A wise man adapts himself to circumstances, as water shapes itself to the vessel that contains it.
- Chinese Proverb
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After consuming half a bottle full of rat poison that night, I fell on the ground, rolling from left to right. I had severe stomach ache, vomits and finally a complete blackout. And then I saw what I had never seen in my whole life. A tunnel, a huge dark tunnel, with bright light at its other end. As I was staring toward that light I suddenly noticed that a strange figure was slowly heading toward me. I shivered and looked around for help but there was no one here except me. I tried to scream and run but couldn’t. My voice choked and feet felt too heavy to move. I closed my eyes and prayed to God for help. I was sweating. My heart was beating too fast. After a few moments, I heard some footsteps and opened my eyes. I saw that a fat and tall man had drawn close to me, riding a stout buffalo. I was confused and puzzled. That unknown face was hard to recognize by my one and only blurred eyes. I had lost one of my eyes when the manager of the government bank, where I worked as a peon, gave me a good punch on it. I reached office third time late and that too with a heavy hangover. Previously he had warned me but this time he took the action by himself. And rest was history.
Anyway, the man with the buffalo stopped close to me. Now, I could somehow see his face. Unable to recognize, I asked-“Who are you? A milkman?”
The stranger got furious at that. His big, black eyes almost popped out of their sockets. He screamed at me-“What? A milkman! You dumb old man. You tiny rotten creature of this Earth, do I look like a milkman to you?”
“No...No! I mean...”
“What no, no? You idiot! You dung-brain!”
“No...No... Actually, I can’t see properly, just one eye, you know.” I tried to calm him and it really worked. That giant man’s giant lips were a bit relaxed by now. With a gentle stroke on his thick bushy moustache, he gave me a serious look. “Ok. But be careful next time or I will hit you with this.” He pointed to a huge club which he was holding in his right hand. I nodded my head. After giving me a warning look, he took a deep breath and then introduced himself with a proud gesture, “Listen. Who am I? You must have heard about Yamraj? Haven’t you? I am one of his assistants. I am Yamdut.”
“Yamdut?” I repeated.
“Yes. You wanted to die for such a long time. So,” he shrugged his massive shoulders, “Yamraj accepted your application today. Congratulations!”
I stammered, “So, am I really dead?” But as soon as the words came out of my mouth, I understood and shivered. Yamraj, the lord of death has sent one of his Yamduts to carry me to his court from where one road leads to heaven and the other to hell. Which meant...? I whispered, “I am dead?”
“Absolutely, you are dead. Come on; sit behind me on this buffalo.” Yamdut answered, lending his left hand to me. Ride and that too of a buffalo! I looked at the smelly animal which was busy, munching dry hay or something. I hesitantly told Yamdut that I am an old man of nearly sixty five years and have vertigo. Can we not go on foot? I smiled forcefully, to impress him but failed.
“What? Look, don’t waste my time. I have no time to waste. You see I have to transfer hundred thirty seven souls, from here to there, in just two hours. Two hour! You fool. ” He thundered.
This scared me and I hung my head. I don’t know if it was that gesture of me or what which melted Yamdut’s heart. He ordered the buffalo to walk slowly and held out his hand again. With no other options left I somehow managed to get on that undesirable vehicle.
Yamdut in front and I on the rear, we started our journey astride a buffalo. The three of us were moving silently in that ghostly deserted path. I had heard and read many stories of Yamdut but I had never imagined that I was going to face him one day. I was trying to put two and two together but the the smell from Yamdut’s muscular sweaty body distracted me. There were two horns on his head which I noticed properly for the first time. The long thick locks of his hair looked like a group of snakes hanging from his huge crown. And they were sharp enough to injure anyone, if not kill him. Taking my eyes off them, I squinted in the darkness. Suddenly, I saw a colossal thing suspended mid-air. I screwed up my eyes and realized that it was the skeletal remains of a rhinoceros’s head. I gasped. If it was their idea of decoration, it looked absolutely frightening. I shifted uneasily and looked down at the path. It was covered in sand and gravel.
I was still lost when Yamdut asked me-“So, are you happy now? Wanted to die and you have died?”
The last word ‘Died’ hit me hard. I kept mum. I wondered how to react. I had died for the first time in my life. What to say? I had no idea. When Yamdut didn’t get a answer, he laughed a bit and asked if I was missing my near and dear. He told me not to worry and that I will forget everything after putting my feet in Yumlok, the land of souls. The word, missing, reminded me of someone and I murmured –“Missing my near and dear! I have only one and she was my wife. And she is...”
“I know, I know. That nagging, quarrelsome wife of yours! You wanted to die because of her. Chitragupt, our record keeper of all the karma of human, had told me everything.” Yamdut said in a harsh voice.
Discussing my wife made me crazy at once. I couldn’t bear to hear about her, even after death. I complained to the only man with me, about how my wife used to chew my ear all the time. Don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t do this, don’t do that. She wanted to snatch all my freedom. Is it a sin to drink from my own hard earned money? But that mad old woman, she won’t get it. After all wives have some duties. They should understand the love and liking of their husbands. They should give us some space. What for men get married? I told Yamdut about how she was cursing me few moments back- Don’t drink so much or else you will die. I couldn’t bear that and gave her a punch on her nose. I suppose she deserved it. She fell down and screamed at me- why don’t you die? If you die I will be more than happy. Those last words of her were really intolerable for me. So, I decided to end my relation with her forever and consumed the poison. In about few minutes or so, I was dead. I finished my story and gazed away. I don’t know when I got lost in my own world. Those last few words that I had heard from her echoed in my head.
Yamdut suddenly held out something to me. My eyes popped out of my sockets. “It’s a special service. Don’t think much. Just take it and have a sip. You will feel well.” He said and handed the large bottle of wine to me. Afterwards he stroked the buffalo’s back, ordering it to increase its speed.
Well, the speed of the buffalo didn’t increase but the alcohol did enhance my temper. “My wife, she was shit! She was the worst woman I knew in my life. Selfish, nagging, responsible for my death...” I said loudly. Yamdut raised his eyebrows at me. He shouted-“Oh no! Companying a mad bore like you! Is that written in my fate today? Can’t you sit quiet for a while?”
The white of his eyes were reddened with fury. They glowed from under the bushy black eyebrows. Swept crept down my forehead. I looked at him with fearful eyes. Somehow, that changed his heart. He asked me to go on, adding that I didn’t have much time left. I looked up quickly and somehow tried to focus. Yes! The light at the end of the tunnel was drawing nearer. I sighed to relax my fast beating heart and continued- “You don’t know! I had lived 42 years with that mad lady but didn’t understand what she was. She started nagging from the second day of our marriage and that is what I saw her doing till the last day of my life. Every day she used to raise her finger on me. How can you do this? How can you do that? Every night, the same clatter. She made my home hell. How much one can tolerate that, after all.”
Yamdut scratched his head after listening to my story and ordered me to narrate it full. I smiled at that and again took a sip, but not much. After all, I badly needed it for my last journey. That was the only substance which gave me the power to be with an assistant of death. I continued. It was forty years back, just two years after our marriage. I came back home drunken, late that night. No sooner I stepped in, my wife started cursing me. And complained me about the long pending bills on the grocery shop. Asked me to hand over my income; it was the first of April. She shouted at me for wasting my money. I got furious. Why shouldn’t I. That was not at all my fault. It was my own money. But she won’t listen to me. So, I gave her a good thrashing. From the impact of my punch, that crazy woman fell down on the ground. She started bleeding from her nose. That night she cried a lot. But I didn’t look at her. I went to the roof and slept there for the whole night. Next morning when I woke up I saw that my wife was not at home. My neighbours told me that she had left very early in the morning in a rickshaw. She was holding a big bag. She was crying a lot.
At that point, I fell silent. As I thought of that day, forty years back, I felt a turmoil in me. I can’t explain it but I was feeling too upset at that time. I was feeling confused. Somehow Yamdut understood my mental state and admonished me: Its worthless to get sentimental for a wife like her. “What you did last night was okay. Wasn’t it?” Yamdut asked me. But I didn’t reply and continued-“Two days later my brother-in-law came and advised me to pacify his stupid sister to come back. He cursed me for letting my wife go in such a state. He told me to mind my ways and look after my wife. I asked him, why the hell should I become a footstool for his worthless sister? I hadn’t asked her to go. She went on her own and that too, without asking or telling me. Am I a child who can’t live without a woman? ...But yes, after she left the house it...”
“I know, I know... became a heaven. Am I right, my dear?” Yamdut cut in and completed my unfinished sentence. He was laughing but I...I wasn’t happy anymore. I went on, “I felt merciful about her. After lots of effort, I bought her back home within a week. Well, I am also a human. I too have emotions.”
“No, no. Have you forgotten? You were a human. Now, you are dead. You are a soul.” Yamdut corrected my grammatical error with a loud voice. I looked at him and then started again.
I warned my wife not to interfere with my ways. But now, she had got a new reason to cry and howl. Somehow, I controlled my anger and asked her to shut up. When she didn’t I did what I had done the last time. I gave a hard punch on her face. And I continued with that till I died. As I finished my last sentence I felt an intense pain in my eyes and then everything became blurred. What the hell is this happening to me? I thought and again took a sip.
Even the wine was not able to change my mood. The ugly face of my wife was haunting my mind like a ghost that time. I couldn’t calm down. Suddenly Yamdut asked me an unexpected question. We both were living alone. Didn’t we have a child? I had avoided that question all my life. He repeated his question. I coughed and then answered in a low voice-“She was two months pregnant when she left the home that night.”
“Two months pregnant!” Yamdut repeated. He might have understood everything. After all he had seen and dealt with uncountable humans. Souls, I should say. He immediately asked the buffalo to stop and then, shouted to me-“You scoundrel! How dare you sit with me? Get down; I said get down at once. You killer!” His voice was so loud that it made me tremble. I stammered-“I am really sorry. I had no idea. My wife hadn’t told me anything.”
“How could she? You never used to be in your senses. Remember and tell me about a single evening in the past one year when you were with her and you didn’t drink, when you didn’t fight with her!” He asked, without looking at me. “Go on!” He added to the buffalo.
“Ok, I am giving you ten years. Just try hard to remember. I am not in any hurry.”
I tried and tried. I kept rewinding my life again and again but with no result. The long forty two years of my life was in front of me. Yamdut laughed and said-“Leave it. Anyway, you are not going to meet your wife again. I am too bored. If you know any melodious song than sing it for me.” But then I can’t say why he started singing a tune by himself after commanding the buffalo to continue the journey. I didn’t know that song and nor was I interested in that. I was getting stiff and my wife’s frustrated face and lanky body was floating in front of eyes. She was no closer to the woman I had married. A fair healthy woman with shiny eyes. It was her smiled that impressed me and made me propose to her. But that smile had been lost many, many years back.
I coughed again to loosen my tightening chest. I was trying not to think about anything more but within seconds or so I was again in the grip of thoughts about my past life. Only if I hadn’t beaten my wife! Our child would have been about forty years by now. My old wife would have someone to look after her. She was crazy about a child. She was ready to adopt one and she would do anything for it. But I didn’t agree. All because of my bullheadedness! I wanted my own child. Not that I didn’t know who the real culprit was. It was me. I was the one who had snatched the power to be a mother. How much she used to curse me and how much I used to beat her. That was the easiest thing to do. I sent her to ask money from her relatives. Poor lady...and when she used to come back home empty hand I used to beat her again. Because of me, all her relatives broke ties with her. True! How lonely I had made her. Now who will look after her? Remorse! Forty-two long years had passed like this.
I suddenly felt a sharp pain in my chest and held it tightly with my hands. And after a few moments gripped my wine bottle harder and finished it in a jiffy. But couldn’t sooth myself. What was that crazy old woman doing right now? May be crying, or begging for money from the neighbours for my last rights. Or may be cursing me? The old sari of my wife with lots of patches came into my mind. I, a pensioner, who was getting only five thousand per month tried to estimate how in this inflation my wife had been looking after our expenditure while more than half of the money was being spend by me on myself... Suddenly, I remembered the dull weak eyes of my wife which filled with tears after seeing me in pain that night. How she was laming when she ran out into the cold winter night to call a doctor. A doctor? What the hell could he do, when I had died even before he came!
A long time passed or maybe it seemed so long. I and Yamdut had no conversation. Yamdut was singing and I was lost in myself. Suddenly Yamdut stopped singing and asked-“What happened? Have you gone to sleep?” But when he didn’t get a reply, he glanced at me. I looked at him but then looked away. He winked at me and said-“Hey, you old man! So quiet! What’s the matter? Missing someone special? Let me know.” I burst out-“Shame on me! How selfish I was. Till the day I lived, I had never seen anything beyond myself. She was ill. But I didn’t think about her treatment. I kept drinking. Never thought of her medicines. Never. And she used to stop me from drinking so that nothing happened to me... It’s good that I died. She should be happy! But how will she live alone? She can’t walk properly nor is her eyesight proper. I...I...” I tried to continue but choked. Suddenly, tears from my eyes rolled down. Oh God! What the hell I have done. I whispered. I snatched away her only stand-by. My heart felt as though it would burst. I was trying hard to get a grip on my emotions because of my fear of Yamdut. But I was getting pieced by the bitter memories of my life. As I was wiping my eyes Yamdut suddenly jumped in joy, clapping. He said-“Here it is, here it is.”
That hustle and bustle bought me back to the present. I had reached the end of the tunnel. I asked what had happened. Yamdut turned towards me and said-“You are welcome in our Yumlok, O soul! We will first go to Chitragupt for the calculation of your sin and virtue. Well, I am sure he will send you to hell. Haha! Now, get down.”
Is it all finished forever? No, it can’t. I thought and told him that I won’t go inside! I want to go back.
Yamdut lost his temper again. “Want to go back! Is it a joke? This is Yumlok, not a guest house where you can come and go as you wish. And by the way, you have already wasted a hell lot of my time. You have to go. Am I your father’s servant?” He shouted and in a jiffy, he grabbed my lungi with his free hand.
“No, I will not go. My wife! She will die without me. She has no one to look after her. I want to go back.” I screamed while trying to get his hands off my lungi.
“Oh! Making a fool of me. How come you have begun to love your wife now? Emotional blackmail!”
“No, I have done a lot of sin. Let me go, for once. I want to live with my wife for few more days. I want to take care of her.” I cried out, with folded hands. But Yamdut wouldn’t let go of me. “Come inside. You idiot!” He ordered me and pulled my lungi forcefully. I didn’t think twice. I jumped down, shutting my eyes without caring for my lungi. And fell down on the hard floor. Floor?
“Let me go! Let me go!” I was babbling when suddenly I felt a little shake on my shoulder and then heard-“What happened? What happened?” I opened my eyes with fear and saw what I was not expecting at all. My wife was standing in front of me, her back crooked as usual. I asked-
“What! You and here! When did you die?”
“What the hell you are saying?”
“Where has he gone?”
“Who? The doctor?”
“No, no. That Yamdut, the buffalo. I have died, haven’t I?”
“You died! Ahhh...My luck is not so great. Those pills, damn them, they came out to be fake. I don’t know if there is anyone so hapless like me in this whole world, anyone who has got a husband like you, drunkard, uncivilized. Now, will you get up or keep lying like this for the whole life. It’s already so cold!” Somehow she pulled me up. I lied on the bed with my eyes on her face.
“You kept murmuring something or the other for the whole night and even now you are talking all rotten. How I have brought you to the hospital. I ran around, begging our neighbors to get you here. How many times I have told you not to drink but you will never listen to me. Do you have pain here or not...” She was continuously saying something or the other while massaging my leg.
By now I had understood the whole story. I looked up at my wife’s angry face. Then I turned my face to the foggy sunlight of the winter morning. And closed my eyes with a smile.