Krishnamurthy kept his eyes tightly shut as the nurse – a slightly built dark girl with protruding teeth and a fake red stone nose pin – administered his sponge bath with a series of no-nonsense strokes. The nurse, her teeth and nose pin (and its lack of authenticity) had all been pointed out to Krishnamurthy by his wife Raji earlier that morning, when she brought him his standard breakfast of coffee, idlis and coconut chutney.
“Her name is Ganga” she informed him as she set the worn green plastic basket on the table next to his bed and wiped the sweat from her brow with the edge of her sari.
“Poor thing, she is supporting an entire family of four with her earnings. How much do you think she makes? Not much I suppose… otherwise why would she wear such a cheap nose pin?” Raji rambled on as she poured his coffee out and opened the stacked tiffin carrier.
Krishnamurthy grimaced as Ganga gently turned him over and wiped his bottom. It was bad enough having to expose himself like this to a stranger – and a slip of a girl at that – but it was even worse now that he knew all about her. How she must loathe having to wipe down an old man like himself.
“Sir, does it hurt?” came a soft, concerned voice.
Krishnamurthy realised that that his eyes were still tightly shut, mouth curled in a sour twist.
“No, no sister. I am fine”
The Doctor had been brusque and unsympathetic with his diagnosis.
“It’s nothing major. Removing the prostrate is a routine operation. Side effects include incontinence and sterility – but those are things one can expect at your age anyway.”
Youth. That was what made the doctor – full of smooth, clean-shaven arrogance – talk like that. Krishnamurthy had wanted to wipe the bored, uninterested condescension off his face but instead smiled weakly as though the fool was telling a joke. Raji’s lack of sympathy hadn’t helped either. She was far more interested in speculating about the doctor’s marital status than talking about Krishnamurthy’s impending operation. Even worse was the ignominy of relating the doctor’s prognosis to his son and daughter-in-law. The latter, armed with a Masters in Zoology harboured unfulfilled medical ambitions and insisted on hearing everything – a request Raji obligingly fulfilled, brushing aside Krishnamurthy’s feeble mutterings of ‘routine procedure’ with a wave of her hand. In a matter of days, all of III Cross Street knew. Though no one came up to Krishnamurthy and spoke openly of the nature of his illness, the relieved looks on the faces of the men made it clear that they knew all about it and were glad it was not them. Some women giggled when they saw him on the street, while others looked away embarrassed. Krishnamurthy had become a joke; a spectacle was being made of his emasculation.
And now one more humiliation: wiped down by a young girl. They had tried to send a female nurse in to shave him down there for the operation. Down there. The very thought of it had sent Krishnamurthy’s blood pressure shooting about, forcing them to postpone the procedure by another two days.
“There Sir. All done.”
Krishnamurthy smiled his thanks and watched the nurse leave. He close his eyes and thought of home. He missed it: his morning coffee, daily walk around Narasimha Rao Park, the second coffee at the small café on the way home, watching the children play cricket at the corporation school ground and masking his excitement when they asked him to play umpire. He was tired of the creaking hospital bed and its bluish white sheets and the smell of antiseptic and sickness. Krishnamurthy’s happy reverie was shattered by a loud commotion as a group of arguing people barged into his room. Krishnamurthy groaned softly. So far, he had been the only one in the semi private room and had hoped that it would stay that way till he was discharged.
A man, somewhat close to Krishnamurthy’s age was being assisted from his wheelchair on to the bed. Thin and dark, the man’s rosewood coloured skin was sleek despite his age and was stretched over his oddly flat skull reminding Krishnamurthy of the taut ends of a mridangam. He was mostly bald but for a ring of fine, feathery hair that encircled his head like Caesar’s laurel and simply dressed in a checked shirt and white dhoti. Krishnamurthy would have thought him an ordinary middle class man if it were not for the attire and manner of the rest of the family. He was accompanied by two corpulent women, their expansive frames swathed in yards of gaudy, cheap foreign silk, the bulging flesh of their arms straining to escape from the restrictive confines of their ridiculously puffed blouse sleeves. Every inch of bare skin was concealed by gold ornaments that flashed and glimmered under the harsh hospital room lights. A youngish man formed the last member of this odd quartet, perhaps a son or son-in-law; he was dressed like some sort of film producer in white sandals, trousers and shirt – the latter tight and unbuttoned to mid chest, exposing thick coils of curly black hair. Even his neck was garlanded with a thick gold chain from which hung a medallion the size of Krishnamurthy’s breakfast idli.
Krishnamurthy closed his eyes in disgust. The last thing he needed was a bunch of nouveau riche upstarts throwing their weight around.
Krishnamurthy sighed. The ward was dark and the silence was frequently interrupted by the annoying sing song recorded voice that asked for the elevator door to be shut.
“Can’t sleep either, eh?”
The voice, hoarse and containing the slightest hint of a smile startled Krishnamurthy. He looked about till he realised it came from the man lying in the bed on the other side of the room. The man’s family had stayed that afternoon till the doctor finished examining him, after which they formed a huddle that excluded the sick man, whispering amongst themselves before saying goodbye to the man and leaving. To Krishnamurthy’s great joy, the man was wheeled out of the room after the family left, but was brought back a few hours later and went straight to sleep.
“What?” Krishnamurthy realised that the answer was a foolish one after such a long silence.
“What?” Krishnamurthy repeated, now feeling even more foolish.
“My name is Manikandan” the man repeated slowly, as though Krishnamurthy was some imbecile. Krishnamurthy felt annoyed. Who was this man? Disturbing him in the middle of the night and then mocking of him? Krishnamurthy remained silent, not sure of what to say next.
“And your name is…?”
There it was again. That tone. Krishnamurthy was quite sure he was being laughed at now.
“Krishnamurthy” he snapped, fuming at this treatment.
“I’m dying Krishnamurthy Sir.” The other man said, in an alarmingly cheerful voice. “Don’t worry, it isn’t anything contagious. And why are you in here? Sugar? Blood pressure? Ate one badusha too many?” the man mocked before breaking out in to a raucous laughter. Who did this Manikandan think he was, making fun of him? For all he knew, Krishnamurthy could be dying too of some terrible undiagnosed disease that no doctor could cure.
“It is my prostrate” Krishnamurthy said shortly, no longer sorry for the man. “I’m sorry Sir, I shouldn’t have made fun of you like that. But in my present condition, one has to laugh as much as one can.”
“It’s nothing very serious. The Doctor says I’ll be able to function normally- just some incontinence and sterility.” To Krishnamurthy’s utter dismay he began to cry. What on earth had come over him? Crying before of a stranger – and a dying stranger at that? What must he be thinking?
Krishnamurthy cleared his throat. “I have a bad cold. The air conditioning in this place is always too high.”
“It’s alright to cry Sir” Manikandan said softly. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Why I cried to my son last night before they brought me here. Do you know what he did? He put the television on. Full blast” Manikandan’s sigh was full of sadness and futility. Unsure of how to comfort the dying man Krishnamurthy kept silent allowing the drone of the air conditioner to swell and fill the room.
Krishnamurthy peered over the edge of his newspaper and watched Manikandan hand over some money to a hunch backed ward boy with detailed instructions of what he wanted for breakfast.
“I have never liked hospital food” Manikandan stated as he put the remaining notes back in to his wallet. Krishnamurthy was saved from having to think of something to say by the arrival of his wife. Small and fair, Raji’s trademark kunkumam bindhi was already disintegrating in small sweaty rivulets down her skin. Raji noticed the presence of a new person – and a man at that – in the room and drew the pallu of her sari around her shoulders. She set her plastic basket on the table with a thump and dispensing of any early morning pleasantries began to relay in an urgent whisper the happenings at home since she last saw him.
“There was no power all night. Imagine, in this heat. It went at eleven and didn’t come back till ten this morning. Of course, most of the neighbours had their generators on. As usual, it was only Janaki Mami and myself who suffered.”
The generator was a long standing desire of Raji’s – that and a daughter-in-law that didn’t talk back. Raji handed Krishnamurthy his plate and continued talking, standing with her hands clasped before her like an ageing school girl reciting her times table.
Krishnamurthy tore a portion of the soft white lentil cake and frowned. It was cold. Prodding the other idlis on his plate with his index finger he realised all of them were cold. And tough.
“The Sastris at number 11 have invited us for their daughter’s wedding – imagine getting the younger one married first – it’s at that new air conditioned hall near the Krishna temple. Oh and the electricity bill came – they never know when the power will come back but the bill always arrives on time. Hmph. What’s wrong? Why aren’t you eating?”
“They are cold” Krishnamurthy said, hating the petulance that had crept in to his voice. “And hard” he added.
Raji clucked impatiently. “Oh, they are from yesterday. I didn’t have time this morning to make fresh ones. The water lorry arrived this morning.”
Krishnamurthy didn’t know what was worse – being asked to eat leftovers usually kept aside for the servant or that his wife thought it perfectly acceptable.
“Is the coffee fresh at least?” Krishnamurthy grumbled
“Of course!” Raji snapped.
Krishnamurthy took a long sip of the steaming beverage and savoured the rush of liquid down his gullet. Across the room, Manikandan was busy arranging and rearranging his meagre possessions.
“Would you like some coffee, Sir?” Krishnamurthy called out, surprising himself and from the look on their faces both Raji and Manikandan too,
“Oh, no, no. It’s alright Sir. I have asked the ward boy to get me some.”
Krishnamurthy noticed Raji’s features relax in relief.
“Oh, but that coffee is no good. This is from home. Peaberry beans. Freshly ground. Raji give Sir some coffee.”
Raji’s expression froze at this request.
“I don’t have another cup”
“Oh, that’s alright, use the one that comes with the flask.”
Raji reluctantly poured some coffee and stiffly walked over to the other man’s bed. She placed it on his bedside table and paused, as though unsure of whether to wait for the cup or walk back. After a moment she walked back, pulling her sari pallu closer around her shoulders as though the well washed tie dye cotton would somehow protect her from the unknown ill effects of offering coffee to a strange man.
Krishnamurthy suppressed the urge to snort. Yes, yes feed your husband old stale idlis but have qualms about giving a poor dying man some coffee.
“Lovely coffee. Thank you so much” Manikandan politely said. He looked at the empty cup, as though wondering what to do with it.
“Oh don’t worry Sir. She will take it home and wash it” Krishnamurthy airily dismissed with a wave of his hand.
Raji’s fair face (a bargaining tool her parents leveraged all those years ago when Krishnamurthy had first seen her) coloured to a ripe pomegranate. She returned with the cup, banged everything in to her green basket and left curtly mentioning that their daughter in law would bring lunch.
“It looks like your wife is a little conservative.” Manikandan ruefully observed.
Krishnamurthy released the snort he had been holding back all this time.
“Conservative? Sir, every week she joins a group of women from the street at a Bhagavad Gita class run by some sham of a Bhagwan. They claim to learn about the power of the soul, karma, dhyanam and open mindedness. Then they come home and insist that servants enter the house through the rear entrance, feed their daughter in laws at the end when they have their periods. They re-rinse dishes the servants have touched. Feudal is more like it!”
“I meant Mami’s choice of attire. But yes, I noticed she didn’t like the looks of me much either!”
Krishnamurthy looked at Manikandan for a moment before dissolving in to laughter. It had been so long since he had done that.
Krishnamurthy tossed his hand of cards down in frustration. Not only had the blasted man won almost every game they played, Krishnamurthy had a feeling the few games he had won were thanks to the kindness of his opponent. He watched as Manikandan slowly put down each of his winning sets with a flourish. Krishnamurthy’s annoyance was short lived though as he saw the joy on Manikandan’s face. How could a dying man play cards like this as though all were well with the world? His family hadn’t even bothered to visit him since they’d admitted him. Of all the things to do, why come to die in a hospital?
“Why the serious look Krishnamurthy Sir? Are you thinking about your operation again?”
“Actually, I was thinking about you.”
“Why are you here Sir? If you know that you don’t have much time to live, shouldn’t you be at home with your family?”
“Well, that was what I had hoped for Sir. But then my family started pestering me. Who would get what? Which son would get the house in Ooty. How much money was I leaving the grandchildren? How much stake would my daughter get in the business. Even my man servant – the bugger’s been with me 20 years – even he wanted to know what he’d get. So we had a reading of the will – I didn’t want any ugly disputes and court battles after I was gone – and once they knew what they were getting out of me they no longer had any use for me. So I was ignored. I’d be the last to get my meals, my medication was forgotten – why some days they wouldn’t even bother changing my bed pan. It was better when they were pestering me – at least they used to come and see me. So I said I wanted to come to the hospital, at least one gets some semblance of care and attention once you’ve paid up. My family as you can imagine were more than happy to agree. Cut the pack Sir”. Manikandan’s voice was bland and emotionless.
The day scheduled for Krishnamurthy’s surgery also heralded the start of the summer month of Chithirai. The heat made the nurses grumpy and the ward boys avaricious – the latter charging double for errands; the white hot morning sun justifying their demands. Manikandan had been up all night groaning in pain. Krishnamurthy had never felt so helpless in his life. He left his bed at 11 o’clock and sat by Manikandan’s side all night talking and trying to cheer him up. They swapped life stories, reminisced about old movies, speculated about the upcoming elections and even shared market tips before a nurse on night duty came in and demanded they both go to sleep. Raji arrived without her breakfast basket, armed instead with a small arsenal of folded paper packets, each containing sacred ash and sandalwood paste from an assortment of temples that had been visited the previous evening and earlier that morning. As she applied them one by one to Krishnamurthy’s forehead she recited the names of which God or Goddess had blessed it and said a prayer. Krishnamurthy was reminded of when they were newlyweds and Raji followed a similar routine every day when he left for work. Perhaps there was some affection left inside after all.
“They’ll wipe it off before I have the operation you know?”
Raji looked aghast “It’s prasadam. How can they do that? I will talk to the doctor!” She vowed and handed Krishnamurthy his coffee before taking out another tumbler and pouring some more. To Krishnamurthy’s great surprise (and secret pleasure) she took it over to Manikandan and left it on his side table with a small nod of her head.
“Kumar said he will come tomorrow to see you. He has important meetings all day long.” Krishnamurthy was not surprised by their son’s behaviour. He was tight fisted and a workaholic. After all he chose to live with his parents post marriage (even though Krishnamurthy had practically ordered him to start a new home of his own) as it would save him money. Leaving work for a day and coming to hospital was equal to burning currency notes for the boy.
It was the sharp persistent pain in his groin that woke Krishnamurthy up. He remembered very little – in fact the last thing he could recall was the thumbs up sign a smiling Manikandan had given him as the orderlies wheeled Krishnamurthy to the operation theatre.
“Awake-a?” It was Ganga, her teeth protruding like large white pearls from beneath her gentle smile. “Good good. Operation was a success Sir. I will call the Doctor.”
After an hour of examinations and listening to Raji’s muttered prayers of thanks and a brief visit from his son and daughter in law, Krishnamurthy remembered Manikandan.
“Manikandan Sir.” Krishnamurthy called out. Silence greeted him. “Manikandan Sir.” He tried again. Perhaps he had gone to sleep. The screen was drawn around his bed and Krishnamurthy could see nothing but a vast expanse of blue flowered plastic. Ganga popped in to Krishnamurthy’s frame of vision her red nose pin flashing like a blip on his radar screen.
“Sir, you called Sir?”
“Nurse, where is the man who was sharing the room with me?”
“Oh. He is gone Sir.”
“Gone? You mean home?”
“No sir. I mean up.”
“He died this morning Sir. Quietly. In his sleep.”
Krishnamurthy clenched his sheets. “But Sister, he was playing cards when I left.”
“You want to play cards Sir? You should take some rest you know” She added, before leaving.
Krishnamurthy was engulfed in a sorrow he couldn’t explain. He hardly knew the man after all. And yet he missed him. His hoarse, wry voice. The few wisps of hair he took pains to comb every half hour. They had so much left to discuss. Why, they had only just started on the problem with India’s batting line up. Krishnamurthy allowed the drowsiness he had been battling for the last hour to take over, and fell in to an uneasy sleep.
“Sir, you know that man you were asking after – Mr. Manikandan?”
Ganga, to Krishnamurthy’s great relief was administering his last sponge bath. He was to be discharged later that day.
“Big tamasha Sir” she continued “The family didn’t come to claim the body. They asked for the papers to be sent to them and told the hospital to dispose of the body. What people are they Sir? Treating their father like this? And that woman – what sort of a wife must she be?”
“Sister, what will the hospital do?”
“They will wait for the corporation to take it away.”
It. Manikandan was already an it.
Krishnamurthy waited for the doctor to finish examining him.
“I would like to make a request Doctor.”
“Tell me” the doctor lazily drawled.
“The patient who is – was – sharing the room with me, Mr Manikandan, I want to take him home with me.”
The Doctor frowned.
“Mr. Krishnamurthy, he is…dead.”
“I am aware of that”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand. You wish to take home a dead body? Why would you want to do this?”
“I wish to give my friend a proper funeral, Doctor”
The Doctor laughed uneasily.
“This is a very unusual request, Sir. I’m afraid we don’t give bodies to just anyone. You have to be next of kin.”
“What difference does it make? Anyway you’re going to be handing the body over to the Corporation for disposal. Instead you’re giving it to me. I would think you’d be grateful to have the matter off your hands Doctor.”
“Now, now I don’t think you should be getting so excited Mr. Krishnamurthy. Just relax. You’ve been through a fairly traumatic experience and-”
“Oh! So now you’re ready to play the concerned doctor are you?”
The doctor looked displeased with the way the conversation was going and quickly excused himself, mumbling something about looking in to the matter. Despite the fact that things had not gone as he thought they would, Krishnamurthy was satisfied that at least he had managed to wipe the smugness off the doctor’s after-shave soaked face. Krishnamurthy’s smirk vanished when he saw two ward boys lurking near the door. They were not boys really but men. Both appeared to be in their late twenties but their underfed bodies clothed in oversized regulation blue shorts and shirts gave them a child like appearance at first glance. On closer scrutiny though one could make out that uneven landscapes of their face were worn and ravaged by pockmarks and boils and badly shaven beards. Their eyes bloodshot with alcohol, night shifts or both surveyed Krishnamurthy greedily. One was the hunchback Manikandan often sent out on errands but Krishnamurthy had never seen his partner before.
“What do you want?” Krishnamurthy snapped.
“Sir, we heard you talk to the doctor sir. We can help you sir.”
The hunchback took a cautious step forward.
“Sir that doctor is too busy. He won’t do anything. There’s nothing in it for him. But sir, we know everyone in the hospital and everyone knows us. If you want that body we can get it for you, Sir, with some persuasion and kindness on your behalf.”
“Ok” Krishnamurthy reluctantly nodded.
The hunchback’s face brightened. “Sir, leave it to us, Sir”.
The hunchback began backing out of the room dragging his sidekick along with him.
“B-but how much?” Krishnamurthy stammered, taken aback by the ease with which one could take home a corpse.
“What, Sir. Talking like this? Did I say anything about money? Did I bring it up? No, Sir. We want to help you Sir. Nothing else. Money will always come.”
Krishnamurthy was annoyed. How long could it possibly take to sign a few papers he fumed. Raji was fussing and fretting. After carefully consulting the family priest an auspicious time for Krishnamurthy’s discharge had been acquired and the longer the hospital delayed them the smaller that golden window of opportunity got.
“This Doctor is useless. He is delaying everything” Raji whined.
“Oh he’s useless now is he? Last week you were saying what a great catch he would have been for your sister’s daughter.” Krishnamurthy commented. Raji ignored Krishnamurthy’s sniping, closed her eyes and began to pray. Krishnamurthy snorted loudly at this which prompted Raji to open one glaring eye before scrunching both eyes shut and praying with renewed fervour. Krishnamurthy’s son, Kumar walked in with his usual pinched expression, eyes oscillating between his watch and the wall clock. He was perhaps the most eager amongst those present that they should leave quickly. He had a taxi waiting outside with a meter ticking in tandem with the seconds hand of his watch. The room let out a collective sigh when the orderly arrived with a wheelchair.
The nurses smiled and waved at Krishnamurthy as he was trundled down the corridor. He felt fidgety and wanted to leave before the hunchback turned up. Perhaps he had been too hasty with his decision. But the hunchback was outside with a van, waiting for Krishnamurthy with his sidekick, their mouths stretched and twisted in to sinister grins. On catching sight of Krishnamurthy the hunchback shuffled up to him, waved off the orderly pushing the chair and took control.
“Sir” the hunchback whispered conspiratorially in to Krishnamurthy’s ear “Everything taken care of Sir. The body is in the van. We will follow you.”
Krishnamurthy cringed. He felt as though he had been transported on to the sets of some C grade thriller with the police ready to burst in and arrest him. Kumar walked up to them.
“Appa. What is this – that man there is saying this van is coming home – what do we need it for? I have already ordered a taxi! Who is going to pay for both?”
“Who is going to pay for all this? Me! Just like I have paid for the operation and everything else. If I want I’ll order a bloody chariot with twenty horses.” Krishnamurthy twisted about to face the hunchback. “Take me to that taxi and follow us home in the van.”
The hunchback, astonished and delighted by Krishnamurthy’s outburst happily complied.
As he was helped in to the taxi, Krishnamurthy could see Raji and Kumar whispering and shooting worried looks at the black van. Krishnamurthy watched with satisfaction as the hunchback’s sidekick barred Kumar from opening the doors and seeing what was inside. Defeated, they both made their way back to the ambulance. Raji got inside and looked expectantly at Krishnamurthy.
“Well what?” Krishnamurthy replied enjoying Raji’s annoyance.
“What is all this? Shouting at Kumar. What is inside that van? It looks like it’s from the mortuary. What’s inside?”
“You’ll find out when we get home”
“I don’t like this -”
“You don’t need to like it” Krishnamurthy interrupted, his firm tone indicating the end of the conversation.
The rest of the ride home was silent. Kumar sat stiffly in the front, beady eyes firmly fixed on the metre. Raji sulked while Krishnamurthy relaxed with a large smile on his face, turning back every now and then to ensure that the van was following them.
The taxi turned in to III Cross Street and noisily lurched to a halt, causing Krishnamurthy to wince in pain. While Raji helped Krishnamurthy out, Kumar paid off the driver counting the soiled notes once, twice and then thrice before handing them over.
Krishnamurthy held his bag tightly as the hunchback jumped out of the van and walked over to the gate. Krishnamurthy felt Raji coil into herself at the site of approaching gargoyle like figure.
“Sir, where shall we put it Sir?”
Before Krishnamurthy could reply, Chandroo’s head emerged over the dividing wall.
“Sir!” Chandroo called out “How are you? What’s this –a mortuary van? Just in case things don’t work out eh?” Chandroo started cackling at his own tasteless joke, emitting tiny red flecks of half chewed betel nut like shrapnel.
Krishnamurthy ignored him and stepped aside for the van as it reversed outside the front door of his home. The hunchback and sidekick scampered out to the back of the van and opened the rusty black doors with a flourish, as though they were delivering a present. When the hunchback sent the sidekick in to the cavernous interior of the van Krishnamurthy felt his chest tighten. Perhaps Chandroo’s comment hadn’t been too far off the mark.
“Sir” the hunchback asked as he began backing up “where shall we put the body sir?”
Raji, Kumar and Chandroo who had been talking abruptly fell silent. Raji slowly turned around, her eyes aglint with an almost feral light.
“Body? What body? What are they talking about?”
Krishnamurthy’s mumbled response was drowned out by a high pitched wail from Raji as the hunchback and sidekick walked by with a stretcher. Manikandan’s stiffening corpse safely zipped up in a body bag.
The hunchback and sidekick had placed the body bag in the middle of the living room and left, promising to return later. The initial reaction had predictably not been good. Raji had screamed and then slumped against Krishnamurthy in a faint. Kumar was stunned in to silence, and his wife who came rushing out was almost mowed over by the two hospital boys and the dead body.
The news that Krishnamurthy had brought home the dead body of a strange man slipped in and out of every house on III Cross Street like a mewling kitten. The story grew in size with each house it visited so that by the time it had done the rounds, the kitten had grown in to an irrepressible tom cat. When Janaki Mami at No. 52 heard that Raji had returned home from the hospital with a dead body, she passed the news on to the Ramani’s at no 53 verbatim. They told an unimpressed Mr. Menon at no. 55 who assumed the body was for black magic – a common enough occurrence in the small village in Kerala he hailed from. The story at the end of the street where retired Judge Sadashivam lived was that the body brought home was that of Krishnamurthy himself. The residents of the street were torn – should they visit Krishnamurthy’s house and find out what had happened or keep a safe distance from the dark arts that were rumoured to be brewing within the four walls of no. 50? Finally a senior delegation was formed, headed by Chandroo and set off for Krishnamurthy’s.
Sitting on his grandfather’s rocking chair, Krishnamurthy’s initial trepidations had disappeared. He was filled with something that had eluded him for a very long time – since his retirement in fact – a sense of importance. He was at the centre of things again. He was being noticed. So what if they all thought he’d gone mad? They were a little scared of him – he could tell from their shifty eyes. Not one of them had approached him about the body in the living room yet. Krishnamurthy could hear the delegation before he could see them: Chandroo’s noisy paan chewing and the jingling of Ramani Mami’s anklets falling on his ears.
“Come in, come in” Krishnamurthy boomed jovially as they stood huddled near the front door. There were six of them – Krishnamurthy was impressed, only three were sent to Ramachandran to complain about his sister-in-law; the one who sat on water tanks and shouted at the moon. Krishnamurthy felt another rush of importance, and suppressed a giggle when he heard Sarala Mami whisper to no one in particular
“So he’s alive after all.”
“Why are you all standing outside? Come in. Raji! Look who has come’
The group nervously shuffled inside. Raji emerged from the bedroom, her thin face looking paler and scrawnier than usual. Krishnamurthy almost felt sorry for her.
And then it came. The collective gasp. They had seen Manikandan. Raji took the gasp as a cue and her sparrow like frame was soon vibrating with big, shuddery sobs. It was as though Raji’s tears were some symbolic gate opening – for everyone suddenly began to talk. The group split in two – the women rushed to Raji’s side whilst the men inched towards Krishnamurthy heads turning every now and then to get a better look at the body. Krishnamurthy loved it. He was holding court. Why, even Kumar and his silly wife had come out.
“We became such good friends in those few days you know. Manikandan Sir was my only company.” Krishnamurthy said, bestowing pointed looks on the men and women who had thought it unnecessary to come and see him in hospital. “He was the son of a freedom fighter, a self made man, a philanthropist – how could I abandon him? I would be no better than his family then. Is this what this country has come to? Eh Chandroo?”
Chandroo unsure of what to say nodded and shook his head in turns.
“No, no. You did the right thing, Any of us would have done the same in your position.” He mumbled ducking his head to avoid the deathly looks his wife Gomathi was sending his way.
“But Sir, what exactly do you plan to do with this now?”
“Why I plan to stuff him and prop him up in my living room as a show piece. What do you think? I’m going to give him a real funeral.”
The news was greeted with a mixture of nervous laughter from some of the group and a yelp from Kumar and Raji.
“A funeral?” Raji screamed “For this man? Who is he? What is he? What caste is he? First you make me give him coffee and now this? A funeral for some man whose own family doesn’t want him?”
“Appa” Kumar thundered, emboldened by his mother’s outburst “I won’t stand for this in my home”
“Your home?” Krishnamurthy mocked “It is still very much my home. I bought it with my money and I pay for it’s upkeep with my money. You are free to leave anytime you like. You too dear” Krishnamurthy added with a nod at his daughter-in-law.
On leaving Krishnamurthy’s house the delegation broke up, each returning to their own corner of III Cross Street to take the purifying bath as was custom when one had been to a house shrouded in death. Suitably refreshed by their bath and a cup off coffee they each set out again to disseminate all that they had seen and heard. Now that there was proof that Krishnamurthy was alive (Janaki had seen it with her own 2 hawk eyes) the neighbourhood tried to reason as to why the old man had done such a thing. Sethji, the street’s wealthiest man was convinced that money was involved. Lakshmi, the hawk’s daughter-in-law was convinced that the old man had gone senile. Retired Judge Sadashivam was questioned on the legality of such an action.
The family priest refused to help. It was not, he was quick to add because he was a narrow minded person. Oh no.
“Why, just the other day, I presided over an ear piercing ceremony for the Nadar family in IV Cross Street. But death is a different matter. Not everyone is as broadminded as you and I. Performing the last rites of some unknown man, times are hard enough, one story like this and I’ll be out of business. It’s bad enough that all these new, young priests on motorbikes with cell phones are taking away all my business. But if people start talking about this, I’ll be finished.”
It was the first and last funeral of its kind on III Cross Street. The body was wrapped in a white shroud and festooned with garlands. The mourners were a mix of ward boys, cleaners, maids and auto drivers. The air was heavy with the stench of cheap alcohol that lingered on the men’s breath, red roses, incense and the wailing songs of lament that issued from the women. The rest of the street was empty. No one came out to see the curious spectacle that had gathered outside no 50. But every now and then a window creaked opened just by an inch and curtains were adjusted.
Raji, Kumar and his wife had refused to be present. It was an insult they declared. Krishnamurthy stood alone watching the crowd of strangers as they mourned the passing of a man none of them knew. They had all been promised a free lunch. Krishnamurthy turned at a sharp tap on his shoulder. It was the hunchback.
“Sir, it’s time. Shall we?”
The hunchback gave a shrill whistle, at which the drums picked up their beat and the entire gathering got up. A group of young, well-built men hoisted the body on to their shoulders. Another group gathered in front – drum beaters, dancers and flower throwers. Some were already dancing.
This was how one should go, thought Krishnamurthy. Revellers rejoicing at one’s fortunate emancipation from earthly ties. Who wanted muted mourners, mantras and thirteenth day feasts?
“Sir? I will see you tomorrow Sir. You take rest. You must be tired” said the hunchback.
“Actually, can I come along?”
The hunchback seemed taken aback at this request, but then shrugged his shoulders and nodded. Krishnamurthy walked up to the front of the procession where the youngest boys had begun dancing and surveyed the scene.
He hoped Manikandan approved.