The rickshaw screeches to a stop by the blue wooden doors of the shop, not even tall as its proprietor, having to duck every time you take the doors. It’s a series of doors, sturdy wooden planks that open like a Chinese folding fan, metal hinges needing oil in the cold. Opening the doors in a series of grumbles while its clacks lets fluorescent lights pour into the dirt street and the rear end of the rickshaw. Dumping a squeezed cigarette pack with ‘555’ on its side while brushing his shoes on a rubber mat on the doorstep, he enters his shop. It was also home of late.
The rickshaw driver looks through the open doors at the shop. He sees a sleeping shop. Done with all its labors the harmonium shop lies in chaos, at least for the rickshaw driver. He sees the gentleman coming back, cash in hand. He takes it graciously, the green notes crispy in hand.
Pulling out of the dirt, he pushes and jumps onto the pedals, the road is empty now, and he is in a hurry. He shoots through the streets that take him to the middle of the city. Now they have made the road go around the ground, in a circle to the dark statues of the persons long past. He didn’t mind he had to go all the way around that new road, paying homage to kings, generals, tyrants he never knew. He didn’t mind that the way took him longer, under the gates of the dead heroes of things long past. He whistles through cold winds of a sleeping city nestling in the warm embraces of stillness.
Doors to the harmonium shop closes. There is a sharp note of a harmonium key when it shut, maybe not. The front of the shop is crowded with unfinished pieces with jut out wires like bones of an unfinished being on the table of creation; wood scraps and dust lie on the floor, bile and excrements. Through a small cream-colored door in the back, a darker and even narrower space exists. All the junk on the shop floor was meant to be here, in the storage. Now there is just a bed.
“Anything happened today?” She asked every day. Every day like this, seven months. He said nothing.
They knew. He pulls, presses a switch hanging itself on a spiral blue wire. A smaller fluorescent light up reflecting down from tin with badly printed logos and rust spots where nails hammered through wood and metal was what remained of his life. Dropping off his coat on a hook behind the door, he pulled his belt and took a breath.
“It isn’t easy hunting a ghost.”
The love of his life looked up at him with pained eyes. “Did you ask her?”
“What did she say?”
“………. “, she bows her head at that.
“She knew about my father and the curse the moment she laid her eyes on me.” She looks up at that with hopes in her eyes. Her sharp chin sharpened when happy. It was excited and hopeful. The small face dwarfed by golden moons in her ears broke his heart.
“There is a man by Pikal lake. Apparently, he is friends with ghosts of priests.”
“Tomorrow?” He sighs, exhausted.
“Need to go by the temple and the market to get some offerings for him first. Come on, that is tomorrow. Let’s eat now.”
The radio is silent as they eat. It is past midnight and people at the radio sleep, to start early prayers in morning. “I can see him, child! He stands Tall Powerful! I see his frowning face! He rages!”
Well, that sounded like the Red Pundit he knew.
He was kneeling, hopeful with marigolds clutched between his hand, held before and above his head, bowed before powerful visage of the ancient shaman. Throwing half a handful of red rice over the pattern of a mud floor, the near-nude, red lined shaman shakes around in a trance. He listened, in hope.
“He sees you, child! He wants to tear you apart and feast on your blood. He curses, even in death! The lords of death ride him, disturbed in the mortal world, the tranquil beings of eternity.”
Now Bikal prostrated on his knees. His forehead is on the brown floor, and he screams his pleas and begs the ghost of the holy Brahmin. He seeks removal of the curse. He seeks redemption for his family, put out before it started.
“Forgive and bless my house oh father! Lift this curse, we are thy own blood.”
“Death! Destruction! Annihalation of Everything!” The shaman was trembling, no rhythm to his trance now, just a leaf in mercy of tempest.
“Father! Forgive me, our family, remember the face of our mother and lift this curse.”
The storm slowed, winds died, and everything came to a silent stop. The Pikal shaman had aged a decade in the last hour. The white-haired man pushed against the floor to the wall and lay there, eyes closed.
“Your father,” the shaman spoke with eyes shut, “will not be dissuaded. His anger is too strong to be dismissed, his righteousness too stubborn for forgiveness. This curse is non-trivial.”
There is a way out still.
“We have to do a Calming ritual on Monday. The shaman says it’ll take the whole day and night of fasting. This is one of those big ones. Great sacrifice will be necessary. I’ll get a goat tomorrow, why don’t you get started on the fire?”
“Think this’ll work?”
“Yes. There is something about the man. I think we will know for once and all. This is the last stop. Then we stop trying.”
He didn’t know that before he spoke. That act of speaking persuaded him to make his mind, his own voice that seemed distant did reasoning for him. No more, this was last. She looked up at him, her eyes welling up, she buried her face against his shoulders.
The rickshaw hurtles through the wide road on the northern corner of town. A newly expanded area and you can still see the sharp edges of gravel and tar on the side of road. There are few houses around, sure to change in a year, this city is fattening up. Undisturbed by pedestrians or stupidly maneuvering tin cans of town, the man enjoys the wind against his face. Beneath his feet the old metal and wood contraption is gliding, no burden under its bamboo shed. In the great straight road, there’s a single and subtle bend that takes you around dense bamboo bush keeping to your left. Keeping on the bend, bushes hastily retreat to give way to a small fork on a stream that goes under the road. It’s hard to notice, and most people usually don’t. High yellowing grass.
A small corner just off the road and by the stream, full of coals that never looked more than a few hours old. They never were. It could be mistaken as a ghat, a place of pyres if not for the fact that no one on that lonely road had ever seen a lit pyre there. It was because they only went through that road during day. It was no secret that the ghat by bend lit brightly every night. People didn’t know about it, but it was no secret.
For the rickshaw man, whose work and riders took him to every corner in the city, from European mansions of the blood rich to disgusting sacks he dragged drunk customers home to, this place was not unfamiliar.
Tonight, as he hurtles towards hills at the end of the road where a two beams tall mud house with a cowshed lies. His wife used to work in the city, when they first came here. That was years ago and now she lived at home, taking care of their six children, two goats and a horde of angry chickens. Kids were expensive, he wished someone had told him that. Not like his days, he had nine other siblings and his parents did fine.
The bonfire didn’t surprise him. What did was loud wailing coming from a figure by the ground near the burning pyre. He didn’t notice, the pyre seemed a bit different today, a bit bigger lacking a bit browner and darker shade of death. The fire was huge still there was a hunger for more wood.
He slowed. He had stopped by here before and had talked with the creepy priest handful of times. When his eyes got used to the glare of the pyre he could make out a woman lying on the ground. She had that familiar swooning fit that only comes with death of love. He was focusing much on the woman, the man took him by surprise.
He has a familiar look. He raised his hand showing, reflecting white palms of his hand seeing a startled look on his face.
“Sorry to surprise you like that, friend.”
The rickshaw driver said nothing, he looked around, sweeping his gaze from man to pyre and woman and back to man. No priest present and there are usually no visitors in this ghat. The people they burn here don’t have visitors. The rickshaw man dismissed his slight unease, he had nothing on him after all.
When the man didn’t reply to his greeting, the stranger ventured, “Not a good hour for conversation, eh? Do you drive this route often?” He pointed to the Rickshaw.
“I live at the end of the highway over there.”
“Well that’s a long way to go, isn’t it? Please take some of this offering with you. It was my father-in-law’s funeral today.”
It was an unusual place and time for a cremation, but the rickshaw man didn’t feel right to comment. You don’t refuse food at a funeral; the dead eat what you eat.
“I thank you. Sacred things are always welcome. Where is the priest and everyone?”
The stranger invited him towards the pyre with a gesture while he answered, “Oh you know the priests nowadays, interested only in coins in the offering, not even the grain. Read a half-assed hymn and excused himself with something about another funeral and slipped out. We are strangers to this city, …my father-in-law suffered an accident while we were here.”
The men stood a respectful distance from the burning pyre. The woman was a bit silent now, her throat raw lungs empty of any air. He looked intently at her with pity. To lose your father in a city…..
He barely saw the khukri coming towards him from left with a blurry vision, but it was too late then. Although he could feel the gush and wetness all round his left side, he didn’t feel any pain while the stranger grabbed him by his waistcoat, on his blind and dead side and dragged-threw him into the fire, back first.
Surely the stranger didn’t mean it this way, but the rickshaw man was conscious; a few moments away from the birth of pain in his mind, facing two burning figures in front. The stranger’s eyes were wide, afraid, yellow and horrified. He could look them both in their eyes while he died. He knew who she was crying for.