I remember being a twelve-year-old and running around our tiny hamlet of Gothangaam like a gale gushing through the narrow streets, jarring, impregnable, and capricious. Knocking people off their bicycles, punching people in the way, stamping footprints on the spices kept out to dry, booing at the people defecating behind the bushes, and causing all the nuisance that a lonely arrogant child would ordinarily do. Being the daughter of the richest man in the village, people tolerated me, but on the other hand, no kid ever played with me. I would go on cursively like the trapped mad breeze, attenuating only when mother used to summon me home. She would always shout the rehearsed, “Surbhi come, your Baba is calling you home.” It was always a lie. He never called me or talked to me, but I couldn’t risk disobeying him, just like everyone else.
Baba, my father, was a practical and progressive man. He didn’t believe in traditions, rituals, or religion. Often he followed his logic which defied everything written in the scriptures. My mother, on the other hand, was an orthodox, God-fearing woman. She would avail the services of the village Pandits every time Baba resorted to any of the blasphemies from her list.
I always thought that my mother’s boorishness and my affinity towards her kept Baba at arm’s length from us. I hated my mother for being so crude and myself for taking after her. If only I were more practical like him, then he would call me and maybe even pick me up with fatherly affection.
That year, when a Guruji from the Himalayas was visiting us, my mother thought it was God’s boon that he chose to be under our roof during his brief visit to the village. My father disagreed and told her that it was because we were affluent and that her Guruji wanted to enjoy a little lavishness. My mother cried her eyes out as if she was wailing over his dead body. Later, he agreed to listen to a discourse that Guruji was going to deliver exclusively for our family, maybe to make up for hurting mother – which was very unlike him or because he felt sorry for her deteriorating health. Even mother was surprised that he acquiesced and was ebullient till the time of the discourse.
“Aatma (Soul) is the only thing that matters, the only constant, the only thing indestructible among all the things that makes you – You. Rest everything will be gone, your body, your name, your wealth, everything. The only thing that remains is Aatma. So feed your Aatma, not your body. Indulge in good deeds rather than indulging in gambling, drinking, gluttony, or other foolish worldly pleasures.” Guruji explained with the flourishes of his hands and fingers. We were all listening as if in a trance.
“I heard this same thing some twenty years ago. A Guru, not unlike you, said the same thing to extract some money out of me.”
Guruji’s face showed that the offense had been registered but recovered the next instant. The sign of an experienced artist.
“And you will hear the same words after twenty years as well because it is the truth. And truth never changes. It is as constant as Aatma.”
“Then I will repeat to you what I told that Guru twenty years ago. By your definition of Aatma, it is nothing but the skeleton inside our bodies. The frame, the chassis, that supports our life. It is never fully destroyed, even though everything else is gone that made you ‘You’. Looking at a skeleton it could be understood what kind of life that person lead, even though that person stopped existing centuries ago, making it the black box of human lives. Aatma is skeleton, skeleton is Aatma.”
Guruji stared directly into Baba’s eyes as if a child had spoken out of turn. But Guruji knew what he wanted, to benefit off his host’s benevolence rather than engaging in futile arguments. He regained his composure and said with a smile, “If you truly believe it to be a skeleton, then Aatma is a skeleton. It could take any form. And you said very correctly that Aatma is the frame on which life runs. You are very wise, I must say. One of the wisest of the hosts I had the opportunity to come across.”
Baba smiled in turn, not clear if pleased with the compliment or on the shrewdness of the Guruji. Everybody was so engrossed observing the two main characters of the scene that my mother and her ghastly-looking face went completely unnoticed. I never understood the impact of all that happened on mother, but that conversation shook her from inside. She never recovered from the shock of it. At that time, I had wished that my father was a little less practical, just a tiny bit.
Next year when I turned thirteen, villagers hailed me as omniscient, a girl who knew everything. In just one year, I had gone from being omnipresent like the wind to omniscient like boulders from ancient times. And I owed that to the wooden chest mined out from our outhouse on the fourteenth day of my mother’s death. I had never met a chest with an uninteresting past, but none until now could match the tale of my father’s wooden chest.
It was a large rectangular chest with brass hinges and a handle. It must have been buried for years and appeared to be in bad shape. And yet something about it attracted me so intensely, maybe the mystery surrounding it or the shine in my father’s eye while staring at it, that provoked me to tell about it to everyone. Within a day, everyone knew of its existence.
My father being the richest man, the chest intrigued the villagers even more. The entire village was whispering about the chest and the treasures it could contain. While some imagined it to be full of gold, diamonds, and uncut gems of ancient India, others thought it to be magical, holding the source for power, fame, and money. A few others believed that it would bring back my mother and the rest thought it contained the key to attaining moksha. Almost all of those theories were fed by me, except for the one with the moksha. Now that there was no one to summon me home, my evenings lasted a little longer in the narrow alleys of cow dung smeared walls and only left for home when there was no one left on those streets with whom I could share my sagacity.
Baba had made no arrangements to protect the chest except for the two locks, one on the outhouse door and the other on the chest. There were attempts to break those big locks to have a glimpse of the contents. Initial attempts were by villagers with their unprofessional tomfoolery trying to sneak a look, but later even professional thieves tried their luck. But despite no strong measures of protection or armed men guarding the chest, none of the ventures were successful.
Baba patiently waited for the furor to die down, but the plain curiosity soon matured into an obsession. That’s when Baba decided to put an end to the whole episode and revealed the content of the chest. To everyone’s dismay, it contained just a single human skeleton. Although no one tried to steal the chest post the disclosure, the villagers were still curious about whose skeleton was it? I wanted to know too, but even after mother was gone, the no-talk pact between us seemed to continue.
Soon everyone forgot about the skeleton or the chest except for me. I lived under the shadow of the chest and its connection with my father. Did father kill somebody, or was it even more heinous than that? Somehow all the scenarios in my mind portrayed father as a cold-hearted man with an evil spirit. But that man had started shriveling since the chest had turned up. He looked happier than when my mother was alive, which disturbed me, and made me hate him even more, but his health sure was deteriorating. He had started to resemble mother in her last year but somehow lasted a whole year more than her.
And in his final days, something unprecedented happened, something for which I had been waiting forever. He called me. He called me to his room and sat me beside his bed.
“Surbhi, I know I have never treated you like a daughter and your mother as my wife. It’s just that I could never accept your mother as my wife and you as my daughter. Till today I don’t. And I am sorry for that. It was not your mistake or your mother’s mistake or even my mistake for that matter, and yet three of us have paid the price.”
I was hoping to hear the obverse. That he secretly loved my mother and me but was unable to express himself. It was rather anti-climactic.
“Before I was married to your mother, I used to love a girl called Sanchi. Sanchi was the daughter of the laborers who worked for my father. When her parents knew that she was pregnant and that I was the father, they asked her to abort the pregnancy. But she refused. And in the heated argument that ensued, Sanchi lost her balance, fell on a spade, and died on the spot. Her family buried her and left the village.”
He took a sip out of his glass and took a moment to breathe.
“That’s her skeleton in the chest. And your mother knew about it.”
He said solemnly and waited for my reaction. When he didn’t receive any, he continued.
“I know I have no right to ask, but I need a favor from you.”
He looked at me beseechingly. The richest man of the village wanted something from the girl who ran in the streets as if she was homeless. But I didn’t have any reactions left in me. I couldn’t even nod or shake.
“After I die, will you save my skeleton and put me with Sanchi in that chest and bury the chest in the middle of the Sea?”
For the first time, my face must have registered some expression because it reflected on his face too – disbelief. Disbelief that this was my first full-length conversation with this man, that this man was capable of loving and yet felt no remorse for rendering two lives loveless, that this practical-progressive man believed in his skeleton theory and afterlife, and that this man was asking me to abandon my mother for a man who couldn’t even call me his daughter.
“I can understand your consternation. But believe me, you are my first choice though not the only one. I am asking you because you are my progeny. It is your right to either bury or cremate me. Don’t listen to the villagers who will say that it is the duty of a male heir. You are as much entitled to it as a male child would have been.”
Another sip and another breathe later, he continued.
“In my dreams, Sanchi cries that she is all alone. She needs me to be with her now. Since the day Sanchi died, I just had one goal in life – to unite our souls forever. And I am entrusting you for the most important task of my life. Will you do it?”
I stared at the floor for a few seconds, dropping the excess liquid that was forming at the edges of my eye, and then scared that I was keeping him waiting for an answer, I looked up at him and nodded. He smiled and put his palm on my head and said, “Live a long and happy life.” Then he slumped back in his bed, exhausted from telling his deepest secrets in a few sentences.
It had been many years since my mother passed away or since all the hullabaloo over the wooden chest. And still today, I wonder what could have happened if I would have said no to his request of burying the chest at Sea. Maybe then there would have been a chance for him to unite with his soulmate – Sanchi. But back then, a fifteen-year-old me thought it wise to cremate father and mix his ashes in the Urn with that of my mother’s. If all he believed were true, and if there was indeed an afterlife, then why not let him spend it making up to my mother.
Vipul is a writer and a bird-watcher based out of Surat, India. His short stories has been published in Kitaab, Ariel Chart, Page & Spine, ALM, Active Muse, Literary Yard, and other places.
© 2021, Vipul Lunia