It was a Saturday in December, way back in 1982. Or was it 1983? Never mind. It was 3.30 in the evening. I was sipping a cup of tea & getting ready for a game of cricket in the cemetery. (Well not in the cemetery to be exact, but in the bye lane adjoining the cemetery.) Smells of Christmas goodies wafted from the kitchen. My Mother, ably assisted by my sister was frying ‘kalkals’ (a Christmas delicacy in these parts.) I finished my tea and with the usual biding of goodbye, took up my cricket bat and ran up to my friend’s house. He was ready and waiting. We collected the rest of the cricketing gear and made our way to the cemetery. (You see we had to cross the cemetery to get to the bye lane)
Just then we espied the grave-digger coming towards us. He was a gaunt old man; a friendly soul, whom we had helped in the past – either to dig the grave or to fill it in after the burial. He was drenched in sweat. His torso was covered by a thin film of red mud. He must have been digging a grave. He cleared his throat, spat out the phlegm and scratching his legs, said ‘There is a funeral’. He paused for effect and then said ‘Of a beggar’. I waited. The old man continued; ‘The priest has asked you’ll to attend and help in the burial’. He paused; his roomy eyes looked at us. My friend sighed. ‘There goes our game of cricket’. ‘Who is this beggar’ I asked. The old man shrugged. ‘Dunno’ he said. ‘He was found dead in the bus- stand near the church. Seems he has no relatives. He was wearing a cross. The Muncipality has requested the vicar to bury him here’. I nodded. We fell silent as we followed the old man into the cemetery. We couldn’t play today, as the cortege would have to come in through the bye lane. The other members of our motley bunch arrived one by one; enthusiastically – expecting a great game of cricket. The news of the impeding funeral dampened the spirit. Some grumbled and left, some hung around.
A few minutes later an ambulance came up the lane. It stopped near the gate of the cemetery. A driver got out. ‘Come and help, you fellows’, he hollered. The old man stirred, threw down his beedi and motioned us to follow. The ambulance door opened. We peeked in. There in a white coffin lay the skeletal like remains of a an old man. It was difficult to tell his age. His white hair was fluffy – they must have washed it. They had dressed him in some borrowed clothes. We lifted the coffin. The odour of formaldehyde or formalin wafted out of the coffin. We made a slow progress to the grave; there were four of us and the old man. The grave was in a corner of the cemetery. It looked like they wanted to hide the grave. A clandestine act – a beggar among elite; shut away from public glare? The driver followed with the lid of the coffin. Just then, the priest appeared on his mo-bike. He was a pompous man. I had a feeling he did not like us one bit. He had warned us not to frequent the cemetery. He had complained to our parents. Yet, at this moment, he looked friendly; even throwing us a half-smile. He began the customary prayers. In the corner of my eye I saw the driver beating a retreat. The rickety ambulance neighed and coughed as it spurted to life and then with a final blare of the horn, the driver drove off. It drowned the words of the priest’s intonations.
When the priest had belted the final hymn – a solo performance, with the old man humming a few lines in between, we closed the coffin. With the help of ropes, which act as pulleys, we lowered the coffin into the grave. Before we could pull out the ropes, the priest heaved a pile of mud into the grave with the help of a spade. It fell with a thud on the coffin. We too followed with fistfuls of mud. With a swift murmuring of what sounded like ‘Thank you’, the priest took off. We heard his mo-bike start and the sound of the bike faded into the distance. It was quiet once again, except for the sound of the old man shoveling mud into the grave. We hung around for sometime, collected our cricketing gear and then made our way back home. It was getting dark. A cool evening breeze had begun to blow gently. Did I feel a shiver?
That night I lay awake for a long time. Did the man we buried have no relatives? What about friends? He had looked to be in his 70s; but looks can be deceptive – perhaps he had aged prematurely. Did he not have any ambition? Where was he from? He must have been a bubbly baby many summers ago? What went wrong? Did he attend school? Had be fallen in love? Did someone somewhere love him – at least for a moment? Did he have a wife? What about children? Had his mother not sung lullabies for him? What about his father? Had he not held him in his arms with dreams in his eyes? What the hell had happened? I slept a disturbed sleep. Images of a gaunt man, sleeping in a coffin, came floating through the sleep……..
‘When I was just a little boy
I asked my mother, what will I be
Will I be handsome, will I be rich
Here's what she said to me.
Que Sera, Sera,
Whatever will be, will be
The future's not ours, to see
Que Sera, Sera
What will be, will be.’
Originally Sung by Doris Day
in the Movie The Man Who Knew Too Much)