Sentry of the Dead
Vinayak Krishna was the sole manager and only gravedigger of the cemetery grounds in Warnahalli. The large track of land, home to dead and ghosts yet to find salvation, was his work place and residence. Bordered by towering ashoka trees and stunted plants, the place was shrouded in alternating shadows and light trickling down through the leaves. It was a world within itself, no cacophony sounded in its midst, none cared to tread its path but for once every year on anniversaries, life that existed here was the worldly life absent.
The cemetery had come to be associated with the image of a man- the bent figure of Vinayak Krishna whose skin hugged the bones with a lover’s grip, a head decorated with silver hair pulled back in a bun, and cataract eyes grey and cloudy like sap. Even in the apparent frailness, he could swing his pickaxe with a strength that made young men blush. Vinayak Krishna was the sentry of the dead, appointed to burn or bury the departed and see their safe passage to heaven with prayers handed down to him by forefathers.
Vinayak Krishna lived in a small shack at the cemetery’s front entrance and hardly ever left the company of the dead. On days when he was not working or trimming trees, he took a stroll around the yard, greeting the graves as he passed.
‘Oh, Nillavathi amma, the parijatha has showered lilies on you today. You look lovely! Mr. Suresh Hegde, are you still having an affair with Malina akka from the next grave? If your old widow were to find out she would wake you up from your sleep and chase you down the village with a broomstick. Speaking of broomsticks, Shetty baba, remind me later to sweep the dry leaves from your piece of earth, will you?’
Vinayak was not cuckoo, just lonely. He was twenty, a man with dreams written in clouds, when his wife ran away from home and left behind a year old boy to take care of. Bringing up his son Mahdev had consumed his youth and worn out the aspirations, the Kaveri carrying them away from him with her floods. Mahdev now lived with his wife in the city, and sent a money order on the first Saturday of every month. That coupled with his own wages gave Vinayak ample money to keep his stomach full and nights drunk on cheap whiskey. On good days, he shared his drink with a friend.
‘Father, here is to you,’ he said, swaying, like a leaf in the wind, from intoxication. He raised his cup to the tombstone before drowning the brown liquid down his throat. The fancy white marble gravestone looked on silently.
‘Your church is celebrating your death anniversary today,’ he said. ‘I went to Krishnagudi, to see what was transpiring. They gave out pedas. All the way from Dharwad, they said. Only the best in your memory, they said’
On rare days, he left the cemetery to walk to the village and join his fellow living men. Below the whispering peepal he heard all the gossip he had missed. Mahalakshmi’s mother is sick, must prepare a grave for her, just in case. Mohan is having a love affair, the rumors say. That is certain to give his father a heart attack.
‘Vinayak Krishna,’ Chandu said one day as they stood at the tea stall eating a steaming plate of fluffy idlis , ‘the headmaster told me he read a letter for you and it said your son is coming to visit?’
‘True true,’ Vinayak nodded, ‘he is bringing the wife too.’ He dropped the empty plate in the bin and immediately stuffed a wad of paan in his mouth.
‘Don’t make the family stay with you in that shack. The living needs the living, baba.’
‘The dead are not scary, Chandu. They are the most humane beings, can’t say the same for us breathing lot. If it were to me, I would live with the dead!’
‘What blasphemous things you say, Vinayak!’ Amar Gupta admonished, turning around to spit on the ground to ward off any evil Vinayak’s words had woken.
‘He is becoming mad, is what it is,’ said Chandu, wagging his finger at Vinayak, after having spit himself. ‘You should visit Pujari and get yourself cleansed.’
Conversations like these irked Vinayak. He would swallow his retorts and take leave immediately, almost running back to the cemetery and feeling calm only when he set eyes on the gravestones.
On melancholy nights like this, usually followed by his visits to the village, he would lay taciturn on the six feet by three feet land he had reserved for himself. It was his only investment, this piece of land for his final resting. Lying in the dirt with the comforting smell of mud, he reminisced about his wife and the lovely mistress he had from the village ten kilometers from here. He often wondered if they were dead and waiting for him in the Great Land Beyond. When the time came who would place him in the arms of Earth and chant the sacred words? Somehow, that never mattered to him. For a diligent caretaker of the dead as he, Yama would personally get involved, Vinayak was sure of it.
Tomorrow his son would come to see him, older by a year and changed by a different lifestyle. Time would have weathered their faces different and father and son would not see family but a stranger claiming to be family. Mahdev would hug his father, and the wife would make a show of touching his feet and taking his blessing. ‘When are you going to give me a grandchild, daughter?’ he would ask her as convention demanded him to care for such things. The daughter-in-law would blush and mutter, ‘Soon, appa.’
Mahdev would ask Vinayak, his eyebrows crinkling in concern, ‘How are you, appa? You have not been working a lot, have you?’
Vinayak Krishna would put his hand out to gesture at the graves and say, ‘Oh no son, I’m doing very well! I have so many taking care of me, after all.’ The dry leaves on the graves would rustle back in affirmation.