Grave encounter

Short Story

“Cemeteries don’t agree with me,” announced Varsha, “so pardon me if I don’t go in with you. Of course, since I’ll probably be carried into this very same one some day, I can’t declare that I won’t be seen dead in it! Dreadful pun,” she added hastily, catching Tara's bleak expression. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to be flippant. I understand your need to pay this visit, despite the dreary weather. Stay as long as you like, and give me a call when you’re ready to leave. I’ll pick you up as soon as I hear from you.”

“Thanks, Varsha,” said Tara, alighting from the car with a bunch of roses, and pushing open the gate. “I appreciate your bringing me here today. After we moved to London in ‘95, I’ve been to India twice but, as you know, on neither occasion could I manage a trip to Bangalore. It means a great deal, especially to Mummy, that I’m finally making this pilgrimage.”

“There’s no sign of the caretaker,” said Varsha, honking to attract attention. “Will you be able to locate Uncle’s grave without guidance?”

“Oddly enough, I recall the spot as if I had stopped by yesterday,” said Tara. “Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.” Varsha drove off with a wave, and Tara set off across the vast expanse of marble and granite slabs, some of them so sunken as to be hardly visible. As Varsha had noted, the evening was dismal and it was starting to drizzle, but Tara was not particularly depressed. When she placed her flowers on her father’s tomb, she was filled with the satisfaction of a mission fulfilled.

Tranquillity gave way to turmoil as Tara was racked by remembrance. She had been enjoying the delights of a school holiday, when the sound of the doorbell had shattered her childhood. She saw — as she had seen, that morning in July—her father’s colleague in earnest discourse with her mother; watched him grab the stricken woman before she fell to the floor. It had been Mr Roy’s unenviable task to inform Tara that her father was lost to her forever. He had used euphemisms — ‘passed away’, ‘asleep in the Lord’ — instead of starkly stating the terrible truth that her father was dead; killed on his way home from Mysore.

Condolence speeches had been marked by the reiterated, “It must have been over instantly. He couldn’t have felt a thing.” A decade later, when a friend of hers had succumbed to a protracted illness, Tara could see some point in the platitudes to which she and her mother had been subjected. However, in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, such well-meaning utterances had jarred on her nerves. “God’s will,” murmured relations piously, without explaining why the loving deity extolled at church should ordain the bereavement of a nine-year-old.

“Dust to dust, ashes to ashes,” the voice of religion had intoned, as the vibrant being, who had illuminated his daughter’s world, was lowered — still and silent — into the dark damp ground. Tara had longed to rage in protest but, exhausted by hours of anguished sobbing, she could only sag weakly against her heartbroken mother. She had even submitted to the unwelcome caresses of those she had overheard whispering, “A clear road, they say. If he didn’t nod off at the wheel (voices lowered further), he must have been drinking. How else...?” Grief and bitterness surged afresh, as Tara relived incidents and innuendoes that retained the power to torment her.

“People can be uncharitable, can’t they?” Tara was jerked out of her reverie. Steeped in the painful past, she had been as oblivious of another’s presence as she was unaware that the drizzle had gathered momentum. How long had he been beside her? Strange that she had neither seen nor heard him approach. Stranger still that he had read her thoughts. The young man must just have been out of his teens, but something about his sage demeanour soothed Tara’s sorrowful spirit.

“I ought not to have let them upset me as they did,” said Tara, dabbing at her eyes, “but they could have been kinder. Except for Varsha and her parents, everyone was ready to believe the worst. Anyway, I suppose we shall never discover why a cautious motorist like Daddy should have crashed into a tree. What a senseless way to go!”

The young man nodded sympathetically, and Tara began to feel better. “I’d forgotten how chilly Bangalore can be,” she remarked conversationally. “Aren’t you cold?” she enquired, observing her new acquaintance’s flimsy apparel.

“I’m accustomed to it,” said the young man lightly. “You, at least, are sensibly clad. You live abroad, don’t you? No need to be astonished,” he laughed. “I should imagine that few who come here dress like you, except for a sprinkling of foreigners tracing their ancestors. Do you know that several monuments here, in Kalpally, date back to the British era? That’s one of them,” he said, indicating a nearby statue of a pensive angel, with a chipped nose and missing wing. “There rests Baby Clement, who departed this life in 1932, after one brief month on our planet. Difficult to understand, isn’t it?”

Tara’s mood turned melancholic as she thought of the hapless infant. All at once, she felt oppressed by the gloomy atmosphere, while the rain, which had hitherto seemed a mild inconvenience, became an intolerable discomfort. She had best return to the land of the living. “I should go before I get drenched,” said Tara, fumbling in her bag for her cell-phone. “What about you?”

“Water doesn't trouble me,” said the young man, his tone a trifle wistful. Then, warmly, “It was nice meeting you. I’m Sam.” He did not proffer his hand; nor did he take Tara’s, outstretched though it was in greeting.

“Do you have far to go?” asked Tara, to cover her momentary discomfiture.
“Quite the reverse,” replied the young man. He was as pleasant as he had been earlier, but Tara was conscious of a sense of unease. “Tara!” the young man called after her, as she walked awkwardly through the slush. Tara was not surprised that he knew her name. After all, he had stood with her by an inscription that read — ‘Beloved husband of Rachel and father of Tara’. “Your father did not perish in vain," said the young man authoritatively.

Tara wheeled around in disbelief. “How can you possibly know that?” she demanded, almost skidding on the wet mud as she tried to retrace her steps. Tara had no idea how he reached her, but the young man was suddenly at her side once more. Although Tara was obviously struggling to keep her balance, he made no attempt to grasp her, and she tottered precariously before steadying herself.

“He veered off the road to avoid hitting a little boy,” said the young man. “It was entirely the latter’s fault for darting across your father’s path, and no one would have blamed the driver if he had run over the child. Indeed, no one would have been the wiser if he had done so and sped away, for there were no witnesses. Your father had a split second to make a choice. He chose to save the little boy’s life at the cost of his own.”

“Little boy! Little boy!” repeated Tara mockingly. “Did the little boy tell you this?”
“He didn’t have to,” said the young man quietly. “I was the little boy. Coward that I was, I fled the scene, afraid that I’d get into trouble. I was only six years old.” Sensitive to Tara’s unspoken query, he went on gently, “Your father was beyond human aid, or I would definitely have summoned help. Ashish Joseph was a wonderful person. You can be proud of him, Tara. Unlike many of the inhabitants here, he deserves his epitaph that proclaims him good and loving. He gave me extra time — precious time — on earth. I hope he knows that I didn’t waste it.”

Wrong tense surely! “You mean you aren’t wasting it,” corrected Tara, but the young man had slipped away as swiftly as he had after the accident — if accident it could be called — 15 years ago.

“Tara!” Varsha was hurrying towards her, skillfully negotiating the slippery terrain. “You’re soaked to the skin!” she exclaimed, giving Tara a hug. “I came back for you with an umbrella, and — to my horror — I saw you communing with the air. This has been too emotionally stressful for you. I should never have left you alone.”

Prompted by some inexplicable instinct, Tara glanced down at a mound by her feet — the site of a recent burial. White letters on a black metal cross, stated simply. Samuel Pratap Das, 17/4/1986 — 9/10/2007. Why was the name familiar? Of course! It had lately been in the news. Girl in danger — young man to the rescue — she survives — he drowns. Tara lifted her face skywards, revelling in the downpour, and smiled through her tears. “Believe me, Varsha,” she assured her cousin, “I was not alone.”

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