A phone call late at night might be one of distress and I always pick them with a sense of foreboding. So when my mobile phone rang that night, I woke with a start, but perhaps I was a bit late, considering that the call came to an end as soon as I rose to collect my phone from the table.
But what I saw immediately afterwards made me spring to my feet. To my horror, the windows of my room were open! A strong wind was entering my room, and my bookshelves and almirahs were being rattled by it. My parents and wife were away for a few days. It was just not possible that I had not shut the windows before going to bed.
I stood there perplexed when suddenly the door creaked open and a voice was heard in the darkness, ‘Uncle, Ramukaka has fallen sick. He needs your help.’
I was frightened to have a stranger at my doorstep at that hour and my heart was palpitating. I switched on the torch of my mobile. A boy was standing at the door, his eyes downcast and his face etched with sadness.
Ramu he was talking about was our gardener for a long time. It was only in the afternoon that day that he came to my house along with his son, Pilu, to weed our garden. But this boy was not known to me, so I asked, ‘Who are you and where are you from?’
‘I’m his nephew. He’s suffering from chest pain and has to be rushed to hospital,’ he said.
‘Is Pilu not at home?’ I asked.
‘Whether he’s home or not, would you not help when your servant is in distress and seeking your help,’ the boy rebuked me.
I slipped on my trousers, wore a T-shirt and got ready to go to my gardener’s home. I quickly shut my windows, locked my room and told him, ‘Let’s go.’
The boy went forward and I followed him. The path he was taking me through was leading to the old part of the town and it was lined with trees on both sides. It was pitch dark as the moon was covered by clouds and the night was windy.
The wind was coming in gusts and swaying the trees, making strong rushing sounds. And from the top of a tree an owl was hooting relentlessly. I was a little jittery but held my fears in order to help someone in his hour of need.
Then there were more surprises waiting for me along the way. As we came to a crossroad, I could see from a distance tiny glows, most probably from mobile phones, moving from left to right and hear people chanting prayers.
It became clear to me that someone had passed away and they were carrying him to the cremation ground by the side of the river. The boy asked me to stop and let the funeral procession pass. I had goosebumps and my abdomen sank! It was an unlikely time to carry a dead body for cremation but in Covid time anything was possible, I thought.
As the funeral procession passed the crossing, I asked the boy, ‘How far to go?’
‘Not far. We’re just reaching,’ he said.
We started walking again and went past the crossing. Going about half a kilometre, he turned to an old house, which I noticed earlier but never quite bothered to know whether anyone lived inside. Peepal trees sprouted from the cracks in the red brick walls of the house. The boy opened the gate and ushered me in. The gate made a creaking sound as he opened it.
As we entered, the denizens of the house were disturbed and a squadron of bats went flying past us immediately. There were many small rooms which were dusty and abandoned. The boy led me to a room in the extreme corner, which looked habitable. I saw Ramukaka lying on a bed there, writhing in pain. Seeing me, he nodded his head and gestured me to a stool near him. He told me, ‘I’m suffering from severe chest pain. Please take me to hospital.’
I put my hand on his chest to give him a massage. Oh, my goodness, his heart had stopped beating and his body was icy cold! I kept a finger on his pulse. There was no pulse either! I had no clue to what kind of sickness it was, so I turned back to ask the boy. But he was not to be seen anywhere nearby! All my instincts sensed danger! Then I was terrified to see a hairy hand extending around my waist to grab me, and as I turned my head, Ramukaka’s head partly turned into a skull and his canine teeth seemed longer than usual.
My immediate reaction was to run and I ran fast to be out of the old house. I looked back to see if anyone was following me and ran even faster to return to safety.
Reaching home, I checked my phone and saw the missed call and then an sms from Pilu. ‘My father’s no more! He’s suffered a massive heart attack. Burning ghat is busy during daytime because of Corona deaths. I’m taking him for cremation right now.’