. Chandan began to laugh. But Balabhadra didn’t find it amusing. He frowned his face.

The distant rumble of the sky told them that rain was on its way. Darkness was beginning to envelope the place. Chandan looked at his watch. His face began to show signs of restlessness. Balabhadra knew what it meant. It was five thirty now. Chandan leaves his place everyday exactly at seven. And since its going to rain he had to leave early.

Chandan hated to break his schedule. He had lived his entire life by the clock. As far as Balabhadra knew the word being late didn’t exist in Chandan’s dictionary. They were colleagues in the same office. And in thirty years Balabhadra had never seen Chandan being late even by a second in reaching office. Ten O’clock sharp he would be there. No excuses. If he was late he would take the day off.

Balabhadra tried to reason with him how archaic this habit of his was. They were in government service so the preferable time to reach office would be eleven thirty. Moreover he was making a fool of himself; in the same salary he was doing more work than his colleagues.

Chandan almost snapped at Balabhadra when those arguments were put to him. He said that he doesn’t care about others. He would do what seemed right to him. He would come to office in time and do his work sincerely. He respects his job and thinks of it as a service to the people.

Chandan’s expression told Balabhadra that there was no point arguing with him. From that day onwards this topic was never discussed between them. Chandan behavior was no doubt a bit eccentric, but he was a good man, always ready to help. Although ridiculed at the beginning, slowly everyone came to appreciate his sincerity and sense of devotion towards his work. Even during the last day in office he was the first to reach for his own farewell party. It did put a lot of his junior colleagues to shame.

So if he had to go at five thirty instead of seven, Balabhadra could very well imagine the discomfort he would feel. So he said “Don’t worry my son, will be back home in an hour, he can drop you”. Chandan’s face relaxed. He stretched his arms and leaned backed in his chair.

After retirement, this game of chess had become the reason for both of them to eagerly wait for the next day. Both had been retired for seven years, and every day at sharp four O’clock their game would start. They would never miss it except when their failing health wouldn’t permit them.

Balabhadra scratched his chin, still unable to comprehend what went wrong.

He was startled by Chandan’s voice- soft dreamlike, quite unlike from his usual horsed tone. He looked up. Chandan was looking out of the window. The street light fought a losing battle against the descending darkness. A slow drizzle have started. “Life is like a game of chess, we play with death ”said Chandan, “ the trick is not to win the game, but to delay it.” It was strange thought Balabhadra, he had rarely seen Chandan become philosophical. Balabhadra gave a dismissive smile.

A faint smile hover in Balabhadra’s lips, when he recounted his friends words of the day before. He won the game with him, but it’s a pity, he lost the game with death. Chandan Chaliha died of a heart attack early this morning.

The maid brought him his walking stick, and helped him down the stairs towards the waiting car. His son started the ignition. He asked “ Don’t you want to go to Chaliha uncles house, the cremation is at ten o’clock, now its nine fifteen, we can go to their house and then to the cremation ground” Balabhadra Chaudhury shook his head he would go to the cremation ground straight. He wouldn’t take any risk what if something happened and they were late. He could never be with his friend in his endeavor to reach office in time, at least today he didn’t want to offend him.

*********

Neharika looked at herself in the mirror. Although age was catching up, black still made her look stunning. She turned sideways to check the fit of the dress. It was perfect. At fourteen hundred rupees, Neharika felt that the salawar was quite a bargain.

She gave a slight swirl and glanced at the watch, four thirty, her husband and kids would arrive in an hour, she better hurry up, she had to clean the place and prepare their evening snack.

She picked up the polythene wrapped photograph of her grandmother lying on the bed. Next to it lay her new black dupatta printed with golden leaf motif.

She had taken the photograph today to the repair shop, but the shopkeeper asked for twelve hundred rupees. The wooden frame along with the glass had to be changed, beside some retouching needed to be done, he explained. Neharika thought it would cost something around two to three hundred, twelve hundred was too much. She would try some other shop when she had the time.

She walked out of the bed room for the rear balcony. She would keep the photograph, at the overhead outdoor closet. As she passed the living room, she thought, she would have to rearrange the pictures at the wall, to fill the space, at the top left corner occupied by her grandmothers photograph.

**********

The coffin was lowered.

Flashes of her husband’s face came to Radhikas mind. He looked like the devil incarnate. He drew his face near her. Radhika closed her eyes. She could only hear his voice. “ I don’t want that that girl” it was all he said. Radhika’s unborn daughter was killed in her womb.

For a moment Radhika’s womb turned into a coffin, carrying her dead child.

Radhika wanted to scream. She wanted to bury herself and her womb, with the dead girl in the coffin.

*********

Balabhadra Chaudhury felt agitated. The time by his watch was nine forty, but there was no sign of the entourage carrying his dear friend. He couldn’t bring himself to accept the fact that Chandan Chaliha would be late for his life’s last appointment.

He looked at the faces of the people who have gathered there. None of them seemed tensed. They didn’t have the slightest inkling of what time meant for Chandan Chaliha.

Balabhadra Chaudhury stood up.

He ignored his sons request to sit down and not to exert himself. He made his way towards the entrance gate of the cremation ground.

He stood there restless. The sun beating down made him drowsy. At last he saw the white Minivan adored with flowers, moving among the traffic. He looked at his watch it was nine fifty. Balabhadra Chaudhury heaved a sigh of relief.

He was about to turn back when he saw the Minivan being stopped by a policeman. Not only the Minivan, all the cars were now being stopped. When he realized, what was happening, he felt the pangs of sadness piercing his heart. The road was being cleared for a VVIP convoy to pass.

Balabhadra Chaudhury stood there feeling helpless. Chandan Chaliha would be late for his funereal.

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