This story is based on a real life experience of my maternal grandmother and was narrated to me by my mother and Maushi (aunt). Except the end part and the location of the story,everything else is completely fictional and from my imagination.The names of the characters are fictional as well.But the personalities they portray were very real.
I wanted to try and do a period piece on a small scale.Hopefully it has come out all right.If you have the time,I would encourage you to read on the Quit India Movement of 1942,how Gandhi & the Congress finally betrayed the people they asked to rise against the British ( they did the same thing in 1947 with the Hindus and Sikhs of what is now Pakistan).A lot of people left their jobs etc to join this movement and when it fizzled out,had nowhere to go.Ironically when we became free in 1947,the people in the independent government were those who had collaborated with the British!!
I won’t even mention the role of the despicable Jawahar Lal Nehru,a person who used to describe himself as the last Britisher in India (or something to that effect).
Whoops!! I have started ranting ! So without further ado….
Chita (The Pyre)
By Yogeshwar Shastri
Ahmednagar, August 1942
The heat of summer had given way to the relief of the rains. Ahmednagar was once again transformed from a dusty plain to a veritable nature’s garden. People breathed as sigh of relief as the agonies of summer finally died away.
Kamala tai looked out from the hospital window at the army parade grounds next to the hospital. Beyond the vast parade grounds was the smashan (cremation ground).
Sitting in a metal chair next to her bed ridden son, the scene outside gave her momentary respite from the worries which assailed her mind.
An imposing building three storeys high, the civil hospital was made of solid Dakkhani stone. Built in 1882 by the British, it had grown slowly, wing by wing, serving the needs of Ahmednagar and the villages surrounding it.
In the first floor of the hospital where Kamala tai sat, thick stone walls protected the inhabitants from the vagaries of weather outside. The typical style of Deccani architecture which used readily available stone for construction ensured that in summer the buildings were cool and in winter were pleasant.
Kamala tai was nursing her two-year old son Bhalachandra, more affectionately known as Balu .Balu was an extremely lively child and being the youngest in a family of three sisters, was the darling of all. This was before he was struck down by a bout of malaria. Admitted three days back to the hospital with high fever, he was continually relapsing into unconsciousness. It seemed as if a malignant force had sucked all life out of the child.
Today his fever had gone down somewhat but his little body was rendered extremely weak by the stress placed upon it. Even though Doctor Sathe had told her Balu had a good chance of pulling through, her brow was creased with worry as she sat next to Balu.
Kamala tai had not left Balu’s side since he was admitted to the hospital.
Dipping a wet cloth in the water bowl on the small table next to the bed, she applied it on her son’s warm forehead.
It was now coming towards dusk; she had passed whole of the morning and the afternoon attending to her son. The only change to her routine was the soldiers in the parade ground practising their manoeuvres. Soldiers in their thousands from the army cantonment nearby used to practise from dawn to dusk in the parade grounds. She did not know what war they were preparing for. Her husband Dattatraya had told her that the British were fighting a great war in their homeland and needed Indians to fight for them.
She did not understand, why were our people fighting for the British?
Kamala tai and her family were Deshastha Brahmins, descended from the same hardy stock which had brought down the Mughals and then fought the British till they had nothing left to fight for. Dattatraya or Dattu ran a used book shop in Ahmednagar’s main market. Even though he had never been to a school, he had a natural knack of finding rare and antiquarian books in markets across India. Things were looking up and he was already thinking of opening a second book shop in Pune, in partnership with his cousin Jagtap (better known as Nana).
Dattu used to visit mother and child early in the morning before opening his shop, coming back for a visit in the afternoon and finally in the evening. Much as Dattu wanted to be near Balu’s side for the night, he could not as they had three young daughters’ at home .Kamala tai’s eldest daughter Gauri was barely twelve years old, but was single-handedly taking care of the house in her absence.
A thought flashed across her mind that Dattu was late today. At precisely this instance an exhausted Dattu came into the room. Dattu presented an imposing figure, nearly six-foot high, with broad shoulders and sharp features. He had a moustache not very different from the one kept by the Rajputs. Before his marriage he had trained as a wrestler in an Akhada in Ujjain. A terror to the rowdies of his street, he was a soft person at heart and very attached to his family.
He was wearing a brown khadi kurta and a baggy white pyjama which is quite typically worn in rural Maharashtra. Although barely in his early thirties, he was balding at an alarming rate.
Looking at Kamala Tai he was struck by how much she had aged in the last few days.
“How is Balu feeling now?” asked Dattu, sitting down next to Balu.
“There has been no change in his condition. He regained consciousness for a few minutes in the afternoon. He kept repeating your name.” with this she began to sob uncontrollably as the pent-up emotions came rushing out in a torrent.
A pall of gloom descended on Dattus face.
Kamala Tai calmed down after sometime and Dattu offered her a glass of water.
Taking out a metal tiffin box from his jute bag Dattu said, “Gauri has sent some food from home.”
“Poor Gauri, everything is one her tender shoulders now.”Kamala tai responded with a deep sigh.
“She is a grown girl now, in a few years she will have her own family,” Dattu replied while running his fingers through Balu’s hair.
“I heard from the nurse that there was some kind of a riot in Tankha-peth today.” asked Kamala tai with a questioning look on her face.
“Not a riot, it was a peaceful march in support of the Bharat Chodo Andolan (Quit India Movement). They were treacherously fired upon without any provocation. A lot of people were killed in the firing. There must have been thirty or forty dead bodies.” Dattus soft voice had taken an angry turn as he recounted the tragic events of the day.
“Did not Commissioner Purandare stop the police from firing?”asked an outraged Kamala tai.
“Purandare refused to give his men orders to shoot. He has been suspended from duty for this. Some white man called Jones brought in soldiers from the cantonment. Shot by our own people!! I would not have believed this if I had not seen it happening with my own eyes”, Dattu exclaimed angrily.
“The smashan (cremation ground) is going to be busy tonight”, said Kamala tai with sadness.
“But there won’t be any relations present. People in the market were saying the British have prohibited any relations from attending the last rites of those killed. Jones has ordered the soldiers to cremate the bodies as soon as possible.”Dattu was looking at the smashan in the distance.
Already army trucks could be seen arriving at the entrance to the smashan. If the parade ground was empty as it was now, it was possible to get a clear view of the happenings in the cremation grounds.
Both husband and wife’s eyes were glued to the macabre spectacle unfolding in front of them. There were four trucks and a jeep parked near the entrance to the cremation ground. Soldiers were unloading bodies wrapped in a white cloth from the back of the trucks. In the cremation ground itself, piles of wood stood ready to act as the pyres.
Today there was no Brahmana present to give the dead the dignity of a proper funeral. Neither were grieving relatives present to remember their dear ones. Instead the bodies were unceremoniously dumped on the wooden pyres and wood piled upon them.
On the signal from a white officer, kerosene was poured on the pyres and they were set alight. The soldiers stood around for some time to make sure the pyres were burning properly. Once satisfied that their work was done, they left as efficiently as they had come.
It was quarter past seven in the evening now and the light from the burning pyres illuminated the parade ground. The scene was so clear that for a second they thought they could see the outline of a body burning.
Tearing their gaze away from the sight, they turned their focus back on Balu. Both of them finished their dinner from the tiffin box and at half past eight Dattu got up to leave.
“I hope Nana comes back tomorrow. I can stay here in the night then.”Dattu said while leaving.
“Don’t worry, I can manage till then.” she reassured Dattu.
With a last pensive glance at Balu, Dattu left.
With Dattus leaving Kamala tai was all on her own with Balu. The hospital had gone deathly quiet. With only a skeleton staff in the hospital for the night shift, there was hardly any commotion.
In the pin drop silence the ticking of the wall clock resounded throughout the room. For a second Kamala tai thought she could smell something burning, but dismissed it as imagination. Balu’s breathing had become peaceful now.
Looking out from the window she saw only one pyre still burning. The light of the flame cast a ghostly luminescence over the cremation ground. She thought it strange that the pyre was still burning when others had turned to ash.
It was half past nine when Kamala tai went to sleep in the reclining chair given by the hospital.
Precisely an hour later, at half past ten a pungent odour of something burning hit her nostrils. Her first instinct was to check if Balu was all right. Seeing that there was no change in the room, she looked out of the window.
What she saw disturbed her composure. The burning pyre had somehow moved out from the cremation ground and was in the middle of the parade grounds which lay between the hospital and the cremation ground. And it was burning as if the pyre has just been lit!!
Certain that she was dreaming, Kamala tai rubbed her eyes. Convinced she was wide awake, the next thing she saw was the pyre slowly moving back to the cremation ground.
Now Kamala tai’s sleep was gone for good. The atmosphere had suddenly become tense and she could feel a throbbing sensation at the bottom of her spine. A ball of tension seemed to have settled in her belly and she became extremely alert.
Like a ghostly puppet the pyre kept moving back and forth, from the cremation ground to the parade grounds. But all this time it kept inching closer to the hospital.
Kamala tai closed the window and sat next to Balu on the bed. Holding his hand tightly, her gaze was transfixed by the strange spectacle being enacted in front of her.
The hospital grounds were separated from the parade ground by a low lying stone wall which ran along the hospitals perimeter.
It was half past eleven, when the pyre came right upto the boundary wall. Even with windows closed, the smell of burning flesh was unmistakable.
She could clearly make out the outline of the dead person. It looked like a man, half of whose face had been burnt away. Molten flesh hung in narrow strips on the rest of his body. Half of his body was skeletonised.
It was a terrible scene; the rank odour of death was stronger than ever.
Kamala tai was not a person who would scare easily. But she knew one thing for certain, whatever being was in the pyre, it was coming to take Balu.
After a few minutes the pyre had crossed the boundary wall and was barely a few metres from the window. She could feel the heat of the fire filtering through the windows.
At the intensity at which the pyre was burning the body should have turned to ashes by now. But it stayed the same, unchanging.
Tightly grasping Balu’s hand, she sat frozen on the bed, unable to move even a muscle. A silent scream was forming in her throat.
The pyre was right next to the windows now, the brightness of the flame like a thousand suns. The windows were blown open by the heat of the flames. Inside the room the atmosphere had become intolerable, even Balu in his unconsciousness writhed in agony.
Kamala tai could see very clearly the skeleton inside the pyre. Bits of burnt flesh hung on to a grinning skull. In place of eyes were two fireballs. Surrounded by a sea of flames, it pointed its right hand towards Balu.
This was the last memory she had before she screamed and fell unconscious.
When Kamala tai recovered consciousness she was in another bed in the hospital. Dattu and Nana were sitting next her bed. Dattu’s eyes were bloodshot due to a lack of sleep and constant worry. Nana was wiping his tears with a pancha (towel).
“Where is Balu?” asked a weak Kamala tai.
There was no response from either of the men.
“Where is Balu?”Kamala tai demanded with all the effort she could muster.
Finally Nana spoke in a voice choked with emotion, “Balu died yesterday night.”