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Death In The City— Kamleshwar

Nov 3, 2022 | Fiction | 0 comments

Translated from the Hindi by Vishaal Pathak 

 

I’m watching it all in silence when unbeknownst to me now there’s this thought deep down, that of all the people, I, at least, should’ve been a part of Diwanchand’s final journey. I know his boy quite well, and especially on an occasion such as this, one stands even with an enemy. The winter has gotten the better of me, but the thought of being at his funeral is tugging at my heart nonetheless. 

Fog has eclipsed everything around. It’s 9 in the morning, but the city is veiled in the mist. Streets are soaked, as are the trees. You cannot see anything clearly; it’s the noises that signal the presence of life. These sounds—forever reside in your ears, coming in from each corner of the house. Vasvani’s cook has just fired up the stove, like any other day—one can hear it simmer through the wall. Atul Mawani is polishing his shoe next door, Sardarji above is waxing his mustache, and the lamp behind the curtain on his window shines bright like a diamond. The doors are all shut, the windows curtained, but each nook and corner chimes with life. Vaswani on the third floor has shut the bathroom door and opened the pipes…

Buses are dashing through the fog. The fat tires hiss from afar, then up close, then far again. Auto-rickshaws are hurriedly running through. Somebody’s just turned a taxi meter down. The telephone is ringing at the doctor’s. In the alley behind, a few young women are on their way to the morning shift. 

The streets seem to quiver in the unforgiving cold. Cars and buses are dashing through the clouds of fog, honking. Streets and pavements are full of the living, though bathed in fog, every man seems a ghost.

The ghosts are quietly drifting through the sea of fog… The buses are getting crowded. Men have curled up and sunk themselves into the freezing seats; some have hung themselves like Christ on the cross—arms wide open, though palms not with nails, but clutching the icicles along its roof.

And amidst it all, is a bier seen in the distance, passing through the streets. There’s a bit about the bier in the newspapers; I’ve just read it. Has to be about this death. It reads, “Karol Bagh’s popular business magnate Seth Diwanchand passed away last night in Irwin Hospital. His mortal remains have been transported home. Last rites shall be conducted at Panchkuyian crematorium at 9 the morning after; the funeral procession to pass through Arya Samaj Road.”

The one on the street right now must be his then. Wrapped in hats and mufflers, a few men are silently marching behind. Albeit slowly. Some of it is visible while some of it is not, yet, I reckon there are some men behind the bier. 

There’s a knock on my door. I set the newspaper aside and unbolt the door. Only to find Atul Mawani out front. “Troubles galore, mate. Not one laundryman turned up today! May I borrow your iron?” I’m relieved to hear that. I was anxious, since the moment I saw him, that he’d rather be pushy about going to the funeral. I promptly lend him the said iron and am at ease what with him now grating metal on his pants and stepping out to visit embassies. 

Ever since I learned of Seth Diwanchand’s passing in the papers, I was worried someone might just come over and suggest—in this weather—to join the procession. Everyone in the building was familiar with him, and these people, after all, are noble, worldly men of repute.

Sardarji’s servant hurried down the stairs just then and proceeded to go out, flinging open the door. To further assure myself, I called out to him, “Dharma! Where are you headed?” “To fetch Sardarji some butter,” he replied from down there. It seemed opportune, then, to hand him money to fetch me some cigarettes.

That Sardarji was ordering butter for his breakfast, could only imply he’d be absent from the procession too. I felt further relieved. If Atul Mawani and Sardarji did not intend to join the procession, my joining ought to be out of question. It was the former two and the Vaswani’s really that frequented Seth Diwanchands’. I, on the other hand, had met him four or five times in total. So if these people weren’t joining, my participation was not even in question. 

I notice Mrs. Vaswani on the balcony across. There’s a strange paleness to her pretty face, and on the lips, faint redness from the lipstick last evening. She’s stepped out while in her gown and is tying her bun. I hear her voice, “Darling, could you hand me the paste, please…”

That brings further respite. For this implies Mr. Vaswani also cannot make it to the funeral. 

Far out on the Arya Samaj Road, the bier could be seen gradually moving ahead. 

Atul Mawani comes round to return the iron. I want to take it promptly and latch the door, but he steps inside to announce, “Diwanchandji passed yesterday. Did you hear?”

“I just read about it in the papers,” I say rather straightforwardly so that the conversation gathers no steam. Atul Mawani’s face emanates a certain glow—customary of a fresh shave. He goes on to add, “Was a great man, Diwanchandji.”

I’m afraid, upon hearing, that this will snowball into a moral obligation to attend the funeral procession, so I say instead, “Whatever happened to that venture of yours?”

“Oh, as soon as the machines arrive. The commission will start rolling in. This commission-based employment—I tell you—is sheer nonsense. But what can one do? Once around 8-10 machines have been sold, I’d have enough to launch my own business.” Atul Mawani concedes, “Boy! When I was new here, ‘twas Diwanchandji who helped me immensely. I got some jobs, courtesy—solely him. People held him in high regard.”

Hearing Diwanchand’s name again had me on guard. Right then Sardarji, poking his head out the window, poses, “Mr. Mawani! When do we leave then?”

“Well, it was slated for nine itself. Though the cold and fog might cause a bit of delay,” he says. My assumption is that the conversation is about the funeral.

Sardarji’s servant Dharma has handed me the cigarette and is now setting the table upstairs for tea. I can hear Mrs. Vaswani, “I suppose Pramila will surely be there, isn’t it, darling?”

“I’d think so too. Now hurry up and get ready though!” Mr. Vaswani could be heard on the balcony.

Atul asks of me, “Any chance you’d be about the coffee house this evening?”

“Maybe,” I say, wrapping myself in a blanket as he returns to his room. Barely half a minute and his voice reverberate, “Oi, is the power back on?” “Yes,” I answer. I know he asked so because he’s now heating water with the electric rod.

“Polish!” The boot-polish lad toots politely like each morning, and Sardarji calls him upstairs. The boy is polishing shoes out front while the latter gives the servant directions, “Bring me lunch sharp at one. Roast the papadum well and prepare some salad, too.” I know for a fact that Sardarji’s servant neither brings in food timely, nor cooks as his master wishes.

Outside, the street is still covered in dense fog. There is not a trace of daylight. Vaishnav, the food vendor, has set up his stall. He’s arranging plates, as usual, the tinkling of which can be heard all the way up here.

Bus number 7 is on its way. The many Christ on its rails is on board, while the conductor sells advance tickets to others in the queue. The clink of spare change, every time he returns the money, can be heard from up here too. Amidst all the ghosts engulfed in fog, the conductor, draped in black, seems very much the devil himself.

The bier has covered more ground by now.

“Shall I wear the blue saree?” Mrs. Vaswani is asking.

Vaswani’s muffled response suggests he must be tying his knot. 

Sardarji’s servant has cleaned the master’s suit with a brush and hung it on the coat hanger. And Sardarji is tying his turban in front of the mirror. 

Atul Mawani passes me by again. With a portfolio in his hand, he’s wearing the suit he ordered last month. His face looks fresh and the shoes shine bright. “Aren’t you coming?” he asks me at once. By the time I ask him where, he’s moved on to Sardarji, “Come, Sardarji. It’s getting late now. Ten already!”

Sardarji, all set, is out front in a couple more minutes; Vaswani fancies Mawani’s suit from up the stairs and queries, “Where did you get it made?”

“In Khan Market.”

“Looks neatly tailored. Pray, give us the name of the tailor, too.” Then he calls out to his wife, “C’mon now, let’s get going, dear. Alright, I’ll be downstairs, you be there too,” he says and comes downstairs to join Sardarji. Feeling the fabric of the suit with his hand, he asks, “Is the lining Indian?”

“English!”

“What a neat fit!” he says whilst noting down the tailor’s address. Mrs. Vaswani appears on the balcony.

The bier is now right under my room. Several men, and a couple of cars too, crawling at snail’s pace. The men are busy talking among themselves.

Mrs. Vaswani pins a flower to her bun and walks downstairs as Sardarji adjusts the kerchief in his pocket. Vaswani inquires of me right before they step out, “Aren’t you coming?”

“After you folks, please. I’ll follow.” I say right away and wonder the very next instant where really is it they want me to come. I’m thinking still when the quad steps outside. The bier has moved slightly more forward. A car comes from behind and slows down near the bier. The gentleman behind the wheel engages a man walking in the procession briefly for a chat and then drives past speedily. The two cars hitherto crawling behind the bier also pick up the pace.

Mrs. Vaswani and the group walk towards the taxi stand as I continue to observe them. Mrs. Vaswani adorns a fur collar. Perhaps Sardarji has his leather gloves on. The four get in in a taxi, which is now headed my way and I can hear someone giggling inside. Vaswani points to the procession on the street and gesticulates instructions to the driver.

I’m watching it all in silence when unbeknownst to me now there’s this thought deep down, that of all the people, I, at least, should’ve been a part of Diwanchand’s final journey. I know his boy quite well, and especially on an occasion such as this, one stands even with an enemy. The winter has gotten the better of me, but the thought of being at his funeral is tugging at my heart nonetheless. 

Their taxi slows down near the bier. Mawani appears to say something as he pokes his neck out, and the car moves ahead making a right turn. 

Something pokes me within; I put on my overcoat and slippers and walk downstairs. My feet carry me automatically to the bier and I start to—quietly—walk right behind it. Four men carry the bier, seven others walk beside it—I am, in fact, the seventh. And I’m thinking to myself of the stark contrast in one’s life as soon as one’s dead. Just the year before, Diwanchand had married off his daughter and people had arrived in the thousands. Umpteen cars were parked outside his bungalow… I’ve reached Link road now, walking in the procession. On the very next turn is the Panchkuiyan crematorial grounds. 

And as soon as the procession takes the turn, I can see huge gatherings of people and a fleet of cars. Quite a few scooters too. Womenfolk crowd on another side. High-pitched voices from their chatter are thoroughly audible. Their posture has the very suppleness you’d catch sight of at Connaught Place. Every woman has styled her hair bun differently. Smoke billowing from the menfolk’s cigarettes is continually blending into the fog; chatty womenfolk’s scarlet lips and snow-white teeth shine bright, and there’s a certain arrogance in their eyes. 

The bier’s been laid down on a platform at the entrance of the crematorium. There’s silence in the air. The so far haphazardly-scattered crowd is now finding itself encircling the body. Chauffeurs with hands full of bouquets wait on their mistresses for directions. 

My eyes fall on Vaswani. He’s been gesturing—with his eyes—at Mrs. Vaswani to walk over, close to the body but she rambles on with another woman, let alone pay heed. Sardarji and Atul Mawani are also standing close by. 

The body’s face has now been uncovered and women are placing bouquets and garlands around it. Relieved of duty, chauffeurs are now smoking cigarettes standing next to the cars.

One woman, having placed the garland, pulls out a kerchief from her coat pocket, puts it close to her eyes, and begins to sniffle. She steps aside.

And all women now follow suit—the kerchiefs are out and sniffles are in.

Some men light incense sticks and place them by the head (of the body). They stand still.

From the noises, it so appears the hearts of women have suffered a greater trauma. 

Atul Mawani is showing Vaswani a document from his portfolio. I’m guessing it’s a passport formular.

The body’s now being taken inside the crematorium. The gathering watches on from outside the gate. Chauffeurs have either smoked or put out cigarettes and are now stationed in their cars. 

The body is now inside.

Men and womenfolk gathered for condolences are walking towards the exit. Car doors can be heard being opened and shut close. Scooters are being started. Some folks are moving toward the Reading Road bus stop. 

The fog is dense still. Buses are plying on the streets and Mrs. Vaswani can be heard saying, “Pramila has invited us over in the evening. You’ll join us, won’t you, dear? She will send over the car. Seems okay?”

Vaswani nods his head in agreement.

Women headed in cars are smiling, taking leave of each other; buh-byes can be heard too. Cars, having started, are moving on.

Atul Mawani and Sardarji too are headed toward the Reading Road bus stop. And here I am wondering if I could’ve left straight for work from here; if only I’d come prepared. But it’s already eleven-thirty now.

The pyre has been lit and about four or five men are sitting on the bench under the tree. They too, like me, appear to have come here rather casually. Quite possibly they must’ve taken the day off else you’d find them come here more ready for the day.

What I cannot quite apprehend though, is if I should go back home and get ready to leave for office, or take the day off, citing a death. For it is without a doubt that death did occur, and I took part in the funeral, even.


Also, read a Bengali story by Premendra Mitra , translated into English by Upasya Mukherjee, and published in The Antonym

The Discovery Of Telenapota— Premendra Mitra


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Kamleshwar was a 20th-century Indian writer who wrote in Hindi. He also worked as a screenwriter for the Indian film and television industry. He was awarded the 2003 Sahitya Akademi Award for his Hindi novel Kitne Pakistan (translated in English as Partitions), and the Padma Bhushan in 2005.

Vishaal Pathak is an emerging writer. Some of his works have been published in ARTS by the People, The Kelp Journal, Five on the Fifth, and The Vermilion. He is now also trying his hands at translation of works in Hindi literature.

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