Grandfather was an unusual man for his times. He used to mingle with the village folk quite well, appearing as involved at their idiosyncrasies as anyone could, living their life. Yet there was something distinctive about him. While talking to educated men, his talks and ideas would get more profound and one could easily see him as a stark contrast to the village dwellers. Still, he remained in the village to the last of his days. I often used to ask him why he did not close his shop in the village and come live with us in the city. To this he would reply with a faint smile that he was too simplistic to live in the city and would bore down to death there. This incident that I am about to share gave me insights about his progressive thinking which was way ahead of his times.
Now, I am not ashamed to admit that as a child I was very scared of ghosts. This fear got magnified when I listened to my grandfather’s stories. He used to delight himself in scaring me. It was during my summer holidays when I was around ten. One morning I was woken up early by my sister who said we had to leave for village in a few hours. My joys knew no bounds but I was surprised to see everyone in my family looking very sad. There was an unusual crowd in the living room. A lot of my relatives had come. My sister whispered in my ear that one of my grandmothers, known to all as Morola Masi had expired. She was one of my grandfather’s younger brother’s wife (My grandfather had 3 younger brothers). Not that I had any fond recollections of her. In fact I used to be scared of her as she had while and coloured skin. Now that I recall, her loving gaze towards me would be returned by a scary look while she withered away in a corner.
“Don’t show excitement. This is not a fun trip,” warned my sister.
“As if you are not excited,” I retorted back.
“I’ll tell Ma.”
“As if she will hear you.”
It was true. My mother was busy packing. I could overhear my uncle talking loudly,” It’s good she’s gone. What a painful life she was leading.” The others in the room couldn’t agree more.
As I look back upon that incident, I cannot help but feel ashamed of the unabashed joy I was feeling as we left for the village in a trekker. I always enjoyed the trip to the village but hated the return. The very forest which appeared enchanting and full of animals used to haunt me while returning.
They were about to lift the body and take it to the pyres when we reached. I was made to fold my hands and kneel in front of her. I tried to touch her feet but my grandmother pulled my hands. Dadubhai saw this and smiled knowingly. After they took her, I made my way into the shop to take my favourite position, the cash box near my grandfather’s seat where I used to sit and think of myself doing a very important job of opening and closing the lid.
Later I asked Dadubhai why no one was touched her feet and why did grandmother stop me.
“She had leprosy, a chronic disease of the skin and nerves. Everybody used to think she was infectious and the disease would get transferred.”
“Is it painful?” I asked foolishly.
“Indeed… but the pain is not given by the disease.”
“But is it really contagious?” I asked, unable to resist my knowledge gained after a chapter on infectious diseases in school done recently.
“What… no.. not really…,” said Dadubhai, his eyes closed, a tear trickled down his cheek.
After dinner I went upstairs to my grandfather’s room. I could not help but feel sad for her. Now I think of it, years of neglect from her own family, discarded by all in the village…. And all because of no fault of hers. I listened to my favourite ghost story about a woman who returns to take revenge of her own death and I must agree it scared the wits out of me for the rest of the night.
It was about 2 am in the middle of the night when I felt the urgent need to pee. Having listened to the story, I had been reluctant to go out in the dark and hence decided not to pee before going to bed. In those days, there were no urinals in my village and we used to use the animal grazing barn nearby which was barren. But after a few hours when I could hold it no longer, I decided to wake Dadubhai up to accompany me. Though slightly grumbling, he smiled as he knew I had been scared by his story. Normally, in such cases he would have chided me gently but firmly and encouraged me to face the unknown.
“There is nothing to fear from darkness and death,” he used to say, similar to Dumbledore’s wise sayings.
Puzzling though, he got up to accompany me. I was wondering why when I realized we had to pass through Morola Masi’s hut on the way to the barn and goosebumps appeared on my skin instantly. As we approached her hut, I asked” Were you scared that something would happen if we …… ?”
I stopped talking as soon as the air was filled with a low wailing sound….. of a woman. It was the saddest wail one could ever hear. I gripped Dadubhai’s hand tightly and did not dare look towards the side of the hut……..
Many years later, when I sat by his deathbed, tears rolling down my cheek as he prepared to meet the maker, he asked me,” Why these tears ?”
I was scared he was going to leave soon and fear was clearly etched on my face.
“Remember what I told you…. Do not ever fear darkness and death but…………… fear that wail you heard as a child, for it will stop you from doing anything wrong and give you the strength to stand up against injustice. If you aren’t scared of that, I would be of you….. “