Tarzan's sister-in-law sat before the
chulha. She was out of breath with the effort of blowing into the damp firewood
and cow-dung cakes, but they refused to kindle. The small kitchen was filled
with smoke. Dakter asked her, "Where is he? Dead as a log as usual?"
The smoke from the wet firewood stung her eyes and the sight of Dakter
standing before her infuriated her further. She wanted to pick up a smouldering
stick from the chulha and with it, break every bone in his and his friend's
body. On this bitterly cold morning why had he come to tempt her brother-in-law
to go God knows where? But then she thought, why blame him - it was the fault of
your own hen if she went to lay her eggs in somebody else's yard. He read the
meaning in her silence and saying, "Still sleeping, no doubt," started
going up the stairs. He could hear her grumbling, but being in a hurry, he did
not stop to give her a piece of his mind.
"Get up you rogue. Pedro is finished," he declared as soon as he
entered the room. Curled up like a bundle on the bed, Tarzan sat up at the news.
He could not quite comprehend the meaning but knew that something was wrong.
"Fellow's mother is dead," Dakter said, sitting down near the pillow.
Tarzan stretched his arm to push the window open. An old blanket, torn in many
places, was spread over the quilt and over it, his woollen pheran. The pillow
was red chintz but without a cover and had been absorbing the grease from his
hair for no one knew how long. On his right hand side lay a number of cut-outs
of movie queens from film magazines and tabloids. On his left was a cigarette
pack containing a half-smoked cold stub and two whole cigarettes.
"When?" he asked.
"Early morning today, they say." Dakter took out a cigarette from
the packet and lit it from the embers in his kangri. "But I think the old
woman must have kicked the bucket sometime during the night itself and the
fellow would not have come to know till the morning. The rogue was on his own
"How mean of him - on a trip without us!"
"I didn't know of it either. But I heard that there was a big do at
Patwari's place. If I give you the guest list the earth will shake under your
"Then the rascal is sunk. Which wretched fellow led him to that den?
Five-rupee notes rich as it were, on the cards there day and night. Pass me a
cigarette, will you?" Dakter gave him the other cigarette from the pack.
"Give me the kangri too." He handed it to him.
Tarzan lit the cigarette from the embers and drew the kangri under his quilt.
"Now the rascal can live it up. His mother was the last check and she too
has sailed off. Now he may as well sell his house and blow it up on cards ...
who is to stop him?"
"Take my word for it-the house will go."
"Yes, but what do we do now?"
"Which son-in-law is there to take the old woman to the cremation
ground? Get up and gird your loins."
"My loins are already girded. Come on, bring all the mothers and fathers
who need my shoulders to cart them to their cremation."
Tarzan left the bed, put on his pheran, wore a thick balaclava on his head to
cover his ears, pulled out three pairs of socks from under the pillow and put
them on. Handing the kangri to Dakter, he said, "Let's go, I'm ready."
"Hold on, will you. Let's finish the fag at least."
"Okay. Carry on. The old woman did not show any hurry while alive, why
should she be in a hurry now?"
Tarzan picked up a kangri from the ledge and gave it a thorough shaking so
that the ashes settled down at the bottom and the charcoal nuggets were thrown
up. He asked Dakter for a live coal, put it among the nuggets in his kangri and,
blowing upon it furiously, kindled a warm blaze.
"Won't you fill fresh charcoal in your kangri?"
"Forget it. It's better to ask the baker in the street to give me some
from his oven. Why provoke taunts on the matter of a kangri-full of live coals
early in the moming? What's the score?"
"If they can take six wickcts in today's play, they might win."
"Like hell they will," Dakter made a gesture with his thumb,
"As if this is the only match left for them to win! As if they have
triumphed in all the others!"
They had walked out of the room when Dakter went back and returned with the
half-smoked stub stuck behind his ear, "Why leave it?" he said to
Slowly they descended the stairs. Tarzan's sister-in-law stood watching them
from her doorway. As they were leaving, she mumbled in her mixed
Punjabi-Kashmiri, "What does he care? No sooner does the day dawn than he
must saunter forth-a babu, no less, with his scents and oils! Stuffs his belly
with mounds of rice but does he care where it comes from? Only I know or my fate
"Hey, when did your brother acquire this Punjabi pigeon?" Dakter
asked Tarzan as they walked away.
"Come on, at least he's got a pigeon, whatever sort. As for us, we shall
not get even this".
"Talk about yourself. As for me, I have a love affair going!"
Tarzan looked him up and down and burst into laughter.
In the street, Tarzan had his kangri filled with hot, glowing mulberry
charcoals from the baker's, picked up three packs of cigarettes from the grocer
on credit and, pushing them down his Pheran pocket, said, "Now I am
equipped to take the whole bloody town to its cremation-absolutely at your
"Didn't you ask the baker the score?"
"His transistor batteries are exhausted." He took two cigarettes
from the pack, gave one to Dakter and lit one for Himself. Dakter threw away the
"I had thought I would spend the whole day listening to the commentary.
How could I expect this nuisance to turn up? Today of all days! Tell me, how
soon can we be free?"
"One o'clock - maybe two."
"Shall we listen to the commentary or . . . " Tarzan remembered
something and did not complete the sentence. Instead he asked, "Shall we go
to this one?"
"The other one?"
"The same old headache."
"To this side of the river?"
"Who knows! It was released only yesterday."
"The other side?"
"Heard it's good."
"If we are free by one o'clock, we will go to see it, otherwise the
"I'll not sit in the third class this time."
Tarzan stared at him for a while and said, "Since when have you acquired
a taste for balcony seats to watch a film?"
When Pedro realised that his mother had turned to clay, he did not weep or
cry. He just went quietly to Pahelwan's house, who first informed Seth and then
went to fetch the Brahmin priest. On the way he met Dakter's younger brother
through whom he sent word to Dakter. Seth stuffed fifty-sixty rupees in his
pocket and went to the store which stocked all the stuff needed for the rites at
a Hindu funeral. It was only after all this had been done that Pedro started to
wail loudly, calling out his dead mother's name. This brought a few neighbours,
who formed a small gathering in the house.
Pedro had no relatives in town other than a cousin's husband from his
mother's side. And he too lived at a distance of five or six miles. Pedro did
not send a message to him. Even if he had, he would not have turned up, Pedro
was certain. In fact, Pedro hated all his relatives, whether they lived in the
town or the village. It was only his mother who had served as a bond between him
and his relatives. Today that bond too was broken with her death. Now he was
free - free in every way. He did not have to salute or bow before his relatives.
He did not have to perform the ritual shraddha for his father every year. He did
not need to return home every night. He could do exactly what he wanted. From
now on he could be his own master-the master of his own house too.
Pahelwan arrived with the priest an hour later. One woman from the
neighbourhood began to warm the water to give the corpse the ritual bath.
Another swept a corner of the yard and smeared it with cow-dung paste to purify
it for the performance of the last rites. The priest began. Pedro was shifting
his sacred thread from the left to the right shoulder and back again according
to the priest's instructions, when Dakter and Tarzan arrived. Tarzan went
directly to Pedro and whispered in his ear, "Got any money?"
"Yes, yes I have."
"Swear upon this very mother?"
"I swear upon my mother. I do have money."
"That's all right then." He went and took his seat on an upturned
mortar in a corner of the yard. When the corpse was being bathed, he got up and
said to Pahelwan, "The old woman is selfish even after death. Look at her -
she will have a warm bath herself but make poor Pedro take those icy dips in the
After the bath a shroud was wrapped around the body and it was placed upon a
plank of wood. Tarzan and Seth lifted it from the two front ends; the third at
the back was shouldered by Dakter. Pahelwan was about to offer his shoulder for
the fourth comer when Seth yelled, "Hey you mullah, don't you touch it! Our
corpse will be polluted."
"Oh hell. If the old lady finds out that a Muslim shoulder carries her,
she will leap out of the coffin," Tarzan said.
"Okay, give her a ride yourselves. But remember, it will only be a
Muslim who prepares her pyre at the cremation ground. Come, come, my
brothers-in-law, we are the ones who bring you into the world and again it is us
who preside over your bodies while they turn into ashes-telling me, are
Eventually a boy from the neighbourhood made the foursome and the last
journey began. Pedro walked in front, carrying a basket containing all the
material needed for the cremation rites. Next to him, wrapped in a thick blanket
from head to toe, walked the priest. He had hated to leave home in this bitter
cold and was thinking, "A doctor can refuse to attend, a lawyer can refuse
to come, but curse our profession, which does not give the right of refusal!
Besides, who knows if there will be anything to gain from this wretched
Behind Pedro and the priest came Tarzan, Seth, Dakter and the boy, carrying
the coffin. After them walked Pahelwan and a few others from the neighbourhood.
The neighbours accompanied the funeral procession a short distance and then
Pedro walked straight ahead, carrying the funerary basket. At first he had
thought that with his mother's death, he had been set free. But now it appeared
that it had made him a homeless vagrant. The rope that had anchored him to the
shore was broken and he was adrift in the flood of life. He would keep on
drifting without any goal or safe shore as long as he lived. His mother used to
curse him, heap abuse on him but occasionally did give him a blessing too. She
would quarrel with him over the daily expenses nearly every day but at the end
of the month it was she who gave him something, saved God knows how and when,
for his cigarettes. Most of the time she sulked, angry with his ways, but
sometimes she would hold him in her arms and give him a tight hug. From now
onwards no one would mind his ways - no one to sulk nor to love him. As far as
he was concerned, no other death need matter to him nor his own to anyone. He
was alone in this journey - all alone, and the road was tough. Suddenly he
looked back and the ground slipped from under his feet. He really was walking
all alone, clutching the funerary basket. No one else was in sight - neither the
priest nor the coffin nor even those who had held it aloft. What did it mean?
Was he dreaming? Was this a trick played upon him by the Lord of Death?
Eventually he caught sight of the priest lighting a cigarette at a shop in the
distance and he breathed again. But where were the others? Had the earth
swallowed them or the sky devoured them?
The priest, his cigarette lit, found him standing alone, frowning worriedly
and said, "Listen, you. I don't know what is written in your fate. Those
rakshashas must have slipped on the ice and dropped the body on the frozen
ground. What has happened is very bad indeed."
In his heart Pedro also knew that he was ill-destined. The priest had not
lied. But the riddle of their disappearance plagued his mind. How and where
could they have vanished? Granted they might have slipped but would that bury
them in the bowels of the earth?
The Brahmin mumbled a prayer in his faulty, ill-pronounced Sanskrit, "Oh
Lord of Death, Shiva Shiva Shambhu, forgive me my transgressions!"
The lamp in Pedro's basket had been long extinguished. A streak of smoke rose
from its blackened wick. Pedro was not only bewildered but quite frightened too.
Some more time passed and then he saw something - a faint outline resembling
a coffin. He breathed a sigh of relief. At last his mother's coffin caught up
with him. "Three have fallen!" Tarzan shouted as he came abreast. The
priest's heart stopped. "Oh you demons! Did you let the corpse fall three
times" ? God save us. Oh the Lord have mercy on me," he cried in
"Oh no sir. Our lion Chandra has taken three wickets! Understand?"
"Shut up you rogue." Seth bit his lip trying to check his anger,
"By the Holy Prophet, this is the limit."
Pahelwan explained to Pedro, "Listen you cursed fool! As we reached the
Shahi Panwallah, it seemed as though a break had been applied to Tarzan's feet.
The wretch stopped to listen to the commentary. We kept pleading with him to get
a move on. The panwallah even went to the extent of laying his cap at his feet.
When the people saw us listening to the commentary with the coffin, they began
to curse us. But Tarzan's feet refused to budge. Finally the panwallah switched
off his radio."
"Listen brothers. For the last seventy years this old lady never showed
any urgency to reach her destination. So how does my ten minutes' delay matter
now?" Tatzan defended himself.
"Tell him to hold his tongue!" Seth exploded, shaking with rage.
"If he does not shut up, I'll throw the old woman down and run away from
The priest admonished Pedro, "Oh you rakshasa! Are you a man or a beast?
I swear, this is the last time I ever ... but then why should you care?
Whose death need worry you?"
On reaching the cremation ground, Tarzan, Seth, Dakter and the boy lowered
their burden to the ground. The Muslim contractor of cremations started building
the pyre. Pedro awaited the priest's instructions.
Tarzan spoke up, "Did you hear this one'? This Dakter has a love affair
going!" There were guffaws from all.
Pahelwan confronted Dakter, "Love? With whom?"
Tarzan intervened, "Hear the story from me. This fellow's
"love" is going on with his boss's wife!" The boy from the
neighborhood was slightly embarrassed.
"He does all their housework. Washes her saris and blouses. Presses
clothes. Hey, do you get anything for your pains? Or is it for free?"
"See this fist? It will break all the teeth in your mouth. She is my
mother," Dakter said angrily.
"Why do you taunt him?" Pahelwan asked Tarzan. "Tell me, do
you or do you not frequent your factory owner's house?
"My foot! Going to the house will not make me a manager. I have no
desire to become a leader like you." And raising his voice so that everyone
could hear, he continued, "Did you people hear this? This Pahelwan has
given up his "leadery"!"
"Since when?" Dakter was surprised.
"Ever since the day the police arrested him while he was pasting
pro-Pakistani posters on the city walls. Those who had entrusted him with the
task spread the word that he was caught picking pockets."
Everyone laughed. A shadow of annoyance passed over Pahelwan's face for a
"Get up and place the body on the pyre," the priest's words roused
them and all the four stood up.
"We are ready," Tarzan said, "If you like, for you too!"
But the priest did not hear him.
Flames were no longer rising from the pyre, just the glowing embers,
crackling and disintegrating into ashes. Seth laid his hand on Pedro's shoulder,
"Come, what is the use of staring at this heap?"
"Let's go." Pedro leaned on him and started walking way.
"Where is Tarzan?" he asked.
"Has he also bolted like the priest and the boy? But where could he have
gone?" Dakter asked.
"I know," Pahelwan said, "the wretched fellow must be
listening to the commentary somewhere. Can't tell the difference between mid-on
and silly mid-on but must pretend to be an authority on cricket! He should not
have let the community down like this."
"He certainly shouldn't have," Seth agreed.
They reached the boundary of the cremation ground. Pedro, Dakter and Seth had
turned back to bow to the smouldering pyre when Pahelwan shouted, "Look!
Who is that behind the chinar?"
"Oh, if it isn't our own Tarzan!" said Dakter. All the four walked
back to him.
Tarzan sat against the chinar, stating at the still smoke still hanging in
the air. Pedro took his hand and said, "Come along, yaar, what's there to
wait for?" Tarzan drew Pedro to himself and hugging him, said, "You
lit your mother's pyre today with your own hands, but I was too small at that
time - just six or seven months old. I could not even do this."
Both Tarzan and Pedro burst into tears. They cried bitterly. Dakter and
Pahelwan did not know how to handle this new development. Dakter was ready to
scold them but Pahelwan checked him with a gesture, "Let them be. That is
what all of us need - a good cry."