Ghost and darkness
[Cultural Introduction: In traditional Hindu culture, cremation involves barefoot (as a mark of respect) friends and family members carrying their dead, on a cot, to the crematorium. The cot is added with support arms, usually bamboo poles which are carried by the mourners on their shoulders. While on the way to the crematorium, they chant: Bolo Hori, Hori Bol. Hori in Bengali language refers to the Almighty and the word Bol is, “to say”, “to invoke the name of”. So Bolo Hori means, “In the name of God”]
A pair of sinister pale yellow glassy eyes with dark vertical slits glared at me. Ears back, tongue sticking out, and face contorted with a hideous growl, it was the devil’s face right, about to launch into an attack. The owner of that hideous face, the stained skull, rested comfortably on a small intricately carved mahogany dressing table, leaning against the wall of the living room. The wide-open mouth revealed a pair of 2-inch-long yellowish canine teeth hanging from the upper jaw and two protruding from the lower jaw. At eight-something years old, the vision presented me with a spectacularly terrifying vision of a painful death.
It was early evening that I met the monster while riding my cousin’s tricycle while exploring their dwellings. My feet froze on the pedals as my gaze swept the wall. Just above the evil head, greenish earth-colored skin stretched. There were dark chocolate rosettes on the skin, with an inch-wide black border all around. The beast’s ominously long tail was also glued to the wall. It seemed as if the monster flew through space in search of its prey. And here I was, helplessly counting the last minutes of my young existence. This was my first encounter with the face of death and my infant brain was simply mortified.
From the open door that stood in the kitchen, he could hear the sound of pots and pans colliding with each other and against the ladle as they prepared for dinner. I also heard the joyous laughter of two sisters, my mother and my aunt, as they went about the kitchen chores. The aroma of dinner was invading my nostrils, but I was sure I wouldn’t be sitting at the table to enjoy it. Not with this huge sprawling monster pointed directly at me. Even at that young age, he had seen images of leopards mercilessly killing prey, old and young alike. I didn’t need to be told that my chances of survival were slim to none.
My bladder was threatening to give or maybe it had, and that was the moment I heard my name from behind. I shook myself, but couldn’t risk taking my eyes off that monster on the wall, to face the caller, until my brother’s hands came to rest on my shoulders. Ah, that uncertain relief that flowed through me! The next moment, a question that arose was: were we both in mortal danger now? My older brother followed my gaze and immediately knew the whole story: I didn’t have to speak. He put on a reassuring smile and told me it was just a dead leopard shot by my uncle’s father. He walked to the wall and as a challenge, he inserted his fist between those dreaded jaws and asked me to join him. Pure madness, I thought, when I realized that the blood was flowing through my feet again. I was just glad I got a chance to go out!
My brother started laughing at my plight, but I was beyond my concern. My first and only concern was getting out of that room as fast as I could. Like a bat out of hell, I did it. If my brother hadn’t come to get me for dinner, I don’t know what would have happened. Most likely, he had not been writing these lines. In that fading light, that horrible monster seemed even more evil, and it had almost managed to stop my poor little heart. Such was my fright. At that moment, all I could think of was to put as much distance as possible between that creature from hell and myself.
We were visiting my maternal aunt’s home on Remount Road, Calcutta, India. Right in front of the Territorial Army station. My uncle used to work for a transportation company and was in signage and communication. Her job required her to work the night shift, but my aunt, a tiny little figure, was afraid to live alone. There was another, more important reason for her fear. She complained that throughout the afternoon, past midnight and into the early hours of the morning, people could be seen and heard carrying corpses for cremation. The procession of mourners and coffin bearers trotted down the same path that runs right in front of the red brick building. We had joined our aunt in bringing her comfort and companionship in her husband’s absence.
Earlier that night, he had already witnessed at least two groups taking their dead to the crematorium. The scene was typical: a cot tied securely to two swaying green bamboo poles, which were then carried by the pallbearers. The corpse of the deceased was placed on the cot, covered with a white sheet and only the face was visible. Often there was a rope holding the corpse to the cot to keep the corpse in place. The standard fare was a wreath around the neck, flowers scattered over the body, and the usual tube rosewoods (Rajanigandha) attached to the four posts. It was the smell of burning incense and the swaying of Rajinigandha’s sticks on his deathbed making his last march that made the scene particularly haunting to passersby. Even when we were children, death has been a hard discovery for all of us. We are all aware of its purpose and irreversibility. That is what gives us deathly fear even when we see a scene like that.
At the dinner table, I had completely lost my appetite after my encounter with the devil. But my mother didn’t want any of that, and her instruction was plain and simple: eat! That order now made it mandatory for me to at least nibble on the food on my plate. I was so relieved and glad that I came to spend just one night at my aunt’s house. One night is all I had to manage to survive, I told myself. Dinner ended when my mother reprimanded me for wasting food. But, for once, no one needed to convince me to go to bed. All he wanted was to close his eyes and make the demons go away. Tomorrow we would leave for the safety of our home. For tonight, just pull the blanket over your head and force the dream to take over. It was then that I heard the gong sound at the Territorial Army post, followed again by that dreadful and at the same time gloomy chant: Bolo Hori … Horibol!