Story Contemporary: THE HEARSE -S.Sushant

It was half past eleven . I was engaged in a serious discussion on Post -Modernism with Dr. Tiwari in the staff room , when Pankaj , Dr. Shrimali , Guptaji and Harish dropped in from the canteen .
” Did you hear the news ? Mr. Sahni passed away ! ”
I was too shocked to react .
” Oh , God ! I met him last evening . He seemed alright . What happened ? ” Dr . Tiwari uttered in disbelief .
” He committed suicide . Took an overdose of sleeping-pills last night , ” informed Guptaji .
” Suicide ! Oh , God ! ”

Mr. Sahni was no more . The news spread in the staff-room like wild fire . What happened ? How ? These were the questions on everyone’s lips . The college had been closed for the day . The students had started dispersing quickly as many of them wanted to watch the afternoon show of Hindi movie ” Tiger Zinda Hai ” at PVR . Peon Somnath was getting the signatures of all the lecturers on the Principal’s circular :
” With a heavy heart , I am informing all of you about the sad demise of our dear colleague Shree R. K. Sahni . A condolence-meeting will be held at 12 p.m. in room number ten . May his soul rest in peace .
— Grief-stricken :
Principal Sachdeva
and members of the staff . ”

A copy of this circular had also been put up at the notice-board of the staff-room .
All the lecturers were gathering in the lawn outside the staff-room . The non-teaching staff was also gathering at some distance .
Gurinder took me to a corner and gave me a naughty wink , ” The college has closed down for two days , dear ! ”
” Is it so ? ”
” Yes , pal . Sahni’s parents live in Dehradoon . It will take some time for them to reach here . ”
” But how did it all happen ? ”
I recalled , I had defeated Sahni in a chess game day before yesterday in the staff room . I was free that day from half past ten to half past one . I had already taught two classes in the morning . I had to teach two more classes from half past one to three in the afternoon . As a coincidence , Sahni too, was free that day from half past ten to quarter to one . I had castled at the beginning of the chess game . Then I attacked Sahni’s left flank , killed his queen and defeated him . After the game , he said in a depressed tone , ” I am a born loser ! ” He seemed crestfallen .
” Don’t worry , Sahni . You are a good player . Better luck next time . ” I had consoled him .
” I don’t know when my ‘ next time ‘ will come . ” He had given me a sad smile …

” But Gurinder , why did this happen ? ”
” Shares , pal . Sahni had taken loans from several people and invested heavily in share-market . But recently , he suffered a big loss in the share-market . On the other hand , people started demanding their money back . The poor chap just wilted under pressure . But nobody thought him to be such a coward , ” Gurinder said nonchalantly , chewing a bubble-gum .
” Has he any children ? Is his wife a working-lady ? ” I asked .
” No , pal . She is a house-wife with two little daughters to fend for . ” Gurinder said .
I felt deeply saddened by this turn of events . What a misfortune .

*** *** *** *** *** ***

It was ten past twelve . The condolence-meeting was being held in room number ten . The room was packed to capacity with the teachers and members of the non-teaching staff . People were paying their condolences in a sombre voice . Wearing a mournful look , Principal Sachdeva was paying his regards to the deceased —
” … Mr. Sahni was a noble teacher . His untimely demise has left behind a void which is hard to fill. May God grant peace to the departed soul … . ”

” Bloody , hypocrite ! ” Gurinder , who was sitting beside me , whispered .
” Hush , pal ! It is a solemn occasion . ” Suppressing a smile , l said .
A gust of wind flew in through the window and wafted the silence heavily , this way and that .
Everyone in the college knew that Mr. Sahni and Principal Sachdeva had been sworn-enemies . Sahni had got himself appointed due to the strong backing of some Management Committee members . Instead , the Principal wanted to appoint his nephew . Later on , the Principal did not let Sahni be ‘ confirmed ‘ for four years . After getting confirmed , Sahni too, had become the Secretary of the powerful Teachers’ Union and made life difficult for the Principal . The lecturers used to go on strike every other day . Sahni was always at the forefront in getting passed resolutions condemning the Principal and in getting him mobbed and manhandled by the disgruntled lecturers .

” … We have unanimously decided that we all from the teachers’ fraternity will donate a sum of rupees five thousand each from our salary . The collected amount will be handed over to the widow of our deceased colleague as a mark of our solidarity with her in this hour of crisis … . ” After the Principal had taken his seat , the staff-secretary Mr. Sharma took over in a serious voice .
” F*** man ! Why should we lose rupees five thousand ? Is it our fault that Mr. Sahni has died ? ” Commented Gurinder again .
” Stop it , man . This is not the occasion for such talk . ” I chided Gurinder in a low voice .
” The college administration too, should provide help to the family of the deceased . ” Madam Snehlata Sharma’s voice rang out from the back .
” Yeah ! We would like to know from Principal Sachdeva . ” Several disgruntled union members said in unison .
The hawk-like eyes of Principal Sachdeva seemed to be smiling . It was hot in the room . He wiped the sweat off his face with a handkerchief and said coolly , ” In this hour of crisis , the entire college-administration is sympathetic towards the family of deceased . We will help Mrs. Sahni in every possible way . ”
A murmur of discontent swept through the room . A timid pigeon sitting on the ventilator flapped its wings and flew away into the open . A crow sitting on a tree in the lawn started cawingawing impulsively . An old portrait of the father of the nation Mahatma Gandhi , hanging on the wall of the room was a quiet witness to the unfolding of the entire drama .
A teacher of the Physical Education department was sitting in the back row . He said loudly , ” Mrs. Sahni should be given a job in the college . ”
Several non-teaching staff members lent their vocal support to this demand . Principal Sachdeva had recently foiled the two-months old strike of the non-teaching staff by strictly implementing ‘ No work , no pay ‘ policy .
” All these decisions will be taken at the appropriate time . Let Mr. Sahni’s cremation take place . ” The Principal said in a measured tone .
” At what time does the funeral-procession start tomorrow ? ” Asked Mr. Gupta .
” At three p. m. tomorrow . ” Informed Mr. Sharma .

*** *** *** ***. *** ***. *** ***

” Raam Naam Satya Hai … ”
( God’s name is the only truth in this mortal world . )

The hearse was about to move out of Mr. Sahni’s Cantt. road residence . Wailing inconsolably , his widow Mrs. Sahni ran out of the house into the street and started keening over the dead body of Mr. Sahni . Her hair wild , her clothes shabby , her eyes blood-red due to incessant weeping , she looked pitiable. Some relatives took her inside again. The people of the colony were watching the entire scene from their balconies and roof-tops.
My eyes became moist . A lump swelled up in my throat . Some aged colleagues were seen wiping their tears with handkerchiefs . Principal Sachdeva’s face was cold and emotionless.

” Raam Naam Satya Hai”
( God’s Name is the only truth in this mortal world . )

Four relatives had raised and put the hearse on their shoulders.

” Raam Naam Satya Hai”
( God’s Name is the only truth in this mortal world . )

The funeral procession was about to reach the end of the road . Gurinder came on his scooter and stopped by my side .
” Come , pal . The cremation-ground is almost five kms away . These people will take an hour to reach there. Let us proceed on my scooter. We will have tea and snacks somewhere on the way . ”

” Raam Naam Satya Hai … ”
( God’s Name is the only truth in this mortal world . )

The funeral-procession had reached a distance .
” I’ll accompany these people , ” I tried to ward off Gurinder .

” Raam Naam Satya Hai ”
( God’s Name is the only truth in this mortal world . )

” You are becoming emotional unnecessary , Pal . Let the Principal accompany the hearse . He’ll have some much-needed exercise that way . I say , we don’t even need to go to the cremation-ground now . We have already marked our ‘ attendance ‘ here. Everyone has seen us . Let us go and watch the 4pm to 7pm show of the English movie ” Ocean’s Eight ” at PVR cinema . It will lighten our mood . Moreover , even if we accompany the hearse to the cremation-ground , Sahni is not going to come back to life ! ”
” Please , Gurinder . This is a solemn occasion . We are going to cremate one of our colleagues . Don’t be so insensitive . ” I could not suppress my anger .

” Raam Naam Satya Hai. ”
( God’s Name is the only truth in this mortal world . )

The funeral-procession had covered some more distance . ” ” Alright Mr. Harishchandra ( embodiment of truth ) ! As you wish . You accompany the hearse . I’ll meet you at the cremation-ground , ” uttered Gurinder and was gone .
I ran a few paces and re-joined the funeral-procession .

” Raam Naam Satya Hai … ”
( God’s Name is the only truth in this mortal world . )

The funeral-procession had reached the main road now . Ironically , a stereo in a music-shop across the road was loudly blaring out this Hindi film-song : ” … Teri naani mare to mai kyaa karoon … ” ( Why should I grieve if your maternal grandmother has died ? )

*** *** *** *** *** *** *** ***

The funeral-pyre had been lit . The sun was going down the horizon . The burning wood of the pyre was making a splitting , crackling sound . The smell of burning flesh filled the air. Two vultures were perched on the tall tree that rose beyond the wall of the cremation-ground. Principal Sachdeva , Sharma Ji and others were consoling the aged father of the deceased . My eyes became moist . My eyes became moist . Controlling my emotions with difficulty , I moved towards others .
Pravesh , Jagtar , Gurinder , Datta Sahib , Mehra ji , Uppal etc. were busy talking nearby . Gurinder beckoned me to join them .
Uppal was advising Mehra ji , ” Why don’t you shift to Model Town ? A spacious flat is on sale for ₹ eighty lacs . If you are interested , I can give you the number of the property-dealer , and you can go and see the flat yourself . ”
Mr. Mehra didn’t show much interest in the proposal . But Datta Sahib started asking for details .
Jagtar had his own agenda before him . He said , ” Friends , Pankaj , Suresh , Anoop and Arvind neither attended the condolence-meeting , nor are they present here at the time of Sahni’s cremation . It doesn’t make any difference to them whether a colleague of theirs is alive or dead ! ”
Uppal had failed to entice Mehra ji into buying the Model Town flat . He lit a cigarette and said , ” Let me share a joke with you all… Once , a mosquito family on the lookout for a place to live , came and settled inside the ear of an elephant … ” Some of the colleagues tittered . The Principal and some of his inquisitive sycophants looked in our direction .
I looked towards the funeral pyre . Leaping flames had engulfed it . The ogre-like gre-like flames of the pyre suddenly heightened my consciousness of Sahni’s death . And I recollected Sahni’s smiling face , his broad forehead , and his curly blacklack hair . Several incidents associated with Sahni came flooding to my mind . Screenshots of Sahni overwhelmed my memory : Sahni giving an impressive lecture in the class-room , Sahni emphasising a point with oratorial finesse in the meeting of the Teachers’ Union , a beaming Sahni surrounded by post-graduate girl-students , a relaxed Sahni sipping coffee , taking deep puffs of cigarette and narrating jokes in the canteen , Sahni looking dejected on losing a game of chess , and Sahni repeating his favourite dialogue in a dramatic style , ” Life is an ice-cream , pal . Enjoy it before it melts . ”
” … the elephant said , ‘ ‘ Dear mosquito , I never took notice of your arrival . Nor do I mind your departure . It doesn’t make any difference to me whether you stay or
go ‘ ‘ . ” Uppal looked up at everyone triumphantly after he was through with his joke .

Gurinder smiled and said , ” Was it an elephant’s ear or public property ! ” Not to be left behind , Mehra ji too chipped in , ” This does not seem to be your original joke . You must have read it in one of Osho’s books . ”
” Oh , no , Mehra ji . You do not seem to be familiar with Uppal’s wit . ” Dattaji said and winked at Jagtar , ” Isn’t it , Jagtar ? ”
” Why not ? That’s why Uppal spends ample time narrating jokes in the class-room and remains busy running a tuition-centre at his home . ” Jagtar decided to hit where it would hurt most .
” So what if I run a tuition-centre ? It is not illegal . Most of the teachers are sailing in the same boat , ” retorted Uppal .
” Today , I intended to take my wife for shopping at Lajpat Nagar market . But , this cremation has spoiled the entire programme . My wife must be feeling dejected at home , ” said Dutta Sahib .
” Beware , Dutta ji . You are going to be hauled up at home , today . Kindly accept our deepest sdeepest ympathies in advance , ” chuckled Gurinder .
Uppal was trying to make Mehra ji understand how the absence of Sahni could benefit the supporters of the Principal in the upcoming elections of the Teachers’ Union .
” Look , the Principal is leaving . Let us proceed , too. It is already getting late , ” said Pravesh .
Surrounded by his coterie of sycophants , the Principal Sahib , dressed in his immaculate white safari-suit , was returning . He smiled in a graceful manner at someone , and then waved his hishand in a friendly way at someone else . Then , he got into his white Ambassador car and said something to Mr. Shrimali in a very affectionate way . Shrimali ji started wagging his his now-extinct tail , found in ancestors in pre-historic times !
The driver pressed the horn . A few teachers standing beside the car could be seen greeting the Principal and moving aside . And the car sped away , leaving behind an orphaned cloud of dust .
Uppal was busy talking to some of the teachers . ” There is a meeting of the Teachers’ Union at the college campus , slated for 11 am tomorrow . We will get passed a resolution that Mrs. Sahni be appointed at a suitable post in the college . This is the right time to exert some pressure on the Principal . ”

While returning , I looked at the funeral pyre . The flames had died down. Sahni’s aged father and a few relatives were still standing there with sober faces .
” Tonight , the Principal and his cronies will celebrate the demise of Sahni with a champagne party …, ” Uppal was telling someone .
I thought , let me say a few soothing words of consolation to Sahni’s aged father. From a distance , he looked like a shattered man who had lost his entire life’s earnings.

” Raam Naam Satya Hai ”
( God’s name is the only truth in this mortal world )
I looked behind and saw some people entering the cremation-ground with another hearse . The funeral-procession had moved a little ahead . At the tail-end of the funeral-procession , I overheard someone say to someone else , ” Why did this fool die today! My entire day has been wasted! ”
Hmm. So , things have come to such a pass — I mused . I felt bad . I thought — how meaningless it had become nowadays to carry the hearse amidst slogans of “Ram Naam Satya Hai ” . That must have been some other age when death would remind one about the Name of the Lord being the only Truth in the world . Nowadays , every person accompanying the hearse has his own separate truth . These days , every person standing in the cremation-ground before the funeral pyre has his own separate truth . Even at such a solemn occasion , the ‘ truth ‘ for some people is money , and for some others , it is landed property . Even at such a solemn occasion , the truth for some people is sycophancy , and for some others , it is cracking of jokes . If on such a solemn occasion as death , people continue to behave irresponsibly , why have the hypocrisy of chanting ” Raam Naam Satya Hai ” at all ? If an ideal marriage-procession should have only the chosen few as part of the marriage-party , should we not have only those very chosen few in a funeral procession , who understand the real meaning of ” Raam Naam Satya Hai ” , and to whom death can actually remind that the Lord’s Name is the only consolation and the ultimate Truth in this mortatl world ?
” Come on Dharmraj ( Lord of Justice ) , hundreds of people die everyday . The heartless Yamraj (Lord of death ) is doing over-time these days ! He has no time to look at your sad face . Moreover , I would say , Sahni is lucky . His death has freed him from all worldly worries . ! ” It was Gurinder , lecturing me again.
My eyes were moist . A warm drop of tear rolled down my cheek . I did not wipe it . I let it flow down my cheek . Quietly , I got on to the pillion seat of Gurinder’s scooter. Soon , the scooter had left the by-lane behind and reached the main road .

” Raam Naam Satya Hai … ”
Another funeral-procession was going towards the cremation-ground with a hearse . Among the people at the back of the procession , I could see several bored and disinterested faces .
The loud-speaker fitted atop an auto-rickshaw going ahead had started blaring out a practical song from some Hindi film : ” Duniyaa Jaye tel lene , Aish tu kar ” ( Let the world go to hell. Enjoy yourself ) ….

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